Happy Birthday, Margaret Sanger!

margaret-sangerMargaret Higgins Sanger was born on September 14, 1879 into a large family with 11 surviving children, to a Catholic mother and an atheist father. Her mother died at about age 50 from tuberculosis. As young Margaret saw it, her tubercular mother died too early because she 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.

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 uncontrolled 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 oppression. She opened America’s first birth control clinic and despite numerous arrests and fines, she continued her fight for reproductive rights. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which became the Birth Control Federation of America in 1939 after merging with another organization, which in turn became Planned Parenthood in 1942. She continued her activism right up to her death in 1966. Sanger was instrumental in the creation of the first birth control pill Enovid, first available to the public in 1957. She also lived to see the Supreme Court validate her beliefs in the basic human rights to openly talk about sex and to control their own fertility in the Griswold v. Connecticut decision of June 7, 1965.

Sanger remains a controversial figure today. 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. Sanger agreed with many leading scientists and progressives of her day in ascribing to so-called Social Darwinism (a problematic term since it doesn’t reflect Darwin’s own views as he expressed them), which applied the principles of natural selection to human social practice.  She did not, however, support most compulsory or coercive forms of birth or population control, such as that practiced by the Nazis or even by the United States government, who forcibly sterilized thousands of so-called ‘feebleminded’ women. Unfortunately, she did initially advocate forced sterilization of criminals and of those she believed could not make rational choices for themselves, such as the insane. Except in this awful instance of very poor judgment, 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.

Unlike many other eugenicists, however, Sanger was not a racist. She did her nursing and much of her social justice work in poor immigrant communities, and worked closely with many leading black civil rights figures, believing, as they did, that birth control would have the same liberating effect on the black community as would for women generally. By limiting the number of children according to how many they could afford to raise and when, parents could more readily pursue an education, start a business, or otherwise devote their time, energy, and health to improving their standard of living which, in turn, they could pass down to their children.

Aside from her human rights activism, I find Sanger’s beliefs about human sexuality and its important role in spiritual and mental health most fascinating. To discover more about this complex and fascinating woman, please see my History of Ideas Travel Series following Sanger in the places she lived and worked in New York City.

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!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

Margaret Sanger Papers Project ~ Research Annex. Accompanying blog to The Sanger Papers Project by New York University.

The Pill, People & Events: Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)‘. From the American Experience website by PBS.

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version by Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013.

Tong, Ng Suat. Which Margaret Sanger?The Hooded Utilitarian blog, April 14, 2014.

New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger in the San Francisco Bay Area, California

Scottish Rite Temple mosaic, above the doorway of what’s now the Regency Center, San Francisco

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Fairly early on in my research for my history of ideas series on Margaret Sanger in New York City, I discover that she delivered one of her more famous addresses here in Oakland. Practically just around the corner from where I live, in fact!

So I’ve long had the idea of doing a follow-up Sanger project here in the San Francisco Bay Area, certain I’d find she’s been here more than once. That turns out to be the case. And not only do I discover that she visited here several times, I find that the excellent library at the University of California at Berkeley has some great resources for filling in some gaps in my information about Sanger in NYC. So, this story will have two parts: the first part is about sites associated with Sanger here, and the second part is about some discoveries I make in U.C. Berkeley’s archives following up on two NYC sites… Read the written version here

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!

Margaret Sanger in the San Francisco Bay Area, California

Scottish Rite Masonic Temple mosaic, above the doorway of what’s now the Regency Center, San Francisco

Fairly early on in my research for my history of ideas series on Margaret Sanger in New York City, I discover that she delivered one of her more famous addresses here in Oakland. Practically just around the corner from where I live, in fact!

So I’ve long had the idea of doing a follow-up Sanger project here in the San Francisco Bay Area, certain I’d find she’s been here more than once. That turns out to be the case. And not only do I discover that she visited here several times, I find that the excellent library at the University of California at Berkeley has some great resources for filling in some gaps in my information about Sanger in NYC. So, this story will have two parts: the first part is about sites associated with Sanger here, and the second part is about some discoveries I make in U.C. Berkeley’s archives following up on two NYC sites.

Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, now the Regency Center, at Sutter and Van Ness in San Francisco, CA

Stairway and elevator at the Regency Center, formerly the Scottish Rite Temple at Sutter and Van Ness, San Francisco

I: Sanger in Oakland and San Francisco

Friday, March 31st, 2017

I head first to San Francisco, a quick and easy trip on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit System, our subway/ell) across the Bay, and take a pleasant walk on this spring day from Montgomery Street station east, first along Post through Union Square, then on Sutter. December 16th, 1928, Sanger spoke at the Scottish Rite Hall in San Francisco, at Sutter and Van Ness. The Scottish Rite Masonic Temple moved into its new quarters in the early 1960’s, and this building became the Regency Center, a multi-purpose venue. In fact, I was here just a few years ago when I saw John Cale, one of my very favorite musical artists of all time, perform in the ballroom, but Sanger likely spoke in the Social Hall. It’s also likely she delivered more or less the same speech she delivered at Oakland Civic Auditorium three days later, the story of that speech will follow below. Perhaps the speeches and corrections she scribbled onto the speech, which I link to here, constitute the differences between her addresses at the San Francisco and Oakland venues.

Small upper room in the Scottish Rite Temple, now the Regency Center, San Francisco

I write to people who manage and organize events at the Regency Center but am unable to line up a day to meet soon that will work with all of our schedules.

But since I have this free afternoon on a glorious spring day, I head over anyway, in case I luck out and end up there at a good time. Turns out, the very helpful man I find here, who’s in charge of setting up events, regretfully tells me there’s just too much going on for me to head upstairs and poke around to the rooms where she may have spoken; various contemporary sources designate the venue as the Scottish Rite ‘Hall’ and ‘Auditorium’, so the exact site is unclear. So I take photos in the places he allows me to wander: the hallway, the main stairway, and a meeting room just off the main landing now converted into a small bar.

About 22 years earlier, in August of 1916, Sanger wrote to her friends Charles and Bessie Drysdale, ‘In San Francisco [on a birth control lecture tour] I had a collapse, and was three days in bed under medical care, but recovered sufficiently to hold six meetings.’ As you may recall, Sanger suffered from recurrent tubercular infections, and from time to time they made her quite ill and exhausted. I have yet to find a record of specific locations she visited or stayed in San Francisco on that trip. Sanger didn’t mention her time in Oakland in this letter, though she may have meant to include the greater Bay Area when she said ‘San Francisco’, as visitors often do. Since she delivered her Oakland speech only three days after this San Francisco tour, this may have been one of the six meetings she spoke of.

So I return to Oakland to follow in Sanger’s footsteps there.

Margaret Sanger Hotel Oakland appearance, Oakland Tribune, Thu Jun 15, 1916, evening edition, front page. For the full article, click here. The drawing looks nothing like Sanger, and what’s up with the silhouette of celery? Yes, I know it’s meant to be a vase…

Hotel Oakland Ballroom, vintage postcard via Hotel Oakland Village website

On June 15, 1916, Sanger gave a speech in the ballroom of the Hotel Oakland at 270 13th St. I don’t find a transcript of this speech, but I do find a newspaper article about this event, which includes a summary of its main points as well as a review. The speech was well received by the audience, according to Gene Baker, writing for the Oakland Tribune. He compared Sanger favorably to Emma Goldman, Sanger’s one-time friend and ally from whom, truth be told, Sanger co-opted the mantle of birth control advocate-in-chief. As Baker commented in his article, Sanger was much more traditionally ‘feminine’ than Goldman in appearance, ‘slight’ and prettily dressed. Sanger was both a committed sex-positivist and a straight woman and saw no contradictions between her feminist convictions and in making herself attractive to men. Baker also described Sanger as speaking with intensity (which indicates she was feeling better since her collapse in San Francisco) and with scientific coldness. Perhaps she did convey a sense of scientific detachment, given her habit of buttressing her calls for action with a barrage of facts and statistics, or perhaps he perceived her keen grasp of the issues and her memory for detail as unfeminine and therefore ‘cold.’

