Since the earliest days of her birth control activism, Margaret Sanger has been often accused of being a racist, among other things. To many of her critics, her birth control advocacy must be understood as a nefarious plot to undermine human morals and decency, and any means of twisting her message to convey this are fair game. As I discuss in an earlier piece, a favored method of attack, which persists to this day, is to present a sentence or phrase of Sanger’s out of context to ‘prove’ her ‘true’ beliefs about people of other races. Her detractors even claim that she was on a genocidal mission to reduce or even exterminate black people, Jews, and other immigrant groups by destroying future generations. Never mind that Martin Luther King, Jr. praised her work on behalf of his beleaguered people. Never mind that she worked closely with civil rights leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. DuBois. Never mind that she opened clinics to serve black and other minority women because so many existing clinics refused to serve anyone but whites. Never mind that she wrote in 1944:
‘We must protect tomorrow’s Chinese baby and Hindu baby, English and Russian baby, Puerto Rican, Negro and white American babies who will stand side by side… to bring promise of a better future’.
Now, as a eugenicist, Sanger did make herself an easy target for her accusers despite her decades of work with underserved and marginalized people, first as a nurse in the slums of the Lower East Side of New York City and then as a birth control pioneer. Eugenics, enthusiastically adopted by many who considered themselves scientific, progressive, and enlightened in the first half of the 20th century, is now recognized as pseudoscience, (mis)applying the evolutionary process of (unguided) natural selection to utopian social engineering theories. Eugenicists believed that the ills of humanity could be cured preemptively by breeding them out of existence while breeding in favor of ‘desirable’ traits. Despite the rosy vision of transforming humanity into the most vigorous, hyper-intelligent, and disease free race the world had ever seen, eugenics principles actually produced very ugly results when instituted as social policy. Here in the United States, government programs incarcerated mentally ill, disabled, and socially maladjusted people and forcibly sterilized them. Then the world’s most infamous eugenicists, the Nazis, took those principles to their most extreme logical conclusion, borrowing a page from the United States’ eugenics book in instituting the most horrific, murderous selective-breeding process the world has ever seen, inflicting untold and untellable quantities of human suffering and bloodshed.
Little wonder, then, that eugenics has a very bad name. Though the desire to reduce human suffering caused so many to embrace it, eugenics was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwin’s great theory. Its proponents understood natural selection just well enough to appreciate its power for change but missed the greater point: the wide variety of human traits and capabilities is itself a long-evolved, complexly-balanced, and very very successful web of adaptations developed and attuned over hundreds of thousands of years. Human beings, necessarily self-centered and short-sighted, are very inept judges of trait selection in comparison with Nature itself.
Sanger, like many other eugenicists, was inconsistent in her attitudes about who should have children, when, and who should decide. Generally, she advocated for the right to self-determination in reproductive matters, calling for mass education and for cheap, reliable, widely available methods of birth control. In many instances, however, she advocated coercive sterilization for violent criminals and for those who she believed could not make this important decision for themselves, such as the mentally ill and cognitively disabled. She backed away from the latter, though, as the Nazis rose to power and instituted coercive, violent eugenics practices on a grand scale. Sanger was an early, ardent, and very vocal opponent of Nazism, and its policies alerted her to the problems of her short-sighted views on forced sterilization for anyone. As the logical-extreme beliefs of Nazism revealed, eugenics had its limits, and even the most non-coercive, most benign brands of eugenics were discarded by most of its former proponents over time.
But there are two other things Sanger was very consistent about.
One was her dismay at the sheer quantity of human suffering in the world and her desire to reduce it if she could. I find that oft-cited Sanger quotes, particularly from her book Woman and the New Race, refer to her observation that poor immigrants were especially likely to have more children than they could afford, and her claim that they were more likely therefore to produce ‘unfit’ children. ‘Unfit’, as Sanger described them, are those who are malnourished, diseased, undereducated, and in countless other ways ill-equipped to lead happy, flourishing lives. Yet, as is often the case with politically- and ideologically-motivated attacks, Sanger’s words are presented out of the context in which she wrote them, inspired by the plight of the immigrants she had in mind, mostly the Eastern Europeans she worked with in New York City’s Lower East Side. Before her time as a birth control activist, Sanger worked for them as a visiting nurse. As a Socialist activist and as a health care provider, she was driven by her special concern for the working poor that she observed were abused, often taken advantage of, in their desperation, by rapacious employers who offered them meager wages and terrible working conditions in exchange for backbreaking hours of miserable labor. These families were broken down from disease, hard labor, malnutrition, and, for the women, numerous pregnancies that often ended disastrously from these very health-destroying circumstances. One of Sanger’s most infamous quotes from Woman and the New Race, ‘The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it’, so often used to ‘prove’ that Sanger was both racist and genocidal, is understood as a sarcastically-despairing remark when presented within the chapter in which it appears. That chapter describes the horror and suffering that preceded the all-too-frequent deaths of the immigrant poor, especially children and their mothers, and laments society’s lack of concern in preventing all this suffering and death. Even the next sentence alone will do: ‘The same factors which create the terrible infant mortality rate, and which swell the death rate of children between the ages of one and five, operate even more extensively to lower the health rate of the surviving members.’
