Not My Sanger

 We recently got a query about where the following quote, attributed to Margaret Sanger, came from:

Margaret Sangster

Margaret Sangster

“The mother memories that are closest to my heart are    the small gentle ones that I have carried over from the days of my childhood. They are not profound, but they have stayed with me through life, and when I am very old, they will still be near . . . Memories of mother drying my tears, reading aloud, cutting cookies and singing as she did, listening to prayers I said as I knelt with my forehead pressed against her knee, tucking me in bed and turning down the light. They have carried me through the years and given my life such a firm foundation that it does not rock beneath flood or tempest.”

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger

I got worried. Could she actually have written this?  I haven’t read anything so mawkish, so sentimental, so “unSanger-like” in a long time.   Then the discovery — it was written by Margaret Sangster, late 19th century poet and  writer for the Woman’s Home Companion and Harper’s Bazaar, who often penned pieces  about good manners, the art of homemaking, and “Winsome Womanhood.” She certainly did not write for Socialist journals like the New York The Call on the importance of sex education, how to avoid venereal disease, and ways to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Thank goodness we are working on a different Margaret!

S(anger) Goes Postal in “The Woman Rebel”


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Margaret Sanger, ca. 1916.

Margaret Sanger, ca. 1916.

“To me it was outrageous that information regarding motherhood, which was so generally called sacred, should be classed with pornography,” Sanger recalled in her 1938 autobiography. The anger displayed in this quotation is the focus of an article by Emily Winderman, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, recently published in the Rhetoric & Public Affairs Journal. The article analyzes Sanger’s use of anger as a public emotion in The Woman Rebel.

As Winderman notes, several Sanger scholars have dismissed The Woman Rebel, which turned 100 this year, because of its angry tone. Even scholars who seem more sympathetic to the emotional tone of The Woman Rebel have encouraged those interested in the publication to look past the anger to see its value.

Winderman begins her article by analyzing the use of anger as a “public” emotion. She notes that it has historically been included in the repertoire of public emotions and that it can act as a moralizing emotion, but she also notes that women who dared to demonstrate anger were often diagnosed as “hysterical” and as lacking in sound judgment. Anger has the ability to unite and motivate people who feel strongly about similar injustices, but for those who do not experience an injustice, anger about it seems alienating and inappropriate.


A snippet from the March 1914 issue.

Next, Winderman turns to the role of The Woman Rebel in challenging the accepted virtue of “Republican Motherhood” and the cult of domesticity: the idea that upper- and middle-class Anglo-Saxon women would rear sons who were both moral and politically-minded. This virtue was unavailable to lower-class and non-white women. Comstock’s morality laws – the same laws under which Sanger was prosecuted for attempting to mail The Woman Rebel – were designed, he said, “to protect the morals of the youth and inexperienced.” These morals were the same morals that would be instilled by proper republican mothers.

Winderman then turns to The Woman Rebel itself, studying it through the lens she has laid out previously. Sanger recast the relationship between mothers and the body politic as a parasitic relationship, in which political institutions supported themselves on the backs of unwilling poor mothers. Then, The Woman Rebel calls for women to

recreate the revolutionary spirit of your class, the ardor of which you yourselves have enchained in thousands of cases.

By inverting this traditional relationship, Winderman argues, Sanger creates a space where poor women can feel legitimate moral outrage at their treatment.

Rhetorical devices such as metaphors like the one just described and anaphora (“the repetition of the same word or phrase in several successive clauses”) helped to build anger and a sense of solidarity among the working women who were the target audience of The Woman Rebel. Another technique to instill anger and solidarity was the clear demarcation of enemies, including the state, the church, and wealthy suffragettes, who were privileged with knowledge of contraception. Collective identity was also forged through a set of rallying precepts such as:

REBEL WOMEN WANTED: WHO deny the right of the State to deprive women of such knowledge as would enable them to take upon themselves voluntary motherhood…

Finally, the letters from the public which were published in The Woman Rebel substantiated this common sense of anger and moral outrage.

Speaking on the eve of her trial, Sanger told her audience:

They tell me that The Woman Rebel was badly written; that it was crude; that it was emotional, and hysterical; that it mixed issues; that it was defiant, and too radical. Well, to all of these indictments I plead guilty.

