Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Margaret Sanger: American Heroine

Though her name and reputation has been dragged through the mud and her work conflated with "racism" and "eugenics", American women owe Margaret Sanger a major debt of gratitude for providing the future basis for them not to have to remain "barefoot and pregnant". Thus, it is heartening to finally see a book ('Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion') by Jean H. Baker that skewers all the nonsense that has arisen around her public and private life, while showing that in the end she was a complex woman- fertile with ideas.

Baker accurately notes that the world this birth control activist arrived in was not majorly unlike our own. The wealthy robber barons, like the 1 percent today, controlled almost all the wealth as well as the markets. They were also paranoid on the issue of losing this control, and hence worried themselves sick over having "heirs" to their fortunes to sustain control over the country's legal, political and economic apparatus.

Inciting this paranoia, researchers around the turn of the century began the alarming discovery that the nation's best minds were not adequately reproducing as frequently as they ought to (according to them) to stay ahead of the over-breeding masses. Recall that Political Elite theory was in the wind even then, and one major axiom of it was that "superior" classes - which included the most intelligent and wealthiest- were obliged to reproduce more than the sheep in order to assure "quality" genetics for the nation, as well as control of the sheep.

But the study of these Elite eugenicists showed that members of the Harvard class of 1900 were were spawning fewer than 2 children apiece while the homes of the poor teemed with children and 11-12 kids was not uncommon. Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) also noted this as she began her dedicated birth control campaign to reduce the numbers of children for the poor, to enable them to secure some kind of decent quality life. She realized then, as women do now, each extra mouth that was born and which couldn't be economically supported, meant further deprivation for the existing kids and more poverty for the families that had extra kids. There had to be a way, she reasoned, to control birth numbers..

That the rich (as well as many who are highly intelligent) also controlled their numbers isn't astonishing at all. Most of the intelligent creative or scientific class noted, for example, that each extra kid would be a drag on one's time, energy and production. In effect, having babies made for poor science, literature or paintings. The simple fact of limited time disclosed one could not devote the same attention to one's work with 5 kids (or even 3) as with 1 or none. The wealthy, meanwhile, controlled their numbers because they also realized each new offspring meant a further drain on their wealth: each had to be clothed, fed and provided the expected accoutrements of the genteel life, as well as educated, at places such as Harvard and Yale.

How did the wealthy manage to control their offspring numbers, but not the poor? Most likely many, like the privileged wives of wealthy scions graduating from Harvard or Yale, had access to information about very rudimentary contraceptives and how to optimize their use and effectiveness. Even the crude "rhythm method" was known back then, in one form or other, but it required detailed planning and knowledge of the particular woman's 28 day cycle to use. Most poor women, for obvious reasons, were not able to apply this. They needed something more simple and direct.

Sanger's genius was to devise such methods and make them widely available. Indeed, she was the one who coined the term "birth control". (She always detested the neutered euphemism "family planning", asking, 'Planning for what? A family vacation?') Sanger's own Catholic mother had 11 live births and endured 7 miscarriages in 22 years of marriage, dying literally exhausted at 48. But never mind, she fulfilled her authoritarian Church's whacky edicts that absolutely denied birth control other than a method that could only be used by a practicing biologist or genius.

What drove Sanger? Probably her own childhood and seeing how her mother struggled and was merely being used as a gestation machine. Also the harrowing fear that plagued most married women, when they lived in mortal fear of their seventh, eighth and ninth child and increasingly difficult physical demands on their lives even as husbands suffered in wage stagnation and the families' economic stations declined.

Many of Sanger's birth control techniques were documented in a series entitled 'What Every Girl Should Know' published in the Socialist New York Call. She also provided basic, simple to learn methods at clinics - mainly for poor women- and indeed was jailed for 30 days for opening the country's first birth control clinic. She also had to battle the infamous "Comstock laws" - of which she often ran afoul, and the Catholic hierarchy's incessant harping on the "evils" of limiting families.

In the case of the Comstock Act (3/3/1873), it was made a felony to send any "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" materials through the mail, including contraceptive devices and information. In addition to banning contraceptives, this act also banned the distribution of information on abortion for educational purposesthrough the U.S. mail. The bombastic, authoritarian pig who pushed for these archaic laws, Anthony Comstock:

wanted nothing less than the mind control of all fellow citizens, as well as neutering their brains and gonads, just like "Holy Mother Church". That Sanger ultimately outwitted this reprobate is a testament to her own motivation and superior moral fiber. Indeed, Sanger initiated the 1936 lawsuit that eased Comstock's facist law out of existence, to provide information on birth control at least for physicians. Later, she helped arrange for the research - as well as much of the literature - that produced the birth control pill in 1957.

As far as Sanger's eugenics interests, one must bear in mind, as Ms. Baker shows in her book, that eugenics was an enormously popular generic idea in the early 20th century. Indeed, it was supported by everyone from presidents Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover, to leading scientists to the Supreme Court (which issued an 8-1 ruling in 1927 upholding the involuntary sterilization of institutionalized citizens). I am not saying I agree with eugenics, only saying that Margaret Sanger was well within the accepted Zeitgeist of the time, and certainly not "radical" on this score.

Most of the slander directed against Margaret Sanger has been because of her approval of abortion, but of course she approved of it (as a last resort) because with no practical birth control methods in the early days, there was no other way to relieve women of burdens they could no longer bear. While the anti-abortion crazies depict her as "racist" and hanging out at KKK rallies, all of these claims are bogus as Baker shows. Most of the Sanger -cum-KKK images, indeed, were "frankensteined" as I showed in previous blogs. The perspective of the images would have required Sanger to be at least 7 1/2 feet tall if accurate!

Ms. Baker also observes that overall in her life, Sanger was "never much interested in abortion" preferring it only as a solution of last resort to women whose onlyother option was suicide. Sanger thus believed it was more noble to save one life than have two perish. She also optimistically believed that eventually birth control would render abortion extinct. Alas, this still hasn't occurred because the regressive and reactionary forces in this nation are still hide bound and determined to prevent poor women from gaining access to birth control information, methods.

Fortunately, one major organization seeks to obviate this problem, Planned Parenthood, which Margaret Sanger founded.

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