Sunday, May 31, 2009

Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America

While I’m no author, I would think a really good biography¹—one that does justice to the life of its subject—would be one of the hardest of books to write. If such is the case, then a biography about someone who’s devoted his or her life to a controversial cause, such as Margaret Sanger did with birth control must be the toughest nut to crack. In Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, Ellen Chesler undertook a difficult task and executed it well. She managed to walk the camera of her author’s eye all the way around the complex character of the poor Irish-American girl baptized Catholic who grew up to hate that same church so much she threatened to leave the country if John F. Kennedy were elected President, nevertheless a hallow threat from a dying old woman. While Chesler’s portrayal is no doubt sympathic, it is not unduly so; she is willing to look at the world from Sanger’s perspective—who would trust a biographer unwilling to do at least that much—yet she also feels no compunction about pointing out Sanger’s character flaws, contradictions, and many detractors.

As a biographer, Chesler covers the main events of Sanger’s life from birth to death without going into tabloid details, a point which I appreciated very much. Perhaps this could be ascribed as an effort to improve the image of her subject; I prefer to believe it is an indication of the author’s tact, class and integrity. Regardless of what one thinks of another person’s politics or religious views, it still isn’t necessary to drag up endless details of dead affairs. Sanger was no saint, which goes without saying; more than that isn’t relevant.

In fact, it often seemed this biography was as much about the history of birth control in America as it was the story of a woman’s life. Before Sanger took on ‘the cause’ which came to be associated with her name almost as Freud’s is with Psychoanalysis, ‘The Comstock Law of 1873 made it a crime to sell or distribute materials that could be used for contraception’.

‘Birth control’ or ‘family planning’, as it later came to be called much to Sanger’s horror² is an incredibly complex topic. I read this book to gain a greater understanding of the history behind it. Taken in conjunction with abortion, it is probably the most multi-faceted issue facing our country today—and the least understood. Besides the obvious male—female aspect, there are also the following polar perspectives: married—single; law—justice; wealthy—poor; truth—lie; society—individual; freedom—responsibility; young—old; life—death; government—taxpayer; government—citizen; government—family; religious believer—non-believer; God—human. These are not in any particular order, nor is the list complete. In various ways throughout the book, Chesler shows how Sanger encountered and dealt with the factional partisan nature of her chosen vocation.

While not comprehensive by any means, I do recommend this biography as an introduction to the person and the topic. It does not include any of Sanger’s writings, yet I do believe anyone just reading what the crusader wrote without knowing the background context of her life would do themselves as much a disservice as they would Sanger; she was often battling specific individuals, groups, political parties and governments. Whether or not you agree with her position—and I obviously don’t—it becomes all the more critical in a situation such as this, not to come into the middle of a conversation you don’t understand. I have already forgotten more than I ever dreamed I didn’t know about the history of the birth control movement in our country early last century—and I finished the book just a few weeks ago. Anyone reading this review in a few months, or more, shouldn't bother to ask me any questions of detail. The book is chock full of facts and figures, whereas my head is sieve for that type of information.

But if you want to learn about Margaret Sanger and her role in the birth control cause, read Chesler’s book and . . . don’t stop there!

That concludes my 'official' review of this book which I was planning to post today, the Feast of Pentecost, birthday of the Church and conclusion of the Easter Season. It seemed auspicious to remind those who profess to believe in the One, True God that our work here on earth is far from over. However, as I have just learned of this morning's murder of George Tiller, late-term abortionist, it also seems especially telling that issues Sanger battled all her life are as relevant today as they ever were...and just as controversial.

¹ This book is at least three times as thick as The Margaret Sanger Story: and the Fight for Birth Control so I thought I'd just skim this, but after reading the Introduction, I came to believe this was the more accurate of the two available biographies. In her Introduction, Chesler lists, compares and contrasts all of the biographies written about Sanger, including two autobiographies from the 30s. Although writing for a series called "Woman of Valor" Chesler does not seem bound to paint some idealized picture of Sanger; she is willing to show her subject's strengths and weaknesses. Interestingly, Margaret doesn't always compare favorably, even with her lesser known siblings. However, I believe this biography still falls far short of Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy which I hope to read very soon.

² If I understood her correctly, M.S. envisioned the movement in the hands of idealistic and strong-minded women (such as herself) dedicating their lives to teaching other women how to control their fertility. In the 1950’s when the leadership passed into the hands of men who reorganized and renamed the Birth Control Federation of America, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Margaret saw this as a failure of nerve, a step backward. In fact it was a savvy political decision based on the times made by those who were actually trying to help her ‘cause’.

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