Margaret Sanger Was Not Who You Think
August 29, 2016 § 3 Comments
Margaret Sanger might be the least understood, most slandered person in American history right now. Everyday in my Twitter feed, I see arguments over her, her beliefs on birth control, abortion, and African Americans. She has been latched onto by many on the right as an example of what is purely evil with liberals in the US. The problem is that the historical reality does not bear out this demonization of Sanger.
Nonetheless, the Twitter warriors persevere:
This isn’t limited to Twitter. New Hampshire Representative William O’Brien (R) said that Sanger was a KKK member. Herman Cain, in his run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2011, claimed that the whole point of Planned Parenthood, which Sanger founded, had a genocidal mission to prevent black babies from being born. Last fall, Ben Carson, on his own run to secure the GOP nod, declared that Sanger’s goal was to eliminate African Americans.
The belief that Sanger was a white supremacist and a member of the KKK is a particularly popular one on the American political right This photo in particular has been circulating for years, after it was uploaded to the white supremacist site Stormfront in 2008:
While it is true that Sanger gave a speech to a women’s auxiliary of the KKK, both this photo and the supposed message of her talk are lies (she talked to the KKK women about birth control and called it “one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing.”). But, like any good lie or meme, this one is careful to be specific, even offering us a location. This photo is a photoshopped version of this:
Very different, no?
Yes, Sanger was a believer in eugenics. So, too, were Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, H.G. Wells. Even W.E.B. DuBois believed in aspects of the eugenics, though he was vehemently opposed to the racist viewpoint of many eugenicists, for perhaps obvious reasons. And, let us not forget that the eugenics movement was one predicated on classism, racism, and almost every other -ism you can imagine. At its purest, it was a movement devoted to purifying the human race of the disabled, criminal, addicted, and many others. And that also included racism. And, of course, eugenics is part of what drove the Nazis and the Holocaust.
Eugenics, however, was a mult-faceted movement. In the United States, it was not simply a belief in sterilization of ‘undesirables’ and other medical horrors. Rather, it also included a larger public health movement that sought to make Americans healthier through exercise, the creation of parks, eradication of STDs, clinics for maternal and infant health, immunization, and other aspects of healthy living. And this is where Sanger’s beliefs largely lay. In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, Sanger stated that
I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world — that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin — that people can — can commit.
Moreover, a belief in eugenics did not necessarily equate racism in the United States. To take the case of Sanger: she did not believe in segregation, she opposed Jim Crow in the South. She was a firm believer in birth control, and she thought all women, not just wealthy, white women, should have access to it. That includes poor white women, hence the talk to the KKK auxiliary. But this belief also brought her into African American neighbourhoods in New York, Chicago to open clinics there so African American women would also have access to birth control. She also worked closely with African American ministers in her attempts to educate black women.
In her actual organization, Sanger would not tolerate racism, and fired people for racism. More to the point, in 1966, Planned Parenthood honored Rev. Martin Luther King with its Margaret Sanger Award, which is granted to people who work to ensure reproductive health and rights. King was unable to accept the award in person, sending instead his wife, Coretta Scott King. She read his acceptance speech, which included this passage:
There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist – a nonviolent resister.
Thus, in the end: Sanger was not a racist, she did not advocate mass sterilizations of anyone, let alone African Americans. She was not a member of the KKK. In reality, she was a rare person in the early 20th century: she believed in racial and class equality when it came to reproductive health. And she was dead-set opposed to racial segregation and Jim Crow.