“Margaret Sanger went to jail in 1917 for distributing contraceptives to immigrant women.” She worked from “a makeshift clinic, in a tenement storefront in of Brooklyn, New York. When she died fifty years later, the cause for which she defiantly broke the law had achieved international stature” (Chesler, p. 11). Of course she did not accomplish the acceptance of birth control on her own. There were many who preceded Sanger in the effort to secure legal, reliable contraception. There were many who worked on the issue as volunteers under her, or as rivals for pre-eminence in the movement. And there were scientists and activists who followed her and expanded upon her gains. A few of Sanger’s accomplishments include several successful court rulings mitigating the Comstock Laws, thence allowing the dissemination of (formerly illegal) birth control information; creation of our country’s first network of birth control clinics; and introduction of the diaphragm into the United States. Twenty-first Century proponents and opponents of birth control agree on very little. But there is one thing historically-minded activists of these opposing movements do agree upon: Margaret Sanger is the reason why birth control is so widely accepted in the United States today.
This biography was a twenty-year-long odyssey for Ellen Chesler. The years of care have paid-off. It is a masterful, detailed and balanced study, on one of the most effective activists for social change to appear in the US. One of the strongest features of this biography is one that has the capability of being a weakness. In her introduction, Chesler cautions “this study necessarily incorporates some of the history of these sweeping developments. It veers away at points in the narrative from the woman herself” (Chesler, p. 12). True, but the veering reveals the culture, the historical evolution and the placement of Sanger in the context of her time’s political developments. It is not only necessary, but informative.
Ellen Chesler undeniably supports birth control and sees Sanger as a hero. After all, the work is entitled Woman of Valor, not Kicker of Dogs. In spite of her personal admiration, Chesler is capable of fairly portraying the difficult personality traits and unjust political perspectives of her subject. Sanger was a thorny, vain, competitive woman. Those who appreciated her company were thick-skinned people capable of admiring a driven, intelligent, challenging friend. Additionally, the author freely depicts Sanger as a terrible parent who abandons her sons, leaving them with “an unappeased hunger for the love and approval of a mother…who lavished her exuberance on other people and causes but never found enough time for them” (Chesler, pp. 137-8).
Margaret Sanger’s racism is a well-known fact and one that Chelser unflinchingly portrays. She supported the philosophy of eugenics. In the early 1800s, eugenics began with the lofty and flawed goal of creating a better society by encouraging the best human stock to breed. Further complicating their misapprehension of humanity and genetics, eugenicists composed the economic and social elite of the US and Europe who either quietly felt or explicitly stated that theirs was the class/culture which should be breeding. Conversely, those of other classes and cultures should be breeding less. Sanger’s advocacy of birth control caused members of the Eugenics Movement to approach her with their idea that birth control could be used to prevent growth of undesirable classes. Sanger was of an immigrant Irish Catholic background. Furthermore, she had married a Jew and produced what eugenicists would think of as "mongrel children" from that marriage. She was from two groups whose reproduction the eugenicists would want to limit. Nevertheless, Sanger was nothing if not an opportunist. She was offered vocal support from an elite during a time when she had little else, and she took it. In the words of her biographer: “eugenics…became an unmitigated defense of property, privilege and race baiting” (Chesler, p.215).
Other expressions of this activist’s personal racism are a mass of confusing mixed messages, but undeniable. Clearly she was prejudiced enough to take support from the Eugenics Movement. Conversely, she employed African American doctors in her Harlem clinic when such a practice was unthinkable for a white organization. Also, she would not permit expressions of racial bigotry among her staff. Finally, she opposed “racial stereotyping” by eugenicists, “claiming that intelligence and other inherited traits vary by individual, not by group” (Chesler, p.215). However, Sanger later contradicts this claim. The reviewer has read Ms Sanger’s “What Every Girl Should Know. Part II: Sexual Impulses.” In this article, which appeared in the December 29, 1912 issue of “New York Call,” she states “the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that the police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets.”** Shocking as that sounds, these were not uncommon perceptions among white people. While there may have been some free-thinking white individuals who thought that non-whites were entirely our equals in brain development and were of the same species as whites, the norm of US society was far less enlightened in 1912. Less than fifty years earlier, African Americans were slaves and even the most progressive of abolitionists believed that they were mentally inferior to whites. Racism was so endemic to early 20th Century America that it existed on both sides of the contraception issue. Some favoring contraception blatantly supported using it to limit African American reproduction. Some opposing contraception argued just as fervently that limiting the size of white families was “race suicide” and would allow African Americans to dominate politically in areas of the country. Less well-known, and more disturbing, is a 1926 address Sanger gave to women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan (http://www.snopes.com/margaret-sanger-kkk/). At this point, Ms Sanger’s ignorance concerning race and the Klan approaches the surreal. The KKK is an immensely anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic organization. How this Catholic-born activist with her half-Jewish children came together with a group that hates both of those aspects of her is a mystery. But more importantly, the KKK was well-known as a hate group that most thinking people avoided. It is clear that Sanger furthered racism in her time. Despite the plethora of mixed messages, her public actions (support for eugenics, addressing the KKK and her published writings) all caused harm to the cause of African American equality.
Ellen Chesler’s portrayal of Sanger’s life is an achievement of rare quality: factual, balanced, highly readable and unafraid of controversy. Some may think that Ms Chesler is the true “woman of valor.” She never shrinks from the truth and fully, patiently examines the circumstances of the time. It is a biography that will leave the reader with a strong background on the history of the Birth Control Movement, the life of Margaret Sanger, and the zeitgeist of US society during her time period.
Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor. Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
**Sanger, Margaret. "What Every Girl Should Know," New York Call, December 29, 1912. The Public Papers of Margaret Sanger: Web Edition. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2015.