• 2016
  • Harper
  • Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle, iBook, audio
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Terrible Virtue

Ellen Feldman tells the story of the mother of birth control, the founder of Planned Parenthood, and an American champion of women around the world—as she herself might have told it.

Soon to be a major motion picture
  • An Amazon Best Books of the Month Pick
  • A Vanity Fair Hot Type Pick
  • A New York Times Daily Briefing Pick
  • An Elle Readers' Prize #1 Pick

The provocative and compelling story of one of the most fascinating and influential figures of the twentieth century: Margaret Sanger, the mother of birth control and the founder of Planned Parenthood—an indomitable woman who, more than any other, and at great personal cost, shaped the sexual landscape we inhabit today.

The daughter of a hard-drinking, smooth-tongued free thinker and a mother worn down by thirteen children, Margaret Sanger vowed her life would be different. Trained as a nurse, she fought for social justice beside labor organizers, anarchists, socialists, and other progressives, eventually channeling her energy to one singular cause: legalizing contraception. It was a battle that would pit her against puritanical, patriarchal lawmakers, send her to prison again and again, force her to flee to England, and ultimately change the lives of women across the country and around the world.

"A woman's body belongs to herself alone. It does not belong to the United States of America or any other government on the face of the earth... Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman's right to life and liberty." Margaret Sanger

This complex enigmatic revolutionary was at once vain and charismatic, generous and ruthless, sexually impulsive and coolly calculating—a competitive, self-centered woman who championed all women, a conflicted mother who suffered the worst tragedy a parent can experience. From opening the first illegal birth control clinic in America in 1916 through the founding of Planned Parenthood to the arrival of the Pill in the 1960s, Margaret Sanger sacrificed two husbands, three children, and scores of lovers in her fight for sexual equality and freedom.

With cameos by such legendary figures as Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, and the love of Margaret’s life, Havelock Ellis, this richly imagined portrait of a larger-than-life woman is at once sympathetic to her suffering and unsparing of her faults. Deeply insightful, Terrible Virtue is Margaret Sanger's story as she herself might have told it.

Learn more about the real Margaret Sanger

Reviews and Praise

"A compelling portrait of Margaret Sanger, the famous champion of birth control...a complex woman, torn between her family and cause...the author also depicts in compelling detail the hardship imposed on large, desperately poor families by the lack of contraception...and captures the excitement of Sanger's involvement in the political and social movements of the times... Feldman draws on extensive research to tackle with aplomb the difficult task of writing a novel about a woman whose life is well known and whose story remains controversial decades after her death. Those interested in the history of the women's movement and its impact on today's world will find lots to ponder here. An excellent choice for book groups." Library Journal

"A narration in a lively first-person voice that is elegiac as well as triumphant... The choices Sanger made to further her crusade were not without cost, and Feldman deftly illuminates the terrible tolls (both inflicted and self-inflicted) they took upon her heroine... Cameo appearances by the great names of Sanger's time add notes of gossipy interest for the historically aware reader while placing the events of the novel in a broader social context. Feldman's well-researched treatment of the often tragic realities of the life of a formative figure in American social history offers much to contemporary readers living through current culture wars." Kirkus Reviews

"Margaret Sanger, early twentieth-century pioneer in birth control, women's-rights reformer, and founder of Planned Parenthood, comes to life in Feldman's timely historical novel. The story makes it eminently clear that Sanger was a whirlwind of conflicting emotions and hasty decisions, as well as a maddeningly stubborn crusader for reproductive rights, although her tumultuous sex life and inconstant treatment of her husbands and children often undermined her efforts toward social change... Feldman compellingly portrays the difficult choices confronting women living in a man's world...and effectively pulls readers into historical New York. This immersive, moving, and thought-provoking book is worthy of the intense discussions it's sure to spark." Booklist (starred)

"We need this book now more than ever." Elle Magazine

"Terrible Virtue is captivating, powerful, headlong and inventive—just like its subject. A beautifully wrought, compulsively readable novel. Ellen Feldman can do anything." Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches: Salem, 1692

"Margaret Sanger was passionate about birth control, freedom, a surprising number of men and her daughter. Ellen Feldman lets us see all these sides of one of America's most complicated heroines, a woman who knew too well the hard choice between work and family. An irresistible and utterly timely novel." Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy

"How does a minimally educated, working class woman redirect the moral compass of an entire generation? Feldman shows us how in her masterful novel, Terrible Virtue. Passionate, driven, the Margaret Sanger of Feldman's imagination is every bit as complex as the world she was determined to enlighten." Mary Beth Keane, author of Fever: A Novel of Typhoid Mary

"Margaret Sanger blazes to life in this riveting, powerful novel. Read Terrible Virtue once to learn about the woman whose work ultimately shaped Western culture, then read it again for Ellen Feldman's masterful storytelling. Fascinating and unforgettable." Lynn Cullen, author of Twain's End

"A fascinating exploration of Margaret Sanger as a visionary tour de force who left a stream of public victories and private casualties in her wake. Birth control, sex, family, work, individual need, free love, the greater good—it's all here, historically grounded but as relevant today as it was then." Elizabeth Graver, author of The End of the Point

"A quick, compulsive read…fascinating and compelling...timely." Janet Levine, New York Journal of Books

"What impresses about Feldman's novel is the subtle honesty of the portrait it puts on display... by getting imaginatively inside its protagonist, [the novel] reminds one, better than a straightforward biography might, that Sanger was a good deal more complicated than the cardboard cutout to which her reputation is often reduced... Feldman did her homework." Frank Wilson, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Brutally honest and beautifully poignant…puts readers in the middle of history... I can't recommend it enough." Melissa Broder, Bibliotica

"An amazing, eye opening, breathtaking read... incredibly well written…I was so moved…I cannot praise this book enough." Sara, Stranded in Chaos

"This is one engrossing novel... a superb read!" Amy Steele, Entertainment Realm

"One of the most directly relevant pieces of historical fiction I've read in a long time…deftly introduces complexity and nuance…I finished reading this book about five hours ago and I'm still worked up about it." Annie, A Bookish Type

"Powerful... the timing is eerily apt." Lauren Bufferd, BookPage

"The writing is beautiful and evocative... I loved learning about this impressive rebel woman and Ellen Feldman did a wonderful job bringing her [and her world]to life...it covers so much ground—from the slums of New York and New Jersey, to the rich and poor areas of Paris and London, to a workhouse and prison, to a love commune in Europe...excellent." A Literary Vacation

"Thought-provoking and absorbing... held me captive... Feldman presents Margaret Sanger not as a saint or a sinner, but as a complex, flawed visionary... very much worth reading." Books on the Table

"This book is an eye opener. A fascinating woman, an amazing life, and an influence that changed the world." Marlene Harris, Reading Reality

"Utterly captivating...a view into… the Dark Ages of women's health and health care and a complex depiction of Margaret Sanger." Jennifer Donovan, 5 Minutes for Books

"Feldman does a great job of bringing all [Sanger's] contradictions to life...I honestly couldn't put the book down... irresistible... couldn't be more timely." Feminist Texican

"Absolutely loved it and want a sequel." Kritters Ramblings

"Could not have hit the bookstores at a more opportune time...amazing." Sherrey Meyer, Puddletown Reviews

"Compelling and fascinating... Feldman paints Margaret Sanger as the human being she likely was... coming out at a time when it is needed most." Bookish Thoughts

Read this one; it's a story young women today need to know." Time 2 Read