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Sanger, ca. 1914. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Sanger, ca. 1914. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Margaret Sanger did plenty of writing over the span of her approximately fifty-year career as a birth control activist. In 1912 she began writing her sex education column, “What Every Girl Should Know” in the New York Call, and just two years later published the first issue of The Woman Rebel. Right around this time, however, she was also doing some writing of a very different kind.

Between 1911 and 1913 she made at least three attempts at fiction-writing, producing the short stories, “Does Youth Win the Race?”, “The Unrecorded Battle”, and “The Soul-less Maid.” These stories deal with common themes of love, betrayal, purity, and deception, and, while certainly not autobiographical by any means, may be inspired to some degree by Sanger’s own experiences and feelings.

“Does Youth Win the Race?”, the first of the three pieces to be written, tells the story of a man named George who is torn between his love for two women- a music teacher, Helen, and her beautiful but lazy adopted daughter, Dorothy. George, a composer, falls in love with Helen’s mind, and is inspired by her musical knowledge and abilities. At the same time, he is struck by Dora’s incredible physical beauty. At first, he has no need to choose between the two, as he is already married to someone else. When news arrives that his wife has passed away, however, George is overcome by his physical desires and rushes to marry Dora. Their marriage is kept a secret until Dora becomes pregnant, and Helen, furious, rejects the pair. The marriage ultimately falls apart within a year and George is left with the realization that, “only brains make for real & lasting Beauty.”

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Sanger as a nursing student ca. 1900 (Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College)

The next story, “The Unrecorded Battle,” features Peggy Taylor, a young nurse working in New York City during a particularly slow summer season. Peggy is overjoyed when she is called to the home of a doctor who claims to need an assistant nurse and offers her generous pay in exchange for her help. Despite warnings from others that the arrangement proposed to her by this stranger may be too good to be true, she quickly gathers her things, writes to both her mother and a suitor back home to tell them the news of her good fortune, and makes her way to the doctor’s residence for her first day on the job. Not long after she arrives, however, it becomes clear that the warnings she received had been correct; the doctor has brought her into his home under false pretenses. The doctor tells Peggy that she is to be the mistress of his home, but the young nurse resists his advances. A verbal and physical battle ensues between the two. The doctor, realizing Peggy is “not the ordinary girl,” lets her leave, but only after questioning her purity and making her swear out loud to him that she is a virgin. Peggy quickly flees to her hometown, defeated and ashamed, and is consoled by her mother, who praises her as the victor in this “unrecorded battle.” The story ends with Peggy’s father pacing through their house at night, until he retrieves his rifle and reveals to her mother, “I’m going to New York wife to take that man’s blood.”

Sanger may have modeled the Soul-less maid on silent film femme fatales, like Theda Bara.

Sanger may have modeled the Soul-less maid on silent film femme fatales, like Theda Bara.

The third and last of Sanger’s attempts at fiction that we know of is “The Soul-less Maid.” This piece, written in 1913, opens with a description of a nameless girl in a flower shop, purchasing an arrangement of peonies which she hopes will help her to win the forgiveness of her lover, Juan. Sanger discusses the girl’s beauty in great detail, from, “her golden hair… coiled about her head like a halo,” to her “soft clinging cream white silk gown,” showing off the “faintest outline of two perfectly formed limbs.” In her head the girl recalls her past successes in using her beauty to win back her lover’s affection, although the nature of her transgressions is never revealed. She arrives at the man’s room, where she presents him with the flowers and asks that he forgive her. Juan is drawn in by her beauty and the smell of the peonies. However, when he looks into her eyes, he realizes that she has no soul. The pair engage in an embrace, until the man sends, “one thrust of the dagger through the peony which lay upon her heart,” and “she lay quite still—and was forgiven.”

The above stories are the only of their kind written by Sanger, and all three went unpublished during her lifetime. The stories are peculiar, and Sanger’s intentions in writing them are difficult to decipher. We know that she herself was working as a nurse around the time that they were created and also that she was engaged in an affair with the Greek anarchist writer, John Rompapas, on whom Juan’s character in “The Soul-less Maid,” may be loosely based. Aside from these minor links between Sanger’s life and her stories, however, it would appear that their plotlines are almost entirely invented. Why Margaret Sanger never pursued her fiction writing further is a mystery. The most likely explanation might be that not long after these three stories were written, her time was entirely consumed by the birth control movement. Regardless of what her reasons were for neglecting this type of writing later on, the hectic and often melodramatic manner in which these stories were written leads one to believe the literary world likely not suffer too terribly for their loss.

To read these stories, visit the digital edition of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project: Does Youth Win the Race?, The Unrecorded Battle, and The Soul-less Maid.

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