I recently read an article about the correspondence and meeting between two of the most independent thinkers of the 20th Century, Margaret Sanger and Mahatma Gandhi. The two activists met in 1936 when Sanger traveled to India to speak with Gandhi about birth control. By that time Sanger was advocating internationally for artificial contraceptives and sought to make Gandhi an ally.
Despite the fact that the movement was gaining popularity in a society with a serious poverty crisis, Gandhi was an outspoken critic of artificial birth control. His general attitude was that
“Persons who use contraceptives will never learn the value of self-restraint. They will not need it. Self-indulgence with contraceptives may prevent the coming of children but will sap the vitality of both men and women, perhaps more of men than of women. It is unmanly to refuse battle with the devil.”
Sanger, on the other hand, once told her granddaughter that “for intercourse, I’d say three times a day was about right.” (Go girl!)
Gandhi believed that men needed to overcome desire for women and warned women that if they engaged in intercourse for pleasure that men would lose respect for them and begin to view them as mere sex objects.
Instead, women in Gandhi’s world had a special role. A lesser-discussed aspect of Gandhi’s radical lifestyle was that up until his death he regularly slept, fully nude, with young women. The purpose was to demonstrate brahmacharya, or complete control over body and organs, by this display of sexual restraint.
While Gandhi warned women against giving away their chastity to avoid being treated as sex objects, isn’t that precisely the way that Gandhi treated them by using them as submissive roles of his presentation of self-restraint?
This ritual demeaned women by portraying them as something impure, something for men to “overcome.” He reduced women by manipulating them to deny their own natural sexual urges, and insisting that the only expression of their sexuality be in lying naked with him in bed, a situation where he was in full control and which was void of healthy sexual activity.
While many today praise Gandhi’s progressive views on women’s rights, was he really as concerned about the dignity of Indian women as he claimed?
Sanger did not succeed in convincing Gandhi to support the birth control movement. Instead he maintained his position that his followers “transcend carnal lust.” While Sanger did not make what could have been a powerful ally, I think the important fact is that the conversation took place.
Given all that has happened in India since Gandhi’s death in 1948, I wonder where he would stand on the issue of birth control today. Certainly few people would agree with his approach in a country where nearly half live below the poverty line.
In 1959 Sanger stood by the side of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when he declared that $10 million would go to family planning efforts. I wonder what Gandhi would have thought about the use of state resources to fund population control.
The meeting between Margaret Sanger and Gandhi demonstrates Sanger’s audacity and serves as a good lesson for activists to seek allies even in unlikely places. It is also great feminist food for thought.
Janice is a Virtual Assistant, aspiring doula, and long-time feminist activist with a passion for women's history, nonfiction, nature, and wearing flowers in her hair. She is the Founder of The Feminist's Guide, a women's history travel website, which can be found at www.thefeministguide.com.