Baker also wrote of her outspoken opposition to Theodore Roosevelt’s beliefs about childbearing in this speech; she frequently published rebukes and rebuttals to the President’s public stances against birth control and in favor of large families. (Baker mentioned that she spoke out against Roosevelt in San Francisco as well.) Both Sanger and Roosevelt were eugenicists but of different types: Sanger believed in negative eugenics, in curing human ills through having less children, especially if the parents were ill, disabled, or too poor to bring up well-nourished, well-educated, and well-housed children, and Roosevelt believed in positive eugenics, improving the human race through intelligent and hardworking people having as many children as possible.

Hotel Oakland, now Hotel Oakland Village senior citizen community

 

Hotel Oakland Village main lounge, Oakland, CA

Hotel Oakland, vintage postcard via Hotel Oakland Village website

Hotel Oakland Historical Plaque, Oakland, CA

The Hotel Oakland, which opened as a luxury hotel on December 23rd, 1912, is now a senior community residence. Its grand edifice is little changed, but its garden is no longer so sumptuous and much of its interior is much plainer, having been stripped of its chandeliers and fancy furniture and painted plain white, though the lounge ceiling is painted a lovely antique-gold color. I sign in at the desk and walk around the first floor, greeting each person I see with a hello, a smile, and a nod, everyone is friendly and welcoming, and no one questions my presence. I take photos freely on the ground floor except in the large back room converted into an activity and physical therapy area, which, it so happens, appears to be the former ballroom I seek. I ask the person who works there if I may take pictures; she’s a Spanish speaker, and I ask in that language (unforgivably clumsily, given that I’m a California native and I should be more adept) if I may take pictures. She explains that the person that could authorize this won’t be back in until Monday, so I depart. As much as I am historically nosy, I make it my practice never to infringe on the territory of working people. They have enough to worry about without wondering if they could get in trouble on my behalf.

I do, however, take photos of the front lobby, in full view of everyone there who appears not the least concerned with my presence except to return my smile when they happen to catch my eye. Most of the residents are Chinese. This is no surprise since the Hotel Oakland Village, as it’s now named, borders Chinatown, and like the neighborhood in general, it is family-oriented, with visitors of all ages coming and going, often taking the elderly residents for local outings, such infirmities as they have lovingly supported by wheelchairs, walkers, arms, and hands. The parks in this neighborhood often contain large groups, sometimes very large, of older people going through the graceful, slow, deliberate movements of Tai Chi. It’s likely they include many of the residents of this hotel. The sight of these people, something like colorful wildflowers waving in the wind, something like windmills if windmills were endowed with personalities, intention, and rich history and could move deliberately to music, warms my heart on my morning walks.

Oakland’s Chinatown at the time of the Hotel Oakland’s heyday; many of these old houses stand today. This photo is on the wall of the Oakland Hotel Village main hallway

Margaret Sanger Speeches, Announcement for Oakland and S.F, in the Oakland Tribune, Sun Dec 16, 1928

Margaret Sanger Speeches, Announcement for Oakland and S.F, in the Oakland Tribune, Sun Dec 16, 1928

Next, I visit the Oakland Civic Auditorium, later called the Kaiser Convention Center, also just a few blocks from my house, near Lake Merritt. On December 19th, 1928, Sanger delivered the speech ‘The Necessity for Birth Control‘ here. It was a least as dedicated to eugenics-based arguments about the ill effects of ‘feeble-minded’, ill, disabled, and poor people having children to whom they passed down these traits and which they could not care for properly, as it was about preventing suffering.

