Margaret Sanger, whose American Birth Control League became Planned Parenthood, was the founding mother of the birth-control movement. She is today considered a liberal saint, a founder of modern feminism, and one of the leading lights of the Progressive pantheon. Gloria Feldt of Planned Parenthood proclaims, “I stand by Margaret Sanger’s side,” leading “the organization that carries on Sanger’s legacy.” Planned Parenthood’s first black president, Faye Wattleton — Ms. magazine’s “Woman of the Year” in 1989 — said that she was “proud” to be “walking in the footsteps of Margaret Sanger.” Planned Parenthood gives out annual Maggie Awards to individuals and organizations who advance Sanger’s cause. Recipients are a Who’s Who of liberal icons, from the novelist John Irving to the producers of NBC’s West Wing. What Sanger’s liberal admirers are eager to downplay is that she was a thoroughgoing racist who subscribed completely to the views of E. A. Ross and other “raceologists.” Indeed, she made many of them seem tame.
Sanger was born into a poor family of eleven children in Corning, New York, in 1879. In 1902 she received her degree as a registered nurse. In 1911 she moved to New York City, where she fell in with the transatlantic bohemian avant-garde of the burgeoning fascist moment. “Our living-room,” she wrote in her autobiography, “became a gathering place where liberals, anarchists, Socialists and I.W.W.’s could meet.” A member of the Women’s Committee of the New York Socialist Party, she participated in all the usual protests and demonstrations. In 1912 she started writing what amounted to a sex-advice column for the New York Call, dubbed “What Every Girl Should Know.” The overriding theme of her columns was the importance of contraception.
A disciple of the anarchist Emma Goldman — another eugenicist — Sanger became the nation’s first “birth control martyr” when she was arrested for handing out condoms in 1917. In order to escape a subsequent arrest for violating obscenity laws, she went to England, where she fell under the thrall of Havelock Ellis, a sex theorist and ardent advocate of forced sterilization. She also had an affair with H. G. Wells, the self-avowed champion of “liberal fascism.” Her marriage fell apart early, and one of her children — whom she admitted to neglecting — died of pneumonia at age four. Indeed, she always acknowledged that she wasn’t right for family life, admitting she was not a “fit person for love or home or children or anything which needs attention or consideration.”
Under the banner of “reproductive freedom,” Sanger subscribed to nearly all of the eugenic views discussed above. She sought to ban reproduction of the unfit and regulate reproduction for everybody else. She scoffed at the soft approach of the “positive” eugenicists, deriding it as mere “cradle competition” between the fit and the unfit. “More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue of birth control,” she frankly wrote in her 1922 book The Pivot of Civilization. (The book featured an introduction by Wells, in which he proclaimed, “We want fewer and better children…and we cannot make the social life and the world-peace we are determined to make, with the ill-bred, ill-trained swarms of inferior citizens that you inflict on us.” Two civilizations were at war: that of progress and that which sought a world “swamped by an indiscriminate torrent of progeny.”
A fair-minded person cannot read Sanger’s books, articles, and pamphlets today without finding similarities not only to Nazi eugenics but to the dark dystopias of the feminist imagination found in such allegories as Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. As editor of TheBirth Control Review, Sanger regularly published the sort of hard racists we normally associate with Goebbels or Himmler. Indeed, after she resigned as editor, TheBirth Control Review ran articles by people who worked for Goebbels and Himmler. For example, when the Nazi eugenics program was first getting wide attention, TheBirth Control Review was quick to cast the Nazis in a positive light, giving over its pages for an article titled “Eugenic Sterilization: An Urgent Need,” by Ernst Rüdin, Hitler’s director of sterilization and a founder of the Nazi Society for Racial Hygiene. In 1926 Sanger proudly gave a speech to a KKK rally in Silver Lake, New Jersey.
One of Sanger’s closest friends and influential colleagues was the white supremacist Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. In the book he offered his solution for the threat posed by the darker races: “Just as we isolate bacterial invasions, and starve out the bacteria, by limiting the area and amount of their food supply, so we can compel an inferior race to remain in its native habitat.” When the book came out, Sanger was sufficiently impressed to invite him to join the board of directors of the American Birth Control League.
Sanger’s genius was to advance Ross’s campaign for social control by hitching the racist-eugenic campaign to sexual pleasure and female liberation. In her “Code to Stop Overproduction of Children,” published in 1934, she decreed that “no woman shall have a legal right to bear a child without a permit…no permit shall be valid for more than one child.”47 But Sanger couched this fascistic agenda in the argument that “liberated” women wouldn’t mind such measures because they don’t really want large families in the first place. In a trope that would be echoed by later feminists such as Betty Friedan, she argued that motherhood itself was a socially imposed constraint on the liberty of women. It was a form of what Marxists called false consciousness to want a large family.