The True Margaret Sanger

Imani GandyIt is true that Sanger was a proponent of eugenics, and pro-choice advocates do themselves no favors by attempting to whitewash this fact and paint Sanger as some infallible feminist hero. Sanger was passionate about contraception — perhaps to a fault — and her fervor about promoting her birth control agenda led her to align herself with eugenicists, along with racists and an assortment of people of questionable character.

But it is simply untrue that Margaret Sanger wanted to exterminate the Black race. This is a flat-out lie. Yet it is one that is repeated ad nauseam, both by anti-choice activists and the politicians who support them, most recently Ben Carson.

In propagating this lie, anti-choicers infantilize Black women and strip them of their agency: they portray Margaret Sanger’s birth control agenda as something that was done to Black women, rather than something in which Black women and much of the Black community as a whole enthusiastically participated.

—Imani Gandy
How False Narratives of Margaret Sanger Are Being Used to Shame Black Women

6 thoughts on “The True Margaret Sanger

  1. My understanding is that Sanger was more into restricting growth of the immigrant population from the “wrong” European countries than she was anti-black. At the time the worry was that immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe (Greeks, Italians, Poles, Russians) was going to overrun our culture — particularly with Jews and socialism. It was big in the day, and we did eventually get a law passed restricting immigrants from certain countries to specific percentages of total immigrants — essentially ending European immigration, as the crises causing Irish/German/Scandinavian immigration had long passed (and German/Polish Jews weren’t fleeing yet.)

    I’ve seen the “Sanger was into genocide of black people” thing a lot recently, and I wonder — is it part of an attempt to make people think family planning clinics primarily serve African-Americans, so even the majority of Americans who support birth control will turn on family planning? It makes me wonder too about attacks on teachers and to a lesser extent the Post Office (long one of our most diverse workplaces.) I don’t know. Good Gandy article though, serious research.

    • I’m afraid you are overthinking it. It’s just a convenient way to attack Planned Parenthood. What conservatives want is for poor people to have a lot of kids and then starve to death. But I’m in a bad mood, so don’t take anything I say too seriously.

  2. Several years ago, a discussion was started on Slashdot about forgotten science fiction stories. Someone brought up the Lensman series (which I’ve never read) and the whole discussion quickly went off on a big tangent about Planned Parenthood, ignited by comments like: “Do you approve of Planned Parenthood? Its founder [Margaret Sanger] was big on eugenics – that’s why she founded PP.”

    Last year, I read Sharon M. Leon’s An Image of God: The Catholic Struggle with Eugenics. As I remember the book, eugenics was not that controversial at the time and enjoyed fairly broad popular support; who wouldn’t want healthy and smart children. So, Margaret Sanger was not somewhere out in left field in that respect. (And I don’t really know much about her.) The Catholic Church even supported the aims of the eugenics movement. What they had problems with was not the present-day lightning rod, abortion, which I guess didn’t register as an issue at the time, but contraception and forced sterilization. The book covers in more detail the evolution of the Church’s thinking on the latter two issues with respect to eugenics.

    Regarding James Fillmore’s excellent post above, I’m reminded of this snippet from another book review:

    The prejudices of [19th-century] authors can often be strange bedfellows. One woman I read about [while browsing Project Gutenberg and following the Wikipedia links] was an activist and writer on behalf of Native Americans, but thought blacks were an inferior race who deserved the treatment they received. Another American, a minister and writer, was an ardent abolitionist who meanwhile felt that the Irish were an inferior race; he actually encouraged their immigration because he felt they would take all the menial jobs and thereby elevate “real” Americans.

    • Yeah, it is easy to get lost in the different times. But some things are eternal. Black slavery seems mostly to have been a way for the rich to keep poor blacks, whites, and natives from binding together. All cultures are ethnocentric — that’s much of what defines them. As I recall, the Chinese were the most hated people in America around 1900. And today, there are more hate crimes against Jews than any other group. It’s all messed up.

    • Thanks for the nice words, TheoLib, and a cool quote you have there! People really hated the Irish — which is why they clung more fiercely to their traditional culture than many immigrant groups, and why most cities have St. Patrick’s Day parades. You want people to become more like you, you welcome them and give them opportunities, you don’t ridicule and spit on them.

      I’m mentioning Sanger’s views from memory, I might be thinking of someone else. But here’s a dead-damn-true thing:

      Alexander Graham Bell’s wife was deaf, so he didn’t want any more deaf people to be born (what agony they lived in! Although they don’t live in agony, it’s just a disability.) He couldn’t convince anyone to ban deaf people from marrying, so he did the next best thing — he championed a successful movement to ban the teaching of sign language. (If they can’t talk to each other, they can’t meet and have kids, right?)

      Banning the teaching of ASL didn’t kill the language, but it harmed and stigmatized deaf people enormously for decades. Anyone on board with getting the government to kill AT&T because Bell was a eugenicist? I am!

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