The eugenics arguments and opinions she used in this speech are hard to take now, just as they were for many then. Yet to be fair to Sanger, we must remember that her arguments were informed by her experiences working as a visiting nurse in the slums where the poorest of the working poor lived in NYC, where the best efforts of public charities often seemed to hardly make a dent in relieving suffering, especially when, as Sanger believed, so much of it was preventable:

In her speech, Sanger said:

To define Birth Control, we say it is the conscious control of the birth-rate by scientific means that prevent the conception of human life. Prevent, remember. Prevent does not mean to interfere. It does not mean to destroy. There is no more interference with life through birth control than there is to remain unmarried or to live a celibate life. We also say “to control.” Control does not mean that you limit. When you control your furnace you do not have to put the fire out. When you control your motor you do not necessarily stop your car. To control the birth rate means that there shall be the same right for those who do not wish to have children as for those who do wish to have them. There are no objections to those who wish to increase the size of their families, but on the other side there seems to be a great deal of question and controversy as to the right of those who wish to limit or control the number of their children. ~ Margaret Sanger, ‘The Necessity for Birth Control’

Booklet for the Oakland Civic Auditorium and Opera House, now Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland Public Library

Oakland Civic Auditorium as it appears today

The Oakland Civic Auditorium had stood for 14 years when Sanger spoke here in 1928 and she had become very well known indeed in the dozen intervening years since she spoke at the Hotel Oakland. The Auditorium is a huge venue, as we can see in historical photos: it held Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Barnum and Bailey circus, symphony orchestras, and other large-scale entertainments. The history of this place is wonderful, with so many other amazing activists, artists, speakers, and performers appearing here over the years: Isadora Duncan, Duke Ellington, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, Jr, the Grateful Dead… It’s no longer in use, standing empty since just before the turn of this century, but I hope this beautiful Beaux-Arts edifice is reclaimed, restored, and put to as good a use as it once was.

Buffalo Bill Wild West Show at the Oakland Civic Auditorium, photo from booklet at Oakland Public Library

II: More About Sanger in NYC at U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Memorial Library

Research & photos: gathered on various dates from November 2016 to March 2017

And now, here’s my follow-up on two sites associated with Sanger in NYC:

Margaret Sanger Letter to Noah Slee on Barclay Hotel Stationery, excerpt, from the Sophia Smith Microfilm Collection

From Day 1, Part 3‘I track down a listing in the Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection Series catalog for a microfilm of a letter Sanger received from the Barclay hotel, but I don’t have access to it at the moment. It’s not available online and I’ve not yet had a chance to visit the library at the University of California at Berkeley, which has a copy’

I finally get around to tracking down the microfilm collection, stored deep in the archives at the Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley, with the assistance of the ever- kind and helpful Nancy Oanh Tran. In looking through the microfilms of documents dated around the time of Sanger’s stay at the Barclay Hotel, I find a phone message for Sanger and many chatty letters to her husband Noah Slee written on Barclay Hotel stationery. The letters discussed visits to and from friends, a visit from her son Grant, how much less pleasant it was to drive a car in New York City than in Tucson, how disorganized she was, and so on. Most of the contents of these letters are of little interest to anyone outside of their relationship, their circle of friends, and of course, dedicated historians, except, I think, for one thing: she begs him not to join her in New York City, and not to ask her to leave her work there yet. In her second marriage, she demanded the freedom she wanted that she did not find enough of in her first, and she got it through endearments, compliments, even sappiness, so that Noah would feel loved and not abandoned; through cajoling; through explanations and arguments about the importance of her work and her need to do it unimpeded; and even through what reads to me like a guilt trip.

o I American Eugenics Society journal, Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley

From Day 2, Part 2: ‘According to Robin Pokorski’s Mapping Margaret Sanger, ‘The Hotel Astor was the site of the National Birth Control Conference of November 19 and 20, 1929. The conference was sponsored by the American Birth Control League.’ I find few contemporary references online to the talks and attendees of this conference other than a few remarks in some contemporary newspapers and a brief excerpt from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, 1930, published by the American Eugenics Society. An article from The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin outlines some of the topics of discussion, such as the Comstock laws and the current science of reproduction, and lists some of the headliners of the conference, which include ‘famous educators, doctors, and pastors.’ ‘

In doing further research, I find there’s a copy of the American Eugenics Society journal also in the collections of U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Memorial Library.

