Newsletter #4 (Winter 1992/1993)

Family Values in Margaret Sanger's Time

The presidential victory of Bill Clinton seems to have quieted the debate on family values for the time being, but it is hardly a new issue, as anyone familiar with Margaret Sanger's life can attest. Much in the same way that conservative defenders of the American family blame feminists and homosexuals for a perceived erosion of family values, Sanger and the birth control movement were criticized as a threat to the family for advocating sex education and reproductive choice for women.

The frenzy of recent attacks against Hilary Clinton and even the fictional "Murphy Brown" by the Republican and religious right also echo the efforts of conservatives, traditionalists, and the religious right to limit women's choices in Sanger's day. For her advocacy of birth control, Sanger was painted as a dangerous radical bent on destroying the American family in order to achieve a subversive feminist agenda. Sanger was scorned for promoting women's sexuality in her groundbreaking books Woman and the New Race and Happiness in Marriage, particularly her insistence that sexual pleasure should be enjoyed independent of its procreative function. Others claimed, without any validity, that Sanger advocated birth control in order to profit from the sale of contraceptives.

Although careful to aim her message towards married couples, arguing that birth control would strengthen marriage and the family, Sanger was still blamed for everything from divorce, infidelity, and promiscuity to a lack of work ethic among oversexed men. One conservative critic linked Sanger and the promotion of birth control with the sins of the "cultural elite" in terms similar to those that Vice President Dan Qualye used in his election year speeches:

"... in the circles – artistic, literary, theatrical and social – where birth control is notoriously common, scandals, divorces, infidelities, and general sex laxness are equally notorious... Birth Control has given whole groups morals which would shock a savage." (Daniel Lord, Speaking of Birth Control, Aug. 15, 1934)

Sanger was even blamed for the influx of women into the workforce during World War II. An author of a Catholic pamphlet wrote: "Can America be grateful to Margaret Sanger who forced women, mothers and grandmothers to work in munitions plants because we did not have enough men to do the job?" (Novena Notes, July 1951).

Sanger countered her critics by offering an alternate view of family values. By speaking to the tragedy of unwanted children and the self-destructive nature of large and over-burdened families, she turned the arguments of her critics on end. Citing government statistics on the rising rates of infant mortality, child labor and poverty, she adopted the rhetoric of her adversaries by linking family planning with a "new morality – a vigorous, constructive, liberated morality" and a stronger, healthier family.

Sanger resisted all efforts to classify her as a sexual radical by controlling the iconography of the movement and focusing her argument for birth control on its impact on children. One of her more innovative discussions can be found in a 1926 article for Holland's Magazine entitled "Passports for Babies," in which Sanger fantasizes about parents being subjected to an interview by a prospective baby. The demanding child inquires whether the parents have paid for their last baby, how many other children they have, and whether or not the parents can supply a happy home, proper food, a sunny nursery, and love and affection. Summarizing the prospective parents' responses, the baby exclaims: "Five children already? Two dark rooms in the slums? No! Thank you! I don't care to be born at all if I cannot be well born. Good-bye!"

Sanger was careful to present herself to the press as a traditional mother (and after she remarried as a modern wife). Privately Sanger was far less traditional in her views of the acceptable family ideal. As her own life clearly reflected, Sanger was convinced that for women to attain true autonomy they must be able to exercise their rights and pursue a "motherhood unchained." She risked public censure by separating from and later divorcing her first husband, William Sanger in 1914 to pursue not only a more independent sexual and romantic life, but a successful career as an organizational leader, activist, writer and lobbyist. When she faced a marriage proposal in 1922 from an older man, oil-rich tycoon, J. Noah Slee, Sanger negotiated an agreement which allowed her to maintain her independence both personally and professionally.

While Sanger's own family life was not traditional, her advocacy of birth control was firmly rooted in a deep concern for the lives and health of women and children. Her goal was not to destroy the family, but strengthen it by making it a more flexible and varied institution.