My painting of Margaret Sanger seems to have raised some issues. A few people have commented to me about her affiliation with the eugenics movement. One person even commented that she was a supporter of Hitler and the KKK. If there is one thing I love, it’s research. You can ask anyone who knows me well, and they will tell you that I if I am interested in something, I like to educate myself on all facets of that thing.
Prior to doing this painting, I was familiar with Margaret Sanger. I really admired and respected the fact that she was so intensely passionate about educating women from ALL walks of life about contraceptives and their reproductive systems.
I had heard a little about her being involved with eugenics, but as I understood it, she had used that movement to incite upper class privileged white people to support birth control and the dissemination of information to lower classes. Obviously this Planned Parenthood issue is very hot right now, and there are a LOT of comments being thrown around. I assumed that most of them were baseless and merely an attack on Ms. Sanger because of the political climate we are living in.
What I didn’t do is go to the primary sources. This is something I usually do when I am interested in a historical person. Their words and thoughts on subjects are usually widely available on the internet. A primary source document is a letter, a speech, or a paper written by someone in their own words. You are able to read the entirety of what a person said in context.
After getting some comments about Ms. Sanger, I decided to head straight to her papers. You can too by going to this website called The Public Writings of Margaret Sanger. It is a searchable database of her speeches and articles, and you can put any term you are interested into the search engine and see what she said about it.
What I found answered some of the comments that have been thrown around. In a piece called Hitler and War Sanger out and out says “I was one of the few Americans who joined the Anti-Nazi Committee and gave money, my name and any influence I had with writers and others, to combat Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.”
As far as her affiliation with the KKK, I could find no merit in those claims. When Martin Luther King Jr. responded to winning the Margaret Sanger award in human rights at the 50th anniversary banquet of Planned Parenthood, he mentioned specifically Ms. Sanger’s courage and vision (primary source document here). I question whether Dr. King would make that statement, or even accept an award from someone affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.
In her piece entitled Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose Ms. Sanger says:
I am deeply aware of the needless hazards to which Negro babies are subjected at birth in the United States at the present time. Last year 77 per cent of all white babies were born in hospitals, but less than half of the Negro mothers–43 per cent to be exact–were given hospital protection for themselves and their babies. Some day, if plans of such agencies as the U.S. Public Health Service are realized, there will not be a single section of the country without adequate hospital facilities for all. But until that day is here, Negro mothers should be given all possible protection against needless sacrifice through childbearing.
This entire article seems to be saying that she believes that African American women should have the same right to birth control as white women. She is advocating for the education of all women.
Was this woman a paragon of our current values? Uh, no. Whether she believed in and supported some version of eugenics, even if it wasn’t as extreme as the Nazi party is off putting. I’m still fuzzy on her views about the mentally ill, and I will continue to research that, because what I skimmed over was disconcerting.
Viewed through the lens of historical context we can understand, but not excuse, some of her positions. To say the world was another place, especially for a feminist woman trying to disseminate information about the human body, is an understatement. Whether it is Susan B Anthony or Thomas Jefferson, people who we may admire for their courage and strength are still a product of their times. Not any one person is going to stand up to intense scrutiny in every facet of their lives.
I think it’s incredibly important to research and understand history and historical context of a movement. I also think that we need to refrain from reducing any historical figure into categories of good or bad, right or wrong, especially based on the morals of our time. It’s easy to see a picture or a quote attributed to someone on the internet and to immediately tick a box next to their name, but it’s rarely ever as simple as that.
Margaret Sanger devoted her life to fighting for the education of women. She fought for equal opportunities for all women to control their own reproductive organs. That made her a target in her day, and one in ours as well. She was a woman of her time, with faults and failings, but that does not make what she accomplished and fought for any less important.