Margaret Sanger marxistsorgWhat type of person was Margaret Sanger?  To many middle-class women she embodied a forward-thinking, liberating philosophy, manifested internationally through Planned Parenthood.  Many people find nothing wrong with this family planning organisation.

Yet, most of us do not know about Planned Parenthood’s founder and what she really thought about sex and choice.  We probably assume that, deep down, she was a nice person who wanted to improve the lives of women everywhere.  After all, many prominent women today speak of Sanger in glowing terms and actively support Planned Parenthood.  Shouldn’t we all?

Early life

Margaret Louise Higgins was one of 11 children born to an Irish Catholic-turned-atheist.  Margaret was born in 1879 in Corning, New York.  Times were tough, especially for Irish immigrants.  Her father, Michael Higgins, was physically rough on his sons and psychologically abusive to his wife and daughters.  He was an alcoholic who railed against God.  It was for this reason that his wife, herself a devout Catholic, did not have Margaret baptised and confirmed until she was a teenager, and then, in secret. 

Margaret lived a Catholic life until her mother, her buffer against household misery, died of tuberculosis.  Before long, Margaret found it so unbearable that she left home at 17.  She enrolled in a Methodist school in the Hudson Valley, Claverack College, taking a part-time job to pay for her tuition.  Immersing herself in the progressive ideology of the day, she found the atmosphere so liberating that she soon forgot her studies and her job. 

Margaret had to return home but left shortly thereafter and embarked on short-lived service-based jobs away from home: kindergarten teacher and nurse.  She was qualified for neither.  She had little patience for working with immigrants and the sick. 

Margaret longed for an easy life and found it when she met William Sanger, a young architect who worked for the well-known McKim, Mead and White firm in New York City.  William loved Margaret and their courtship was something out of a movie.  He showered her with gifts.  Three months later they were married and lived comfortably in Manhattan.

Living in the big city

Both Sangers saw much to admire in Modernism and Socialism. William had the means to open his home to entertain prominent progressive socialites along with activists and writers, such as Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair. Margaret was gradually drawn in by Socialist speakers and events to the point that even when she had her three children, she often left them with other people so she could participate and speak at rallies.  She was quite taken with Eugene Debs’ views on equality towards women. 

Unfortunately, in his generosity to his wife, Sanger found that he had a smaller and smaller part to play in her life.  In an attempt to reverse the distance in their marriage, he stopped his involvement in Socialist activity.  He had hoped that Margaret would follow suit.  His plan failed.  Because of her new associations, Margaret had even suggested an open marriage to her husband, her sole source of income and indulger of whims. Needless to say, Sanger was wounded to the core.   

He then came up with a brilliant idea: take Margaret and the children to Paris for an extended holiday they wouldn’t forget.  They accepted invitations to the most intellectual, progressive salons of the day and took in the sights and sensory experiences of that beautiful city.  For a while, Margaret was happy, accepting each day as a new discovery with her husband and family taking part.  Then, gradually, she began to miss her radical friends in Manhattan. 

Whilst Sanger hoped the Paris trip would change Margaret’s social habits and bring her closer to him, Margaret found that her causes in New York meant more to her than her marriage did.  A blazing row in Paris between husband and wife brought everything out into the open.  Margaret packed her trunks and took the children back home to New York.  Her marriage had ended.

Sex and gender politics

Back in New York, Margaret resumed her friendship with ‘The Red Queen of Anarchy’, Emma Goldman, a militant utopian whose ideas she adored.  Goldman introduced her to the works of Tolstoy and Rousseau but also taught her about how to wage revolution and enjoy sex.  The progressives of the day — Margaret’s circle — were known for revelling in ‘free love’.  Yet, Margaret took this to new levels that even they found surprising. 

This period in her life, particularly now that she was liberated from her adoring husband, would set the stage for the rest of her days.  Her interest in sex would turn into hunger and then an obsession.

To support herself she continued writing for a radical publication, The Call, then started her own newsletter, The Woman Rebel.  Her articles denouced marriage and sexual modesty.  She encouraged women to be angry and adopt ‘a go-to-hell look in the eyes’.  She also encouraged other women to be just like her and demand ‘rights’, among these the ‘right to be lazy, the right to be an unwed mother, the right to destroy … the right to love’. She also wrote editorials in support of two political assassinations at the time and advocating birth control. 

She soon fell foul of the Comstock Laws of 1873, designed to ‘keep the posts clean’ of sexual materials, including publications.  She had her friends forge a passport for her and fled to England, where she would stay for a year.  Before she left, she fired one last ‘salvo’ in the post — 100,000 copies of a pamphlet all about contraceptives, douches and abortifacients one could make at home from Lysol, laxatives or herbs.

Escape to Blighty

During her stay in England, Margaret made friends with supporters of population control as advocated in the 19th century by Thomas Malthus.  Her conversations with Malthusians led her to advocate eugenics.  ‘Unfit’ people should not breed.  Their numbers must be strictly limited for the good of the Earth and of society.  Malthus’s ideas are still advocated today in genteel terms designed to get middle class heads nodding in agreement: ‘over-population’, ‘natural resources’, ‘birth control’.  Each of these terms sets off in our minds an associated thought: ‘too many children’. 

Margaret’s love of sex and birth control gave her an idea.  She would be able to discuss both openly if she adopted the Malthusian idea of couching her thoughts in scientific-sounding and socially-acceptable vocabulary.  Then, she would be able to use the post freely and speak openly. 

Of course, in the early 20th century, talking about eugenics directly actually posed less of a problem.  All the trendy people of the day — authors, artists, playwrights — and their wealthy benefactors supported it.  There was no question in their minds that it was the right thing to do.  After all, the foremost American universities, such as Harvard and Princeton, Columbia and Stanford even had their own Eugenics departments. These were endowed by the Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie foundations. No one minded that some American states allowed doctors to sterilise poor, black or mentally feeble women.

For recreation, Margaret explored the pleasures of the flesh with her new-found English gentlemen friends among the socialist Fabians.  She sought new and ever more exciting ways of exploring her sexuality, and the Fabians happily indulged her every whim, most of which are too unspeakable to mention. 

To be continued tomorrow …

Source: Killer Angel, by George Grant, Ars Vitae Press (1995)