Writing The Messy Life Of A Sexual Health Pioneer

Margaret Sanger founded the organization that became Planned Parenthood. Her work around sexual health made her one of the most celebrated and vilified figures in women's history. Host Michel Martin explores Sanger's complex life and drive for her work with Jean Baker, author of the biography Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. As women around the world are rethinking and rewriting their roles in society, we decided to take a look at how the biographies of notable women reflect those changes. So, throughout women's history month, we've been digging into biographies of all kinds of women, divas, dancers, leaders of nations and queens of fashion.

And, today, we're talking about a woman who, although she died four decades ago, is back in the news. We're talking about nurse and activist, Margaret Sanger, the founder of the organization that eventually became Planned Parenthood.

Sanger began her efforts in behalf of sex education and contraception at a time when even talking about contraception was considered obscene and, in some places, even criminal. Women risked arrest when they sought out makeshift birth control devices that were often unsafe.

To this day, Margaret Sanger is lauded by many for her work in changing that and, as well, vilified by others for ushering in a culture that her critics say devalues life and women in the process.

Her life and work are chronicled in the new book, "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion." The author is Jean Baker. She is an historian and history professor at Goucher College and she's with us now in Washington, D.C.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JEAN BAKER: It's my pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: Tell us how you got interested in her. I understand that your interest in her arose from your work reporting on the suffrages movement.

BAKER: I wrote a book published in 2004 on the suffrage movement and, after the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, it just seemed the women's movement disappeared, with one exception and, of course, that was Margaret Sanger, whose campaign for birth control grew more and more popular during the '20s and the 1930s. So I thought that this would be an appropriate topic.

I was somewhat interested in it because of the fact that Sanger is demonized and, to me, this makes no sense. This is a woman who liberated women, who established various kinds of approaches to their sexuality that would prevent them from always worrying that, every time they had sex, they would become pregnant.

MARTIN: Where did she develop this passion? The book is called "Her Life of Passion." This passion for this issue?

BAKER: Well, in her autobiography, she tells us. There's this epical event that happens in 1912, when as a nurse, she goes down to take care of a woman who's hemorrhaging as the result of a botched abortion. And Sanger, during this visit, when the hemorrhaging was stopped, Sadie Sacks, this 25 year old woman with four or five children said, what can I do to have no more children? And the doctor said, tell Jake to sleep on the roof.

Six months later, Sanger went back and Sadie Sacks was dying of septicemia, an infection, and she died. And this is the moment, as Sanger tells the story, that she decided to devote her life to making birth control accessible, cheap and effective for American women.

MARTIN: One of the things you point out in the book is that she was repeated arrested for this work, something that I think many people forget. I just want to play a short clip from a 1957 interview that she did with journalist Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" fame, but before he was there, he was with an ABC news program where she explained what some of her motivation was. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

MARGARET SANGER: I naturally didn't want to see women take all the suffering of childbearing and pregnancies. No one had tried to change the laws and, at that time, not even a doctor had a right to use the United States mails and common carriers for books, for learning, for anything that he had to do with this question. It was considered obscene.

MARTIN: Now, I'm just playing a clip of her voice so you can hear her speak, but what we don't have time to play for you is how Mike Wallace grilled her over the course of this interview, in part, about her personal life because she had been married and a wife and a mother earlier in her life, but she did leave her family, in part to pursue her activism, and also was a believer in what people later would call the Free Love Movement. Would you talk a little bit about that?

BAKER: Well, let me say a word about the Wallace interview. Many of our friends thought that it was pretty much of a disaster. At the end, Wallace turns to her and says, perhaps the women of America are becoming too independent and not staying home with their families enough.

Of course, this was the kind of thing that infuriated Margaret Sanger, who, as a mother, had often left her children. She had three children, one died, and the two boys, to lead a very different kind of life.

MARTIN: But she has to this day continued to be attacked by conservatives. In part - well, also progressives - which we'll talk about - in part on the grounds that Mike Wallace discussed in his interview, which is de-linking sex from reproduction.

And the argument then and now is that what this does is that it devalues women in society - that men have no reason to be responsible in their pursuit of sex because it can be sort of controlled and some would argue commodified. And I wonder, did she even talk about that in her own lifetime? Did she ever have that concern? How did she respond to that argument?