In her conclusion, Winderman notes the role that anger played throughout Sanger’s career and in the history of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which has used the phrase “Be Brave and Angry” throughout its history.

For a complete set of the Woman Rebel, see “Margaret Sanger and the Woman Rebel,” a digital edition created in 1997; for searchable versions of Sanger’s Woman Rebel articles, see The Speeches and Articles of Margaret Sanger. For Sanger’s complete speech, see “Hotel Brevoot Speech,” Jan. 17, 1916.

Emily Winderman, “S(anger) Goes Postal in The Woman Rebel: Angry Rhetoric as a Collectivizing Moral Emotion,”Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 2014, pp. 381-420. (Link–must have Project Muse access)

Excavating a Footnote: Unpacking Margaret Sanger’s Views on Charity and the Unfit


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Complete with Comic Sans font sign

Complete with Comic Sans font sign

Here at the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, we’re no strangers to misquotes, misinterpretations, and all sorts of other misinformation about Sanger. It often originates from anti-abortion proponents deliberately attempting to discredit Sanger and, by extension, Planned Parenthood.

Just do a search through Twitter for Margaret Sanger, and you’ll likely find one particularly sloppy Photoshopped picture of her speaking to a group of KKK members. Deliberate misinformation is common–but it is also fairly easy to misunderstand or overly simplify Sanger’s intentions by relying highly interpretive secondary sources.

Recently brought to our attention was a book containing a section on eugenics that mentions Sanger—titled Against Their Will:The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America by Allen M. Hornblum, Judith Lynn Newman, and Gregory J. Dober (2013).  You would not expect to find Margaret Sanger mentioned in this sad history, but she does turn up in the overview of the eugenics movement that opens the book.

Its only coverage is a short, but fairly harsh mention of Sanger that appears to quote her:

Margaret Sanger, the great social activist and birtAgainst-Their-WIll-coverh control proponent, was even more strident in her denunciation of society’s unfit elements, ‘vigorously oppos[ing] charitable efforts to uplift the downtrodden’ and arguing that ‘it was better that the cold and hungry be left without help’ so the eugenically fit would face less of a challenge from ‘the unfit.’ She often compared the poor and the great mass of dispossessed to ‘human waste’ and ‘weeds’ needing to be ‘exterminated.’

war_against_the_weak_largeNow, it’s true that Margaret Sanger believed in eugenics, though she despised the eugenics of the Nazis and other extremists. But I found these quotes unlikely words of Sanger, so I dug through the notes to find the source. Sure enough, the quotes come from a secondary source—Edwin Black’s War Against The Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (2003). Black did read primary sources–chiefly Sanger’s 1922 The Pivot of Civilization, and determined that Sanger was so anti-charity that she encouraged leaving those in need to die.

But in reading Pivot myself, it seems far more likely that Sanger criticized charity for its approach–treating the problem rather than pivotofcivpreventing it. Black quoted Sanger, who said that “organized charity itself is the symptom of a malignant social disease,” the disease being the “constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents” (Pivot of Civilization, 109). Her purpose here does not seem to be the end of charity towards the poor and mentally ill. But the larger point of the chapter was that it was perhaps more kind to—through the use of birth control—prevent the birth of people who would grow up poor and dependent on the state, rather than offering them meager charity after they were born. Sanger’s views on philanthropy can be summed up neatly:

The poor woman is taught how to have her seventh child, when what she wants to know is how to avoid bringing into the world her eighth. (Pivot of Civilization, 116).

As for the ugly terms attributed to Sanger, the story is more complex. For Sanger, the unfit referred to the mentally ill, physically disabled and otherwise “unfit.” The context of her discussion of them as “human waste”  was in terms of the cost to society of supporting those who
could not support themselves.

