Margaret Sanger, "Do Women Want Children?," Nov. 1930.

Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of CongressLibrary of Congress Microfilm 128:683."

Sanger wrote this for Parent's Magazine, in response to Bertrand Russell, “Do Men Want Children?” The Parents’ Magazine Oct. 1930, pp. 14-15, and Floyd Dell, "Do Men Want Children?," The Parents’ Magazine, Nov. 1930, pp. 14-15 and 67. The article was rejected by the editorial board in November 1930.


Should ↑Do↓ Women Want Children?

by MS

“And what about the procreation of children?” Socrates ask this question in one of the dialogues of Plato; but ↑and↓ from that day to this men seem to have found no satisfactory answer--no answer, at any rate, satisfactory to those upon whom the chief burden of procreation falls. Do Men Want Children? This is the question asked and answered in these pages by Bertrand Russell and Floyd Dell. Mr. Russell seems to say “No”: Mr Dell quite emphatically says “Yes!” But neither of them, unless my memory deceives me, realizes that the question they are seeking to answer, sinks into utter irrelevance until a more important one has been answered. That is: Do Women Want Children?

On the part of Messrs. Russell and Dell, as on the part of most intelligent people, there lies the unconscious assumption that ↑all↓ women do want babies; and beneath this assumption, another to the effect that any woman who does not desire to become a mother is abnormal, neurotic and morbid. The joys of motherhood have been so persistently advertized, the charms of babyhood so colorfully and so sentimentally depicted, that it has become almost sacrilege to warn young men and women standing at the threshold of life to stop, look and listen. Yet those of us who are convinced that such a warning is an imperative necessity at the present moment, do not aim to minimize traditional reverence for parenthood, but rather to develop and to intensify the sense of its solemn responsibilities.

Do women want children? I have about come to the conclusion that the only satisfactory answer to such a question is that of the old professor who, likewise confronted with a difficult and practically unanswerable question, said: “Yes–-in the sense that they do! And no–-in the sense that they do not!”

Some do; some do not. But what all women want--and I have never in my long and varied experience found one who did not--is the right to decide for themselves whether they shall undertake maternity or not, and how, and where, and when. This ↑is a↓ new attitude. In the old days the ordinary woman was incessantly engaged in childbearing. There was no cessation ↑relief↓ from this incessant slavery.

But woe to any woman who dared to bring children into the world without the consent and sponsorship of some lord and master! Her task was undertake unquestioningly the biological role–-his to make the decision. “I have brought five fine children into the world, at the risk of my own life,” Miss Polly Baker pleaded before a Court of Judicature in the colony of Connecticut in the eighteenth century, some years before the outbreak of the American Revolution. The poor girl was unmarried. Twice she had been compelled to pay heavy fines for being an unmarried mother; and twice she had been publicly whipped for wanting–-and having–-children without benefit of clergy. Now she was before the august court for bringing a fifth child into the world. “I have maintained them well by my own industry, without burdening the township, and would have done it better, had it not been for the heavy charges and fines I have paid. Can it be a crime–-in the nature of things, I mean,” so the indignant Polly Baker went on, “Can it be a crime to add to the number of the king’s subjects, in a new country that really wants inhabitants?”

Her only offence was indeed that she had wanted to have children and had had them. It is recounted that Polly Baker’s defence of her course was so effective that the Court dispensed with her punishment, and one of the judges married her the next day! They lived happily ever afterwards, the old account states, and Polly’s character became irreproachable–-she had twenty more children by the Judge!

Now the case of Polly Baker seems to indicate that woman are willing to suffer disgrace and punishment in fulfilling the biblical injunction to increase and multiply. I suspect, however, that in her eloquent plea to the colonial court of judicature, poor Polly was making a virtue of necessity, and that her plea in defence of free and independent maternity had been composed by some clever male lawyer. But that defense, clever as it was, would not be applicable ↑valid↓ today. There is no pressing need to add to the number of the King’s subject, nor to that of the American commonwealth. Our country is no longer a young one, nor in need of people, as immigration laws and the unemployment crisis sufficiently indicate. Populations have increased beyond the dream of the ancients. Vast new continents have been discovered and settled. Despite the checks of pestilence and famines and wars, and that of a decreasing birth-rate in all civilized countries, there is no actual decrease in the number of people, but a constant increase. In other words, it is no longer necessary as a racial duty to “increase and multiply.”

