(WOMENSENEWS)–Margaret Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in 1916. For the rest of her life she worked to establish a woman’s right to control her body and to decide when or whether to have a child. In 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League, the forerunner of Planned Parenthood.
Her impact on contemporary society is tremendous. Enabling women to control their fertility and giving them access to contraception, as advocated by Sanger, makes it possible for women to have a broader set of life options, especially in the areas of education and employment, than if their lives are dominated by unrelieved childbearing.
A recent reminder of Sanger’s impact on our society came when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that it is illegal sex discrimination to exclude prescription contraceptives from an otherwise comprehensive health benefits plan. Sanger’s efforts to provide access to contraception are at the foundation of decisions to provide equal access to prescription contraceptives and other prescriptions.
Still, especially with the Bush administration, activists will have to fight to maintain access to contraception and to abortion. In April, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would establish criminal penalties for harming a fetus during the commission of a crime. While proponents of the bill say it does not include abortion, some see fetal protection legislation as an attempt to undermine abortion rights. The passage of this legislation is a reminder that the rights Margaret Sanger worked so hard to establish are tenuous rights that many would challenge.
For all her positive influence, I see Sanger as a tarnished heroine whose embrace of the eugenics movement showed racial insensitivity, at best. From her associates, as well as from some of the articles that were published in Sanger’s magazine, The Birth Control Review, it is possible to conclude that "racially insensitive" is too mild a description. Indeed, some of her statements, taken in or out of context, are simply racist. And she never rebuked eugenicists who believed in improving the hereditary qualities of a race or breed by controlling mating in order to eliminate "undesirable" characteristics and promote "desirable" traits.
Sanger: We Must Limit the Over-Fertility of Mentally, Physically Defective
"Our failure to segregate morons who are increasing and multiplying … demonstrates our foolhardy and extravagant sentimentalism," she wrote in the recently republished "The Pivot of Civilization." This book, written in 1922, was published at a time when scientific racism had been used to assert black inferiority. Who determines who is a moron? How would these morons be segregated? The ramifications of such statements are bone-chilling.
In a 1921 article in the Birth Control Review, Sanger wrote, "The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective." Reviewers of one of her 1919 articles interpreted her objectives as "More children from the fit, less from the unfit." Again, the question of who decides fitness is important, and it was an issue that Sanger only partly addressed. "The undeniably feebleminded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind," she wrote.
Sanger advocated the mandatory sterilization of the "insane and feebleminded." Although this does not diminish her legacy as the key force in the birth control movement, it raises questions much like those now being raised about our nation’s slaveholding founders. How do we judge historical figures? How are their contributions placed in context?
It is easy to see why there is some antipathy toward Sanger among people of color, considering that, given our nation’s history, we are the people most frequently described as "unfit" and "feebleminded."
Many African American women have been subjected to nonconsensual forced sterilization. Some did not even know that they were sterilized until they tried, unsuccessfully, to have children. In 1973, Essence Magazine published an expose of forced sterilization practices in the rural South, where racist physicians felt they were performing a service by sterilizing black women without telling them. While one cannot blame Margaret Sanger for the actions of these physicians, one can certainly see why Sanger’s words are especially repugnant in a racial context.
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America has been protective of Margaret Sanger’s reputation and defensive of allegations that she was a racist. They correctly point out that many of the attacks on Sanger come from anti-choice activists who have an interest in distorting both Sanger’s work and that of Planned Parenthood. While it is understandable that Planned Parenthood would be protective of their founder’s reputation, it cannot ignore the fact that Sanger edited the Birth Control Review from its inception until 1929. Under her leadership, the magazine featured articles that embraced the eugenicist position. If Sanger were as anti-eugenics as Planned Parenthood says she was, she would not have printed as many articles sympathetic to eugenics as she did.
Like Many Modern Feminists, Sanger Ignored Race and Class
Would the NAACP’s house organ, Crisis Magazine, print articles by members of the Ku Klux Klan? Would Planned Parenthood publish articles penned by fetal protectionist South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham?
The articles published in the Birth Control Review showed Sanger’s empathy with some eugenicist views. Margaret Sanger worked closely with W.E.B. Du Bois on his "Negro Project," an effort to expose Southern black women to birth control. Mary McLeod Bethune and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. were also involved in the effort. Much later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accepted an award from Planned Parenthood and complimented the organization’s efforts. It is entirely possible that Sanger’s views evolved over time. Certainly, by the late 1940s, she spoke about ways to solve the "Negro problem" in the United States. This evolution, however commendable, does not eradicate the impact of her earlier statements.
What, then, is Sanger’s legacy?
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America has grown to an organization with 129 affiliates. It operates 875 health centers and serves about 5 million women each year. Planned Parenthood has been a leader in the fight for women’s right to choose and in providing access to affordable reproductive health care for a cross-section of women. Planned Parenthood has not supported forced sterilization or restricted immigration and has gently rejected the most extreme of Sanger’s views.
In many ways, Sanger is no different from contemporary feminists who, after making the customary acknowledgment of issues dealing with race and class, return to analysis that focuses exclusively on gender. These are the feminists who feel that women should come together around "women’s issues" and battle out our differences later. In failing to acknowledge differences and the differential impact of a set of policies, these feminists make it difficult for women to come together.
Sanger published the Birth Control Review at the same time that black men, returning from World War I, were lynched in uniform. That she did not see the harm in embracing exclusionary jargon about sterilization and immigration suggests that she was, at best, socially myopic.
That’s reason enough to suggest that her leadership was flawed and her legacy crippled by her insensitivity.
Julianne Malveaux is an economist who writes about politics, economics, gender and race from Washington, D.C.