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Term PaperMargaret
vs Feminism
Date: December 12, 2009 11:06 AM
Margaret Sanger: Feminist vs. Eugenics
Throughout this paper the theme that will be analyzed is whether or not Margaret Sanger
was primarily a pioneer of Feminism or Eugenics. This conflict has stirred up a great
amount of controversy. Various sources have been carefully collected representing the
diverse outlooks on this topic. This wide spectrum will offer readers a complete
understanding of Margaret Sanger’s role in the development of the first Birth Control
Clinic Research Bureau, which later developed into Planned Parenthood Federation of
America and the Birth Control Movement. As a future historian it is important to carefully
read and analyze all major historians who are active in this specific field. After cautiously
investigating this topic I have chosen a select few historians’ work to evaluate.
Feminism is an intellectual commitment and a political movement which main agenda is
to allow justice for women and to end sexism in all forms. There are several different
forms of feminism, which disagree on what is actually regarded as sexism and how it
should be dealt with. Feminist also struggle “with what it means to be a woman or a man
and what social and political implications gender has or should have. Nonetheless,
motivated by the quest for social justice, feminist inquiry provides a wide range of
perspectives on social, cultural, and political phenomena” (Standford). Feminism first
began in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and is presently a strong
Eugenics movement’s purpose was to create the “perfect” race through the use of
selective breeding and sterilization. Eugenicist believed that only allowing individuals to
reproduce whose genetic characteristics were deemed valuable and desirable would allow
them to achieve a “perfect” race. Eugenics and the Hitler go hand in hand with one
another, because this was precisely what he attempting to create. Hitler was a strong
supporter and advocate and used genocide as a way to reach his ultimate goal. This
movement, Americas dirty little secret, began to take hold in America during the early
1900’s, the same time period as the feminist movement.
The book Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility, written by
Angela Franks offers an interesting perspective that focuses on the Eugenics viewpoint.
Angel Franks has a PhD. in systematic theology at Boston College along with a M.A. in
philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She is also the receiver of the Andrew
W. Mellon Fellowship for graduate studies. Her experiences volunteering at a Harlem soup
kitchen and homeless shelter as a young woman have shaped her humanitarian and
feminist vision. In her book she sheds light on the “oppressive ideology of eugenics-which
explicitly targets persons with the disabilities and the poor-leads to the actual oppression
of women, despite Sanger’s emancipator rhetoric.” (Angela Franks) Franks makes her
case that Margaret Sanger’s ideology of control has and still continues to have deleterious
effects in America and around the world. She had come to this conclusion after review
over twenty original manuscript sources, along with the best historiography on eugenics
and women’s history.
In the beginning of the book Franks notes “of the fifty clergymen, scientist, and
physicians listed on the National Council of Sanger’s American Birth Control League
(ABCL) in the 1920’s, at least twenty-three of them were involved at a prominent level in
eugenics” (Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy 5). These individuals were affiliated either
as members or as public supporters. Franks suggest this demonstrates that eugenics was
deeply routed in Sanger’s foundation. Franks described by Sanger as a “negative
eugenicist” because she was concerned with limiting the procreation of “unfit” individuals
instead of encouraging “fit” individuals to reproduce and carry on good genes.
Franks introduces Margaret Sanger as “the American birth-control and population-control
advocate who founded Planned Parenthood” (Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy 5). Many
feminists view Sanger as a pioneer for women’s reproductive rights. Many women see
Sanger as a feminist who has allowed them the “freedoms that they enjoy now to a
greater degree than ever before, a freedom build on the control of female fertility”
(Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy 6). Franks defends that Margaret Sanger used birth
control as a weapon to the solution of women’s and humanity’s problems. In this book
Franks focuses on the idea that “birth control was intended from the beginning to control
the births of certain kinds of people” (Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy 7).
It can be seen through the information presented in the book as to why Franks believes
strongly that Sanger’s main priority was in Eugenics appose to a Feministic approach. To
begin with Franks presents an early draft of the “What We Stand for” pamphlet, where it
"The complex problems now confronting America as the result of the practice of reckless
procreation are fast threatening to grow beyond human control. Everywhere we see
poverty and large families going hand in hand. Those least fit to carry on the race are
increasing rapidly. People who cannot support their own offspring are encouraged by
Church and state to produce large families. Many of the children thus begotten are
disease or feeble-minded; many become criminals. The burden of supporting these
unwanted types has to be borne by the healthy elements of our nation. Funds that should
be used to raise the standards of our civilization are diverted to the maintenance of those
who should never have been born" (Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy 34).
