“To me it was outrageous that information regarding motherhood, which was so generally called sacred, should be classed with pornography,” Sanger recalled in her 1938 autobiography. The anger displayed in this quotation is the focus of an article by Emily Winderman, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, recently published in the Rhetoric & Public Affairs Journal. The article analyzes Sanger’s use of anger as a public emotion in The Woman Rebel.
As Winderman notes, several Sanger scholars have dismissed The Woman Rebel, which turned 100 this year, because of its angry tone. Even scholars who seem more sympathetic to the emotional tone of The Woman Rebel have encouraged those interested in the publication to look past the anger to see its value.
Winderman begins her article by analyzing the use of anger as a “public” emotion. She notes that it has historically been included in the repertoire of public emotions and that it can act as a moralizing emotion, but she also notes that women who dared to demonstrate anger were often diagnosed as “hysterical” and as lacking in sound judgment. Anger has the ability to unite and motivate people who feel strongly about similar injustices, but for those who do not experience an injustice, anger about it seems alienating and inappropriate.
Next, Winderman turns to the role of The Woman Rebel in challenging the accepted virtue of “Republican Motherhood” and the cult of domesticity: the idea that upper- and middle-class Anglo-Saxon women would rear sons who were both moral and politically-minded. This virtue was unavailable to lower-class and non-white women. Comstock’s morality laws – the same laws under which Sanger was prosecuted for attempting to mail The Woman Rebel – were designed, he said, “to protect the morals of the youth and inexperienced.” These morals were the same morals that would be instilled by proper republican mothers.
Winderman then turns to The Woman Rebel itself, studying it through the lens she has laid out previously. Sanger recast the relationship between mothers and the body politic as a parasitic relationship, in which political institutions supported themselves on the backs of unwilling poor mothers. Then, The Woman Rebel calls for women to
recreate the revolutionary spirit of your class, the ardor of which you yourselves have enchained in thousands of cases.
By inverting this traditional relationship, Winderman argues, Sanger creates a space where poor women can feel legitimate moral outrage at their treatment.
Rhetorical devices such as metaphors like the one just described and anaphora (“the repetition of the same word or phrase in several successive clauses”) helped to build anger and a sense of solidarity among the working women who were the target audience of The Woman Rebel. Another technique to instill anger and solidarity was the clear demarcation of enemies, including the state, the church, and wealthy suffragettes, who were privileged with knowledge of contraception. Collective identity was also forged through a set of rallying precepts such as:
REBEL WOMEN WANTED: WHO deny the right of the State to deprive women of such knowledge as would enable them to take upon themselves voluntary motherhood…
Finally, the letters from the public which were published in The Woman Rebel substantiated this common sense of anger and moral outrage.
Speaking on the eve of her trial, Sanger told her audience:
They tell me that The Woman Rebel was badly written; that it was crude; that it was emotional, and hysterical; that it mixed issues; that it was defiant, and too radical. Well, to all of these indictments I plead guilty.
In her conclusion, Winderman notes the role that anger played throughout Sanger’s career and in the history of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which has used the phrase “Be Brave and Angry” throughout its history.
For a complete set of the Woman Rebel, see “Margaret Sanger and the Woman Rebel,” a digital edition created in 1997; for searchable versions of Sanger’s Woman Rebel articles, see The Speeches and Articles of Margaret Sanger. For Sanger’s complete speech, see “Hotel Brevoot Speech,” Jan. 17, 1916.