Mary Louise Inman, who wrote an account of and commentary on the meeting for the Eugenics Journal, wrote:

‘Most of our adult generation can remember when [the birth control movement] was chiefly characterized by determined looking ladies selling The Birth Control Review on metropolitan street corners, Margaret Sanger being held up for her propaganda, and a general feeling in the lay breast that the whole thing was not quite respectable.

Here we see before our eyes the evolution of an idea. That the movement has undergone a decided moral, social, and intellectual transformation is evidenced by the presence on the speaker’s platform of some of our foremost religious leaders, together with eminent writers, physicians, educators and scientists, as well as other professional and non-professional men and women of the highest social standing.’ ~ Inman, Eugenics, Jan 3oth ed, p 12

As I read further, I take notes. They go:

National Birth Control article for Eugenics journal by Mary Inman, 1930

‘In his speech, one Dr. E. Bord Barrett, a former Jesuit and still a practicing Catholic, held out hope that the Church would be flexible and adaptable on the birth control issue. He was a believer in the social benefits of birth control, and based his hope on the fact that so many Catholics used birth control, that Church-mandated celibacy for priests and others indicated that the Church recognized it was not always in the best interests of individuals and communities for everyone to have children, and that the Church blessed marriages of couples who could not have children.

Dr. Hannah Stone, director of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and Sanger’s long-time colleague who was arrested in the raids on the W. 15th Street clinic, was among the speakers, but her talk was not recorded or described in Inman’s article.

Ministers and rabbis voiced their support for birth control on humanitarian and personal responsibility grounds.

The second day of the conference was dedicated to issues related to eugenics. They discussed the questions of whether it was desirable to ‘breed geniuses at will’, if it could be done at all; who would be qualified to decide what are ‘desirable’ human traits and types beyond those which impart health and the ability to take care of ones’ self; whether ‘spiritual values’ should be brought to bear on the issues, and much more.

Albert Edward Wiggam, worried that birth control might exacerbate a differential birth rate between those who are prudent, far-sighted, intelligent and self-controlled enough to be more likely to use birth control, and those who conceive and bear children thoughtlessly. He believed these traits were largely transmissible, predicting the likely behavior of the next generation. To counteract this problem, Wiggam believed that birth control needed to be universally and readily available as well as easy to use.’

Margaret Sanger, from Eugenics journal, Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley

The article ends by noting that Margaret Sanger could not attend the conference, which surprises me! Instead, she sent a telegram which was read to the attendees since her attendance was sorely missed given her role as a founder of the movement and the most important activist of her time for women’s rights, since the suffragists. Inman predicted that birth control would become as readily accepted in society as women’s right to vote, however controversial its past. She was mostly right. Though many Americans are uncomfortable with publicly funding birth control since we believe so firmly in the right to religious dissent, most Americans actually do use birth control, at least at some point in their lives. And as Sanger hoped, it has become readily available, easy to use, mostly every cheap, and all very safe. And she played a very significant role in bringing this about.

Thank you, Margaret Sanger.

Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Duchsherer, Aimee. ‘Better Babies or More Babies?: Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and the Birth Control Movement‘. July 16, 2015, Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickenson State University blog.

The Hotel Oakland Village website: ‘History: Grand Hotel‘ and ‘Historical Photos

Inman, Mary Louise. ‘The National Birth Control Conference’ from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, January 1930, pp 12-17.