Franks believes that his statement clearly demonstrates that Sanger was not primarily
concerned with the effect on women but more so the effects on taxpayers and the
nations economy. Again Franks strengthened her argument by including the headline
“WASTED LIVES-WASTED DOLLARS” along with the statement “In a nation, therefore,
thousands and thousands of lives are thus being wasted while billions of dollars are spend
for carious types of ‘palliative’ relief, while omitting to include essential steps to remove
or to reduce some of the major causes of death disease, delinquency, and dependency”
made by Henry Havelock Ellis, Sanger’s primary Neo-Malthusian influence.
Throughout this book Frank notes that Sanger believed that specific classes of people
should not be parents, and that if they could be persuaded to live in this manner, should
then be forced too. Sanger states:
"To me that seems a very short sighted view of the world situation. I see no wider
meaning of family planning that control and as far as restriction there are definitely some
families thought the world were there is every indication… that restriction should be an
order as [well as] an ideal for the betterment of the family and the race" (Margaret
Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy 8).
In reaction to this statement Franks argues that Sanger wanted one thing, and that was
control, the power to decided whether or not individuals were “fit” to become parents. For
this reason Franks finds it her responsibility to shed light in order for individuals to
recognize that Sanger “championed an ideology that is much less benign that it first
appears, and ideology ultimately destructive of the ideals of female liberation” (Margaret
Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy 8).
“Unfit” parents are referred to as individuals who have transmittable diseases, are poor,
unemployed, sick, diseased, mentally handicap, physically handicap, and feebleminded.
Franks also finds in important to define the term “unfit” as evils of the world, that
Sanger’s planned to eliminate through the distribution of birth control. While Franks
interprets Sanger’s view on “fit” individuals as those who Sanger believed “demonstrated
that she was fit to use that freedom appropriately- and the test of fitness was whether or
not she recognized her eugenic responsibilities” (Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy 15).
Franks suggest that Sanger believed that “unfit” individuals, who procreated, incurred a
debt to their society. Franks understanding of Sanger’s reasoning for her actions has lead
her to believe concretely that Sanger was more concerned with the effect on the country
itself, appose to women.
Franks point out how Sanger’s terms dehumanized women’s reproductive systems, in
many cases comparing them to animals. Sanger used the phrases “defective stock” when
talking about “unfit” parents. Another common word that was used by Sanger to describe
human reproduction was “breeding”. A slogan that was used on the cover of the
November 1921 issue of the Birth Control Review stated, “To create a race of
thoroughbred” (Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy 49). In two other examples Sanger
refers to the “unfits” as “human weeds”, stating that “Nature eliminates the weeds, but
we turn them into parasites and allow them to reproduce” and in the following statement:
"In his last book, Mr. [H.G.] Wells speaks of the meaningless, aimless lives which cram
this world of ours, hordes of people who are born, who live, who die, yet who have done
absolutely nothing to advance the race one iota. Their lives are all hopeless repetitions.
All that they have said has been said before; all that they have done had been done
better before. Such human weeds clog up the path, drain up the energies and the
recourse of this little earth. We must clear the way for a better world; we must cultivate
out gardens." (Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy 48)
Again Sanger uses degrading comparisons to dehumanize the female reproductive
system in an opening speech to a population conference in 1948 when she said:
"We are moreover, becoming a nation of vast homelessness, rootless, uprooted migrants,
now sweeping onward toward the Pacific Coast… life a scourge of locus, or a devastating
flood of nomadic humanity. Can you imagine the impact of this cast scourge of human
grasshoppers upon the settled communities, which are not prepared to welcome them"
(Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy 49).
This constant use of demeaning terms Franks believes was a Eugenic tactic, which was
used to undermine “unfit” individuals. By debasing women’s reproductive systems it
made it easier to persuade individuals to follow in her movement.
This book offers a very controversial look at Margaret Sanger and questions her main
objective for the birth control movement. One review of this book calls Franks “a pro-life
zealot. She is violently anti-choice, and anti-birth control…she views Planned Parenthood
and its founder, Margaret Sanger, as Satan incarnate” (Amazon) Where as another stated
“this book is thorough and well documented, with over 1,200 footnotes and a
bibliography featuring about a thousand books, articles, and interviews on Sanger, her
associates, and the organizations they founded and led. The tone is academic, but the
language is generally accessible, so that both scholars and activists alike will benefit from
the reading of it.” (Amazon) As to whether or not an individuals agree with Franks
viewpoint she offers a strong case and any individual interested in understanding
Margaret Sanger’s movement should be sure to read this book.
