My Thoughts on Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman
A Novel about Margaret Sanger
Raised in a conservative religious family, I still remember the first time I heard of Margaret Sanger. I don’t recall my age, but I was young, in elementary school. My sister was doing a research paper, and was showing my mother (and me) horrific photos of aborted fetuses, and how Margaret Sanger was the woman who had started Planned Parenthood, with a eugenics motive, to purify a race — evil like Hitler. It left a deep impression on me.
Without doing my own research on Margaret Sanger, I continued to hear negative things about her here and there throughout my life. So when I heard that the book selection was Terrible Virtue, about Margaret Sanger, I hesitated briefly, despite being an independent now, who does not politically identify as a social conservative. But I decided I would give it a shot, and I genuinely looked forward to being exposed to more information, ready to gain a more enlightened, positive view of Margaret Sanger.
The beginning of the book grabbed my attention quickly. Margaret Sanger was a keen, fiercely independent girl, raised in a poor, large family (11 living children, with a mother who had also experienced 2 infant deaths and five miscarriages). Margaret had been scarred by the religious, wealthy members of her community who had shunned and taunted her family. She was fighting to not repeat her mother’s life, which seemed to consist of nothing but pregnancy, birth, child survival, bare-necessity household chores, and early death, and while Margaret loved her father’s free-thinking spirit, his alcoholism and taboo atheism made things harder – describing a chaotic, unhappy life for her family. My large family while growing up had been happy, but I felt sympathy for Margaret Sanger.
I could appreciate Margaret’s need to solve a difficult conflict she saw in people’s lives. On page 59, where Margaret struggled with the desperate, hellish family life in the tenements where she was a nurse, her character said, “Surely a world so vicious and bereft of love could not give birth to new life, but it teemed with it.” She shuttered at the abject poverty and abhorred the domestic violence and the scenes of people attempting abortions; she wanted to make abortion unnecessary and provide a way for all people to legally access birth control so that children would only enter the world if they were wanted and loved.
But as I continued reading, my discomfort grew. “I could not give up the fight for all children, even if it meant losing my own,” Sanger’s character says. What? By the middle of the book, I was quite upset, thinking, “Is this what it’s supposed to mean to be an enlightened, revered feminist by the progressive movement?” The rampant promiscuity, the elevation of cause over family — what she did to Bill (and other men), her three children and others showed little appreciation or concern for their happiness, or their pain. I was shouting “No!” inside, thinking, “I refuse to adopt this type of morality; the people in our lives should supersede any cause, and motherhood has deep value. Besides . . . selfish, impulsive promiscuity, at the expense of family, isn’t freedom.”
I took a short break from the book, and then returned to finish it. By the end, my heart had softened towards Margaret Sanger. I think the turning point for me started to sink in at page 207, where after much struggle, she lost her court appeal, but still “won,” in that the judge broadened the law to allow birth control clinics to be legal as long as they were staffed by doctors. The book indicates that she felt Peggy’s presence that night (her daughter who had died at age 5) — an allusion, perhaps, to “redemption.” I decided to allow for Margaret Sanger’s redemption and not view her only by her follies, but see her as a complicated, real human being, with beauty and tragedy – not a perfect model to follow, but someone who took what she had, what she was, and what she believed, and made a valuable offering to the world.
I hadn’t meant to harshly judge Margaret Sanger, but I felt threatened, and perhaps fell into the trap Margaret’s character described, “Sometimes I think my sex is less than generous to its own.” As an activist who often gets immersed in my causes, I’m cautious about getting carried away. As the mother of 5 children who love and beg for my full attention, including a 5-year-old daughter who is a joy of my life, and a husband who can feel resentment when his hard work and commitment to our family feels isolated, it has been a difficult challenge to strike the right balance, without feeling a failure on all fronts. I already have voices telling me to drop my causes; I didn’t need my independent cause, through the book club, whispering that my sense of duty to family is weak and outdated.
Certainly, I had taken it too personally. Perhaps because I relate too well, “Why can’t you be like other women? Why can’t you be satisfied . . . [and] stop trying to save the world . . . Give up.” Or the poignant description on page 151, where a successful speech with 150 – 200 people only yielded 6 signatures of women demanding the dissemination of birth control information, and only 3 admitting they used it – “Every time I start to think I’m making progress, there’s another setback. . . . Giving me a dinner is the easy part. . . . Putting themselves on the line is another story.”
In closing, the book was a short, quick read. It held one’s interest, being a novel instead of a biography. If its intention was to convince antagonists that Margaret Sanger was really a heroine, I think it failed. Being a novel, there was no documentation, and the character development reinforced the types of criticisms leveled at the movement by conservatives; the eugenics criticisms were addressed superficially as out of context, without providing strong, specific examples. If the intention was to provide a quick, captivating novel for those who are already convinced, or likely to be convinced, of Margaret Sanger’s heroic influence, it probably accomplishes that. And for people like me, the book was successful in personalizing Margaret Sanger enough to get me to start doing more in depth research. I’ve already read some of her actual pamphlets and writings in her Public Writings and Speeches and in the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, sponsored by NYU. I found what she wrote about Havelock Ellis, for example, to be an insightful treat into who she was. And it’s so interesting to read how tasteful and noncontroversial by today’s standards her pamphlets that landed her in jail in the early 20th century were. Today, largely because of Margaret Sanger, more than 99% of women between the ages of 15-44, who have ever had sex, have used at least one birth control method. I can see how Margaret Sanger felt so compelled to her cause, like she was the only one who cared enough to make it happen. But with the advent of the Internet, I think we become more aware that there are many competent people who share our concerns and who want to make a difference. We don’t have to carry the burden by ourselves. We just have to find better ways to collaborate.
Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.