From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the examples they provide for us to follow.
I’m pleased and excited to announce my sixth philosophical-historical themed adventure, a rather impromptu trip to New York City to follow in the footsteps of Margaret Sanger.
Though the timing was spur of the moment, I’ve read and thought about Sanger quite a bit over the years and have some of the research done already for this long-planned trip. So when this little window of time opened up in my schedule, I happily seized the opportunity! As central to the history of women’s rights, free speech rights, and rights to sexual self-determination and privacy as she is, Sanger’s also the most problematic figure in the history of ideas I’ve followed so far for this series, with the possible exception of the brilliant but slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. She’s certainly the first that sparked immediate controversy when I casually mentioned my plans for following her on social media. Here’s a brief introduction, a condensed version of a short bio I published about a month ago in honor of her birthday:
Margaret Higgins Sanger was born on September 14, 1879 into a large Catholic family with 11 surviving children. Her mother died at about age 50 from tuberculosis. As young Margaret saw it, her mother was worn out from her 18 pregnancies, and would cite this as one of the many reasons she so passionately advocated for the right of women to control their own bodies and fertility.
She went on to become a nurse who worked with poor women in New York City in the 19-‘teens and twenties. As she saw these women struggle with the toll that large numbers of pregnancies took on their families’ finances and their own health, Sanger became convinced that ‘birth control’, a term she invented, was essential if these women hoped to escape poverty and sexual oppression. She opened America’s first birth control clinic and despite numerous arrests and fines, she continued her fight for reproductive rights. In this regard, she’s best known today as one of the founders of Planned Parenthood and a key figure in the development of the first birth control pill.
Sanger remains a controversial figure. An ardent feminist, human rights activist, and advocate of sex-positivity, Sanger was also a eugenicist, believing that birth control was at least as important a tool for limiting the production of ‘the unfit’ (her words) as it was for women’s liberation. Generally, Sanger was an ardent advocate of self-determination, free speech, open discussions of sex and sexuality, and education, education, education.* It was up to informed and thoughtful people, Sanger believed, to take responsibility for their own sexual choices and to convince others to do the same. Regrettably, however, at times Sanger seemed to support some sort of coercive or compulsory forms of birth or population control, for those who she deemed incapable of making this choice for themselves, for example, or too dangerous to be allowed to conceive and raise children.
Aside from her (mostly good) ideas about human rights and personal responsibility, I find Sanger’s beliefs about human sexuality and its important role in spiritual and mental health particularly fascinating
So off to New York City I go, from October 17th thru the 21st. There, I’ll visit landmarks associated with her life, places where she lived, worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested, to see for myself how the places informed the woman, and vice versa.
Here is the story of Margaret Sanger as I discover her:
Happy Birthday, Margaret Sanger!
Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 1, and a 100 Year Anniversary
Why So Much Hatred for Margaret Sanger?
Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 2
Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 3
Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 1
Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 2
Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3 Part 1
Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3 Part 2
Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 4
Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!
Patrons of the Margaret Sanger series: Christopher Wallander, Magaly Gamarra Grant, Devin Cecil-Wishing, Sally Lee ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!
*This piece was updated on 10/26/16. Originally, the 3rd and 4th sentences of the seventh paragraph read ‘She did not, however, support any kind of compulsory or coercive forms of birth or population control. Instead, Sanger was an ardent advocate of self-determination, free speech, open discussions of sex and sexuality, and education, education, education. It was up to informed and thoughtful people, Sanger believed, to take responsibility for their own sexual choices and to convince others to do the same.’ My subsequent research found that this is not quite accurate, as she surmised that coercive sterilization might be warranted in certain circumstances, for those who are mentally ill, handicapped in certain ways, or criminally violent, for example. Please read Why So Much Hatred for Margaret Sanger? and more from the series for further explorations of Sanger’s ideas on the subject.