Happy Birthday, Simone Weil!

Simone Weil via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Simone Weil, born on February 3, 1909, lived only thirty-four years. She died as an unintentional martyr to her ideals on August 24th, 1943; she contracted tuberculosis when her overworked, underfed, exhausted body, working for the French Resistance in England, could not fight off disease. As she had done before, Weil refused to eat more than wartime rationing allowed to others, or to accept extra medical help. In a sense, allowing herself to become so run-down that she collapsed and died soon thereafter seems inconsistent with one of her central beliefs: that morality is centered on obligations to one another. When she debilitated herself through overwork and malnourishment, she rendered herself unable to fulfill those obligations she believed in. Yet in working for the benefit of others among those doing the same work, and demanding of herself that she do so under the same hard conditions that many others had to struggle in, Weil continued her long practice of putting her ideals in practice and in the process, testing them. The idealist, deeply spiritual Weil, in this way, often acted as a sort of empirical ethicist.

Weil was born to well-to-do, agnostic Jewish parents who provided her a very comfortable, secure childhood. Her high level of intelligence was evident from a very early age, and she received an excellent education. She surpassed the brilliant Simone de Bouviour in her École Normale Supérieure postgraduate exams. Yet Weil resisted employment as a full-time academic; she was intensely interested in common human concerns such as labor rights and politics. While teaching philosophy, Weil took time to travel to Germany to help her determine why Nazism took such hold there, and donated much of her time and skills to groups who supported working people. She left teaching in 1934 to work in a factory for some months, to observe conditions for unskilled working women. Weil then followed her activist instincts into joining Spain’s Republican efforts against the far-right, authoritarian Francisco Franco’s revolt in the Spanish Civil War, but an injury rendered her unable to complete her combat training, so she lent her support through her primary skill, writing. After she and her parents fled the Nazis first from Paris (she worked for a time as a farm laborer in rural France during this period), then from France, Weil joined Charles De Gaulle’s Free France movement from their London center of operations. Weil’s practice of observing work conditions and political movements first-hand undoubtedly contributed greatly to the force of the ideas she drew from such experiences.

Throughout all of this, Weil had many mystical experiences and converted to Christianity, with many of her beliefs overlapping Catholic doctrines, However, she refused to be baptized or ally herself with any one sect, prioritizing personal spiritual transformation over ritual. Weil wrote creatively and deeply on spirituality and theology; among her most original ideas was that the silence of God was necessary for creation to happen; he wasn’t dead, despite all appearances, he was just absent from the places where creation happens.

Weil had also long thought deeply about the liberal philosophy of human rights, and came to the conclusion that it was an ultimately empty concept on its own. Since it was not centered on a robust concept of human obligations, it was ultimately unworkable: rights, so conceived, could be and often were bought and sold, and while non-interference can mean rights are not violated, this means little when we need support that human rights theory doesn’t necessarily entail that we give to one another. It was only a commitment to fulfilling one’s obligations to others that well-being, bodily integrity, and every other aspect of each person’s humanity can be respected and protected. Weil put this idea to the test by working at that auto factory, as described above, where she observed the effects of the mechanical process of mass assembly on herself and other workers; to her, it appeared dehumanizing, harmful to the moral and spiritual self, instilling docility. In this and other institutions of a rights-based, private-property-centric society, Weil saw that aspects of humanity were rendered into something tradable in the marketplace, and interpersonal relations were reduced to contractual agreements, real or implied. Such a system allows for justice to be dispensed differently, or for differential access to basic human needs, according to one’s ability to pay. While I believe it’s true that liberal societies’ commitments to universal human rights have brought about a level of peace, prosperity, and individual liberty unparalleled in all other types of society throughout history, Weil’s ideas provide important insights into how a liberal system based on individual human rights might not consistently promote human well-being and personal fulfillment unless it is balanced by a robust ethic of interpersonal obligations.