Add to these considerations the significant fact that science is actually lengthening the span of life--so that for each individual born into this world the chance of survival and of living to a ripe old age are becoming more and more certain, and it becomes an inevitable conclusion that in future generation will succeed generation at a much retarded rate. In certain countries where the birth- and death-rates are inordinately high, there may be approximately four generations to a century; among civilized people this has been reduced to three. But we may now look forward to an era when there will be no more than two generations, or even less--to the century. In other words, the death-rate will be appreciably decreased. And this decrease will ipso facto bring about a decrease in the birth-rate. When there is no need to replenish the extravagant wastage of human life by the procreation of new lives, there will be less coercion and compulsion exercised upon womankind to produce them. When that state is definitely established--in brief, when there is more free-will and less compulsion, we shall be able to decide whether woman want children.

At least they will be free to decide ↑for themselves↓ --a privilege that is far too restricted today, despite all our boasted enlightenment and progress. Looking into the future--and it is quite futile and silly to discuss these crucial racial problems from any other point of view than that of the future well-being of the race--it is impossible to avoid seeing the approach of a period when all potential parents--husbands and wives alike--will be compelled to sacrifice their individual caprice and desire in the interests of the good of the racial community at large. The question will not be then; “do men want children?” or, “do women want children?” but rather: Who is best fitted to hand on the torch of life to the future generations?

With their innate genius for visualizing and dramatizing the basic truths of life in symbols of telling beauty, the Greeks established the great race torch (or Lampadephoria) in honor of the god Prometheus, who was said to have conferred the gift of the divine fire upon the human race. This race was run at night. The great torches were lighted at the altar of Eros, and the race was run in relays. Each contestant passed on his torch undimmed to his successor. Here is a beautiful and striking symbol of parenthood, the most sacred and the most serious of all human functions. But we should not neglect the full significance of this beautiful ritual. Those who ran the race were fitted by training to carry the lighted torch; to compete in the race was not an honor indiscriminately conferred. It was not a “free for all.”

Today, with the vast amount of sentimentalizing over motherhood and babyhood, and the deliberate minimizing of its dangers and hazards, parenthood is too often endured ↑undertaken↓ lightly and irresponsibly. Many young women who are quite strong enough to endure the physical ordeal of pregnancy, are deplorably unfitted for the even more important task of raising their children after they are born. In 1865 Anthony Trollope wrote: “I must protest that American babies are an unhappy race... They are never punished; they are never banished, snubbed, and kept in the background... and yet they are wretched and uncomfortable.” We may pride ourselves upon the progress we have made in improving the behavior of our children. But who can deny the fact that those young people who enter parenthood with the sophisticated carelessness with which they might enter a speakeasy are usually found quite incapable of coping with the complex problems of infant behavior? And is any crime quite so despicable as the ruining or blighting of a child’s whole future by the neglect of early discipline? Anthony Trollope may have been unjust in his criticism of American parents; but even today, he is worth repeating in his interrogation ↑when he asks↓ : “Can it be, I wonder, that children are happier when they are made to obey orders, and are sent to bed at six o’clock, than when allowed regulate their own conduct?” Parenthood does not end with having a baby. It merely begins there!

It may be indeed important, as Floyd Dell claims it is, to seek the road of self-development and self-realization through the winding path of parenthood; but we need not look far afield to come to the realization that the vast majority of fathers and mothers in this great country were quite oblivious of any such motives--those or any other. Parenthood was thrust upon them--the child was a “little accident” to use Mr. Dell’s profitable title. What I have been battling for these twenty years or more is conscious, responsible parenthood–and more particularly consciousness motherhood. And so our initial question: Do Women Want Children? must be resolved into its component parts. If and when they do, they must know how, and when and where. And if they do not, they must be empowered to refrain from motherhood, without sacrifice of reputation and dignity, until the auspicious moment arrives. For it has been, and still is, chance, irresponsible, thoughtless motherhood and fatherhood that cause the miseries and tragedies of the world--not the much-condemned and blamed childlessness that seems so wicked to unctuous critics of our morality--so many of them childless themselves!

To those who perpetuate the old fallacy that every woman wants children and if she wants them ought to have them, I am always tempted to repeat the words of a penetrating American thinker who has long been dead and forgotten. “Probably there is no greater humbug in the world,” he said, “than that which deludes the woman who thinks it is a gay thing to have a baby, hit or miss, damned or saved. Nevertheless, it is a humbug which nine-tenths of our people love to get into.”

These words are as true today as they were in the nineteenth century when they were spoken. In spite of the admirable strides made by science and gynecology during this century, maternity remains an extremely hazardous occupation in these United States. The maternal mortality rate, from all puerperal causes, remains, according to the reports of the Children’s Bureau of our federal government, higher than that in any civilized country of the globe; and statistics were obtained from no less than twenty-one of these in a recent survey.


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