Gandhi’s birth control of choice

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.

About Janice:
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.

Comments

  1. I think what is also interesting is Ghandi’s use of those women as merely a means to an end, instead of as ends in and of themselves. That being said, I don’t think Ghandi was ill-intentioned in his beliefs. Different strokes for different folks I suppose.

  2. Actually, Gandhi saw it both ways- men need to overcome women and women need to overcome men. Hinduism is slightly more radical than Buddhism, which I practice, but from Buddhism taught me, it’s all about detachment. What is more worldly and tempting than sex? If you can stop yourself from that, you’ve almost got it made right there. Hinduism does have many sexist aspects, however. Thanks for the great read.

  3. the racism in your article is appalling

  4. Regardless of Ghandi’s opinions, birth control needs to be available to prevent unintended pregnancies since sexual urges will be acted upon by many. It’s only human nature.

    Unintended pregnancies are at epidemic levels and for the first time in years is on the rise again.

  5. Gandhi wasn’t an extremely stubborn person, I think if he were around today he’d probably be more open to it.

    Also, Gandhi was in an arranged marriage and they got married when they were 13 years old. When they were young he used to abuse his wife, something he was very ashamed of later in life. To prevent himself from treating her like a subordinate he asked her if they would abstain from sex, which they did and their personal relationship improved greatly, no wonder the guy thought abstinence was the way to peace. While I disagree with him, its hard to argue with someone who lived in a vastly different time under vastly different circumstances and isn’t around to give us his view on today’s issues.

  6. Mr.M.K Gandhi has lot of misconceptions about Vaidika (Hindu) Dharma and sex. To my knowledge, never in Vedas ever mentioned that sex is bad. well, I would summerise it as, indulgence in anything is bad, so is indulgence sex.
    There are saints who married and had children in Puranas (History) or what generally called Hindu Mythology and some saints even had children with childless queens or princess to run the royal linage.
    So the very concept of SEX IS BAD is part of pseudo- hinduism. And Gandhism is biggest farce of 20th century. Many things are said and written about Gandhi, But to my mind, he is a confused saint and a worst politician.
    Hope the present Gandhian congress government does not put me on gallows for this article.

  7. I think you should know your piece was plagiarized (and used out of context) by a Philippine senator:

    http://www.rappler.com/nation/10606-sotto-why-should-i-quote-a-blogger

  8. Your blog is now big new in the Philippines. A Philippine senator has plagiarized 5 bloggers in his speech.

    So far, Sarah Pope, a US blogger based in Florida is in the news now, accusing the senator of plagiarism.

    Your blog entry has been discovered by netizens to have also been plagiarised.

    Her story has now grabbed the attention of ABC, CBS, the Vancouver Sun and the Montreal Gazette.

    Here’s a link to the new article of the new discovery, which includes your blog:

    http://www.interaksyon.com/article/40719/novelist-says-sotto-plagiarized-second-rh-speech-too

    I recommend that you add your voice and determine if the senator actually plagiarized your work and to give a statement condemning this act of plagiarism. One blogger has already done so and the 4 other bloggers are being alerted to this plagiarism by this senator.

    Thank you.

  9. Hi there,
    Off topic though, but i think you have the right to be informed that this work has been plagiarist by our arrogant senator, and this is a one hot topic these days in our place.
    http://www.interaksyon.com/article/40719/novelist-says-sotto-plagiarized-second-rh-speech-too

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