Learn more about the spiritual philosopher and activist Simone Weil, who Susan Sontag called ‘one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit,’ at:

‘God Isn’t Dead, He’s Silent’: Simone Weil Dies, Very Young ~ by Nettanel Slyomovics for Haaretz

Gravity and Grace ~ by Simone Weil

Should We Still Read Simone Weil? ~ by Heather McRobie for The Guardian

Simone Weil ~ by A. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Benjamin P. Davis for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Simone Weil ~ by Susan Sontag for The New York Review of Books

Simone Weil articles, assorted ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Simone Weil: French Philosopher ~ at Encyclopaedia Britannica

What We Owe to Others: Simone Weil’s Radical Reminder ~ by Robert Zaretsky for The New York Times‘ Stone blog

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3 Part 1

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Palanned Parenthood, Oct. 1916, public domain via Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Planned Parenthood, Oct. 1916

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

I get out in decent time to start the day’s explorations, just after eight, but it’s not long before I realize I’m tired and hence, a little cranky. My friends and I watched the third Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debate last night and some of the commentary which followed, then finally went to sleep very late after we talked about what we just watched, and other things. I’m mostly on New York time now, but not quite.

The abortion issue came up almost immediately in the debate since the first question from the moderator was about the Supreme Court and the appointment of justices. Trump pledged to nominate only strongly anti-abortion candidates. Clinton was adamant that Roe v. Wade and laws protecting women’s access to birth control and abortion (with appropriate limitations) be upheld. Clinton also strongly endorsed Planned Parenthood, praising the services it provides and criticizing all efforts to defund it. I, for one, am grateful to Planned Parenthood, the organization that Margaret Sanger founded. Like the women Sanger made it her mission to help, I needed health care that I could not yet afford when I was still in my late teens and early twenties. I found it at Planned Parenthood. I’m grateful to the warm and caring providers there, and I simply did not find what many of the organization’s opponents describe: a ruthlessly pro-abortion, anti-life organization. Instead, I met women who gave me wise and medically-correct advice on all aspects of women’s health, including ways to prevent the need for abortion. That’s entirely in keeping with Sanger’s mission. She was, in fact, anti-abortion, with certain qualifications.

201 and 207 E 57th St, Manhattan NYC, former site of Bandbox Theater, 2016 Amy Cools

201 and 207 E 57th St, Manhattan NYC, former site of the Bandbox Theatre

Adolph Phillip's Fifty-Seventh Street Theater, later the Bandbox Theater, courtesy of Schubert Archives

Adolph Phillip’s Fifty-Seventh Street Theater, later the Bandbox Theater, courtesy of Schubert Archives

I plan to head all the way to White Plains today, but as I’m preparing to buy the ticket at Grand Central Station, I pause to reconsider my day’s plans. In the end, I decide to put the trip on hold: it wouldn’t put my funds and time to best use since I was unable to discover the White Plains site location I sought at the New York Public Library yesterday. I’ll see if I’m more successful when I do more research tonight and perhaps go tomorrow. Instead, I decide to cover the northernmost Manhattan sites on my list after I hit up a few near the southwest end of Central Park that I didn’t get to yesterday.

I walk north towards Central Park and then east, and stop first at 205 E. 57th St near 3rd Ave where the Bandbox Theatre used to stand. Originally named Adolf Philipp’s Fifty-Seventh Street Theatre, the theater that became the Bandbox was built in 1912, closed in 1926, and demolished in 1969. Now there’s a Design Within Reach store and a high rise apartment building here.

