Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?

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?

Comments

  1. Malinda Briggs says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. Some anti-choice activists sling this accusation out as if it is a defense of their position. I appreciate having this information, especially in context with the times in which Sanger lived. I look forward to posts on the contributions of women of color to the pro-choice movement.

  2. Hi Malinda, I’m glad that you found the article useful. Like I said, giving a historical context is not meant to erase or excuse anything. But I think we all need to take a deeper look at the motivations Sanger had for being a part of the early eugenics movement. Sanger was convinced that birth control would improve the lives of women, and she looked for allies wherever she could find them.

    There will be more articles coming in this series about Sanger, so I hope you will check back in the weeks to come.

    • Wow you totally missed that quote by M. Sanger which reads in entirety like this “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population,” she said, “if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America, by Linda Gordon. It is appalling how you can defend someone who is obviously a racist woman who deliberately set up planned parenthood to exterminate those she felt were not desirable in her opinion. Well you also admit you are racist as well, well this may come as a surprise to you but I am not racist. There are many people out there who are not racist. I believe all people were made in the image of God and deserve respect and love no matter what color of skin they have. You failed to mention these quotes:
      “The most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” Margaret Sanger, Women and the New Race (Eugenics Publ. Co., 1920, 1923)
      The purpose in promoting birth control was “to create a race of thoroughbreds,” she wrote in the Birth Control Review, Nov. 1921 (p. 2)
      “More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief aim of birth control.” Birth Control Review, May 1919, p. 12

  3. livia garcia says:

    you seem to have neglected to mention that MS was a frequent speaker at rallies of KKK women – there are photos you can google!

  4. Livia, it would be great if you could provide some context for your comment.

  5. Amanda Webster says:

    Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor company, was in fact a racist and anti seminist that lived in the same time period as Sanger. He even openly admitted to admiring Hitler. I don’t see many people protesting Ford because of it. Why? Because it is highly unlikely that those that are employed by the company today hold the same or similar views as its founder. Former presidents owned slaves (the last of which being Ulysses S Grant), as did many of our founding fathers. Does that mean we need to burn the Constitution? Of course not, because their values are not overall reflected through politics today. The guy that made Barbie dolls turned out to be a sex-obsessed whack job, but our daughters still gleefully play with them, and they are a landmark in childhood tradition. We must realize that these were different time periods with different socially accepted ethics. At various points in history, fear of certain groups has caused explicit (yet unofficial) attempts to control their growth. Some religious leaders even defended segregation by saying the Bible sanctioned it.

    I think these socialist movements succeeded in confusing birth control and population control, and unfortunately this confusion still lingers. Actual “population control” is used to connote the Malthusian inspired belief that for the good of society, in light of overpopulation, certain groups (usually the least powerful and poor) should reduce their birth rates. Birth control is regulating reproduction to suit your own best interest. It is supporting the rights to plan a family without losing the freedom to enjoy a full sex life, and controlling decisions over one’s body by having the option to use various methods of contraception and (in case of the contraception failing due to technological inadequacy or failure to meet a woman’s basic needs) abortion. The history of population control and the struggle for reproductive rights is far richer than a mere unfolding of economic forces or playing out of political ideaologies.
    Ironically, Sanger originally opposed abortion: “To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.” That alone should be evidence that the organization that she founded, Planned Parenthood (originally American Birth Control League) has evolved with the times and does not agree with her ethics or viewpoints.

  6. Amanda Webster says:

    Also, I think many socialist movements succeeded in confusing birth control and population control, and unfortunately this confusion still lingers. Actual “population control” is used to connote the Malthusian inspired belief that for the good of society, in light of overpopulation, certain groups (usually the least powerful and poor) should reduce their birth rates. Birth control is regulating reproduction to suit your own best interest. It is supporting the rights to plan a family without losing the freedom to enjoy a full sex life, and controlling decisions over one’s body by having the option to use various methods of contraception and (in case of the contraception failing due to technological inadequacy or failure to meet a woman’s basic needs) abortion. The history of population control and the struggle for reproductive rights is far richer than a mere unfolding of economic forces or playing out of political ideaologies.

  7. I enjoyed reading this piece, Serena, and am looking forward to seeing your other Sanger-inspired posts on PPAA’s blog! Thank you!

  8. This comment has been removed by the Feminists for Choice editing team. Keep it civilized, ya’ll, and keep it on topic. Please refer to our commenting policy if you have questions.

  9. Like all families there are always those members whose behavior we find alarming, embarrassing, and sometimes incomprehensible. Owning up to Sanger’s racism would give you more credibility and help to heal the wound in the African American community that is still felt to this day.