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Convictions to Action: Lessons from Margaret Sanger
by Gloria Feldt
Whenever I set foot in Brooklyn where Margaret Sanger opened the first American birth control clinic 93 years ago at 46 Amboy Street, I feel like I’m on hallowed ground. As an exhausted 20-year-old mother of three in West Texas in 1962, my doctor mercifully prescribed the then-new birth control pill. I could never have imagined back then that I’d one day become president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the organization that bears the mantle of Sanger’s fledgling clinic.
©Linda Stein; "Margaret Sanger 380"
I’ve often turned to her life for inspiration, courage and practical examples of leadership. She must have been standing beside me during my first Congressional testimony in 1997 when the late Rep. Henry Hyde thought he’d attack my credibility in front of the C-Span cameras by asking whether I was troubled by the number of repeat abortions. I retorted, brandishing his voting record which I had reviewed in advance and brought with me, “If that troubles you, Mr. Hyde, why have you never once voted for family planning?” The “Today” show played that clip, along with Hyde’s flustered look, the next day. Just taking one small step to challenge authority publicly breathed new energy into the pro-choice constituency, starting with my staff who gave me a T-shirt that declared, “Feldt-1, Hyde 0.”
Sanger was visionary and practical, courageous and cranky, idealistic and pragmatic. She was a redheaded, green-eyed feminist Socialist who died a registered Republican. She was a mother, grandmother, sexual adventurer and a woman of many contradictions—but, then, aren’t we all?
Here are eight leadership lessons I have learned from Margaret Sanger’s life and work.
1. All worthwhile accomplishments start with a vision. Not a small, incremental vision, but a bold, audacious, flaming red, bigger than yourself vision.
While Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are lauded for saying women’s rights are the great moral imperative of the 21st century in their new book, Margaret said essentially the same thing 100 years ago.
Born Margaret Higgins in Corning, New York in 1879, the sixth child of 11 living siblings, Margaret’s earliest childhood memories were of crying beside her mother’s bed after a nearly fatal childbirth. Anne Higgins, devout, traditional Catholic, did die at age 50, worn out from frequent pregnancies.
Margaret’s father was a charming freethinker, a stonemason who loved to drink and spin a tale, but was less than a dependable provider. Margaret knew poverty; she identified with the struggles of women.
She enrolled in nursing school. But a few months shy of finishing, she resigned to marry a handsome architect, William Sanger. Three children followed. Margaret began to take special duty nursing assignments after Bill’s widowed mother moved in with them in 1910.
Women needed a great deal of nursing care. According to the 1900 census, the 18 wives living in the small Orchard Street building that is now New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum had given birth to 111 children, of whom 67 were alive -- a 40 percent infant and child mortality rate. Maternal mortality was astronomical, too: 40 percent of mothers’ deaths were caused by infection, half from unsafe back alley or self-induced abortions.
Birth control, such as existed, was illegal as well, largely because of Anthony Comstock — the one-man sex police. Comstock formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Named a special investigator for the U.S. Postal Service, he personally enforced the 1873 law named for him, making it illegal to send information or devices for birth control or abortion through the mail. Many similar state laws followed.
Comstock bragged that he had seized 60,000 “obscene rubber articles” and tons of “lewd and lascivious material.” Like today’s abstinence-only zealots, he didn’t distinguish healthy, responsible, sexual expression from promiscuity, pornography, prostitution.
2. A leader is someone who gets things done.
Comstock was about to meet his match.
The defining moment came when Margaret was called to an overcrowded tenement to nurse a 28-year-old mother of three, Sadie Sachs. Sadie had been told another pregnancy would kill her. But when she asked her doctor how to prevent pregnancies, he callously replied, “Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.”
Bitterly poor, weak from her last pregnancy, Sadie self-aborted. She got a raging infection (pre-antibiotics). She begged Margaret to tell her how to prevent pregnancies. Margaret shared what knowledge she had, but it wasn’t much.
A few months later, Margaret was called back to the same house. Again, Sadie had self-aborted. This time, she died. Margaret walked for hours afterward, immersed in grief. She resolved that “women would have knowledge of contraception.”
3: There’s power in your story.
Margaret told Sadie’s story over and over. Dramatically. Using all media at her disposal, connecting the personal story with the call for political change.
© Joan Barber; "Skin"
She wrote a sex education column, “What Every Girl Should Know,” for a Socialist newspaper; Comstock censored it. The following week, the paper ran an empty space with the headline, “What Every Girl Should Know: Nothing by order of the U.S. Post Office.” She ratcheted it up by publishing a periodical, The Woman Rebel, to challenge Comstock directly.
About this time, a friend coined the term “birth control.” Margaret ran with it.
Arrested in August 1914, she went to Europe and researched homemade birth control methods prevalent in France. In England, she began an affair with sexologist Havelock Ellis. She visited a clinic in the Netherlands, where family planning advice, diaphragms and contraceptive jelly had been dispensed for 30 years. This gave her the vision of a network of clinics all over the U.S.
4: Timing is key.
She sensed the tide turning in her direction the next fall. Bill Sanger had been arrested for distributing birth control pamphlets with much media fanfare, and her rival leader in the birth control movement, Mary Ware Dennett, had started the National Birth Control League.
