Here is Politifact’s response to the latest charge by Ben Carson.
During the fall of 1946, Margaret Sanger took an art class by the Modern and abstract artist Emil Bisttram for several weeks in Los Angeles. Bistram was among the first painters from Taos, New Mexico to rebel from the more traditional and studious painting styles. He was a proponent of dynamic symmetry, an art style which relies on mathematical ratios and asymmetrical compositions.
As a social activist, Sanger knew all about rebelling against traditional ideas. She had been well versed in art since her marriage to William Sanger and their years in New York City in the early 1900’s. Their friends had included known modernists and she saw the first major American exhibition of cubist and avant-garde European art at the seminal Armory Show in 1913. These classes, the culture that surrounded her, along with Sanger’s romantic relationship with the artist Hobson Pittman and her friendship with the artist and teacher Ralph Pearson, who she worked with while living in New York, kept her love for art alive. She even did some painting herself, taking a trip to Haiti in 1948, “lured by the island’s magnificent light, spectacular mountains and an artistic awakening,” in order to create her own art.
Not everyone was impressed by the Modern art movement. In fact, many people were disgusted by art’s major turn in stylistic form. Juliet Barrett Rublee, close friend of Margaret Sanger, was one of those people. Sanger and Rublee saw eye-to-eye on many issues, but modern art was not one of them. We might expect her to be more appreciative of Modern art, since Rublee, also a Birth Control activist, fought against traditional and conservative thought. Rublee was quite the “eccentric socialite.” She was a screenwriter and producer and was known for her work on the film “The Flame of Mexico.” She was also active in Modern dance in the 20’s and once led a diving expedition for treasure in the Mediterranean. The expedition ended in her kidnapping and being held for ransom. But when it came to Modern paintings, she wasn’t so open minded.
In letters between Rublee and Sanger, Sanger defended the paintings which she thought expressed the “universal spirituality of form.” Rublee disagreed and found the same paintings soulless and lacking in grace and beauty: “I should be looking for Beauty,” Rublee wrote to Sanger, “which touches my heart & soul & mind and inspires & gladdens me, because it is beautiful. You, if I understand you correctly, would be finding beauty in things which to me are hideous & quite lacking in any intellectual or spiritual quality.”
Sanger’s good friend did not stop there. She suggested that Sanger was confused and foolish in thinking that there was any beauty in Modern paintings, paintings which Sanger thought interesting and fascinating. Rublee wrote to Sanger:
For instance the picture called ‘the Mirror’ – of which you say – ‘He is expressing the whole not a part of the woman – fascinating–’ It seems to me utterly silly to say that those absurdly placed lines showing a head with no brains or back part to it, a huge leaf hanging down instead of an ear, a neck that looks like a pyramid of Egypt, a back side with part of a striped bathing suit on it, and little and big circles scattered around in her belly & breast, an arm that does not connect with the body, is much too long, & has for a hand five fingers & no thumbs – To say that all this badly drawn non-sense & meaninglessness, is ‘the whole of the woman’ is not only silly, but idiotic & certainly shows no capacity to observe what a woman is really like, in whole or in part. Whoopee–
And how about Picasso’s equally famous The Young Ladies of Avignon? Rublee thought they were “hideous creatures deformed, badly drawn, horrible: impossible to say whether they are men or women, one looks like a monkey or baboon, another looks like a monster out of a child’s nightmare.” So, perhaps Rublee didn’t quite understand what Picasso was going for. But Sanger saw something different. According to Rublee, Sanger agreed that, “These are not faces to adore” but also added that “Its all the question of Enlightenment. The men of the Renaissance were enlightened for their period & age but men’s minds of today have gone beyond their idea of form & sweetness.”
While many see Modern paintings as nothing more than a collection of arbitrary shapes and designs, Sanger found excitement and curiosity in such distortions and a sense of rhythm in broken form. According to Sanger (quoted from Rublee): “The artist of today would be ashamed to portray the form only in color & design without probing inside the form & expressing the truth as he sees it.”
*quotes from the letter “Juliet Rublee to MS, Nov. 4, 1946 [MSM S26:342]”
You might have heard of her sister, the anarchist Rose Witcop (also spelled Witkop). You might have heard of her life-long companion, another famous anarchist, Rudolf Rocker. Perhaps you’ve heard of her son, the artist Fermin Rocker. Most likely though, you’ve never heard of her, or of the Rocker family for that matter.
