Women of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America

In Japan, Margaret Sanger’s popularity was enhanced by the fact that her name quite literally meant birth control. Transliterated into Japanese, it comes out as ”destructive of production,” and one company actually marketed a diaphragm under the name. In the U.S. her name was no less synonymous with the birth control movement she gave birth to; the bare mention of it could set off paroxysms of indignation. Sanger was denounced by powerful morals lobbyists such as Anthony Comstock, by judges, by bishops. When she opened the country’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916, she was soon arrested; but she lived long enough (until 1966, when she was 87) to see her goal of women’s reproductive freedom widely accepted, if not (even now) securely established. She lived long enough to become something of an institution, and Ellen Chesler’s biography, Women of Valor, thick as a marble slab and solemn as a statue, seems better suited to the public-institutional Sanger than to the irreverent, lascivious bohemian who cavorted behind the public facade.

Chesler, a better historian than psychologist, doesn’t quite know what to do with the numerous contradictions she has collected, but without them this would be a dull book. Sanger ”was an idealist who devoted herself to achieving concrete reform. A reformer who believed in the determining influence of both biology and culture. A bohemian who loved money…A confirmed sexual materialist who remained an incurable romantic. An adoring mother who abandoned her children. A Socialist who became a registered Republican.” Also a champion of freedom who favored semicoercive eugenics programs and an atheist who believed in spirits and premonitions.

There was logic in Sanger’s choice of career; she was one of 11 children of an improvident father, an Irish stonecutter in Corning, N.Y., who preferred drinking and arguing his radical politics to working. The family struggled, and Margaret Higgins took a grueling nurse-in-training job before marrying Bill Sanger, a socialist architect rebelling against his conservative Jewish family. They moved into New York in 1910, just as Greenwich Village was beginning to ferment with anarchy and free love. Margaret fell in with the radicals and eventually fell into bed with some of them, dooming her marriage. Much later she concealed her early radical associations, replacing Socialists with socialites as allies and choosing a millionaire businessman for her second marriage, but she never renounced her passionately pursued sexual freedom; among her lovers were the pioneering sex psychologist Havelock Ellis and the novelist H.G. Wells.

Chesler has a surer touch with social history than with personal history — she’s illuminating on the fluctuating legal status of abortion and contraceptive techniques and on the way that Sanger’s traditionalist opponents improvised their traditionalism as they went along. The book is stiffly written and sometimes inadvertently comical in its reliance on boilerplate terms like bourgeois and empowering. Chesler, who has taught at Barnard College, has her share of the humorless sanctimony that now prevails among academic historians and critics. If her censorious vigilance in pouncing on bad influences and deviations from orthodoxy reminds you of someone in the book, it’s not Sanger but her puritanical nemesis, Anthony Comstock. I would have preferred a biography of Sanger written with something more like her own free-spirited eccentricity, but I suppose that even in a book about an exemplary feminist you can’t have it all. B

Women of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America
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