Margaret Sanger in Context

June 26th, 2009 in Women's History by Tracey McCormick

Phrases, words, and ideas taken out of context can be misleading at best and hurtful at worst. Just ask Marx or Nietzsche, two men whose ideas have been whittled down into catchphrases or notions that are easy to agree or disagree with. But easy does not always equal correct.

And easy has just gotten easier with Twitter, which, the current Iranian crisis notwithstanding, does not exactly provide its readers with much beyond, “Going shopping now” or “This sushi is fantastic!” And so the soundbites and the other bytes are allowed to devolve. Tis a shame.

A shame especially when members of Congress rely on bites and bytes when discussing policy. Foreign policy, in this case. On April 22, while the rest of us were waiting for our refund to be electronically deposited into our checking account, Secretary of State Clinton was testifying before Congress on “New Beginnings: Foreign Policy Priorities in the Obama Administration.” I’m thrilled to report that family planning and reproductive health were a topic of discussion. I’m less thrilled that Margaret Sanger, the woman who founded Planned Parenthood (American Birth Control League at its inception) was vilified for advocating for planned parenting at a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote.

Thing is, she wasn’t interested in making friends; she was interested in giving women reproductive choices and saving children in the process.

But if you asked New Jersey Congressman Christopher Smith, who was present and given floor time at “New Beginnings,” he’ll tell you that Margaret Sanger was a racist and a hater of the poor, the disabled, the weak, and the disenfranchised. Then he dropped this bomb when quoting Sanger (almost) directly: “The most merciful things a family does for one of its infant members is to kill it.”

Um wow. What kind of woman was this Sanger? Did she hate children? Poor children? Disenfranchised children? What would make a woman say such a thing?

Maybe putting the line in context will help us understand the root of this woman’s venom. That one line was taken out of context from Sanger’s book, Woman and the New Race (1920). The line in question comes from Chapter 5, “The Wickedness of Creating Large Families.” Upon closer inspection, we see that Congressman Smith has left out the word “large” before family.

Oh, I see. Margaret Sanger hated large families. Well, sure, who doesn’t hate The Waltons? Or The Brady Bunch?

But what if we read the entire paragraph or even the whole chapter? Will we find out whether she hated the Waltons or the Bradys or both?

Let’s check.

Apparently she hated miner families. Excessive childbirth in these families caused ill health in mothers, financial hardship to fathers, and I’ll quote directly for its effect on the children: “In the United States, some 300,000 children under one year of age die each twelve months. Approximately ninety per cent of these deaths are directly or indirectly due to malnutrition, to other diseased conditions resulting from poverty, or to excessive childbearing by the mother.”

To demonstrate her hate, Sanger provides us mortality statistics of miner children, quotes a study by Arthur Geissler, which was later cited by Dr. Alfred Ploetz before the First International Eugenic Congress. (Eugenics is a scary word; if we took it out of context we’d realize that that’s what Hitler was up to. And if we practiced some really sloppy thinking, we’d say Sanger = Hitler. But we’re much smarter than that.)

To return to the statistics of children surviving through their first year. The first five children of these large miner families had about a 75% survival rate. The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-born approach a 70% survival rate. The eighth and ninth, about a 65% chance. The tenth, 60%; the eleventh, 50%; and the twelfth, 40%.

Five sentences later, Sanger drops her bomb: “The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”

I didn’t know the woman personally, but I don’t think Sanger was a proponent of infanticide: I think she was trying to say and do something about the infant mortality rate. But you shouldn’t believe me. This is, after all, nothing more than a 750-word soundbite.

For context, you can read the entire chapter here.

For more-more context, the entire book, Woman and the New Race, is available here.

If you have four hours to spare, you can watch the entire hearing, “New Beginnings: Foreign Policy Priorities in the Obama Administration,” here. (Thanks, C-Span!)

Then, you’ll have context of Sanger and her relationship to “New Beginnings.”

Tracey McCormick is Managing Editor at GreatHistory.com.

About the Author: Tracey's interests in history range from the ancient Greeks to the medieval monks to the women of the American West. She holds a B.A. in History, Math/Philosophy, and the Classics. When not writing, editing, or teaching, she's out exploring, via her mountain bike, the Anasazi ruins in and around her home state of Colorado.

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7 Comments »

7 Responses to “Margaret Sanger in Context”

  1. Dave said:

    Learn what was behind these eugenic activities by watching the documentary Maafa 21. A preview of the program is available on http://www.maafa21.com . this film was premiered at the Capital Visitor Center’s theater in DC recently, and members of Congress, along with their staff, were stunned by this powerful documentary.

  2. mdula said:

    Great piece Tracey.

    What I found most interesting after reading that chapter was that while Sanger introduced her argument for the immorality of large families with the poorest-of-the-poor examples, she seemed equally disgusted (would she take issue with using that word to describe her opinion?) with the prospect of even materially well-off couples having large families. I also found it curious that she seemed to imply that the women of yesteryear were better suited to having large families.

    With children aged 4,3,and 1 (and with a teacher’s salary to boot), I don’t have far to imagine what her opinion of me would be.

    If her arguments were valid then, I would have to say, though, that perhaps they have been heeded too well. Has the ubiquitous perfect family of mom, dad, boy, and girl made us a stronger, happier, more selfless country, or has it had, in part, the opposite effect? My bet is on the latter.

    At any rate, I wish she were here so she could come to dinner at my place. Perhaps some Guajillo Sauce enchiladas would win her over :)

  3. Dave-
    I’m not advocating for Sanger’s sainthood. Some of the eugenics positions she held make me uneasy.

    Martin-
    I bet dinner at your house would shed some real light on the subject.

    Either way gents, thanks for more context.

  4. My wife and I have 6 children and 13 grandchildren. Frankly, I couldn’t care less what Sanger believed about large families. While I agree there is a problem with our “soundbite society” and pulling quotes out of context, I think it is true that Sanger held some very strange views and had a darker side of which most people are unaware.

  5. thomas paine said:

    margaret sanger was white trash, unsuitable for breeding

  6. Richard Williams said:

  7. TomDem55 said:

    Chris Smith, consistantly anti choice, Sanger, a visionary, and a hero tried to help women gain control over their own bodies, Victorian Mores or whatever we may call them are still with us, politicians who are for birth, but not for health care, who are for control of women and their reproductive lives…..

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