Kaiser Convention Center‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Electronic Edition: Margaret Sanger and The Woman Rebel, 1914-1916, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo and Peter Engelman (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 1999)

The Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo, Peter Engelman, and Anke Vass Hubbard, 1996. #Microfilm 77685 , S15:0042. Reel S15: May 1938 – Nov 1938

Brochure for the Kaiser Center, one the old Oakland Civic Auditorium, Oakland Library collection

 

‘The Regency Ballroom: About‘, from their website

The Regency Center‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Regency Center: Venue Overview: History‘, from their website

Sanger, Margaret. ‘A “Birth Control” Lecture Tour‘, Aug 9, 1916. Published article: Malthusian, Sept. 1916, 83-84. (Sanger’s letter to Charles and Bessie Drysdale published as an article)

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Necessity for Birth Control,’ Dec 19, 1928. Typed Draft Speech. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress, Library of Congress Microfilm 130:0226

Social Hall SF: Venue Info‘, from their website (part of the Regency Center)

Tillmany, Jack. ‘Regency I: 1320 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109‘. Cinema Treasures website

New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger and Race

Dr Dorothy Ferebee - Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

Dr Dorothy Ferebee – Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

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’

Read the written version here

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!

New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 4

Planned Parenthood Clinic at Margaret Sanger Square, Mott and Bleeker Streets, NYC

Planned Parenthood Clinic at Margaret Sanger Square, Mott and Bleeker Streets, NYC

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Friday, October 21st, 2016

It’s cold and rainy, so I spend a long morning with my coffee as I do more research. Try as I might, I just can’t identify, with any certainty, the exact site of the Queens County Penitentiary, Long Island City, where Margaret Sanger was imprisoned for thirty days in 1917 for operating her Brownsville birth control clinic. Nor do I locate the site of the original White Plains Hospital where Sanger trained as a nurse. I had pored over the atlases of that town, from that time, in the New York Public Library map division, and I searched assiduously in their digitized records this morning. No luck.

So I finish my account of the first site I visited on Tuesday and publish it, then head out. It keeps raining, but oh well, it’s not a terribly long walk and besides, I welcome a walk in the rain, under my umbrella, of course. The drought back home had been mostly unrelenting for ages and it’s nice to experience a good rain again.

My first destination is Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Center at Mott and Bleecker Streets… Read the written version here

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!

 

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3 Part 2

24 Post Ave near Dyckman St, Inglewood, Manhattan, NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

24 Post Ave near Dyckman St, Inglewood, Manhattan, NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Thursday, October 20th, 2016, continued

I exit the A train at the Dyckman St station, the second to the last stop on the line, and walk a couple of blocks to 34 Post Ave. Margaret Sanger moved into ‘an inexpensive little flat’ here in January of 1914 leaving her husband William, or Bill as she called him, behind in Paris. The Sangers had lived there for a few months as Sanger researched and wrote and William worked to establish himself as a painter. En route to Paris, they stopped in Glasgow, Scotland, so that Sanger could observe and write about the effects of municipal ownership, a system of public ownership often endorsed by Socialists, for a newspaper assignment. While in Paris, Sanger met with many socialists and activists, all the while researching French methods of contraception. But she was growing bored and restless, eager to get back to work and engage in activism once again. She and the three children returned to New York City around the New Year, leaving William behind to continue his artistic pursuits… Read the written version here

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!

 

Margaret Sanger and Race

Dr Dorothy Ferebee - Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

Dr Dorothy Ferebee – Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

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’.

Eugenics journal, photo 2017 by Amy CoolsNow, 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.

Buck v Bell Virginia Historical Marker Q 28, Courtesy of Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of VirginiaSanger, 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.’

Nurse's uniform, ca. 1905, of Lilian Wald visiting service to the Lower East Side tenements of NYC

Nurse’s uniform, ca. 1905, of Lilian Wald visiting service to the Lower East Side tenements of NYC. Sanger would likely have worn an updated version of this uniform when she worked there in 1911

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. ‘Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose?‘ Source: Negro Digest, August 1946, pp.3-8, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

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