‘The movement she started will grow to be, a hundred years from now, the most influential of all time in controlling man’s destiny on earth.”
The famed novelist H. G. Wells once praised a prominent woman thus. Such a powerful statement brings certain questions to mind. Who was this woman? What did she do that so deeply affected society? And did she influence the world for the good?
The woman to whom Wells was referring was Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and he was speaking at a dinner celebrating the release of her book My Fight for Birth Control. The dinner took place in the midst of the Great Depression and, though a full century has not yet passed since then, debate remains heated over the sort of influence that Mrs. Sanger has had, and continues to have, on the world. Many see Margaret Sanger as an iconic feminist leader who helped pave the way for the freedoms of the modern woman. Others see a darker side to her legacy that more closely resembles the contents of a frightening Wellsian, or even Huxleyan, novel.
In a new biography, Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion, Goucher College history professor Jean Baker claims not to be seeking Sanger’s sanctification and, indeed, she does not make her out to be a saint. Baker portrays Sanger as a woman who had a strong will to succeed at everything she set her mind to, and who indulged her every passion during a time of great restriction. Born on the wrong side of the tracks in Corning, N.Y., the young Margaret overcame a rough childhood to succeed in school and eventually become a nurse. She was already involved in socialist politics, and her work in nursing only spurred her activism.
In an oft-recounted (though unconfirmed) story, Sanger recalled being summoned to the apartment of a young woman named Sadie Sachs, who had attempted a self-abortion and almost killed herself in the process. When the woman begged the doctor for information on how to avoid pregnancy in the future, she was rebuffed. When Sanger was called back several months later after Sachs’s second abortion, it was too late to save her life. According to Sanger, it was then that she found her calling to birth control. She saw it as a crusade to free women from the bondage of unwanted motherhood, which she believed led to poverty, criminality, and a plethora of other social ills. Judging by the fact that birth control is now the accepted social norm and Planned Parenthood has grown to be a global birth-control and abortion giant, one would have to say that her lifelong crusade was ultimately successful.