The term “human weeds” comes from botanist Luther Burbank,

“America . . . is like a garden in which the gardener pays no attention to the weeds. Our criminals are our weeds, and weeds breed fast and are intensely hardy. They must be eliminated. Stop permitting criminals and weaklings to reproduce. All over the country to-day we have enormous insane asylums and similar institutions where we nourish the unfit and criminal instead of exterminating them. Nature eliminates the weeds, but we turn them into parasites and allow them to reproduce.”-Burbank, quoted by Sanger in “Is Race Suicide Possible?” (1925)

In her 1923 article “A Better Race Through Birth Control,” Sanger herself points out the dangers of

The object of civilization is to obtain the highest and most splendid culture of which humanity is capable. But such attainment is unthinkable if we continue to breed from the present race stock that yields us our largest amount of progeny. Some method must be devised to eliminate the degenerate and the defective; for these act constantly to impede progress and ever increasingly drag down the human race.–A Better Race Through Birth Control” (Nov. 1923)

but the method Sanger suggested was birth control:

Give the women of the poorer classes a chance also to limit and control their families, and it will be found that in very many cases the material is equally good. The difference is that, like plants crowded too close together on poor soil, there is no chance to develop and the whole families are left impoverished in mind and body. Give room for each [to] grow and all may become fine and healthy American citizens.–“A Better Race Through Birth Control” (Nov. 1923)

Sanger’s writings were certainly eugenic and not always particularly kind towards those she referred to as “unfit”. However, that she called for the end of philanthropy, thought “it was better that the cold and hungry be left without help”, and was a supporter of “extermination” of the poor and disabled are definitely Black’s interpretation of her work and not quotes from Sanger. The authors of Against Their Will—rather than using Sanger’s words—make assumptions based on a secondary source, one with an interpretation of Sanger that not everyone agrees with. Don’t believe me? I highly encourage you to create your own analysis by skipping the secondary sources, and reading Sanger’s writings for yourself.

For a more comprehensive look at Sanger’s complicated relationship with eugenics, search the Speeches and Articles of Margaret Sanger.

National Women’s History Museum – soon to be a reality?

nwhm-bcOn May 7, the House or Representative passed HR 863 to establish a bipartisan commission on the creation of the first national women’s history museum by a vote of 383:33. But the project is mired in controversy as some Conservative pundits seem to have made the idea of a woman’s history museum a referendum on Margaret Sanger and the reproductive rights movement.  Additional critiques have called the museum’s content biased and the argued that it should not receive federal funding.

The bipartisan bill was co-sponsored by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and does not discuss the content of the potential museum nor does it authorize federal funding. The bill simply establishes a bipartisan commission to study the possible creation of a privately funded museum in Washington, DC. The commission would have eighteen months to submit recommendations to Congress after which the passage of a second bill would be needed in order to move forward with the project.

A handful of Conservative pundits have suggested that the proposed museum has an “overwhelming bias” focused on the Left, particularly objecting to the inclusion of Margaret Sanger and her ground-breaking work in support of reproductive rights and birth control. Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN) opposed the museum because:

I believe ultimately this museum — that will be built on the National Mall on federal land — will enshrine the radical feminist movement that stands against the pro-life movement, the pro-family movement and the pro-traditional marriage movement,

and Penny Nance, the president and CEO of Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee, echoed Bachman’s opposition, arguing:

Although history is black and white, the exhibits will be determined by human beings with biases. So far, this museum project, via its attached website and board, has clearly reflected the views of women on the left while ignoring the other half of American women


As historians, if there is one thing we know, it is that history, as long as it involves human beings, will never be “black and white.” Bias can be a real problem, however, even a cursory review of the website of the nonprofit group currently raising funds for the proposed museum makes it clear that this is not the case. The site includes a balanced representation of many kinds of women including online exhibits on Motherhood, Women in Sports, Women in the Military, Women in Early Film, the Progressive Movement and several other categories providing basic information for the general public and students and educators on the role of women in American history and daily life. Rather than being featured prominently, we found only three references to Sanger–a biographical entry, a mention of her name on Katharine Dexter McCormick’s page, and in a page on the birth control movement that appears in an online exhibit on Women in the Progressive Era.

The time for a National Women’s History Museum is long overdue. That Margaret Sanger should be featured is without question. We can only hope that historical significance, not politics will be the driving force behind the inclusion of people, events, and movements as the museum goes forward.

For more information:


What Did Sanger See in Nietzsche?


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Sanger was an avid reader of Nietzsche [1844-1900], a German philosopher known for his work on religion, morality and mass culture. He was perhaps best known for his insistence that “God is dead”, suggesting that modern secular society had ‘killed’ the Christian God.

