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Margaret Sanger, "Margaret Sanger: Crusader," Dec 1938.

Source: " Margaret Sanger: Crusader, The Commentator, Dec. 1938, pp. 68-73."

Margaret Sanger: Crusader

Margaret Sanger is a small wisp of a woman on the platform, but her energies, her sympathy, and her red-headed persistence are of heroic size. She is a fighter--a zealot--a fanatic, no doubt of that; yet her armory of weapons includes such blarney as was unknown to the grimmer women crusaders of our own time. As a result no Carrie Nation or Emmeline Pankhurst every got as much fun out of the movement these solemn ladies promoted as the slight Irishwoman whose life has been dedicated to the somewhat indelicate subject of birth control.

How did she ever come about? What power took this stonecutter’s daughter from upstate New York and turned her into a force agitating the public of her time?

“Glands,” answers Mrs. Sanger tersely.

She was always set apart from the women whose lives are normally inconspicuous by ferocious energy. After her marriage to William Sanger, running a house, recovering from threatened tuberculosis, bringing up her three children, and dabbling in women’s club activities took up, she says today, "perhaps one-tenth of my energy." Such women as this have three choices open to them: they may become fanatically fine housekeepers and mothers or they may take a job or they may attach themselves to a Cause. Margaret Sanger chose a Cause.

And what a cause! It seemed not only forlorn, in the ‘teens of this century, but so scandalous a choice that its mere mention was not “nice.” It led inevitably to abuse, ostracism, raids, and jail sentences.

“What kept you going?” I asked her.

“To stop, when I had once begun, would have been as impossible as to stop the sun,” she said. “I just kept on, from interest and the knowledge that I was right.”

Self-confidence such as hers is rare--so rare that its possessors are inevitably catapulted onto the front pages of the world. The best medical men of her time were against her--and she had only a trained nurse’s experience to pit against theirs. The morality of the churches and of society opposed her: but she never faltered. Her closest affections were endangered by the struggle--she still was not held back. She had no money with which to prosecute what was sure to be an expensive, long-drawn-out campaign. What of that?

“I don’t really know how most of my ventures in this work were ever financed,” said Mrs. Sanger, vaguely. “I do things first and somehow or another they get paid for. If I had waited to finance my various battles for birth control, I do not suppose they would have become realities. I saw the thing to do, and did it, and inevitably, without fail, the money came to pay for it.”

Single-mindedness is, I suppose, the strongest weapon any human being can have. The true fanatic is never deterred from his purpose, nor drawn into other movements. Margaret Sanger might have found congenial companions in the fight for woman’s rights or in the movement towards easier childbirth. Both of these causes were close to her own, and if she had attached herself to them she need not have set out on so solitary a path. But hers was a definitely-marked crusade: one which, if necessary, she would wage without followers or disciples. But she must proceed with it-–no turning back was ever possible.

“I never had a moment’s discouragement,” said Mrs. Sanger, brightly. “I knew that the great majority who opposed me were wrong. Obstacles were in my path – but they could all be removed, and were. No effort of the will was ever necessary.”

Consider Margaret Sanger in 1912, when she approached a group of feminists and radicals, in the hope that they would give her idea support. “They laughed at me – and why not?” she says. “I was considered a conservative person. I was not trained in the arts of the propagandist, I had no money with which to start a rousing campaign. I was not a trained writer or speaker, never having lifted my voice in public above the throng. I had no social position. I had no influential friends. I was digging deep into an illegal subject, alone and unaided."

“Wherever I turned, from every one I approached, I met the same answer, ‘Wait!’ ‘Wait until women get the vote!’ ‘Wait until the Socialists are in power!’ ‘Wait for the Social Revolution.’ ‘Wait for the Economic Revolution.’ Thus I lost my faith in the social schemes and organizations of that day.”

She wished, you see, to bring contraceptives and a knowledge of their use to the masses. That was her simple, concrete, improbable plan. She was not impressed by the fact that Anthony Comstock’s obscenity laws forbade her to send a word of the banned subject through the mails. She brushed aside the fact that all Christian sects frowned on family limitation as a sin. She had none of the respect for the laws and culture and social institutions of her time which dominates the life of most men and women. “The times,” she said firmly, “are wrong. And I am right.”

Her achievements, over a period of twenty-five years, have been astounding. The talents and abilities which she lacked at the start were easily acquired; with that terrible drive behind her, Mrs. Sanger soon learned enough of medicine to argue the case with physicians, enough of public speaking to address large audiences. She taught herself to write, and to lobby, to raise funds and to parry questions of law with experts in the field. Given enough single-minded intensity of purpose, all the other needed abilities may be added, as required.

The story of her beginnings has been told often: of how her nursing in the slums convinced her of the desperate need among the poor for some method of preventing untimely births; of her European study-trip, in which she learned that such a method was common enough in France; and of her return to America to discuss family limitation in The Woman Rebel--which immediately brought the first dramatic period of raids and jail sentences.

It was in this period that her marriage to William Sanger ended, largely because of her interest in her cause had crowded out all other emotions and preoccupations. It was at that time that the first Brownsville clinic was opened – and closed by law. It was then that the Birth Control Review began its stormy publication career, and that the use of Town Hall was denied her by New York police officers.

The radicals began to jump on the bandwagon, when they saw that birth control was stirring up a vast amount of publicity. Emma Goldman, the anarchist, had said to Mrs. Sanger a few years before, “You’re only a bourgeoise. Go home and mend your husband’s socks.” Now she jumped into the movement, flagrantly broke the law by giving contraceptive information from the lecture platform, and got herself arrested without need.

