Last week our tributes to Margaret Sanger, the founder of the modern birth control movement, drew some heavy discussion over on Facebook and Twitter. Many friends and members of our Facebook group e-mailed me to say that they have a difficult time honoring Sanger, because of her participation in the eugenics movement. I had already planned to write about post about the eugenics link, but the discussions I had last week reconfirmed the necessity of interrogating the question: was Margaret Sanger a racist?
It is no secret that Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist, but that statement needs to be put into historical context. The discussion of historical context is not meant to be an excuse or an apology for Margaret Sanger’s beliefs. But it is important to judge Sanger’s beliefs according to the scientific culture of her time.
Eugenics was a theory about improving hereditary qualities by socially controlling human reproduction. Eugenicists were hoping to improve the human race by preventing people with genetic defects from reproducing, and limiting birth control and abortion for women who were considered “fit” or healthy. This concept got interpreted as a justification for racism, and eugenics was incorporated into the Nazi regime.
During the 1920′s and 1930′s, eugenics was considered to be cutting-edge science. Contrast eugenics to the human genome project, which leads the field of genetic research today. The research conducted by the human genome project has revealed that there is no genetic basis for race. With today’s understanding of race and genetics, it seems hard to believe that scientists actually thought that there was scientific proof that one race was genetically superior to the other. But human understanding changes over time.
Unlike most eugenicists, Margaret Sanger did not advocate for birth control because she felt that certain groups of women should have babies, while others should not. Sanger believed that birth control should be available to all women, particularly those who were poor, because limiting their number of children would help mothers provide a better quality of life for their families, especially when resources were limited. Sanger believed that reproductive decisions should be made by the individual woman, and not on a social or cultural basis, and she consistently argued against the racialized application of eugenics principals. Margaret Sanger eventually abandoned the eugenics movement, and her reasoning is very clear from a statement that she made in 1919:
Eugenists imply or insist that a woman’s first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her first duty to the state. We maintain that a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world. We further maintain that is is her right, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother . . . Only upon a free, self-determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment. (Source: The Birth Control Review, February 1919)
Some of the confusion over Margaret Sanger’s participation in the eugenics movement stems from statements that have either be taken out of context, or falsely attributed to Margaret Sanger. A list of those quotes and an analysis of their sources is available via Planned Parenthood. One of the commonly cited quotations is,
We do not want the word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.
Margaret Sanger was aware of concerns that birth control would pose a threat to the African American community. Consequently, she was determined to alleviate these concerns by involving the African American community in the formation of birth control clinics in the South. The quote above comes from a letter that Sanger wrote to Dr. Clarence J. Gamble, one of the financial backers of the birth control movement. In the letter, Sanger argued that African American doctors needed to be employed at birth control clinics. Sanger felt that it was important to employ black doctors and social workers in order for patients to feel that the clinics represented their community. When the Birth Control Federation of America became Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942, Sanger established the Division of Negro Service to oversee outreach to the African American community nationally. Sanger’s work was endorsed by African American leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois.
Many of our feminist sheroes were products of their time. Take Susan B. Anthony for example. Anthony started out in the abolition movement. She was inspired to take up the cause of women’s suffrage as a result of her experience within the abolition movement. The male leaders of the time would not let women speak at abolition meetings, and the women were segregated in the meetings. Anthony began agitating for women’s suffrage because she realized that women would not be able to fully participate in public life without first gaining the right to vote. During the Civil War, suffragists were asked to put their movement on hold. It was, they were told, “the Negroes’ hour.” Susan B. Anthony was happy to oblige. But when male abolition leaders failed to pick up the cause of women’s suffrage at the end of the war, Anthony felt betrayed. Anthony became single-minded in her later years, which is completely understandable when you consider that she had been trudging the suffrage road alone for several decades. Near the end of her life, Anthony began to make compromises with white Southern suffragists. She was willing to accept female suffrage that was limited by race if it meant that at least some women would gain the right to vote.
Grappling with Margaret Sanger’s views on race is important for feminists today, as is the acknowledgment that Susan B. Anthony embraced racist ideas near the end of her life. What does it mean for the women’s movement today that we are still overcoming the legacy of racism within this country? How can the feminist movement expand to include issues of race, class, nationality, sexual orientation, ablism, and more? For me, feminism simply means equality for everyone. Consequently, feminism incorporates so much more than simple gender parity.
Additionally, everyone is a little bit racist sometimes, myself included. No one is perfect. Owning up to one’s racism does not erase the accomplishments that someone has made on behalf of women. Women can vote today, and we have access to many different options of birth control. Without women like Margaret Sanger, who knows if we would be able to say that?