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Margaret Sanger blurb in New York Historical Society Exhibit

Recently on a visit to the New York Historical Society (NYHS), we noticed a small exhibit in the front hall on the history of reform movements in New York that featured Margaret Sanger. The blurb read: “Though best known for her role in promoting women’s access to legal birth control (for which she was indicted for obscenity in 1914) Margaret Sanger was also a proponent of eugenics, suggesting that the fertility of the “unfit” ought to be restricted.” At the Sanger Papers we spend our time going over the entirety of Sanger’s life, so it strikes us as curious (and particularly presentist) that this stage of her career has come to define her so extensively.

In the wake of media attention following the 1917 Brownsville Clinic trial, Margaret Sanger broadened her arguments for birth control in an effort to appeal to a wider audience that included wealthy women, doctors and academics. Sanger added eugenic and public health reasons to support birth control, which essentially overshadowed her earlier feminist and socialist rationales. These conservative arguments had far more widely spread support. Eugenics, in particular, was a respectable scientific field,  widely advocated by leading intellectuals, scientists and politicians. Students were taught eugenics in college courses; state fairs had booths educating visitors on “racial hygiene,” and proponents of eugenics populated the faculty of schools like Yale, Stanford and Harvard. Sanger believed that if she could secure the support of the eugenics movement, she could win legitimacy and gain prestige for the birth control movement. Sanger, like many others of her time, was swayed by the arguments of eugenics, though she did not adopt them wholesale. Her 1922 book, The Pivot of Civilization, offers the most detailed explication of her views on eugenics, and shows where she differed with so-called positive eugenics. Her efforts to win the acceptance of the eugenics movement did not succeed, as Sanger and the birth control movement remained at the fringe of the mainstream eugenics movement.

The differences between Sanger and the birth control movement and the academics who lead the eugenics movement have been summarized by the Eugenics Archive site, in part:

Margaret Sanger and leaders of the birth control movement, predominantly women, believed that people should be empowered, by education, to make choices to limit their own reproduction. In a society that frowned on open discussion of sexuality and where physicians knew little about the biology of reproduction, Sanger advocated that mothers be given access to the scientific information needed to thoughtfully plan conception.

Davenport and other eugenic leaders, predominantly men, believed that the state should be empowered, by statute, to control reproduction by whole classes of people they deemed genetically inferior. Eugenicists focused on segregating the “feebly inherited” in mental institutions, ultimately seeking the legal remedy of compulsory sterilization. (They also employed immigration restriction to limit the growth of certain population groups.)

Evidence of the distrust and antipathy that some eugenicists felt for Sanger and her colleagues can be seen in the following excerpts from a 1928 letter from Paul Popenoe to Madison Grant, in which Popenoe bemoans the possibility of an alliance with Sanger’s American Birth Control League. The original can be found in the Charles B. Davenport Papers, at the American Philosophical Society Library.

“Dear Mr. Grant,

I have been considerably disquieted by the letter you showed me yesterday, suggesting a working alliance between the American Eugenics Society and the American Birth Control League. In my judgement we have everything to lose nothing to gain to such an arrangement.

[The American Birth Control League] is controlled by a group that has be brought up on agitation and emotional appeal instead of on research and education… With this group, we would take on a large quantity of ready-made enemies which it has accumulated, and we would gain allies who, while believing that they are eugenics, really have no conception of what eugenics is and are actually opposed to it.

[At a recent international birth control conference] two members of our advisory council … put through a resolution at the final meeting, urging that people whose children gave promise of being of exceptional value to the race should have as many children, properly spaced, as they felt that they feasibly could. This is eugenics. It is not the policy of the American Birth Control League leaders, who in the next issue of their monthly magazine came out with an editorial denouncing this resolution as contrary to all the principles and sentiments of their organization.

If it is desirable for us to make a campaign in favor of contraception, we are abundantly able to do so on our own account, without enrolling a lot of sob sisters, grand stand players, and anarchists to help us. We had a lunatic fringe in the eugenics movement in the early days; we have been trying for 20 years to get rid of it and have finally done so. Let’s not take on another fringe of any kind as an ornament.


Paul Popenoe

In 1928, at the height of the popularity of the eugenics movement, this letter makes clear how peripheral Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement were to eugenics, and how much at odds she was with many of its central tenants. Fast forward to 2012, where the dominant interpretation of Sanger’s work is her critical role in the eugenics movement.  It is rather ironic that her legacy today has been yoked to a discredited ideological movement that hardly accepted her at the time.

So why did the NYHS accept a portrayal of Sanger that depicts her eugenics period as definitive of her life time of advocacy? In today’s popular discourse, Sanger’s historical legacy has been appropriated by opponents of reproductive rights and used as an easy target to defame and discredit the work that has continued in the almost 50 years since Sanger’s death. Embellishing her role within the eugenics movement is a key feature of this agenda. With a single sentence, the NYHS lent its institutional authority to legitimizing this problematic interpretation.  When we asked them, via Twitter, about their curatorial choices, they responded that their exhibit “reveals history’s complexity”. Certainly, history is complex; yet this exhibition piece reveals more about the complexity of the present than that of the past.