(WOMENSENEWS)–In her public statements Margaret Sanger did not often declare her opposition to World War I in particular, or the draft, but to all wars, which, in her judgment, should be despised by women, who lived for the creation of human life, not its destruction, and who in a society without birth control served as "mere breeders" of soldiers. "Sex- bondage has made her the dumb instrument of the monster she detests." For humanity, it was "the old story of the slaves kissing the chains that bind them."
Adept at finding contraception’s relevance everywhere, she located the cause of the war in Germany’s and Russia’s failure to control the growth of their populations, and their consequent demand for more land and resources.
While experts in the new field of demography pointed to France’s falling birth rates as an explanation for that nation’s military weakness, initially Sanger applauded France’s healthy, competent soldiers, the products of small families, even as the French army was retreating ingloriously toward Paris. More specific in her private letters, she denounced a conflict in which Germany, a leader in science and medicine, "was being torn to shreds" for no purpose, even if it had been the aggressor. Hers was a preview of later historical interpretations that challenged claims of American neutrality and found few national security interests at stake for the United States in World War I.
Sanger also opposed war because as a former socialist, she viewed the conflict as an example of the brutal military encounters fought by workers, of every nationality, to protect capitalist interests. In his famous essay "War Is the Health of the State," the writer and social critic Randolph Bourne, a onetime neighbor of Sanger’s in Greenwich Village, argued that war rendered the capitalist state powerful and intrusive. Certainly it diverted attention from domestic change and progressive initiatives. For who could compete with Liberty Loan drives, mobilization calls, and patriotic messages to Americans to serve their country? In both the United States and Great Britain, suffrage organizations (Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party was the exception) briefly suspended their fight for votes for women, replacing it with the womanly tasks of wartime–rolling bandages, joining the Woman’s Land Army of America as "farmerettes" to raise vegetables, plant hay and harvest wheat, and, in a few cases, serving overseas as nurses.
So personally distasteful was the war that Sanger never permitted anyone in uniform in her apartment, although three of her younger brothers were among the nearly 3 million Americans on active duty by 1918: Robert and Richard Higgins in the Allied Expeditionary Force in France and Lawrence in the Navy. When Harold Hersey, the poet and writer, and Sanger’s probable lover, appeared at her apartment in his army lieutenant’s uniform, she refused to let him in until he changed his clothes.
During the war, no reform leader faced as many challenges as did Sanger and her nascent, but still unsavory, birth control movement. For anxious Americans birth control came to summarize an accumulating cascade of alarming social, political, and sexual transformations, exaggerated in war time and particularly focused on women’s roles. In the 20th century for some Americans, not just those in Greenwich Village, sex had changed in behavior as well as perception, from dutiful procreation to a pleasurable activity now enjoyed by even unwed daughters of conventional parents. Former guardians of the hearth now worked outside the home in growing numbers–some 17 percent earning wages in 1915–a figure that did not include those in domestic service. More young women attended college and volunteered for community activities. But such alterations were still contested.
After she resigned from the Socialist Party, Sanger acknowledged few public issues not directly linked to birth control, believing it the universal reform of transformative power. Her cause surpassed superficial efforts to end drinking, improve labor standards for children, and clean up politics. She calculated as too dangerous the loss of credibility through guilt by association with any controversial cause, especially during war time. Besides, birth control demanded all her energy.
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Jean H. Baker is the author of "Sisters: The Lives of American Suffragists" and many other books on American history. She is professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore. This article is excerpted from Baker’s new book, "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion," to be published Nov. 15, 2011 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2011 by Jean H. Baker. All rights reserved.
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