I finished the book last night. Honestly, it was not my type of book. I rarely read novels and found the quasi-biography and this author’s style awkward. I could not even remember who Sanger was, so I did learn some ugly truths about the history of contraception. I could have learned more from a brief article, but this book was written for people who already knew her public story. I may be reading too much into the story but should get an interesting reaction from Ms. Feldman, either way.
Terrible Virtue is an intriguing title that isn’t really explained in the quote of Margaret Sanger or by the author. Most readers, myself included, are probably grateful for the deeds that ultimately led to reproductive freedom for women in the U.S. and wondered what was terrible about them. The answer comes in the form of letters/testimonials by Sanger’s family and friends. They paid the price by loving someone who could not love them the way they wanted and probably deserved to be loved. Over and over, Margaret made the choices that contraception would make possible for all women. It did not paint a pretty picture; it made her appear selfish. But it did keep her from falling into the traps that had kept virtually all women in misery until she made rebellion her singular goal.
Sanger indulged what ambitious men learned long ago – that great achievements require indifference to expectations, especially those of loved ones. History is not made by people who cling to comfort and sentiment. Anyone moved by friends’ ordinary concerns cannot hope to withstand extraordinary challenges from enemies. This does not mean there are no feelings; it means there are many choices to be made and those choices have consequences. Margaret Sanger was willing to endure the judgment and disappointment of those she loved to pursue a worthy objective. Feldman’s book reminds us that heroes are not always seen that way by those who were sacrificed on their journey.
Steve Richardson is a founding member of the Virginia Independent Voters Association and serves on IndependentVoting.org’s national Election Reform Committee.
Terrible Virtue, by Ellen Feldman, is the story of Margaret Sanger, and her pivotal role in the long struggle to make birth control accessible and legal in the United States.
I remember that Lisa McGirr’s book The War on Alcohol (a Politics for the People selection two years ago) exposed how Prohibition was aimed at denying alcohol consumption to poor people, and the rapid influx of working class “foreigners” into American cities. At the same time, the discriminatory enforcement of the Volstead Act allowed the well-to-do to go on consuming alcohol. McGirr showed how the 18th Amendment was only possible because the development of democracy was subverted and held back at a time of rapid social change and economic growth, and how it’s overthrow was made possible by the rapid enfranchisement of new working-class voters during the 1920’s and the building of a new electoral coalition.
The struggle for reproductive rights (although not over even now) overlapped the struggle against Prohibition, and involved the same underlying issue. The rich and the well-to-do had access to birth control, but poor people did not. Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in American in 1916. In 1921 (the year after the Prohibition became law) she founded the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
One of the virtues of Feldman’s book is its account of the appalling oppression of poor and working class women without access to birth control. I have to confess that as a political activist who came of age at about the time that Margaret Sander passed away in 1966, I never thought much about this.
Another important virtue is Feldman’s moving account of Margaret Sanger’s development as a rebel. Her rebellion was rooted, not in ideology, but in her hatred of oppression, and her fellowship with other working-class women – her sisters. As she developed as an agitator and organizer, and as support for her work grew, she came to know many wealthy and influential people. But she never let herself be deflected from her goal, and used her privileged social location to broaden the base of support for her cause.
Another virtue of Ms. Feldman’s book is that she depicts the personal conflicts and sacrifices Margaret Sanger endured in becoming a leader.
Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.