Friday, 23 January 2009

Friday Feminist - Margaret Sanger

Cross posted

The problem of birth control has arisen directly from the effort of the feminine spirit to free itself from bondage. Woman herself has wrought that bondage through her reproductive powers and while enslaving herself has enslaved the world. The physical suffering to be relieved is chiefly woman's. Hers, too, is the love life that dies first under the blight of too prolific breeding. Within her is wrapped up the future of the race--it is hers to make or mar. All of these considerations point unmistakably to one fact--it is woman's duty as well as her privilege to lay hold of the means of freedom. Whatever men may do, she cannot escape the responsibility. For ages she has been deprived of the opportunity to meet this obligation. She is now emerging from her helplessness. Even as no one can share the suffering of the overburdened mother, so no one can do this work for her. Others may help, but she and she alone can free herself.

The basic freedom of the world is woman's freedom. A free race cannot be born of slave mothers. A woman enchained cannot choose but give a measure of that bondage to her sons and daughters. No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.

It does not greatly alter the case that some women call themselves free because they earn their own livings, while others profess freedom because they defy the conventions of sex relationship. She who earns her own living gains a sort of freedom that is not to be undervalued, but in quality and in quantity it is of little account beside the untrammeled choice of mating or not mating, of being a mother or not being a mother. She gains food and clothing and shelter, at least, without submitting to the charity of her companion, but the earning of her own living does not give her the development of her inner sex urge, far deeper and more powerful in its outworkings than any of these externals. In order to have that development, she must still meet and solve the problem of motherhood.

Margaret Sanger, Women and the New Race, 1920


Tui said...

Holy crap, now THAT is sex-positive feminism. Lady is hardcore!

Alison said...

I always squirm to see Margaret Sanger listed as a feminist - she was, for well-educated white women. Unfortunately, there's that whole messy eugenics thing that gets swept aside in our eagerness to see her as a feminist hero.

Well-educated white woman - choose whether you want to be a mother.
Poor, probably coloured woman - this is how Margaret Sanger saw you:

"It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them. Herein lies the key of civilization. "

She made a huge difference in the lives of women, I understand that, but I don't really think it's ok to hold her up as a hero without considering her utter disregard for women who weren't like her. The benefits of her beliefs have been much wider-reaching than she ever intended, and possibly quite at odds with what she intended in some ways.

Tui said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tui said...

@Alison - thanks for the education! (reconsidered what I said earlier. ;))

Deborah said...

Yes, 'though as Alison says, she's definitely problematic as a feminist. That's why I always try to include the date - she was writing nearly 100 years ago, and our understanding of what it means to be pro-women / feminist has moved a long way since then.

Alison said...

That's a fair point about the date Deborah, but...

It's not that I want to ignore the good she did do, but ignoring the problematic aspects seems really disrespectful to those who bore the brunt of them (and lets face it, she was actively involved in trying to deny certain women the rights she wanted for herself and others like her).

I feel that Margaret Sanger is almost always treated in soundbites just to avoid the problem, and as a result, she's lauded as a hero and very few people (including me, until relatively recently) are even aware of that other side.

I guess I just hope that where a feminist's work was or is so two-sided, there'd be some small recognition of that accompanying the soundbites. If we keep brushing it under the carpet, don't we eventually end up negating the very real problems that are and were specific to non-caucasian women, disabled women and women of low education?

Hugh said...

If we keep brushing it under the carpet, don't we eventually end up negating the very real problems that are and were specific to non-caucasian women, disabled women and women of low education?

And it bears emphasizing, IMO, that those three subcategories (particularly the first and last) encompass the vast majority of women.

Deborah, when you say that Sanger is 'problematic as a feminist', are you uncertain whether the label 'feminist' applies, or just saying she's problematic to reconcile with the remainder of feminist thought?

Deborah said...

Both, Hugh.

I think it's very important to understand where we have come from, which is why I tend to emphasise 'older' feminists in these Friday Feminist posts.

