After reading the wonderful novel, Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman, I wanted to comment on the controversy regarding Margaret Sanger and the accusations of racism which have been made against her.
I grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn on Amboy Street near Pitkin Avenue, just a few doors down from the original site of Margaret Sanger’s first birth control clinic (established in 1916). When I lived on Amboy Street (in the 1950’s and 60’s), there was no plaque or marker for that clinic (I do not know if there is one now). In 1916, Brownsville was home to poor Eastern European Jewish and Italian immigrants (my grandparents were typical of the immigrants from Poland who lived in Brownsville and my family continued to live there as it was transitioning to becoming a poor neighborhood of African Americans and Latinos). While I did not know about this clinic, I knew that Margaret Sanger, a socialist, like my parents, was committed to giving poor and working class women the right to determine if and when to have children. And that her commitment was complete and heroic.
So it was no surprise that she found common cause with W.E.B. DuBois and African American socialists fighting for the rights of women of color. In 1930, with their support and that of African American doctors, nurses, social workers and ministers she established the first birth control clinic in Harlem. More than three decades later, in 1966, Martin Luther King was the recipient of the first annual Margaret Sanger Award (shortly before she died). Statements by both Dr. King and Coretta Scott King at the award ceremony paid tribute to Margaret Sanger and her contribution to family planning and to “the human race”.
However, it was a surprise to learn that there are critics of Sanger’s who have likened her efforts on behalf of poor and working class women and in particular, African American women, to a Black holocaust. Most of the comments from these quarters come from the political or religious right and have taken Sanger’s statements out of context as part of an effort to discredit planned parenthood, to shame Black women for exercising their right to choose and to separate out the struggles of women, people of color and poor people – an effort which is in direct opposition to Dr. King and the movement he led.
One criticism of Sanger (from both the Left and the Right) is that she spoke with women who were members of the Ku Klux Klan (keep in mind that five presidents of the United States were members of the Klan at one time in their lives). And that this proves that she was a racist. However, as an activist and a political organizer, it is an inspiration to me that she was willing to speak to any and everyone on behalf of birth control and women’s rights. This criticism also ignores the fact that African American women, since the earliest part of the 20th century, have been very active participants in the reproductive rights movement and in the struggle for safe, affordable and reliable family planning services (something that is seldom highlighted).
For many progressives, there is on-going concern about the international family planning movement (funded by organizations such as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations). There are anti-imperialist critiques of the excesses of population control. And there are arguments from the perspective of cultural relativism that point to family planning as a “western” practice that is insensitive to non-western societies.
Thus, in a sense, Left and Right critiques serve to impede women’s access to birth control.
I think it is important to acknowledge the highly charged emotional, political, and economic issues in these debates and in the diverse interests of classes, communities and countries. It is in this context, that we should honor Margaret Sanger’s commitment to providing all women with the educational, medical, and other resources they need to actively and forcefully take control of their lives.
Jeff Aron is the son of Sylvia Aron who, like Margaret Sanger, was a loving, passionate and “difficult” woman, and for more than 8 decades lived and fought on the front lines for social, racial and economic justice and was an inspiration to many of us in the independent political movement.