A 1915 photograph of Margaret Sanger, taken by Havelock Ellis. (Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection)

Margaret Sanger was born 133 years ago today, September 14, 1879, though if you asked her, she would likely shave a few years off, and use her sister Ethel’s birth year of 1883.

“The secret of our success,” Margaret Sanger wrote in  a 1924 Birth Control Review article, “. . . is to be found in the fact that we have never wasted our time and energy whining about our constitutional right to free speech.  We have simply spoken out.  We have asserted the truth as we have found it.”  Whether on a street corner or before a congressional committee, Sanger’s frank, blunt speech was certainly not politically correct as we understand it today.  Nor did she speak in carefully vetted “sound bites” to encapsulate and simplify her points.  This is a marked contrast to the cautious approach of most public figures today, who insulate their words with protective coverings, concerned about offending some group or exposing themselves to ridicule or distortion.  And when someone does slip and let out an honest statement that might offend, there are all sorts of venues for immediately walking it back and amending the public record.

In a less technological age, Sanger didn’t have the “gotcha” police tracking her every word for cable news fodder.  She also didn’t have auto-correct or a daily blog or the immediacy of a television news conference to clarify her words.  She spoke freely and directly and then moved on.  When we read her writings today with our modern sensibilities and media habits we are startled by her brazen manner and agitator’s approach.  In her more contentious writings, we expect to find more packaging, spin, revision and deflection.  Why she didn’t clarify certain statements? Why didn’t she equivocate a little more?

Her detractors are very skilled at parsing Sanger’s writings with a 21st century mindset, looking for any way to discredit her work.  They select short passages, a sentence or a phrase, knowing that, out of context and many decades removed, her words can sound damning.  We can’t stop the quote miners from looking for combustible phrases, but we can provide context–lots of it!  Much of our work as editors and historians boils down to creating context.  What terms might be misconstrued because they have a different meaning today?  Was that infamous person Sanger’s friend or just someone included on a form letter mailing list?  We try to create a framework for understanding why Sanger wrote something and for who? What events may have influenced her thinking at the time? We try to provide the relevant details that  help readers to better understand the material and get a feel for the woman who created it.

In many ways our work serves to reassemble, as accurately as we can, significant moments in history.  Readers can check our edited versions of many of the most provocative Sanger quotes to see them in  context and to view the whole letter, speech or article.  They have the opportunity to make an educated reading of the text and decide for themselves what they think Sanger meant.  Like Sanger, we try to “assert the truth as we have found it.”

   Our success depends on you.  We were very fortunate to receive grants this summer from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, but due to federal budget cuts, both awards were significantly less that what we have received in the past.  We still need the support of those committed to ensuring that Sanger’s legacy is not forgotten or tarnished.  Your generosity is, as always, much appreciated.

Sincerely,  Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo, and Peter C. Engelman