On Feb 20th, 1916, Sanger and her supporters held a victory celebration at the Bandbox Theatre. The court had just dismissed the obscenity charges against her for publishing The Woman Rebel that had caused her to flee to Europe the year beforeWhile she was away, many papers had begun to discuss birth control and sex a little more openly, and as you may remember, her daughter had just died suddenly the previous November, soon after Sanger’s return from Europe. Public opinion was swinging to Sanger’s side, and the court no longer had the appetite to pursue a case against her. What had once seemed a public defense against immorality would more likely be perceived as an attack on free speech and emerging modern, scientific attitudes about human sexuality. Even without the court case, however, the arrest and indictments proved an enormous boost to Sanger’s cause. She was portrayed, by herself as well as others, as a sort of free speech and humanitarian martyr, a persecuted champion of the cause of women, especially the poorest and most downtrodden.

14 E 60th Street, with the green awning, NYC, photo 2016 Amy Cools.JPG

14 E. 60th Street, Manhattan, New York City

Then I head northwest to 14 E. 60th St between 5th and Madison Aves. It’s a 13-floor building erected in 1903. Two restaurants, Rotisserie Georgette and Avra Madison Estiatorio, occupy the ground floor, and apartments above. Sanger had been staying at the Ambassador Hotel but moved to one of the apartments at this address on December 17, 1936. Her move here followed on the heels of the birth control movement’s victory in the Dec 7th decision in the One Package case, and not long before Sanger attended the Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice that met at the Roosevelt Hotel which, as you may remember, I visited on my first day following Sanger here in New York City.

1935 and 1936 were busy years for Sanger. In addition to the One Package trial, she toured India, speaking to women’s groups and conferences and debating Gandhi there in December of 1935. She continued on to Hong King, then Japan. In Japan, she visited Tokyo’s fledgling birth control clinic founded by her Japanese counterpart Shidzue Ishimoto, and reviewed birth control methods that had been developed in that country since her 1922 visit. While the birth control movement was also beleaguered in that country by law and custom, many Japanese health care professionals were working on new and effective methods of birth control in that island nation where population growth was a constant and pressing concern. In 1932, she had met a Japanese physician at a birth control conference who had developed a new type of diaphragm. He had sent her that package which was intercepted in customs and led to the One Package case finally litigated three years later. She planned to continue her travels in China and Malaysia but had to cut her trip short due to recurring gallbladder trouble, then a broken arm. She stopped for a short visit in Hawaii, then returned to mainland U.S. to rest and recuperate.

The Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

The Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, New York City

I head west towards Central Park then veer south towards its southeast corner to 768 Fifth Ave at 59th St. Three occasions bring me here to the grand Plaza Hotel.

On March 15th, 1917, the National Birth Control League held a luncheon for her here in celebration of her release from Queens County Penitentiary. She had been imprisoned there for 30 days, convicted of violating anti-obscenity laws while operating her birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Then from November 11th – 13th, 1921, the First American Birth Control Conference, organized by Sanger, was held here. The conference was widely attended by medical professionals, social scientists, humanitarians, authors, suffragists, socialists, and socialites. Its list of sponsors was likewise distinguished, including famed Parliamentarian and future Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Sanger gave the opening address, in which she called on the medical profession to join social workers and birth control activists in addressing the sexual dimensions of problems of hunger, poverty, and overpopulation. As she often pointed out, there were plenty of people working hard to alleviate poverty and disease, but there were very few paying attention to their primary root causes: the human need for love and sex. This was the conference which launched the future Planned Parenthood and concluded with the Town Hall event which turned into a police raid. Between the conference and the publicity following the raid, Sanger was firmly placed as the United States’, and indeed the world’s, preeminent birth control activist and spokesperson.

An interior view of the beautiful Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, NYC, 2016 Amy Cools

An interior view of the beautiful Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, NYC

Several years later, on February 26th, 1929, Sanger presided over a dinner promoting the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. In her opening speech, Sanger outlined the history of her own birth control activism and the struggles and legal battles of the birth control movement in the United States from 1915 until that day. She also credited John Stuart Mill and Francis Place as founders of the modern birth control movement, about a century before her own activism began. Like Sanger, Mill was moved to support birth control by personal horror at the worst effects of children conceived in poverty: at age 17, he came across the corpse of a strangled infant discarded in a park. And like Sanger, Mill believed that when the poor had more children to help make money for the family, wages were inevitably driven down by the glut of laborers seeking employment, leading to a downward spiral of impoverishment and immiseration. So in 1823, young Mill and a friend distributed birth control pamphlets written by his father’s friend and social reformer Francis Place, and were arrested and imprisoned for their trouble.

