Margaret Sanger biography chronicles 20th century fight for birth control

July 12, 1992|By Ann Snitow | Ann Snitow,Los Angeles Times



Ellen Chesler.

Simon & Schuster.

640 pages. $27.50. Eighteen, unmarried and in need of contraceptives in 1962, I had no idea about the struggle for birth control described in this book, or the existence of an early 20th century feminist movement, or what the forces were that determined that a middle-class young woman like myself had nowhere to go for reproductive advice in the largest city in the richest country on earth. All I knew was the name "Margaret Sanger" -- whoever that might be. I looked it up in the New York phone book and went to 17 W. 16th St. Sanger's biographer, Ellen Chesler, describes the building hundreds of thousands of women remember: "an elegant five-story town house," the home of the Birth Control TTC Clinical Research Bureau.

A sympathetic staff of women demonstrated contraceptive devices on a 3-D model of the female pelvis (wonderful models like these remained in use for years in scattered villages in India, where Margaret Sanger took them in 1935). The nurse explained the options and asked no embarrassing questions about marital status.

What the clinic was doing was illegal in many states under the 19th century Comstock laws, which defined contraception as "obscene." Not until Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 did the Supreme Court guarantee a nationwide right of the married to contraception; the unmarried had to wait until 1972 for the Eisenstadt v. Baird case, only a year before the nurturant and intimate clinic on 16th Street finally closed. That ended what might well deserve to be called the Sanger Era, a narrow but tough thread of politics stretching for half a century between two great women's movements.

Every modern woman has her own birth-control story, and in most of these Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) plays some part, visibly or otherwise, whether in Japan or England, Tucson or New York. Reading Ellen Chesler's definitive biography of this great fighter, the founder of Planned Parenthood, readers may discover pieces of their own histories. This is the story of how women's lives have changed in a fundamental respect since Sanger was arrested for opening America's first birth-control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916.

Like abortion today, birth control served as a symbol of larger social changes that made almost everyone nervous. Emerging from jail to thrilling fanfare and furious abuse, Sanger seized this powerful symbol of the new freedoms she wanted and, abandoning the broader revolutionary movements of her youth, spent the rest of her life trying to legitimize that simple information I learned at her clinic. She knew it was earth-shaking -- the little formula for separating sexual pleasure from reproduction.

In the early days, it looked as if Sanger would carry all before her. She won an initial victory in 1918, when a New York court exempted doctors from obscenity laws if they could claim that a patient needed birth control for her health. But this surprising success woke a sleeping giant, the American Catholic Church. From then on, for weary years, Sanger had to rely on the authority of doctors, her only bulwark against an increasingly organized religious lobby that fought her on every front.

Sanger was born in Corning, N.Y., in 1879. She was an Irish Catholic, though her father was ultimately buried outside the churchyard, an improvident renegade and social radical. Working-class and ambitious, she went into nursing, identifying with and serving the poor.

Initially a militant socialist and a cultural radical, she changed her friends and her tactics as her birth-control movement grew. To make "obscene" contraception legal and respectable, Sanger had to learn where the money was. She raised millions. Her radical desire for women's freedom remained the bedrock of this work and made her seek birth control for women of every class, nationality and race. But the new monied friends who helped her often had their own more paternalistic agendas, and some were outright racists, eager to limit the numbers of blacks, immigrants or "the unfit."

The great strength of this biography is Ms. Chesler's gift for understanding the daily life of politics, the maneuvers, the assignations with strange bedfellows.

The weakness in her method is that it sacrifices an overview by succumbing to the pragmatics that drove Sanger herself. Ms. Chesler seems to share Sanger's suspicion of large, framing ideas; at times in this narrative, Sanger's early radicalism comes off as something healthfully outgrown, while her compromises become wise capitulations to market forces.

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