The Internet is full of memes about birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, portraying her as a racist, a eugenicist, a KKK and nazi sympathizer or a combination of all of these.
An African-American activist has looked into Sanger’s past to find the facts behind the memes.
Compiled by Anna Holley, SisterSong Intern - July 2010
Opponents of abortion promote myths and half-truths about Margaret Sanger in the African American community and elsewhere. This brief research summation is meant to dispel such falsified information distributed by those opposed to abortion and who are determined to distort her impressive historical legacy of enabling reproductive freedom for all women as a pioneering advocate for birth control. Sanger’s opponents use quotes taken out of context, exaggerations and outright falsehoods to paint a grim and racist picture of Sanger. It is important that we, as African American women, examine the historical evidence for ourselves to avoid the pitfalls of historical revisionism. While some falsify the evidence, others attempt to whitewash uncomfortable facts. We consulted with experts on Sanger’s life, reviewed primary historical source documents, and received valuable assistance from the archivists at Smith College and New York University.
Sanger’s Campaign for Birth Control
Having grown up in a progressive household, Margaret Sanger began to question the medical industry as a result of her mother’s death of tuberculosis in 1896. Shortly after, she began challenging medical ignorance. Sanger trained as a nurse and began working in the slums of New York City. From working in desperate conditions, Sanger had the opportunity to observe the hardships of poor mothers who pleaded for information on controlling their fertility. Convinced that the lack of birth control and oversized families were a primary cause of poverty, Sanger became a social radical and joined the Socialist Party. After publishing a monthly newspaper advising women to limit the size of their families, she was arrested and fled to Europe to continue her research on birth control methods. Because of the 1875 Comstock Law prohibiting the spread of information about contraceptives in the U.S., information was more freely available in Europe.
Upon her return to the United States in 1916, she moved back to New York City to open up a birth control clinic in the slums. Yet again, she was arrested and spent a month in prison with her sister who acted as her partner. Spending time in prison only encouraged Sanger to intensify her work. She began lecturing more, raising money, and writing for her new publication: Birth Control Review, where she encouraged liberalization of state and federal laws regarding fertility control. By 1930, she had established fifty-five birth control clinics across the country. Reaching worldwide fame, Sanger spoke at the first World Population Conference in Geneva, Switzerland and continued to push the United States government to allow for easier distribution of contraceptives and sex education.
The American Birth Control Movement finally gained public approval by 1940. As her last act in the movement, she founded the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1946. Today, Margaret Sanger’s accomplishments are recognized in a different light used to fuel anti-abortion activism across the country. Without acknowledging the complexities of the time, her work is often deemed pro-genocide and racist. However, her words and actions are often taken out of context instead of revealing a complicated woman and her true dedication to women’s lives.
Margaret Sanger’s Core Principles
- A woman's right to control her body is the foundation of her human rights
- Every person should decide when to have a child
- Every child should be wanted and loved
- Women deserve sexual pleasure and fulfillment
Eugenics and African Americans
When the movement for birth control began, organizers like Margaret Sanger believed that fertility control was linked to upward social mobility for all women, regardless of race or immigrant status.
Because the medical establishment largely opposed birth control, Sanger initially emphasized woman-controlled methods that did not depend on medical assistance. Her arguments persuaded middle-class women, both Black and white, to use birth control when available.
Sanger’s immediate effect on African American women was to help transform their covert support for and use of family planning into the visible public support of activists in the Club Movement. But African-American women envisioned an even more pointed concept of reproductive justice: the freedom to have, or not to have, children.
The early feminism of the birth control movement, which promoted equality and reproductive rights for all women regardless or race or economic status, collapsed under the weight of support offered by the growing number of nativist whites. Under the influence of eugenicists, Sanger changed her approach, as did other feminists.
In 1919, Sanger’s American Birth Control League began to rely heavily for legitimacy on medical doctors and the growing eugenics movement. The eugenics movement provided scientific and authoritative language that legitimated women’s right to contraception. This co-optation of the birth control movement produced racist depopulation policies and doctor-controlled birth control technology.
Birth control was demanded as a right and an option for privileged women, but through public policy at the hands of the government, it became an obligation for the poor.
Sanger launched the Negro Project, designed by Sanger’s Birth Control Federation in 1939. It hired several African-American ministers to travel through the South to recruit African-American doctors. The project proposal included a quote by W.E.B. Dubois, saying that “the mass of ignorant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, so that the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among Whites, is from that part of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly.” This quote, often mistakenly attributed to Sanger, reflected the shared race and class biases of the project’s founders. The Negro Project relied on Black ministers because of its white sponsors’ belief that “the most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal.”
Among the quotations frequently and incorrectly credited to Sanger is, “More children from the fit, less from the unfit—that is the chief issue of birth control.” It is so widely misattributed to her that it appeared on the wall of an International Center for Photography exhibit on eugenics. Another common offender showed up in a recent fundraising letter from Priests for Life: “Colored people are like human weeds and have to be exterminated.” The historian Esther Katz, director of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University, explains that Sanger never said anything of the sort.
“According to the ‘Black genocide’ movement, Sanger worked in cahoots with the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis to advance a theory of White supremacy and forced sterilization. The truth is more complicated than this caricature. Sanger did embrace ideas about eugenics that were popular in the 1920s; the eugenics movement offered her legitimacy, says [Ellen] Chesler, adding that
‘Margaret Sanger had no choice but to engage eugenics. It was a mainstream movement, like public health or the environment today. It was to sanitize birth control and remove it from the taint of immorality and the taint of feminism, which was seen as an individualistic and antisocial group that addressed the needs of women only, and immoral women at that’” [Italics in original].