The Park Lane Hotel and adjoining buildings, Manhattan, New York City, 2016 Amy Cools

The Park Lane Hotel (with the blue flags) and adjoining buildings

I walk a little ways west along the southern end of Central Park to 36 Central Park South, a.k.a. 59th St. Here at the Park Lane Hotel, Sanger delivered her speech ‘My Way to Peace’ to the New History Society on January 17, 1932. In my view, it’s a nasty speech. While Sanger generally insisted that birth control be entirely voluntary, the result of education and the right of women to have control over their own bodies, in this speech she called for coercive sterilization of ‘the unfit’. As Nazism was developed and implemented in the years to come, Sanger opposed it staunchly, sharply criticizing its racial doctrines and opposing its coercive practices. Though she justified it on the grounds of improving public health and decreasing mortality rates, to my mind she was never able to sufficiently explain how her earlier call in ‘My Way to Peace’ for coercive sterilization of ‘mental defectives’, people with certain diseases, and convicted criminals was morally superior to Hitler’s fascist system when it came to these unfortunate and marginalized groups.

New York Tribune Fri Nov 18 1921, Park Theater Cox Speech

New York Tribune, Fri Nov 18 1921, Announcement of Park Theater Margaret Sanger and Harold Cox appearance

One place I miss on this trip is the former site of the nearby Park Theater, near the southwest corner of Central Park, where Harold Cox delivered the Sanger speech he was prevented from making at the Town Hall five days earlier. A New York Tribune announcement describes the location as ‘Columbus Circle near 59th and B’way’ (Broadway). As I consult the 1923 Bromley atlas I’ve been consulting for much of this series, I don’t find the Park Theater. Later, I search through an earlier edition of the Bromley Atlas and this time, I’m in luck. The Park Theater, renamed the Cosmopolitan Theater by 1923, was on 58th St, the second address to the west of Eighth Ave, its northeast corner at Columbus Circle at the southwest edge of Central Park. It stood where the Time Warner Center now faces onto 58th St, about where Google Maps identifies 322 W. 58th St.

In 1944, Sanger reminisced:

‘…Birth control, fifteen, twenty years ago was a lurid and sensational topic… The very term was one not mentioned in polite society, thanks to Anthony Comstock who had Congress classify it with “obscene, and filthy literature”… Our struggles lacked the dignity they have today. Back in 1921, Harold Cox, brilliant member of the English Parliament and Editor of the Edinburgh Review was to speak with me at that early forum of free speech, Town Hall. Our subject was “Birth Control: Is it Moral?”

Entrance of the Park Theater, formerly the Majestic, Columbus Circle, 59th St, NY, courtesy of MCNY

Entrance of the Park Theater, formerly the Majestic, at Columbus Circle, photo courtesy of MCNY

With astonishing directness Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes, through his emissary Monsignor Joseph P. Dineen, closed the meeting before it even opened. We had grown accustomed to opposition, from the combination of the Comstock group …with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but never had the interference been so brutally direct before. Time and again theatres, ballrooms where I was to speak were ordered closed before the meeting could be held. In city after city this occurred during the years 1916, ‘17 and ‘18, but the climax was the now famous Town Hall incident which raised the issue throughout the country. Can one in public office use the power of that office to further his personal religious beliefs?

