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Jean Baker on Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion

A new biography lends context to the controversial Margaret Sanger

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Jean H. Baker sought to put Margaret Sanger’s life and career in perspective.

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Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion

By Jean Baker

Hill and Wang

Google Margaret Sanger, pioneer of the birth control movement, and you barely need to scroll down the page to find her name associated with various controversial topics, including eugenics—the belief that the genetic composition of society could be improved by preventing groups deemed “unfit” from reproducing. One site called blackgenocide.org, for example, promises “the truth about Margaret Sanger.”

Sanger’s muddled legacy is, in part, what prompted Goucher College history professor Jean H. Baker to write Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (Hill and Wang, hardcover). In the book, Baker admits that Sanger did link her beloved birth control movement with eugenics, but the writer casts Sanger as a woman of her time, pointing out in the introduction that she was far from alone in her support of eugenics: “During Sanger’s time, eugenicism—the belief that it was possible to improve the qualities of the human race through science—enrolled American presidents, from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Herbert Hoover; Supreme Court justices, including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis; along with scientists from the most prestigious institutions in the U.S.”

Though Baker claims that her intention in writing A Life of Passion was to “interlard the personal with the political, not as hagiography but as authenticity,” there are times when it seems that she is purposefully trying to reclaim the sullied Sanger name and polish it. But Baker would likely argue this view. As she states in her introduction, “I hold no expectation that the angry defilers of Sanger will revise their misinformation, nor do I believe that Sanger deserves sanctification.”

And overall, Baker succeeds in presenting a fairly balanced portrait of Sanger. The writer doesn’t shy away from depicting her as a selfish, stubborn woman who pursued the advancement of birth control with a single-mindedness and ferocity that often came at the expense of her family. Sanger was a less than ideal mother to her three children, as she was frequently absent or too absorbed in her work to be consistently involved in her children’s lives. Baker also acknowledges the long list of lovers that Sanger had, without glossing over the fact that Sanger took these lovers with no regard for her marital status.

Baker’s biography succeeds in taking readers on a fascinating journey into the world of the 1920s and ’30s, when the Comstock laws made even the act of distributing information about birth control a crime. The strength of Baker’s book is in her ability to contextualize Sanger within her own time, which may prompt even her harshest critics to reassess her legacy. Baker makes it clear that Sanger believed, above all else, that every woman should have the right to control all aspects of her reproductive life through the diligent use of birth control, and in so doing Baker does her part in removing some of the tarnish from Sanger’s name. The book may lead even confirmed Sanger critics to question why her reputation has suffered so greatly while those of some of America’s more prominent proponents of eugenics, like Teddy Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes, have remained largely free from blemish.

City Paper recently spoke with Jean Baker by phone about her book.

 

City Paper : What is the process of writing a biography like? Where do you start?

Jean Baker: (laughs) I was giving a lecture somewhere and I made the terrible mistake of saying that I really care more about being faithful to what [Sanger] thought her life was than what modern audiences or readers think of my book.

I think it’s really important to try as best you can to be faithful to the subject and the context in which they lived, and I don’t really think that some of these people that run around and use Margaret Sanger as a weapon to defund Planned Parenthood [Federation] of America—I don’t think that they care at all about the context. [If] you look at the context of eugenicism you find that presidents, Supreme Court justices, and most of the population of the United States from the ’20s really through the 1960s . . . were believers in this idea that we would improve the American population biologically in different kinds of ways.

 

CP : It seems that the idea of eugenics is much more present in the historical consciousness when it comes to Margaret Sanger than it is when it comes to someone like Teddy Roosevelt. Do you attribute that to a gender bias or do you just sort of scratch your head about this?

JB: (laughs) Well, maybe the best is to scratch my head. Women don’t get away with as many things, it seems to me, as men. That’s one point. Second point is we need to have a much more vigorous kind of historical conversation about what eugenicism is, how long it lasted, what it means, and to what degree you can write as David McCullough did, [a book like] Mornings on Horseback and have this glorious tale of this great male hero and really not consider these other avenues, which maybe you didn’t know about or which don’t really affect the way you’re presenting Teddy Roosevelt.

 

CP: How important is it when writing a biography to put aside your personal biases?

JB: There is no unbiased history. We all come to pass with and we are re-enacted with the present and the present is who we are—our gender, our socioeconomic circumstances, our religion. So I just think you can’t manipulate the evidence and that’s what I see a lot of people doing in so far as Sanger is concerned. I mean this has always to some extent been the case with her primordial enemy, the Catholic Church. They’ve never really been fair to her. . . . Throughout her life they did everything to keep her from speaking, etc.

 

CP : Did you wait to start writing the book until you were done with all of your research?

JB: I did have a problem finding the real core of Sanger for a while, and that’s where the subtitle of the book, the Passion [comes from]. The passion, it seemed to me, really combined these areas of her life that were so important. Passion as sacrifice when she really did think, at certain times, that she would give it all up and just have this really elegant life with this rich second husband, and then passion because of all of her affairs, and then, ultimately and the most important passion is, of course, the commitment to birth control.

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