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Sanger and Gandhi in December 1935.

Sanger and Gandhi in December 1935.

In honor of Gandhi’s 144th birthday

In November of 1935, Margaret Sanger arrived in India. She had long hoped to make a trip to India to speak about birth control, but ill health and intervening circumstances had prevented it. Edith How-Martyn’s trip in the winter of 1933-1934 paved the way for Sanger. Importantly, both women recognized that support for birth control would have to come from within India; two Western women could not alone overcome oppositions based on religion, caste, and gender, regardless of the skyrocketing population. Sanger issued a statement prior to her trip saying that her goal would be “above all…to convince the great Indian people that between the practice of birth control and their highest conception of ethics and religion there is no inconsistency whatever.” When it came to convincing Mohandas Gandhi of this, Sanger struggled.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Sanger’s trip is the notable figures that she met and conversed with — Mohandas Gandhi, of course, and also Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Maharaja and Maharani of Baroda. Previously, this blog featured excerpts from Sanger’s journal entry about visiting Gandhi. The entry only hints at a complex story that extends both before and beyond the two-day meeting.

On her journey, Sanger read Gandhi’s autobiography. In the journal entry which mentions her choice of reading material, she comments that “his attitude today on Sex & his grief & shame about his fathers death are all tied up as a Source [of] his present attitude that ‘Sex is sin’.” Gandhi had left his dying father’s bedside to have sex with his wife, and while he was gone, indulging his desire, his father passed away.

Sanger arrived at Wardha on Monday, Gandhi’s weekly day of silence, so they arranged to speak on Tuesday. Sanger felt confident about her prospects: “so numerous were Gandhi’s adherents, so deep his influence, that I was sure his endorsement of birth control would be of tremendous value if I could convince him how necessary it was for Indian women,” she wrote.

This confidence quickly disappeared, however. In her Autobiography, Sanger recalled thinking she had convinced Gandhi only to find that “the stone wall of religion or emotion or experience” was in the way and she could not change his mind. “Personally, after listening to him for a while, I did not believe he had the faintest glimmering of the inner workings of a woman’s heart or mind,” she said. Gandhi agreed with Sanger that smaller families would be beneficial for women and for India, but thought that total abstinence after having the desired number of children was the only option.

It is at this point that the waters get slightly murkier. In her diary entry for December 3, the day of the meeting, Sanger wrote, “I am convinced his personal experience at the time of his fathers death was so shocking & self blamed that he can never accept sex as anything good, clean or wholesome.” Her Autobiography concurs: “He himself said to me, ‘This has not been wasted effort. We have certainly come nearer together.’ Nevertheless, I knew it was futile to count on Gandhi to help the movement in India; his state of mind would not change.” Perhaps he had made some concessions, but for Sanger, they were insufficient.

The next day, Sanger wrote a letter to Maurice Newfield, the editor of the Eugenics Review. She said she believed that:

if I had some more time to see Gandhi…it would have been possible to uproot his prejudice and to carry him on behalf of the cause…. he says he is hoping to be thoroughly convinced. I do not flatter myself that he has been convinced but I do believe he was rather entangled in his own arguments and had to make some concession to his reasoning mind.

Sanger shared similar sentiments in a letter to Edith How-Martyn, also sent on December 4.

We had some excellent talks and they told me that Gandhi made two important concessions… You doubtless know that there have been many people discussing this question with him besides yourself and my conversations now…. he has really been rather bombarded and I believe all on our side. However we must not be too optimistic but I think there has been a slight gain.

The question is, how can we reconcile these disparate portraits of the meeting? The answer lies with the Birth Control International Information Centre (BCIIC), with which Sanger, How-Martyn, and Newfield were all affiliated. How-Martyn had started an organization devoted to information about birth control in London in 1928, and in 1930, that center was reorganized as the BCIIC. The BCIIC sponsored Sanger and How-Martyn’s trip in 1935. Thus, it makes sense that Sanger would have reported a level of success to Newfield and How-Martyn perhaps slightly beyond what she had actually achieved.

Just over a month after her visit with Gandhi, Sanger’s article “What He Told Me at Wardha” appeared in the Illustrated Weekly of India. It begins with “Mr. M. K. Gandhi says he knows women!” You can almost hear Sanger’s incredulity dripping from this sentence. The remainder of the article explains how Gandhi fails to understand a woman’s need for birth control. Gandhi felt that the only appropriate method of birth control was for “the women of India to ‘resist’ or in extreme cases to ‘leave’ their husbands in order to control the size of their families.” Sanger rightly points out that practical realities of life for women in India in the 1930s would make resisting or leaving extremely difficult. This article is much more in line with the sentiments that Sanger expressed in her journal and later in her Autobiography.

The article was not the end of the story, however. Later in January, Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s personal secretary, published a response to Sanger’s article in the journal Harijan, containing his own version of the meeting. He pointed out that Sanger’s article “utters not one word about the points of agreement sought at the interview.” Also in January, Sanger wrote to Gandhi apologizing for the tone that the article took, saying that it sounded scolding when she meant it to be humorous.

In examining the relationship between Gandhi and Sanger, it is clear that each of these documents — Sanger’s personal diary, her letters to Newfield and How-Martyn, the edited article that appeared in the Illustrated Weekly, Desai’s response, Sanger’s letter to Gandhi himself, and her later Autobiography — has its own purpose that extended beyond simple narrative of the meeting. Sanger was continually considering her mission of spreading knowledge about and access to birth control, whether that be through publishing articles or maintaining the support of her colleagues, and she emphasized the aspects of the meeting that were most relevant to whatever she was writing at the time. From this perspective, her journal and Autobiography are probably the closest to Sanger’s experience of and feelings about the meeting, but even these records will have been influenced by her goals.

Gandhi’s autobiography that Sanger read is Mahatma Gandhi: His Own Story, ed. C.F. Andrews (London, 1930). See chapters 37-38 of MS’ Autobiography for the report of her trip to India and the East. For more on BCIIC, see the Sanger Papers website. The full text of “What He Told Me at Wardha” is available here. A transcript of the meeting, recorded by Sanger’s secretary, Anna Jane Philips, is available here.