Born to a Jewish Ukrainian-Russian family, Milly Witcop was sent to London when she was seventeen. There she worked in a sweatshop in order to pay for her parents’ and sisters’ passage to England. The hard work and her eventual involvement in a bakers’ strike led to her involvement with the Jewish anarchist newspaper Arbayter Fraynd (Worker’s Friend).
Born to a German family four years before Milly’s birth, Rudolf Rocker experienced hardship early on with his father’s death in 1877 and his mother’s death ten years later. He ended up in a Catholic orphanage as a teenager. After running away to become a typographer, Rocker read works by Marx, Lasall, Bebel and Bakunin. Rocker became a member of the Union of Independent Socialists and founded a local section in Mainz, which mostly distributed anarchist literature smuggled in from Belgium or the Netherlands. While speaking at a Labor Union meeting, Rocker barely escaped after police came in to break it up. Eventually, Rocker found himself in London, where he met Milly Witcop in 1895.
Though they were in love, they never married. This was a problem when, in 1897, Witcop and Rocker traveled to the United States. America refused to let them in because their union wasn’t made legal. Rocker said, “our bond is one of free agreement between my wife and myself. It is a purely private matter that only concerns ourselves, and it needs no confirmation from the law.” Witop added: “Love is always free. When love ceases to be free it is prostitution.”* The scandal hit the newspapers in America, and the couple received some criticism for their “sinful,” unmarried lifestyle.
Back in London, Rocker and Witcop co-edited the Arbeyter Fraynd. In March 1900, the two also started publishing the newspaper Germinal. It was a theoretical paper, applying anarchist thought to the analysis of literature and philosophy.
When WWI broke out, both Witcop and Rocker remained pacifists and didn’t agree with either side of the war. Instead of joining any patriotic movements, the couple opened a soup kitchen to help alleviate the impoverishment that came with the war. After publishing a controversial statement about the war, Rocker was arrested and interned as an enemy alien. Witcop continued her anti-war activities until she was also arrested years later.
In March 1918, Rocker was taken to the Netherlands under an agreement to exchange prisoners through the Red Cross. After her imprisonment, Milly met up with Rocker and their son (famous painter, Fermin Rocker) in the Netherlands.
In November 1918, the couple moved to Berlin were they became members of the Free Workers’ Union of Germany (FAUD). Because the organization was male-dominated, Milly, with the help of others, founded the Women’s Union in Berlin in 1920. She believed that working class women were not only exploited by capitalism as were proletariat men, but were also exploited by their male counterparts. She therefore reasoned that women should fight for their rights against a patriarchal society in the same way that the working class must fight against capitalism.
After the Reichstag fire in February 1933, Witcop and Rocker fled Germany for the United States. In a letter to Margaret Sanger, Edith How-Martyn wrote about a dinner she had with the Rockers and others who fled Germany.
She wrote of the gathering:
I found myself in a nest of anarchists, Emma Goldman, the Rockers from Berlin (Milly Rocker being Rose Witcop’s sister). They having escaped from Berlin the day after the Reichstag was burnt. Doris–a Russian, Polly another sister of Rose’s, a young German girl communist. You can imagine the talk…Hirschfeld, Helen Stocker, Adele Schreider have all escaped from Germany. Hodann is in prison. Ruben Wolf, supposed to be in prison – Rocker said at least 100,000 have been thrown into prison. The amazing and, to Goldman and Rocker, disappointing thing is that the communists and social democrats have put up no resistance.
Their fight for social progress didn’t stop after their escape. In the United States, they continued to write and lecture about anarchist topics. During the Spanish Civil War, they educated Americans about the events going on in Spain. Both Rocker and Witcop continued to write, publish and lecture very late into their lives.
Milly Witcop died first on November 23, 1955. Rudolf Rocker died nearly three years later, on September 10, 1958. Their son, Fermin Rocker, went on to become a well-renowned painter and illustrator.
*Fishman, William J. (1974). Jewish Radicals: From Czarist Stetl to London Ghetto. New York: Pantheon Books.
Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
Rudolph Rocker, Milly Witkop-Rocker (Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Oriole Press, 1956).
