Review of Terrible Virtue
Terrible Virtue is an extraordinarily apt title for this fictional account of the life of Margaret Sanger, rebel, feminist, founder of Planned Parenthood, and crusader for the right for all women to access effective birth control. Thru diverse narrative voices, of Sanger’s children, her lovers, her sister and husband, the author, Ellen Feldman, gives us a way into the life of this very historically conflicted character. Margaret Sanger was a complicated and difficult woman. Called by some, even today, a eugenicist, racist, and quack. And, for the many women whose cause she championed, Sanger was a hero.
I found myself alternately applauding her and judging her: Self sacrificing and self-centered; champion of the poor and seduced by the rich; passionate lover and manipulator of emotions; single issue cause and worldly vision; love of family and single-minded passion for the cause; rebel and conformist; blind to the individual and embracing the mass. Many of these contradictions and conflicts that Feldman exposes in the life of this committed social/political activist are ones that I, as a long-time political activist, have experienced and could easily identify with.
In reading the book I realize how close we still are in 2016 to Sanger’s cause of providing effective measures for family planning for all woman. Planned parenthood is under attack, access to effective birth control information restricted, abortion rights greatly curtailed, and funding for research on more effective methods of contraception virtually halted. America’s deeply religious and moral roots have been exposed as a woman’s right to choose becomes once again a question rather than a fact for millions of women all over the world.
In 1961 I was in my final year of medical school at the University of California in San Francisco when the “pill” was introduced into our world. As part of a routine lecture to our class of 100 students, ten of whom were woman, we were told that there was now a pill that woman could take that would prevent pregnancy. This rather amazing scientific breakthrough was presented as yet another fact for us to put down in our notebooks–how the pill works, dosage schedules, side-effects, cost, etc. The derisive comments and sniggers scattered thru-out the room, and the handful of students who walked out of the lecture hall were not even worthy of comment. To most of us the pill was just one of the amazing contributions that medical science had made to our “can do” post-war society. We were enamored by science. It was our great love.
At the time, so great was the distance between our science and our lives that I did not even make the connection between my own experiences and this extraordinary breakthrough in technology. Both of my two sisters had experienced unplanned “out of wedlock” pregnancies. In our middle class home the pregnancies were concealed from all but close family and friends, and the off-springs sent to a loving families for adoption. I was berated by our family doctor whose office I visited at the age of 21 to ask about being fitted for a diaphragm. He wanted to know how I could even be thinking of having sex when my sisters had already shamed our family. And then there were my many friends who had crossed the border to go through the ordeal of a Mexican abortion. The “pill” like most other scientific breakthroughs, was not neutral. Terrible Virtue is a stark reminder of this fact.
Feldman’s Margaret flirts with spirituality, eugenics and the temptations of an upper class life at the same time she champions the cause of masses of poor woman who did not have access to contraception. The book is bookended with the question, “If you could do it again, would you do it the same?” In these early years of the 21st Century where a woman’s right to access effective contraception is again under attack it is not even clear that one could do it the same. Sanger was unique for her time and, to me, her commitment to providing, against all odds, effective means of pregnancy prevention to poor woman is a legacy worth applauding.
Dr. Susan Massad is a retired physician. Dr Massad is on the faculty of the East Side Institute and an activist with the New York City Independence Clubs.