Returning to the states, where charges against her were still pending, Margaret gave a speech – her first -- on January 17, 1916. She would repeat it 119 timesacross the country: Women from time immemorial have tried to avoid unwanted motherhood. I found wise men, sages, scientists, discussing birth control among themselves. But their ideas were sterile. They did not influence the tremendous facts of life among the working classes or the disinherited.… I felt myself in the position of one who has discovered that a house is on fire and it was up to me to shout out the warning.
Outmaneuvered, the prosecution dropped the charges against her.
5: Use what you’ve got. What you need is usually there if you can see it.
On October 16, 1916, Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic. Her sister, Ethel Byrne, was the nurse. Handbills in English, Yiddish and Italian advertised the clinic. Police closed it down 10 days and 464 patients later. But Sanger had founded something much larger than a clinic: she had ignited a great movement for women’s reproductive freedom.
Ultimately, she was arrested nine times for her civil disobedience. Each time, she used what she had—not money, certainly not the law. But she had the power of an idea that touched a deep human need.
6: Controversy is your friend.
She used controversy especially brilliantly. In 1929, she was banned in Boston so she got the esteemed Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger Sr. to read her speech while she stood gagged beside him. This made major papers across the country.
“Dear Mrs. Sanger” letters flowed: DMS: married at 20 to a laboring man, in 11 years I have five living children, one stillborn, and 5 miscarriages…I am desperate…DMS: I’m writing to you as the last hope of help. I’m the mother of 8 children and have nothing …
She compiled these stories into a book, Motherhood in Bondage, which inspired my own first book, Behind Every Choice Is a Story. Even in the 21st century, there is no end to the heartrending stories.
Successful legal challenges began to convince doctors that they could provide birth control to their patients. Margaret crisscrossed the country to help start clinics; increasingly, prominent women joined these efforts.
In the mid-1930s, she moved to Tuscon, AZ for family reasons. Her second husband, Noah Slee, the millionaire founder of Three-in-One Oil company, was so besotted with his wife that he smuggled diaphragms illegally for her clinic, staked the Holland–Rantos pharmaceutical company to increase the supply of diaphragms and condoms, and provided her with separate living quarters to live as she pleased—her condition for marrying him.
Margaret was far from perfect.
She was egotistical. She rarely credited others’ contributions. Though unwavering about her mission, she changed her argument based on what was selling at the time. Her strategy was to seek the locus of power to advance birth control.
That’s how she came to align with the eugenicists -- who advocated selective breeding to "improve" the human race -- during the 1930s when that sentiment was at its height. She saw through it sooner than most and broke away publicly; still, this remained a stain on her personal narrative and the one most difficult to remove. Those opposed to women’s equality in any form will always use it against her and the movement she founded, even though she was among the first U.S leaders to denounce Hitler.
Sanger’s argument also morphed variously into women’s health, poverty alleviation, and “every child a wanted child.” These are all valid benefits of birth control. Still, the feminist crusade for women’s biological and sexual liberation, where Sanger started, was always her core principle.
In less than a century, the movement Margaret Sanger launched won so many victories that most people couldn’t believe they could ever be reversed. Instead, the backlash against such sweeping change in the gender power balance was fierce, and the War on Choice rages on.
7: A movement has to move. Power and energy come from moving into new spaces, not from standing still.
Our great challenge now isto shift the moral and legal framework from the right to privacy to the human rights of women to make their own childbearing decisions. We need to connect reproductive justice with economic justice and to say clearly that it’s time for women to have an equal place at life’s table.
Margaret said so many times, “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free who cannot choose for herself whether and when she will become a mother.”
This was her conviction. But she understood that convictions, alone, are not enough.
8. This is the leadership lesson I hold most dear, for it’s a good summation of Margaret’s life: “Life has taught me,” she said, “we must put our convictions into action.”
Listen to a 1953 radio recording of Margaret Sanger on "This I Believe" with host Edward R. Murrow.
Well after her place in history had been assured, Margaret continued putting her convictions into action. When Planned Parenthood was formed in 1942 over 80 local clinics were already in operation. She founded the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952 and raised the money to develop the birth control pill. She was convinced that an effective pill would be the transformational, woman-controlled, method to free women from “Motherhood in Bondage” at last.
The U.S. Supreme Court finally freed birth control from state prohibitions in Griswold v Connecticut in 1965, and then legalized abortion in 1973 with Roe v Wade, both based on a right to privacy. The government started financing family planning for low-income women through Great Society programs. Today, more than 95 percent of Americans have used birth control.
Ellen Chesler's biography of Sanger tells this story. Not long before Sanger died in a Tucson nursing home in 1966, nearly 88 years old, her granddaughter and namesake Margaret Sanger Lampe asked her how she’d like to be remembered. She said she hoped she’d be remembered for helping women.
Help women. Margaret Sanger and her brave leadership most surely did.
Gloria Feldt, author of The War on Choice and former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is currently writing Unlimited, an exploration of women’s relationship with power to be published by Seal in Fall 2010. Tweet her @heartfeldt.
See Women's Vessel Hits Rocky Water documentary video by Diana Whitten in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Margaret Sanger: Militant Pragmatist Visionary by Lawrence Lader in the Spring 1990 edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Facing Down Danger to Make Reproductive Freedom A Reality by Mary Lou Greenberg and Eleanor Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
Also see The Poet's Eye in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.