Mr. Cox and I were met at the steps of the Town Hall that evening by policemen, barred from entering and told, “There ain’t gonna be no meeting. That’s all I know…

We had the hierarchy to thank for so publicizing our meeting that the second held shortly after, at the big Park Theatre in Columbus Circle was packed fifteen minutes after a single door was opened. Two thousand people, many of whom had never heard of birth control before Cardinal Hayes gave it nation-wide publicity, stood outside clamoring to get in…”

I descend into the subway station at Columbus Circle and take the A train north, almost to the top of Manhattan Island. There are many sites on my list from Inglewood all the way back down to the southern end of Central Park, so I decide to visit them from north to south…

To be continued….

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


Sources and inspiration: 

14 East 60th Street‘, from 42Floors website

About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

Another Look at Margaret Sanger and Race‘, Feb 23, 2012. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Bandbox Theatre: East 57th Street near Third Avenue, New York, NY‘, International Broadway Database

Blake, Aaron. ‘The Final Trump-Clinton Debate Transcript, Annotated.’ Oct 19, 2016, The Washington Post: The Fix

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York. Desk and Library edition, 1916, Plate 87 . Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 82 and Plate 87. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

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

Gopnik, Adam. ‘Right Again: The Passions of John Stuart Mill‘. Oct 6 2008, The New Yorker

Grimaldi, Jill. ‘The First American Birth Control Conference‘, Nov 12, 2010. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Guillin, Vincent. Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill on Sexual Equality. Brill: Boston, 2009.

International Theatre: 5 Columbus Circle (W. 58th & 59th), New York, NY‘, International Broadway Database

Mrs. Sanger Glad She Was Indicted‘, New York Tribune, Feb. 21, 1916, p. 2, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project, NYU

New-York Tribune, two selections from Nov 18, 1921, page 11: ‘Birth Control Appeal Fails to Move Enright‘ and ‘You Are Invited to Hear Margaret Sanger… New York, New York. Via Newspapers.com

On the Road with Birth Control‘, Newsletter #21 (Spring 1999) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Birth Control: Then and Now,’ 1944, Typed Article. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Gandhi and Mrs. Sanger Debate Birth Control,’ Recorded by Florence Rose, published in Asia magazine, Vol. 26, no. 11, Nov. 1936, pp. 698-702

Sanger, Margaret. ‘My Way to Peace,’ Jan. 17 1932. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Opening Address for Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau Dinner‘, Feb 26, 1929. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Margaret Sanger Microfilm S71:153.

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

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

Why So Much Hatred for Margaret Sanger?

Margaret Sanger, photo probably taken Jan 30th 1917, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger, photo probably taken Jan 30th 1917, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

There’s been a widespread and concerted effort to vilify Margaret Sanger and remove her name from the public roll of great contributors to human rights history. In my research for the Sanger project I’m working on, I find scores of examples of this effort every single time I do an internet search using her name.

Last year, for example, Ted Cruz and some other conservative politicians called for her portrait to be removed from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, where her portrait bust is included in the Struggle for Justice exhibition. In justification of his campaign, Cruz used part of a quote lifted from its original context and presented it as saying something nearly opposite of what it was originally meant to say. In a letter to a friend, Sanger expressed her worry that her birth control clinic project in the South might be misperceived and misrepresented as racist; Cruz lifted a few words from this very letter to ‘prove’ that it was. He may have borrowed this idea from Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican Party, and Ben Carson and Herman Cain, one-time Republican presidential hopefuls. These three influential conservative men, in turn, likely received this bit of distorted wisdom, directly or indirectly, from Angela Davis and some others in the black power movement who, concerned that the reproductive justice movement might have ill effects in the long run on the empowerment of black people, (mis)represented Sanger’s words, works, and character in the worst possible light. The radical origin of the charges of racism against Sanger may surprise followers of these conservative political figures who have passed them along. And what was this purported insight into Margaret Sanger’s character? Why, that she was so racist that she wanted to exterminate the black race through preventing the conception of ensuing generations.

In my research and in early responses to my publications from my Sanger project I’ve also encountered frequent charges that she was a eugenicist, which is true, and in league with or at least sympathetic to Nazi beliefs, which is false.

