Margaret Sanger has always been a controversial figure. Her radical feminism, associations with eugenicists, and passionate support of birth control riled many both in her lifetime and today. Currently women’s rights are under attack from segments of the American right who are attempting to discredit Margaret Sanger in order to attack the reproductive freedoms she helped establish. The most common approach is to recycle well-worn myths about Sanger, like Michael Steele’s recent claims that Sanger advocated black genocide, or supported the Nazis. (You can find the Sanger Papers’ analysis to these faulty claims here and here). Many haters also insist incorrectly that Sanger was an advocate of abortion. Here are some particularly juicy tweets we encountered while trying to encourage a more historically sound interpretation of Sanger’s legacy:
— Broken Sidewalk Farm (@BrknSdwlkFrm) June 8, 2012
Margaret Sanger’s eugenics beliefs intertwined her with Nazis who were influenced by her. She is truly Hitler’s Valkyrie
— ANNA RAND (@OBAMA_CZAR) June 6, 2012
Much of this vitriol stems from hatred and misunderstanding of Planned Parenthood’s abortion services. As the founder of Planned Parenthood, Sanger is an easy target for these partisans because she is no longer able to speak for herself. Yet Planned Parenthood did not offer abortions until Roe v. Wade in 1973, seven years after Sanger’s death. Although Sanger founded the organization, she had little to do with the practices that they so vehemently contest. They are manipulating the legacy of Sanger to fight contemporary battles and disregarding context and historical accuracy in the process. They need to reimagine Sanger as a racist abortion advocate in order to have her fit into today’s ideological schisms, schisms that hardly existed in her era.
But hatred towards Sanger is nothing new. In her lifetime, she received quite a bit of hate mail, some of which has been preserved in the archive. In the mid-twentieth century, the most outspoken critics of Sanger were Catholics who objected to her public criticism of the Pope and support of family planning. Others were worried about the future of population growth -particularly of white Americans and Europeans- and worried that family planning would weaken these groups. Here is a favorite that we found in the Margaret Sanger Papers:
“Dear Madam: You have been a shameless “murderess on parade” for a long while. However, you never looked more hellishly ludicrous than at present when the government is about to launch a campaign to encourage as many births as possible as has been done for sometime in Europe. Perhaps this will see and end to your shameless debasing of Parenthood. You, if you ever had any real Christian upbringing, must have developed a cast iron conscience to be able to carry on your soul the innumerable times you are guilty of having the Commandment–Thou shalt not kill–broken by poor innocent people who listened to your advice. The average schoolboy or girl knows more about contraceptives than you do and that is well-known; which makes your birth-controllers hopelessly out-dated. If you were a sincere person you would devote your time to something clean worthwhile.” (Aug. 28, 1941, Brooklyn, N.Y. [LCM 50:135].)
If you want to read more on the hate mail that Sanger received in her lifetime, visit our article “Dear Madam, I Abhor You” at the Sanger Papers Newsletter!