Second, Sanger believed all human beings should be given the same care and opportunities as everyone else. That’s why she opened her first birth control clinic in the racially diverse Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1916, opened clinics to serve black and Latina women in Columbus Hill and Harlem neighborhoods in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, and expanded her mission to help black communities in the American South in 1939. While there might be more than a shade of paternalism (maternalism?) in these efforts, her own writings, as well as the support of black civil rights leaders, demonstrate that her motives were, at least on the whole, motivated by her concern that justice be done for these underserved people.
As Sanger wrote to her friend Albert Lasker in 1939:
‘You are quite right in assuming that poor white people down South are not much better off than the Negroes, but there has been at least a start in several states to help the poor whites and as there is not sufficient time for a nurse, nor the material left over, for the Negroes, they are just left out of the service in most of the states. That is why I was anxious to have a special fund directed for the Negroes…’
Returning to Woman and the New Race, Sanger gave another reason why she was driven to improve lives in the disadvantaged communities she worked with and advocated for:
‘They would not be here if they did not bear within them the hardihood of pioneers, a courage of no mean order… And they have something else. The cell plasms of these peoples are freighted with the potentialities of the best in the Old World civilization. They come from lands rich in the traditions of courage, of art, music, letters, science, and philosophy… The immigrant brings the possibilities of all these things to our shores, but where is the opportunity to reproduce in the New World the cultures of the old? What opportunities have we given to these peoples to enrich our civilization? We have greeted them as “a lot of ignorant foreigners,” we have shouted at, bustled, and kicked them… What hope is there for racial progress in this human material, treated more carelessly and brutally than the cheapest factory product?’
In other words, America’s immigrants carry greatness in their very genetics, which our factories and farms have too often exploited, quashed, and wasted over the centuries by treating them as little more than wealth-generating fodder before kicking them to the curb or the ditch.
And in her article ‘Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose?’ Sanger wrote:
‘The Negro race has reached a place in its history when every possible effort should be made to have every Negro child count as a valuable contribution to the future of America. Negro parents, like all parents, must create the next generation from strength, not from weakness; from health, not from despair.’
Civil rights leader W.E.B. Dubois shared this view with Sanger: that if oppressed people were to overcome the social forces arrayed against them, they needed to forge their way from a position of strength: of health, of education, of increased wealth, and birth control was one of the ways to get there. And Sanger and DuBois both believed that they all could get there because they were just as capable of greatness as anyone else, given the same chances.
This doesn’t sound like racism to me.
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Sources and inspiration:
‘Another Look at Margaret Sanger and Race‘, Feb 23, 2012. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
‘Birth Control or Race Control? Sanger and the Negro Project‘ The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #28 (Fall 2001)
Ferebee, Dorothy Boulding, d. 1980, “Speech by Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, M.D. entitled “Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race,” January 29th, 1942,” Smith Libraries Exhibits
‘Margaret Sanger and the African American Community‘, compiled by Anna Holley, SisterSong Intern, July 2010, TrustBlackWomen.org
Marlin, George. ‘Margaret Sanger: “Abortion is Dangerous and Vicious”‘ Dec 14, 2011, The Catholic Thing blog
A Negro Number, June 1932 edition of Birth Control Review, by various authors.
Reed, Miriam. ‘Margaret Sanger: Correcting the False Narratives of Racism‘, June 30, 2016. Church and State
Sanger, Margaret, 1879-1966, “Letter from Margaret Sanger to Albert Lasker, November 12, 1939,” Smith Libraries Exhibits, Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection.
Sanger, Margaret. ‘Population – Everybody’s Business,’ Published Article. Source: Tomorrow, 1944, pp. 16-18, Margaret Sanger Microfilm S72:0480, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
‘The Truth About Margaret Sanger‘, Blackgenocide.org