The slogan "No Gods No Masters" was Sanger's interpretation of a French saying Nietzsche quoted--  "Ni dieu ni maître!" ('Neither God nor master')

“No Gods No Masters” was Sanger’s interpretation of a French saying Nietzsche quoted, “Ni dieu ni maître!” (‘Neither God nor master’)

Sanger found this fascinating because Nietzsche proposed that the Christian God was the basis for moral thinking for centuries. This meant that the figurative death of God placed traditional morality in question. Sanger was not a supporter of traditional morality in any sense; it seemed to only hinder her goals. She believed that “Nietzsche philosophy not only calls in question the moral law itself it challenges & attacks the foundation of all moral law.” (Frederick Nietzsche).

Nietzsche called for the defeat of traditional religious morals, seeing no need for people to be restrained by them in a post-Christian world. He rejected the idea of a universal moral law, offering instead the individual ability to recreate a system of values. Nietzsche’s philosophy, for Sanger, represented the break from the traditional morality that imposed itself against her work. Birth control was often considered immoral in its potential for “abuse” by unmarried couples. Sanger’s concerns fell elsewhere; she saw herself acting morally by educating adults in the best methods of protecting themselves and offering control over family size. She was then able to allow people to create the best lives for themselves and their families that they could—she placed value on individual choice.

Margaret Sanger in 1914.

Margaret Sanger in 1914.

Perhaps important for Sanger was Nietzsche’s claim that those who are in power determine the morality of the masses. Nietzsche did not promote the elimination of a structured morality, rather, he suggested that it was good for the masses. He did, however, encourage anyone able to create their own ethics by following their own “inner law”. Sanger likely supported his individualistic morality, and she certainly recognized the imposition of morality on the people. Particularly notable was the burden of upper-class values on the working class. Large families, for example, were very difficult to maintain for working-class parents, who may not have had the money to support them. These imposed values were problematic because they did not represent the realities of people’s lives.

Supporters of traditional morality, very often opponents of birth control, also sought to preserve values like “purity”. Sanger saw instead that this opposition was propagating the poverty that lead to prostitution, criminal behavior, and suffering. She strived to abandon these imposed values of conventional morality.

Let us turn a deaf ear to the trumpet-tongued liars clamoring for Protection, Patriotism, Prisons, Police, Workhouses and Large Families. (No Gods)

Frederich Nietzsche, 1869

This is where Nietzsche’s other famous idea, the “Übermensch” (overman, superman, or super-human) comes into play. The overman is a beyond-human figure who creates new values, rising above notions of good and evil and the morality of the masses. The overman is an ideal human, someone who has developed his or her own ability to determine moral issues. While the overman served as the “goal” for humanity within Nietzsche, it seems to be an ideal he presented for the sake of encouraging new cultural values. Christian morality focused on Heaven—the world beyond this world—whereas Nietzsche sought to emphasize love for the current world and mortal life.

Where did Sanger stand on Nietzsche’s philosophy? She certainly appreciated a re-examination of traditional morality, and recognized that it would require a shift in values. She interpreted from her readings of Nietzsche that the individual is the creator of his or her own values. If we create our own values, then the standards we hold ourselves to in relation to those values (morality) are also created by us. In her notes on Nietzsche, she suggested that “the individual is the original source & constituent of all value. No other standard of obligations for you or for me than that set by our personal ends & ideals” (Frederick Nietzsche).

The “overman” that Sanger appreciated is one of Nietzsche’s more controversial ideas due to its appropriation at times by eugenics supporters. Speaking of Nietzsche, she stated “we have a right to extract from this or any philosophy that which we can use for our own purpose” (Frederick Nietzsche).  She picked out whatever peices of Nietzsche she found suitable to support her cause. Sanger’s interpretation of the overman emphasized the “human ideal” not as a biological goal, but for its potential to recreate cultural values.

To our society apologists, and to their plausible excuses for modern oppression, the only adequate answer is–we have done with your civilization and your gods. We will organize society in such a way as to make it certain for all to live in comfort and leisure without bartering their affections or their convictions. (No Gods)

Sanger argued for elimination of those values she so despises—including large families—which stood in opposition to her stance on birth control. What she seemed to extract from Nietzsche’s philosophy was the potential for humanity it held—freedom from traditional morality and the creation of a new morality, perhaps more along the lines of what she observed within the world.


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