Margaret Sanger: A Rebel
Margaret Sanger was a bold activist who took extraordinary risks fighting for women to have access to birth control and sex education. She was a complex woman whose very public life and work spanned over half a century and whose legacy lives on.
The novel “Terrible Virtue” by Ellen Feldman richly captures the personal struggles and conflicts of Margaret Sanger’s life as well as her activism and commitment to improving women’s lives.
Margaret Sanger cared for her own mother who was ill with tuberculosis, and who died at age 48 after giving birth to 11 children (Margaret was the sixth child) and enduring seven miscarriages.
As a woman from a poor family she was locked out of becoming a doctor. She became a nurse.
In the novel Margaret agonizes with grief and regret over the death of her own daughter, Peggy who developed advanced pneumonia while living at a boarding school.
Weaved throughout the novel are letters from people who were close to her: her children, lovers, husbands, and one of her sisters, Ethel who worked beside her in the clinic, was jailed and went on a hunger strike.
The book dives deeply into pivotal moments in her life such as the first time she speaks to a group of working women who were “bleary-eyed from a long day spent sewing piecework and making artificial flowers, bone-tired from cleaning other women’s houses,..”
She was filling in for a suffragette who was to give a talk on votes for women but Margaret instead gives a talk on what she knows about women’s health, “the facts of life”, menstruation, pregnancy, sex and reproduction. Her talks became very popular, attracting hundreds of women. She then write a series of articles “What Every Girl Should Know” for a New York socialist daily newspaper, The New York Call.
As a nurse she worked on New York’s Lower East Side.
”In the tenements I was a savior.”
She decides to devote her life to freeing women from the physical bondage of unwanted pregnancies.
I would give up nursing and devote myself to contraception. I would free women from their biological shackles. I would liberate love from its consequences. And I would make sure that every child entered the world desired and cherished.”
She had to first go on a journey which included travel to Europe to learn about options for birth control for women. Her work in the clinics helping women to obtain autonomy and freedom in sexual practices is portrayed in the novel.
Sanger published a magazine called “The Woman Rebel” with the masthead “No Gods No Masters” and she moved in the socialist circles that included Emma Goldman, Bill Haywood, Floyd Dell and many others.
She remains controversial today and has been an easy target for those who aim to discredit Planned Parenthood, an organization she founded and which for 100 years has served women from all walks of life.
In 1916 she opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn which immigrant women and “women of every race and creed flocked to”. In 1930 with the support of Black leaders such as W.E.B. Dubois and the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses she opened a birth control clinic in Harlem.
Margaret Sanger dared to speak publically not only about birth control but also about sexual gratification for women. Her publications were considered obscene and she was jailed for violating the federal Comstock laws that made it illegal to distribute birth control information.
The novel includes her many affairs with men and it also celebrates her relationship to women, especially immigrant and poor and working women. During the month she spent in the Queens Women’s Penitentiary she sometimes would read aloud to the other inmates and she taught them about sex and birth control. In one scene in the novel when she is released from prison, “A crowd of women standing in front of the jail came into focus. There must have been a couple of hundred of them, friends of the movement, women we’d treated at the clinic, society matrons from the Committee of One Hundred, and Ethel”.
The women sang “La Marseillaise”.
“As I stood listening to them, fighting back tears, I heard other voices behind me joining in. I turned my head and looked up. In the second- floor windows, the women who moments ago had been my fellow prisoners were gathered shoulder to shoulder, looking down at me, and humming along.”
I look forward to the Conference Call with Ellen Feldman, the author of this intimate and powerful novel.