As one of the loudest voices in the early Birth Control Movement and the founder of what is now Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger was arguably one of the 20th century’s most influential champions of women’s rights. Thus, it may come as a surprise to people that she had several issues with the woman’s suffrage movement. Looking at some of Sanger’s earlier publications, one can see why Sanger and other early birth control advocates did not always see eye to eye with the Women’s Suffrage Party.
In her 1911 article “Dirt, Smell and Sweat,” Sanger recounts a meeting of the New York City Woman Suffrage Party. At the time, the organization was seeking a state-wide referendum on women’s suffrage. Anna Ross Weeks, the chairperson of the meeting, spoke of the men who oppose women’s voting because they “would be obliged to bump against the dirty, smelly and sweaty men at the polls.” Mrs. Weeks replied to this objection with the suggestion of removing “the dirty, smelling, sweaty men from the polls.” In response, Sanger writes,
But what about the women who are liable to be just as dirty, smelly and sweaty as their working brothers? Are they, too, to be removed? Dirt is dirt, smell is smell, and sweat is sweat, no matter on whom these unfortunate afflictions happen to be. And if the chairman and her class object to the smell of the workingman, so will they object to the smell of the working woman.
As this quote illustrates, Sanger was distrustful of the Women’s Suffrage Party because they ignored the concerns of working class women far too often. This middle class bias in the suffrage movement existed for years; many suffragists even employed tactics to demonize the poor. For example, in 1894, the suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt spoke about the danger she believed immigrants posed to American wealth:
Poor, black, and immigrant women were consequently alienated from the suffrage movement.
Also, unlike many of the wealthy women in the suffrage movement, working class women had more immediate concerns, such as fair wages and access to birth control. In fact, with the extent to which the working class was plagued by infant and maternal mortality rates, access to birth control became a question of life or death. Even when women and children survived childbirth, the problems did not subside. Many working class families had no choice but to send their children to work, exposing them to hazardous conditions and long hours.
For Sanger, all of these issues were intertwined. She called attention to the class issues inherent in the birth control movement when she wrote,
Both physically and mentally the children of the rich are developed to the highest degree. Schools, colleges, universities are built for them. The children of the working class are developed only that profits may be wrung from them as early in life or as soon as the masters dare to.
Thus, birth control provided working class women with agency over their own bodies within a sexual context, as well as within a system that exploited their labor and the labor of their children. For working class women, gaining that level of agency took precedence over the political freedom that came with voting. Margaret Sanger understood that the stakes were high for these women and she was committed to fighting for them. Ultimately, the Women’s Suffrage Party’s lack of an intersectional approach prevented them from understanding the dirt, smell, and sweat of working class women.