So, let’s first consider Margaret Sanger’s beliefs and whether they justify her inclusion among the great American freedom leaders. Then, let’s consider her beliefs in the light of her own time and whether they deserve admiration today, on the whole, or are at least understandable given the circumstances of her time.

Gregory Peck and June Havoc in Gentleman's Agreement, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Gregory Peck and June Havoc in Gentleman’s Agreement

As to Nazism, Sanger is actually an early and particularly vociferous opponent, much more so than many others in an America so rife with anti-Jewish sentiment in her time. I was surprised many years ago, in my late teens or early twenties, when I watched an old Gregory Peck movie (I’ve always been quite a fan of that talented and oh-so-handsome man) in which he played a reporter planning to write an exposé on the issue. To discover how prevalent anti-Semitism really was in America, his character Philip Schuyler Green goes undercover, putting it out there to his friends and colleagues that he was, in fact, Jewish, and had just never happened to mention it before. It doesn’t take long for his work and then his whole life to fall apart as he experiences terrible discrimination, his friends and colleagues turning against him one by one. At that time, I was surprised to learn that when Peck made this movie, anti-Semitism in America was enough of a thing that a major motion picture star would make a movie about it.

Theodore Roosevelt, American President and yes, a eugenicist too

Theodore Roosevelt, American President and yes, a eugenicist too

But Sanger is a eugenicist. This belief in the power of genetic inheritance to cure the ills of humankind by selectively breeding them out of existence was widely accepted at the time, even by such luminaries as our own President, Theodore Roosevelt. Eugenics is often divided into two types, positive and negative, and eugenicists are now often judged now by which of these they promoted. Positive eugenics is the idea that healthy, intelligent, hard-working, creative, and wealthy people should have more children so as to increase the stock of human beings who will, in turn, pass down desirable genetic traits. Roosevelt was a eugenicist of this sort. Negative eugenics is the idea that disabled, diseased, unintelligent, idle, and poor people should have fewer children so as to decrease the stock of human beings who will, in turn, pass down negative traits. The latter brand of eugenics can be further broken down into two camps, with differing ideas as to how it could be brought about: that decreased breeding of the ‘unfit’ should be entirely voluntary and encouraged through education, or, that it should be imposed by certain authorities. (Proponents of positive eugenics could also be broken down this way but I have yet to find an example of imposed human breeding of the ‘fit’, though Communist Romanian president Nicolae Ceaușescu’s policies on reproduction could conceivably be considered a sort of coercive positive eugenics).

Sanger promotes negative as well as positive eugenics principles, but as to whether she believes it should be voluntary or coerced, she’s incoherent at best. At times she’s opposed to any sort of official coercion, as in her many statements against the Nazis and in her stated principle that all human beings, women included and especially, should have the individual right and power to determine their own destinies. Yet she also often declares that since many people are incapable of rational judgment, including the ‘insane’ and the so-called ‘feeble-minded’, others need to make that decision for them. Though she criticizes the Nazis harshly for doing that very thing, she never makes it clear who should do the sterilizations, who should decide, and how coercive they should be if their ‘patients’ refuse. I believe she places herself in a moral dilemma in this matter. She so firmly believes in the power of eugenics to cure the terrible set of human ills that she encounters as a nurse that she wants it, no, needs it, to work. She’s well aware that most people would never consent to such a thing, be it for religious reasons or simply that most people, well or mentally ill, rational or not, naturally recoil at the idea that they should be sterilized because others think they should be. So how to cure these ills in the next generation, since Sanger knows there’s no way they could be cured in her own? That’s the dilemma that Sanger never successfully resolves.

