The Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Illustration for article titled The Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Via Feminist Law Professors, Academics at NYU have been working on an archive of the work of Margaret Sanger, the early 20th century birth control advocate, and responding to New Jersey Republican Congressman Christopher Smith's misrepresentations of her work.


Margaret Sanger was an early birth control advocate who has often been accused of Nazi-style genocide by the pro-life community. As Rep. Smith's comments at a congressional hearing this April suggest, her work has been taken out of context and misrepresented to suggest that Sanger was the kind of person who wanted to kill babies. He took a quote from one of her books that said,

The most merciful thing a family does for one of its infant members is to kill it.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project points out that the quote comes without context. When you look at the surrounding chapter, you see that Sanger is talking about infant mortality in poor large families. At the time of her writing, more than 300,000 infants died, more than 90 percent from malnutrition. Still those like Congressman Smith draw parallels between her work and Nazism.

But Sanger wasn't a Nazi. Far from it. She joined the American Council Against Nazi Propaganda and "gave money, my name and any influence I had with writers and others, to combat Hitler's rise to power in Germany." The only intersection she had with Nazis was that she lived at a time when Hitler ruled Germany.

Sanger's work, of course, needs to be looked at through cultural context. Her early work was done at a time when eugenics was not widely studied and almost viewed as a new secular order on the same level as religion. My alma matter, the University of Minnesota, even had a eugenics society that worked on "improving" the human race. Sanger viewed the movement as useful, and pushed them to back access to birth control as part of that movement. Of course, modern academics have abandoned eugenics as a field of study, but it's important to not that at the time it was a significant and widespread movement.

Sanger remains a figure that didn't always reflect the values of the modern reproductive rights movement. As Michelle Goldberg says in her recent book, The Means of Reproduction:

Sanger was a complicated figure, a groundbreaking feminist of her time that who transcended some of the prejudices of her time while remaining mired in others. She operated in an era when eugenics, often a cousin of the Malthusian doctrine, was considered a respectable pursuit on both the left and the right, and rarely hesitated to invoke eugenics arguments for birth control ... Many eugenicists opposed birth control, fearing that it would lead to genetically desirable women to have too few children.... She was not, in fact, a racist, believing that inherent ability and intelligence varied among individuals rather than among ethnic groups, but at times used dubious language that reeks of racism to modern ears.


What Sanger did do was play an important role in shaping access to birth control in this country, especially among poor women who were desperate not to have their seventh or eighth child. She founded the American Birth Control League, which later merged with Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau to create the Birth Control Federation of America. That organization became what we know as Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The important thing is to look at Sanger's work with a critical eye, but to keep it in context.

Margaret Sanger Papers Project [NYU]
The Margaret Sanger Papers Project [Feminist Law Professors]



The overuse of the term "Nazi" in the U.S. makes me really think that the European conception of freedom of speech is more effective in terms of preventing hate speech.

Labeling someone a Nazi is suggesting that violence against that person is somehow justified. So it makes sense to have those who misuse the term face legal consequences.

Nazism should be used to specifically refer, well, to Nazism. In other cases, people should simply describe why a phenomenon they are criticizing is morally objectionable. Describe, not compare. Because if you overuse the term "Nazi," you act as if inspired by Nazi propaganda tactics.