In the book Margaret Sanger: Pioneer of the Future, written by Emily Taft Douglas
portrays Sanger differently then Franks. Douglas believes that Sanger was significantly
affected by her mother’s health conditions. Sanger decided to study medicine after she
was called home by her father to care for her bedridden-mother. For as long as Sanger to
could remember her “mother had been plagued by a formidable cough” (Margaret
Sanger: Pioneer of the Future 13). Due to a lack of funds Sanger was unable to start
medical school, instead she enrolled in nursing school in White Plains, New York.
After years of working as a nurse and being present for many deliveries, Sanger began
understand the struggles that many women were presented with. Sanger saw everything
“from herb tea to turpentine and patent medicines. They rolled downstairs or inserted
button hooks and knitting needles into their bodies” (Margaret Sanger: Pioneer of the
Future 31). Desperate women paid five dollars for illegal abortions, which were preformed
quickly with no aftercare, where many bled to death. After begin unable to provide Sadie
Sachs with the help she desperately needed, Sanger was forever haunted by Sachs
death. Sanger was upset by the lack of options and information provided by doctors. She
was tired of hearing male doctors give ignorant advise to desperate women on how to
prevent pregnancy. Some statements by male doctors, Douglas provided in her book
included, “You want to have your cake and eat it too” and “tell [your husband] to sleep of
the roof!” (Margaret Sanger: Pioneer of the Future 33). This triggered Sanger’s
movement and the development of journal The Women Rebel, that offered “safe ways for
women to prevent excess pregnancies and that in France those ways were freely used.
She would teacher wives to insist on their own rights” (Margaret Sanger: Pioneer of the
Future 41).
In The Margaret Sanger Paper Project it discusses how Sanger became alarmed after
realizing the challenges women faced when attempting to obtain birth control. This led
Sanger to challenge the 1873 federal Comstock law, which prohibited the distribution of
contraceptive information. Sanger “did not invent a freer sexuality for women or discover
contraception, but by insisting on raising both as public issues, she did fundamentally
alter the social discourse of her times and of our own” (Women of Valor 73). Sanger then
went on to open the first birth control clinic in 1917, after running for only nine days the
clinic was raided. The staff along with Margaret were arrested and placed in jail. Many
women may have given up at this point, feeling defeated and left with little choices, but
not Margaret, she continued to dedicate her life to the cause. Due to the struggles
Sanger was faced with she was faced with the reality that she would need to find
alliances that were politically and financially strong.
Ellen Chesler author of Women of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control
Movement in America is an esteemed lecturer and director of the Eleanor Roosevelt
Initiative on Women and Public Life at Roosevelt House, which it the new public policy
center of Hunter College of the City University of New York. She was also a finalist for
PEN’s 1993 Martha Albrand prize for the year’s best first work of nonfiction for her book
Woman of Valor. IN the book it states that Sanger was “convinced” by Edith Ellis that
women have been assigned to act as chief enforces and as “critical agents of civilization
progress… they alone have the power to produce and nurture fewer, fitter babies”
(Women of Valor 123). From this statement it can be seen that Sanger may have been
led to believe in something she may not have truly supported because of Ellis
manipulative ways. Ellis seems to have used Sanger’s commitment to the welfare of
women to gain support for his eugenics movement. On the other hand it also seem that
Sanger was aware of the power Ellis had, and used that to her advantage to further her
cause. She continued to gain support from wealthy men and women and doctors, which
empowered Margaret’s birth control movement. Margaret was an intelligent woman and
was fully aware of the adversities ahead of her, and for that reason she needed to gain
supporters. During the 1920’s it was challenging for women to gain political support and
power, especially when dealing with such a sensitive subject. Margaret was not Ellis only
feminist follower, other such as Emma Goldman, Olive Schreiner, and Ellen Key were all
strong supporters of him. With great regard for Ellis and his ideas, Sanger began to
implement them into her own righting. Due to Margaret’s strong view that the American
labor system was depended on women and children, and for this reason she felt it was
imperative to “break the cycle of the ‘present economic enslavement” (Women of Valor
Above all it seems that Sanger wanted women to be informed about safe contraception
and to have a choice in the matter. She wanted to shed light on to this topic that had
been tabooed for too long. Margaret stated:
"We maintain that it is no more indecent to discuss sexual anatomy, physiology and
hygiene in a scientific spirit that it is to discuss function of the stomach, the heart and the
liver. We believe that the question as to whether or not, and when, a women should have
child, is not a question for the doctors to decide, except in cases where the woman’s life
is endangered, or for the state legislators to decided, but a question for the woman
herself to decide”
(Woman of Valor 154).