Her vehement opposition to the Nazis goes back, first, to the race issue. One of her main criticisms of the Nazis is not that sterilization is a bad thing in principle, or even that the state might legitimately impose sterilization in special circumstances, such as in the case of criminally insane people (an idea we find abhorrent today but that many in Sanger’s time do not). It’s that the Nazis decide to ‘perfect’ the race along racial lines. To Sanger, this idea is both irrational and unscientific. In Woman and the New Race, she writes glowingly of the great wealth of contributions that people of all races and cultures have always brought and still bring to the world, and that much of the promise of future human greatness lies in this diversity. Since it’s clear that all races include people of great intelligence, health, and abilities, she believes that all races should be likewise bettered through eugenics, both positive and negative, and the latter only if and when necessary (though again, she’s incoherent on this point). Sanger is opposed to ‘human waste’, as she puts it, not only of human beings she considers physically and mentally ‘unfit’, but also the human waste of the lives of those children born in such numbers only to have many of them suffer terribly before dying early deaths, often taking their mothers with them; or permanently disabled by hard factory labor, malnutrition, and neglect; or shipped off as cannon fodder. She’s also opposed to the waste of human potential, of throwing away the great contributions, genetic and otherwise, of the best and brightest of all races to the human race as a whole. In this, she reminds me of Alexander Hamilton, who also argues against the waste of human potential inherent in race-based slavery.

It seems to me, in hindsight, that though many of her eugenics beliefs are founded on bad science, or rather, pseudoscience posing as science, they do not come from a malicious place. They form in the mind of a woman who cares enough about her fellow human beings to devote many years of her early adulthood nursing the poor immigrants in the slums of the Lower East Side of New York City, something few of us have the courage or the vision to do. Sanger is appalled by the suffering and privation she witnesses and desperately wants to help these people, especially the women and children who bear the brunt of society’s ills, but she recognizes that she and her fellow nurses don’t have a prayer of keeping up with the ever-growing need. And she realizes that even if they could keep up with the pace, they were only treating suffering that didn’t need to exist in the first place. She believes, over time, that she’s found the answer.

So given all of this, I ask again, why single out Margaret Sanger for such hatred? Why not call for, say, Teddy Roosevelt’s portrait to be taken down, or those of the many others who held problematic beliefs whose portraits hang, without challenge, on the National Portrait Gallery walls?

And why hate Sanger so much as to spread three major falsehoods about her, again and again and again, that have been so often and thoroughly debunked?

The first lie and second lies, as we’ve considered, are that Sanger’s a racist and a Nazi sympathizer. The other lie is that she’s pro-abortion. In fact, if we look at her writings, we find she’s more anti-abortion than anything.

Flyer for Sanger Clinic, Brownsville, Brooklyn, image courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Flyer for Sanger Clinic, Brownsville, Brooklyn, image courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project

The fact that Sanger is opposed to abortion in most circumstances may surprise many people, especially many conservatives, though I believe the Sanger-as-abortionist lie is as prevalent and persistent as it is because her views on abortion are as politically inconvenient to many on the left, so they don’t trouble to contradict it. She does allow that there are some extreme circumstances in which it is permissible, such as to save the life of the mother (a standard we adhere to today), and she can’t bring herself to blame the women who resort to abortion out of desperation. It’s the Comstocks,the self-righteous anti-sex moralists, the Pope, priests, and bishops, the government, the medical establishment, and the exploitative labor system that cause abortions, not desperate women. They’re the victims. In fact, as you can see from the flyer for her groundbreaking birth control clinic, Sanger lists the prevention of abortion as one of the clinic’s primary purposes.

And yet, the hatred of Sanger rages unabated in so many quarters. There’s plenty to criticize in her eugenics beliefs, in fact, enough to make the three lies I’ve just discussed seemingly unnecessary if you feel the need to discredit her. Again, other people who have had a dramatic impact on our history, like her, are complicated and had some bad ideas, but no Cruzes, Steeles, and Cains are so vehemently, and I would say dishonestly, trying to undermine the validity of every part of their life’s work and demand that their legacy be erased from our public institutional memory. They’re not calling for the removal of the portraits of anti-Semitic Henry Ford or pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh, for example. To be certain, there are such efforts on the left to challenge the legacies and even mostly discredit influential historical figures such as Cecil Rhodes, Woodrow Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson. But those are for things they actually did: promoting imperial colonialism, instituting scores of racist laws in our nation’s capital, and owning slaves. The debate is only whether their legacies, on the whole, are worthy of respect and admiration.

