Newsletter #26 (Winter 2000/2001)

Imaginary Encounters

Well before it was brought to the level of sport by Kennedy hobbyists who have imagined encounters between JFK and the likes of everyone from Madonna to Gorbachev to Pete Rose, admirers of Sanger imagined her meeting with the Pope and other Catholic officials, and probably JFK as well, whose candidacy for President in 1960 prompted Sanger to promise she would leave the country rather than watch a Catholic president take orders from the Vatican. She stayed, but kept her distance; the two never met in this world.

One imagined encounter with Sanger made it into print in 1943 in the small Tucson-based magazine Letter. Written by the magazine’s editor and Sanger friend, Ada P. McCormick, "Margaret Sanger Meets a Mother Superior" places the two likely opponents side-by-side in a tiny country train station waiting for the same train. In an understated introduction, the author identifies Sanger and the birth control movement and offers: "The original movement has troubled the Catholic Church." The scene opens with some small talk with the station master about his new baby. Sanger notices that the Nun has read her name on the baggage tag. She turns to her:

"We might as well talk. It won’t kill us. What shall we talk about?"

The Mother Superior bowed gravely. "I have wondered a little," she said, in a hesitating voice (Holy Mother, give me wisdom!) "why you don’t like large families. We see such beautiful family life and devotion in the large families that come to us."

"My mother had eleven children," said Margaret Sanger briefly. A slight shade of hope crossed the Mother’s face . . .

"My mother had tuberculosis when she had the tenth child," continued the other. "I nursed her and got tuberculosis myself. She died at the eleventh." The speaker looked back at her memories. She forgot for a moment the Sister at her side. . .

"Holy Mother, help us poor sinners, now and at the hour of our death," prayed the Nun silently before she ventured to speak. "That must have been very hard. Our Church forbids its children to start conception under such conditions. In grave ill health it enjoins continence."

"If Christianity and the Catholic Church haven’t produced continence in two thousand years, you can’t expect me to," said the red-haired one, in a peppery but not too unfriendly voice. "I do what I can, and that’s to make life bearable for the poor mothers."

And so on, with neither woman giving much ground. The Mother Superior finally introduces "the safe period" into the conversation which Sanger predictably shoots down as unreliable. In a concluding moment of great melodrama, the station master returns with his new baby wrapped in a blanket. "I thought you ladies might want to see our baby," he says as he lays the infant on the shelf of the ticket window. Mother Superior and Sanger both hold out a finger, and the baby clasps them together in an innocent gesture of unity sure to erase decades of enmity between Sanger and the Church and maybe even melt the polar ice cap. (Letter, June 1943, 141-145; for draft see MSM S22:616.)

For a cyberworld version of an imagined encounter, check out "Margaret Sanger and Nahid Toubia; A Virtual Interview." Haverford student Jan Richard imagined an interview show hosted by Barbara Walters in the year 2066 with Sanger and Toubia, the first woman surgeon in Sudan and leader of the campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation. During the virtual interview the two women mostly stick to their biographies and do not respond directly to each other. Walters, showing no ill effects of her preservative, shines as always.