Previously on the Sanger Papers blog, we’ve talked about Sanger’s relationship with Gandhi. If you haven’t read Sanger and Gandhi: A Complex Relationship, or any of our other blogs about Sanger’s trips to India, then you might be surprised to hear Sanger and Gandhi didn’t always agree. While both social reformers wanted the best for India, Gandhi believed self-control and abstinence was the only way to fix India’s poverty and over-population. Sanger as you know, understood that most people weren’t as self disciplined as Gandhi. She saw some serious problems in that way of thinking:
Mr. Gandhi advises the women of India to ‘resist’ or in extreme cases to ‘leave’ their husbands in order to control the size of their families rather than resort to birth control methods…Mr. Gandhi is strangely illogical in his demand that women ‘resist’ the sexual advances of their husbands to avoid frequent pregnancies. A woman might resist 364 days of the year and give in on the three hundred and sixty fifth only to become pregnant. If this practice of resisting the husband every day in the year but one, continued, the woman could have a child every year during her child bearing period.
Sanger understood that women couldn’t just leave their husbands, not without the threat of starvation, poverty, and social rejection. Also, as we better understand today, men are just as capable of controlling their sexual needs as women. It is not the job of women to keep lustful men at bay.
Sanger wasn’t alone in India with her convictions. She found a different philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore, who agreed with her.
Tagore was a renowned poet for his time, particularly in the United States and England. He was awarded the Nobel Prize, despite the fact that that his disagreements with Gandhi brought on some unpopularity. He wrote many genres of literature and involved himself in music and painting. He denounced the British rule in India, opposed imperialism, believed in the power of education for the people, worked to spread artistic inspiration, and was a supporter of Sanger’s Birth Control movement.
In a radio talk given in 1935, Sanger quoted Tagore:
Your great philosopher-poet, Rabindranath Tagore, has wisely said, ‘In a hunger-stricken country like India it is a cruel crime thoughtlessly to bring more children into existence than can properly be taken care of, causing endless suffering to them and imposing a degrading condition upon the whole family.'(11/30/1935)
Tagore and Sanger continued to exchange letters after Sanger visited him on her tour of India. She also wrote and asked him for a statement on birth control to be published in the Birth Control Review. His statement was published in the December 1925 issue. Tagore sent Margaret Sanger a subscription to the Visvabharati Quarterly, a literary journal produced by Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University, founded in 1921 as a meeting-place between modern Western ideas and the ancient and traditional culture of Asia.* Tagore and Sanger’s vision for a better India and a better world stayed strong.
In a letter from Tagore to Sanger, he wrote:
I am of the opinion that the Birth Control movement is a great movement not only because it will save women from enforced and undesirable maternity, but because it will help the cause of peace by lessening the number of su[rp]lus population of a country, scrambling for food and space outside its own rightful limits. In a hunger stricken country like India it is a cruel crime thoughtlessly to bring more children to existence than could prop[erly] be taken care of, causing endless sufferings to them and imposing a degrading condition upon the whole family…. (Tagore to MS 09/30/1925 [C03:639])
Poverty is a vast and complicated matter which can’t be solved only with the legalization of birth control. But Gandhi’s belief that resisting sex to prevent starvation and over population was too idealistic. At the very least, birth control would alleviate financial pressures of families with little means. The issue of poverty put aside, at least Tagore understood that birth control can “save women from enforced and undesired maternity.” Because, as we like to quote here at the Sanger Papers, “no woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.”
Gandhi never fully supported Sanger and Tagore in their push for Birth Control, but the three reformers respected each other. While there were disagreements, there’s no doubt each one was dedicated to helping the people of India.
*Dutta, Krishna and Andrew Robinson Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man: London, 1995. 220-223.
For the radio talk by Sanger see here.
For more about Sanger on Gandhi see here.
For more about Gandhi and birth control, see our Sanger digital edition here.
Margaret Sanger, who would have been 136 years old today, would no doubt be shocked to learn we are still fighting the battle for reproductive rights, or that she has become a pawn in this endless battle. As Imani Gandy point out in her recent, excellent Reality Check article (http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2015/08/20/false-narratives-margaret-sanger-used-shame-black-women/) notes that as “anti-choice fanatics seem utterly incapable of making an honest argument that Black women should be forced into childbirth rather than permitted to make their own decisions about what to do with their bodies, they resort to lies, misinformation, and half-truths about Sanger and the organization she founded.”
Yet we could not have come even this far without the dedication, spirit and the willingness of Margaret Sanger to dedicate her life to make certain that all women would have access to effective and readily available contraceptive knowledge and tools. She knew the extent of the struggle and understood that success would be achieved quickly or easily. But she was guided by determination. “We must unite in the task of creating an instrument of steel, strong but supple,” she wrote, “if we are to triumph finally in the war for human emancipation.” (Pivot of Civilization, 1922).