“Birth control as a movement,” says Mrs. Sanger today, “has succeeded in spite of many of its followers, and the embarrassment they caused it.”

Her own feeling about publicity was very different. “There are three great tests to character,” she believes: “sudden wealth, sudden power, and sudden publicity. The last can be devastating. I knew, or rather felt, this power. I made it a rule never to buy the daily papers when its publicity was high. I never read what was written about myself. I had a definite, clear vision of the way I was to go, and I refused to be influenced by criticism or by personal approval.”

This sense of vocation, after all, was the greatest strength this slight, humorous pioneer had. Directed toward almost any goal, it must have carried her far. Such superb self-confidence and faith in any vision was bound to win in a world made up of persons more confused and open to the conversion than she. The success stories written by the lives of such crusaders as Mrs. Sanger are more informative as human achievements than the biographies of railroad presidents; the obstacles in her path were far greater than theirs, but she had far greater faith than they in her ability to deal with them. And so she won.

Mrs. Sanger never asked for advice. She never consulted her old friends, and she refrained from making new ones.

“When my friends deserted me and became cold, I felt a curious sense of release,” she says. “For until they freed me, I was afraid that my actions might hurt them. When they broke off the friendship, I no longer felt bound. Even my enemies were useful--they gave me the best publicity that the movement ever received. The growth of the movement has to a considerable extent thrived on our skill in taking advantage of the stupid tactics of our enemies.

“I just kept going, night, and say. My belief, faith--call it what you will--gave me a feeling of tremendous power. It seemed at times to open locked doors. It attracted the right people: it gave me the physical strength to dictate hundreds of letters through one ill-paid secretary, to interview dozens of people each day, to write articles, to write and deliver lectures, debates--in spite of a daily temperature, low but constant, and a decreasing bank account.”

“Faith” as a formula worked. It worked so well that her program went through with hardly a hitch. She had planned, early in her campaign, to be “first an agitator, who would stir up the minds of the influential public; then, an organizer, corralling followers; lastly, a lobbyist, changing the legislation to fit our needs.”

In the third, or final phase, dissension arose. Birth control, in 1928, had become a respectable “charity.” Many of the women who were officers of the American Birth Control League felt that the fight for federal legislation was undesirable--that education in the states and the opening of clinics, where state laws allowed, were the more important tasks.

Mrs. Sanger was militant still, and her own group, the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control came into being.

“To me,” Mrs. Sanger has said, “this cause was a living inspiration and interest. It was not a hobby. It was no mere filler in a busy social life. Its interest came first in my waking consciousness and was my last thought at night.

“To the other members of the Board, it was only one of many other interests. Husbands, children, dressmakers, servants, charities, church, entertainment, all had claims on those who now began to dictate to me the policy the League was to take.”

The ten-year breach may soon be closed. The legislative drive has ended, for a United States Circuit Court ruling in 1935 now permits physicians to impart birth control information in states where the local laws do not prohibit it. No federal law is now needed, according to the leaders in the movement. It seems quite likely that the two groups will soon co-ordinate their work.

Mrs. Sanger’s present work is concentrated on Washington, none the less. She hopes to induce the federal government to include birth control clinics in the public health movement. The recent congressional appropriation for health and welfare work should, she believes, have a portion earmarked for her movement, to be carried on under governmental auspices. “It is futile,” she says, “to go on patching up humanity. We must prevent such tragedies as tubercular births and maternal deaths that need not have occurred. The place to prevent them is in the birth control clinic.”

Opposition to the movement has grown more limited and it has decreased in ferocity. At first, all respectable society disapproved. Nowadays, the stronghold of the opposition is the Roman Catholic Church. Other religious bodies have broadened their attitude toward birth control, but the Papal Encyclical on the subject forbids the use if contraception by the devout.

Such opposition, however, is normal to Mrs. Sanger. She has seen so many desperate, hopeless struggles won that she is temperamentally incapable of giving up on this issue. She realizes the difficulty of getting governmental clinics, so long as Dr. Thomas Parran, Jr., a Roman Catholic, is the nation’s chief health officer. She deplores the latest ruling of the state of Massachusetts, which forbids physicians to give out birth control information to a woman, even to save her life. This, she says, is the only backward step any state has taken in the years since she has been in the movement. It means that the women of Massachusetts “are bound by a more reactionary law than the women of any other country in the world.”

Today there are over 400 birth control clinics in the country; 70,000 women have past through the portals of Mrs. Sanger’s own Clinical Research Bureau on West 16th Street, New York, and many of them, she believes, have been saved from criminal abortions or from death in childbirth. The movement has the endorsement of 970 organizations and 325,000 individuals. This country is now as well-equipped with clinics as England and the Scandinavian countries, which have led the world. Mrs. Sanger must be aware of the fact that she has accomplished a very great deal by her single-hearted determination, no matter how high the cost to her personal life.

Was it worth while?

“For me, yes,” she says. “My life so far has been extremely satisfactory. I could never have felt satisfied or complete if it had been limited to domestic duties. These things satisfy some women; not others.

“In order to dare to stand alone one must feel an emotional drive toward a certain course, and be sustained by a logical impetus, as well. If the drive is all emotional, a crusader may become too fanatical to accomplish what he intends. In my case, both my emotions and my intelligence were involved. I felt that I was the only person in this country who saw the need for birth control. I knew that I was right, and that I must go to work, with a will.”

In 1931, Margaret Sanger wrote My Fight for Birth Control. She ended the book on this note: “Life has taught me one supreme lesson. If we are really to live at all, if we are to enjoy the life more abundant, we must put our convictions into action. My remuneration has been that I have been privileged to act out my own faith.”

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Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project