Being a feminist for well-educated white women is a good thing. Well-educated, white women are women too. Being a feminist solely for well-educated white women is a problem. Freedom from oppression is a universal goal, not just a goal for people like yourself. That's why I find her problematic.

Also, just posting something doesn't mean that I agree with it...

Hugh said...

So... why would you say Sanger is potentially not a feminist? I realise that there's no hard and fast definition, but she seems to believe that the gender relations status quo (as it was at the time) is unacceptable, and to be committed to a program to rectifying it. The things that make her dodgy seem to be to do with things that are not directly connected to gender relations.

To say Sanger isn't a feminist because of her atttitude to the poor or non-whites is rather similar, IMO, to saying somebody isn't a socialist because they're sexist or racist. Which would be rather ridiculous.

Tui said...

@hugh - modern definitions of feminism are increasingly coming to explicitly include an acknowledgement of broad-spectrum feminism - i.e. a suggestion tht feminism which is just for white middle-class women isn't sufficient to fulfill the meaning of the word. And just very conservatively, a feminist ought to want certain basic rights to apply to *all* women - the radical belief that *all* women are people, not just some of them.,

Hugh said...

When you say 'want certain basic rights to apply to all women', is this a relative or objective set of basic rights? By which I mean, are there certain rights which must be conceded, or is it more important that the view be consistent across the spectrum of the female gender, regardless of race, class, sexuality etc?

AWicken said...


you're beginning to concentrate on phrasing of the moment, rather than the concept that beliefs about people's rights expand when society begins to accept that "people" includes all humans, not just a few.

Look at "democracy" - it originally only applied to male property-owners who weren't slaves. Over a couple of thousand years it now includes poor people, women, people of different ethnicities and naturalised citizens. And slavery is illegal.

As I recall my history books, a number of the US "founding fathers" (there's another book, right there) were slave owners. Were they people who believed in democracy? They were then. But by today's standard? If George Washington came into a community meeting on electoral reform, what would people think?

People are complicated, and the context by which humans make advances is as important as each advance we make.

Hugh said...


I'm not quite sure how this addresses what I'm asking. Could you rephrase it, please?

Deborah said...

I wouldn't say she is not a feminist, Hugh. Just that as a feminist, she is problematic.

I'm capable of acknowledging shade and nuance, seeing that some things a person says are fascinating, and others dubious. Ultimately, I look at the arguments people make, rather than accepting arguments from authority. I like Sanger's take on mothering and birth control and freedom. That doesn't mean I endorse everything she said or did.

AWicken said...

d'oh, I thought I'd written this last night, but obviously the "stubby finger syndrome" is acting up again.

Anyway, my "democracy" analogy did have a point, if not well expressed.

Washington = "pro-democracy"
Sanger = "feminist"

The problem is that although the principles they espoused and fought for were and are laudable (and their achievements were significant), "feminism" and "pro-democracy" were limited only to those people they thought about as fully capable human beings.

It's not necessarily the "~ism" that's changed definition, just what we mean by "ALL men" or "ALL women", especially when talking about rights. And that's what makes it problematic.

Oh, and Hugh, it's not my place to follow the digression into whether someone else believes that rights are subjective or objective, so I hope that's not the point you were expecting me to address.

Anonymous said...

Grace and Peace,

Good afternoon readers,

My maternal grandmother attended Columbia U. for two years circa 1917 and met Margaret Sanger.

About fifteen years later as a rural school teacher and part time health aide, she began to stock condoms ( about the only birth control mode known in the mid '30's ) and even wrote a simple and simply-but-clearly illustrated little tract to introduce the condoms concept in Kentucky Appalachia.
She titled it "Put It On, Before You Put It In" ( she didn't waste time with euphemisms ), was soon thereafter fired from her job and taken to court on a charge of obscenity.
She was acquited, but moved to St. Louis.
Margaret Sanger had influence, and she was in my grandmother's personal pantheon with Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Day.

Be well,
Michael B. Music, S.Q.
(415) 431-1905