BAKER: No, I don't think she ever had any concern. The issue about - of the conservatives about sex is one that she never confronted because she was in a struggle simply to get birth control legalized and effective. So in the context of believing that sex is making women into a commodity, that can only be the case if women are believed to be passionless Victorian women. If women are autonomous, then they will confront this matter of sexuality individually. And Sanger was a great believer that no woman was free who did not control her body.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking about Margaret Sanger, a leading figure in the women's health and reproductive rights movement. She is the founder of the organization that later became Planned Parenthood. I'm speaking with Jean Baker, author of "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion."

One issue on which some progressives and conservatives agree, and which has also interestingly enough resurfaced in recent years with certain campaigns aimed at particular communities and urging them to change their attitudes about abortion, is her alignment with the eugenics movement, which discouraged reproduction by people with mental or physical disabilities, was later used as a rationale to sterilize people, including African Americans. And very interestingly enough, the story has resurfaced in recent months with people coming forward who were sterilized under these state-sponsored programs.

You write in the book that she saw this very differently. Can you explain how she saw this? And you also point out she never throughout her life abandoned her belief in eugenics. So how did she see it?

BAKER: I think that you have to re-situate eugenics. Eugenics was not only involuntary sterilization, which is what we think about it post-Holocaust, but it was a progressive movement in the United States during the '20s and '30s in which everyone from Supreme Court justices to American presidents believed that by using science, that - particularly biology - that you could make better human beings.

Now, Sanger's take on this was always that the answer was birth control. Sanger is like a racehorse that you put blinders on, and the thing that she sees is birth control. Her view of eugenics initially was sort of a feminist eugenics - that if women used birth control, they will have better babies. They can space their babies. They will be able to afford their children. And all of this will make for better humans.

Now, she did support sterilization for those who were insane, and she never, never rejected that or denied that.

MARTIN: Would you address the specific charge that she was a racist, and that she thought that in part, that birth control, contraception, should be used to limit the numbers of people of different ethnic groups?

Not just African-Americans, but also people of - you know, Slavs, Poles, anybody who was not, you know, Northern European. And I'm interested in your take on this, particularly because you write that you uncovered her nursing application. One of the reasons she was so interested - she said she was so interested in nursing is that this was a profession where you could serve humanity without regard for color, creed, religion and so forth. So can you square that up? I mean was she a racist or not?

BAKER: I do not believe she was a racist. I think she was far ahead of most Americans of her time. I think that the - over and over again she said I do not believe in any way that birth control or eugenics should affect races or groups. She opened a clinic in Harlem in 1931. And in her later actions it's quite clear that she opposes racial segregation at a time when most Americans either paid no attention or favored racial segregation. So the racist charge is one that I do not think has any credibility.

The eugenics charge is a little bit more complicated.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that even at this late date – I mean she died in 1966 after a very long life - she's still such a polarizing figure?

BAKER: Well, I think it's the subject. And I also think that as we have emerged into a partisan environment, she has become someone who's useful for a group that wants to end abortion. Sanger never supported abortion at all. Her idea was that birth control will prevent abortion, which is, I think, a very simple point that some Americans today seem to have forgotten when they try to close up Planned Parenthood.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, as I mentioned, we've been speaking this month about biographies of women. And we've talked about how women are so often characterized either as heroines or as villains. I'm wondering why you think that is. And how would you like Margaret Sanger to be viewed?

BAKER: Well, of course I'd like her to be a hero - a hero with a messy life, because I think the problem of this dichotomy is that we put women into these categories and we lose the fact that they are human beings. I certainly would put - if I have to choose between hero or villain - I would choose hero and I would suggest that she is someone who has changed all of our lives and who has made women's lives far, far better. We have only to remember Sanger's own childhood, the sixth of 11 poor children, the boys having to wear dresses to school, very little money, to remember that being able to plan your pregnancies is something that is extremely important for women and it liberates them from the kind of maternity that simply submerged Margaret Sanger's mother.

MARTIN: Jean H. Baker is the author of "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion." It's only her latest book. She's a history professor at Goucher College, and she was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Jean Baker, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BAKER: Thank you.

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