So I ask again: why single out Margaret Sanger for such a degree of hatred and slander, given her work with the immigrant poor and minorities, her strong anti-Nazism, and her anti-abortionism? Why is she not excused for her flawed eugenics ideas on the understanding that she was a woman of her time, or that the good parts of her legacy outshine and thus have outlasted the bad, as we excuse so many others of our flawed heroes? In New York City, teeming with statues, monuments, and portraits of noteworthy historical figures, I could find no monument to her, however modest, in the city she called home for so long and served so well in such difficult circumstances.

When it comes to Cruz and many others who are adamantly anti-Sanger, I strongly suspect that one of their primary objections to her is really her anti-Catholicism and irreligion. For example, Cruz is a self-proclaimed, unapologetically religious man who, like many prominent conservative politicians these days, often stresses the Christian heritage of the United States. He’s also often regarded as a proponent of dominionism, the idea that the Christian faith should guide all matters of government, because of his frequent praise of his father, who promotes that ideology. To Cruz’s credit, in his 2016 Republican convention speech he stated that religious freedom includes the freedom to be an atheist, in contrast to a declaration he made a year ago that only a religious person is fit to be president of the United States. But the targeting of Sanger by Cruz, and Carson, and Cain, based on easily-disproved, thoroughly-debunked attacks on her character, makes me wonder how committed such conservative leaders are to the idea that Americans should be free to believe in accordance with their conscience and their reason.

Margaret Sanger Portrait Bust, image credit National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington DC

Margaret Sanger Portrait Bust, image credit National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington DC

So why hate Margaret Sanger? Could it simply be because she was a strong woman, a fearless woman, a truly self-liberated woman who did not chase after monetary success or choose acceptable or glamorous routes to fame, an outspoken atheist who stood up to such a powerful man as the Pope… in other words, a self-realized, so-fully-human woman that she’s a mass of greatnesses, ordinarinesses, and deep flaws? For all of our self-assurances that we’ve achieved a sex-equal, religiously tolerant society which places such a high value on free speech, are too many of us still unable to accept such women?

I’m quite sure the answer is yes.

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Sources and inspiration:

Birth Control or Race Control? Sanger and the Negro Project‘ The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #28 (Fall 2001)

Cruz, Ted. ‘2016 Republican National Convention Speech‘, abcnews.go.com, Jul 21, 2016

Davidson, Amy. ‘Ted Cruz vs. Margaret Sanger’s Portrait‘. New Yorker, Oct 28, 2015

Davis, Angela. Women, Race, & Class. New York: Random House, 1981.

Fea, John. ‘Ted Cruz’s campaign is fueled by a dominionist vision for America‘. The Washington Post: Religion (Commentary), Feb 4th, 2016

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)‘, from IMDB

Jenkinson, C.lay. ‘Self-Soothing by way of Erasing the Complexity of Human History‘. Clayjenkinson.com, Dec 28, 2015

Nicolae Ceaușescu‘. Encyclopædia Britannica

Parkinson, Justin. ‘Why is Cecil Rhodes Such a Controversial Figure?‘ BBC News Magazine, Apr 1, 2015

The Sanger-Hitler Equation‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #32 (Winter 2002/2003)

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

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

Sullivan, Martin. ‘Margaret Sanger Portrait‘: talk for Face-to-Face, National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian

The Portraits: Margaret Sanger‘ from the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian website

Wirestone, Clay. ‘Did Margaret Sanger believe African-Americans “should be eliminated”?PolitiFact, October 5th, 2015