The Hate Campaign Against Margaret Sanger

  • 2016
  • Harper
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Margaret Sanger was one of the most admired and vilified women of the twentieth century, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt.

She fought tirelessly for women and children at home and around the world. She battled the ignorance of doctors, mostly male, and the prejudice and persecution of government officials and church leaders. Her achievements were monumental. So were her mistakes.

Her greatest blunder was her flirtation with eugenics. Sanger was not the only one seduced by this sham science. In the early decades of the last century, universities competed to offer courses in it, scholars wrote books in support of it, politicians campaigned for it, and social reformers pleaded for it.

The so-called science of eugenics posited that controlled breeding to encourage the propagation of better genes would build a healthier happier society. It applied Mendel's laws derived from his experiments with peas to humans. The problem was how to define better. Teddy Roosevelt was certain it meant America's native WASP population. Liberals believed it applied to those of superior mind and body, no matter what their social rank or where they hailed from. Conservatives embraced eugenics to keep foreigners out of the country and prevent those who were already here from multiplying. Progressives, like Sanger, supported it to eliminate disease and suffering. But whatever the intentions, the practice of it was a slippery slope.

Sanger got in bed with eugenicists for a more practical reason as well. She was battling ferociously to make contraception legal and available to women. But sex was still a taboo subject. Women, including suffragists, feared association with it would tar them and sully their movement. Men didn't want their cherished male prerogatives tampered with. Sanger hoped the respectable discipline of eugenics would paste a fig leaf of propriety on her scandalous cause.

As the years passed and Nazi Germany demonstrated just how precipitous this slippery slope was, Sanger, like many others, gave up eugenics. Her books, in fact, were burned by the Third Reich.

"She was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions... Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity." Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Today, a century after Sanger began waging her battle for birth control, we are once again fighting the same wars. And just as men in power sought to silence and discredit Sanger then, certain elements of contemporary society are doing their best to discredit her now. A Google search for Margaret Sanger is more likely than not to turn up sites matching her quotes, cut and pasted to make them more offensive and shocking, with those of Hitler. Conservatives vilify her in order to defund Planned Parenthood.

Sanger opened her first illegal birth control clinic in a Brooklyn neighborhood crowded with Jewish and Italian immigrants. At her trial, the prosecution accused her trying to wipe out the Jewish population. Later, she started a clinic in Harlem. Today, certain sites still denounce her for attempting to decimate African Americans.

Sanger was a eugenicist, but she was never a racist. Before and during WWII, she fought anti-Semitic elements in the State Department to bring over Jewish doctors and scientists. She spoke at a Mother's day service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and told an African-American newspaper that the only hope for overcoming bigotry was to educate the white population.

Her misfortune, her tragic mistake, was taking up with those who were racists and not seeing where their policies led. But here's the rub. The men who touted eugenics have not gone down in history's hall of shame. If you do an online search of Teddy Roosevelt, or the African-American civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois, or the liberal justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, eugenicists all, you don't find their words matched with Hitler's. But they were men with impressive credentials and serious causes. Sanger was a woman fighting for women's sexual and reproductive rights. She had to be disgraced. More than that, she had to be demonized. A century later, her opponents are still trying to do just that.

Ellen Feldman, 2015