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She was the founder of the reproductive rights movement, and one of the most influential women of all time. Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) coined the phrase “birth control,” opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, secured state and federal court victories that expanded women’s access to birth control, and fostered birth control research that led to the development of the Pill.  An indefatigable activist, Sanger was no stranger to controversy, remarking in 1916:

“I have been called in turn a vile female, a person with a barnyard  philosophy, a God-send, the greatest woman of the century, the counterpart of Abraham Lincoln, and a horrible creature. . . . Rather conflicting epithets, but I go on doing what I believe to be right, carrying a message of help, as I believe it to be.” (Portland Oregonian, June 17, 1916.)

Margaret Sanger had the media savvy and skills to turn most attacks against her into opportunities. She did not shy away from challenging authority, battling with opponents as varied as Benito Mussolini, Anthony Comstock and Pope Pius XI.  But even she would be hard pressed to make the proverbial lemonade out of the negative attention she has lately received. You have all seen these attacks, vilifying Sanger as a racist, a Nazi fomenter of genocide, with quotes designed to portray her as a monster of epic proportions. The  chatter and discourse about her alleged plot to exterminate the African-American population through abortion and her supposed ties to Nazi eugenicists was once the staple of right wing fringe groups and conspiracy theorists seeking to justify their anti-choice positions, though it quickly became clear that the attacks were designed to challenge all women’s hard-fought possession of their reproductive rights. More recently, these wild theories have been picked up by more mainstream media outlets, shouted in Congressional hearings, and recently made an appearance on the presidential campaign trail.  As the current debate over birth control in national health care suggests, these attacks will not be ending anytime soon.

As the editor of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, it is disheartening to see people of all political persuasions accept on face value the characterizations they find on the Internet.  Such characterizations are, for the most part, grossly inaccurate, willful misreadings of the historical record, drawn out of context from just a handful of texts and repeated ad nauseam on site after site. Despite the fact that these attacks have been repeatedly shown as false by fact checkers, repeating the same lie over and over eventually has an impact.

I established the Margaret Sanger Papers Project to locate, gather and publish these significant historical documents, first in microfilm, and, more recently in book and digital formats. The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger,  a four-volume book edition, provides a sampling of Margaret Sanger’s most important letters, diaries, speeches and articles, spanning a career of almost fifty years. Our digital edition, the Speeches and Articles of Margaret Sanger, will offer readers carefully transcribed, searchable texts that offer complete versions, with the context of many of the Sanger statements mounted on attack sites.

The Sanger Project is getting close to finishing its work, but the combination of a weak economy and the war being waged against the gains that we have made in reproductive rights, has put the project in jeopardy. We have lost significant amounts of federal and private foundation funding in the past year as budgets are cut, priorities are sharpened, and Sanger becomes more controversial.  Raising funds for this project has never been easy,  but the current climate is like nothing  I have every seen before. We need help to be able to finish our work.  To make an online donation to support our work, click here.

This Women’s History Month, give Margaret Sanger a closer look.  Consult our editions, visit the Project’s web site and you will find a very different woman, a complex and fascinating figure not easily reduced to a sound bite or scary quote.

Esther Katz