When women awaken to the necessity of organizing a political method of their own, instead of relying upon or expecting understanding and help from the man-made brand, the politician as he expresses himself today will no longer be tolerated, and with the event of self-reliance and self-government, the race of politicians will, fortunately for humanity, become as extinct as that of the dinosaur.”
-Sanger, “Politicians vs. Birth Control,” Birth Control Review, 1921, 3-4
Much of what we remember about Margaret Sanger revolves around her role as the pioneer of reproductive rights. A social mission such as this necessitated a certain level of political entanglement, and this put Sanger in a unique position in terms of her attitude towards American politics. She understood politics were essential in “further[ing] the progress of Birth Control,” but she also claimed, “we can expect nothing of the politician of today.” With these seemingly incompatible views, Sanger causes us to question how she approached American politics during her lifetime (Sanger, “Politicians vs. Birth Control,” Birth Control Review, 1921, 3-4).
Within America’s two party system, Sanger found the politicians that would not support the “birth control legislation and federally-funded birth control clinics” she ardently sought. As a result, Sanger voted almost exclusively for candidates running independently of the bipartite system. In particular, she voted for the extreme left, the Socialist Party. In 1928, she cast her ballot for Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president from his prison cell. Afterwards, Sanger repeatedly voted for six-time presidential hopeful Norman Thomas in all but two elections. The birth control advocate faithfully maintained her Socialist convictions, even throughout the nationwide paranoia of the Post-World War I Red Scare (“Presidential Politics: Margaret Sanger in the Voting Booth,” Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Newsletter, Fall 1992).
Her allegiance to the far left seems in part to be the result of the “pre-war radical bohemian culture.” The Greenwich Village renaissance blossomed in the 1910s, shortly after Sanger and her family moved to New York City. Surrounded by intellectuals and activists, such as “Max Eastman, John Reed, Upton Sinclair, Mabel Dodge and Emma Goldman,” Sanger expanded her already leftist leanings (“Biographical Sketch,” Margaret Sanger Papers Project).
During this time Sanger also became involved in such radical groups as the Liberal Club and the Women’s Committee of the NY Socialist Party. Additionally, Sanger supported the anarchist-run Ferrer Center and the Modern School, where her children briefly received a non-traditional education, and took part in labor demonstrations and strikes put on by the Industrial Workers of the World. Sanger’s participation in the intellectual atmosphere and in these socialist and anarchist activities further established her position on the far left.
Later, in 1917, Sanger again solidified her position when she joined the American Union Against Militarism. Despite being anti-war and pro-isolationist, she usually shied away from trumpeting such causes. Fear of the country’s suppression of anti-war rhetoric—the same suppression that landed Eugene V. Debs in prison—kept Sanger from being outwardly political. She was convinced that imprisonment would be detrimental to her reproductive rights efforts and was unwilling to put her primary mission in jeopardy. But in joining the American Union Against Militarism, Sanger concretized her radical political stance.
Despite Sanger’s allegiance to the far left, the birth control advocate paid attention to Democratic and Republican candidates and often even expressed opinions about them. In 1932, for example, Sanger wrote to Havelock Ellis predicting that Franklin
D. Roosevelt would win the election. In her letter, she indicates her preference for Roosevelt as “‘more agreeable’ than Hoover who had ‘given to bossing the job without consultation,’” (Sanger qtd. in “Presidential Politics: Margaret Sanger in the Voting Booth,” Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Newsletter, Fall 1992).
When faced with a Catholic presidential hopeful, Sanger’s political opinions soared to levels of irrepressible disdain. Roman Catholic Al Smith’s nomination in 1928 caused Sanger to record in her journal, “we are for Hoover, though ordinarily I’d be for Norman Thomas–except that Al Smith must be kept out!” Decades later she was unchanged, as John F. Kennedy’s 1960 nomination led the passionately
anti-Catholic activist to threaten a self-imposed exile. In a heated assessment of Kennedy, eighty-two year old Sanger asserted, “In my estimation a Roman Catholic is neither Democrat or Republican. Nor American, nor Chinese; he is a Roman Catholic” (Sanger qtd. in “Presidential Politics: Margaret Sanger in the Voting Booth,” Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Newsletter, Fall 1992 and Sanger, “If Kennedy Wins, Mrs. Sanger Is Going to Quit US,” 6 July 1960, Milwaukee Journal, 1).
After Kennedy won, Sanger reconsidered her exile and decided to give him a year before determining whether leaving the country was necessary. She eventually resolved to remain in the States. Due to Sanger’s belief in the direct threat the religion posed to her fight for birth control, opposition to any connection between the United States government and the Roman Catholic Church remained one of Sanger’s most passionate and enduring political stances.
Like her contempt for Catholicism, the majority—if not all—of Sanger’s politics were aligned with her reproductive rights mission. This was the guiding force that shaped her political character and decided which candidate she would cast her ballot for. It was this guiding force—the ultimate goal of realizing the legalization and accessibility of birth control—that Sanger imparted to her followers, transforming her social mission into a political influence. The social rights advocate encouraged her fellow activists to always vote in favor of politicians and policies that would advance the cause of birth control. This dedication to the issue of reproductive rights was Margaret Sanger’s political legacy—one that we may look back on when we consider 2016’s tumultuous election season.