It was Sanger’s main purpose to allow women to have full control over their reproductive
systems, and not to allow others to determine their future. Margaret had gone as far as
hunger strikes to demonstrate her commitment to women’s rights.
Margaret felt strongly that women should not feel burdened by their children. Also that
women should have say in how many children they felt they could raise and that their
bodies could bare. Sanger thought that:
“A free race cannot be born of slave mothers. A woman enchained cannot choose but
give a measure of that bondage o her sons and daughters. No woman can call herself
free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can
choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother” (Woman of Valor 192).
This statement helps to better understand Sanger’s devotion for women’s rights.
Margaret was unable to comprehend how a woman could have complete freedom if they
were unable to, have control over their own bodies. For thousands of years women have
been seen as weak women, because they were unable to control their reproductive
system. They have been crucified for their inability to have children, more specifically
male children. Margaret was unhappy with the way women’s fertility was viewed, and
wanted to offer opportunities to these women who she believed to be slaves to their own
A reviewer of Women of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in
America said, “it's a shame that it is out of print, as Margaret Sanger's life story, and her
struggle for the reproductive rights of women and female autonomy, make for
enlightening reading. Ellen Chesler put in an enormous amount of work, documenting
every detail, and weaving the whole into a very readable book” (Amazon). While another
review stated, “It got into her personal life, fostering the hero myth but it left out much
that is troubling. Ms. Sanger founded Planned Parenthood but was also a proponent of
eugenics, advocating selective breeding, sterilization and euthanasia” (Amazon). It is
obvious from both reviews that Margaret is and continues to be a controversial individual.
Many see her as a prominent Feminist while others see her as a leader of the Eugenics.
Many historians and feminist continue to attempt to inform individuals of Sanger’s true
When looking at this topic from presentistic point of view it is easy to look back and make
quick judgments, but I strongly feel as a future historian it is important to look at both
the Presentist and Historicist view. It was a different time, then it is now, and although I
do not agree with every decision Margaret Sanger made, I still believe that she truly
wanted to offer women information and choice regarding their bodies. There are several
conditions that influenced Margaret, which are impossible for present day historians to
completely understand.
Historians can continue to scrutinize the decisions, actions, and words of Sanger, but I
think that Sanger’s influence helped strengthen and further the Feminist movement. I
disagree with the fact that Sanger believed that she along with other elite individuals
were in the position to decided whether or not an individual was fit to be a parent. I also
think that Sanger’s belief that the poor were unfit was based on what she had seen after
years of being a nurse. Her view may have been skewed by her experiences seeing many
poor and workingwomen frustrated and nearly dying from the side effect of having to
many children. I am an advocate of the Planned Parenthood Organization and think that
they have helped countless individuals who were in need guidance and help. I will
continue to support the Feminist Movement, and the improvements Sanger made. I feel
that I have learned a great deal from this assignment. I came in viewing Margaret Sanger
as a feminist, without having any knowledge of her eugenic connections. Form the
research I have completed I now feel as though I am a well informed historian on this
topic. Now that my interest has been stirred I will continue to look at new information
and other historians views in the future and reevaluate my stance.
Work Cited
" Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility eBook:
Angela Franks: Kindle Store." Online Shopping for Electronics, Apparel,
Computers, Books, DVDs & more. Web. 11 Dec. 2009.
" Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in
America eBook: Ellen Chesler: Kindle Store." Online Shopping for
Electronics, Apparel, Computers, Books, DVDs & more. Web. 11 Dec. 2009.
Angela Franks - Author of Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy; The Control of Female
Fertility. Web. 11 Dec. 2009. <>.
Chesler, Ellen. Woman of valor Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement in
America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Print.
Douglas, Emily Taft. Margaret Sanger, pioneer of the future. Garrett Park, Md: Garrett
Park, 1975. Print.
"Ellen Chesler – Author Profile and Information & Video at Simon & Schuster." Author
Interviews & Appearances, Authors In the News & More – Simon & Schuster. Web. 11
Dec. 2009. <>.
Franks, Angela. Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy The Control of Female Fertility.
Boston: McFarland & Company, 2005. Print.
"MSPP About Margaret Sanger Biographical Sketch." New York University. Web. 11 Dec.
2009. <>.
"Topics in Feminism ()." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 11 Dec. 2009.