Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics

Don’t Remove Margaret Sanger from History — Condemn Her

Margaret Sanger
Photo: Bust of Margaret Sanger, National Portrait Gallery, by Cliff, via Flickr (cropped).

This is Women’s History Month, held to celebrate “the contributions women have made to the United States and recognize the specific achievements women have made over the course of American history in a variety of fields.”

A month dedicated to the history of any group should not just be a sanitized feel-good propaganda version of what came before. Real history is complicated. Such campaigns should tell the full story of those who made a powerful impact on life today.

Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, is usually touted as a paragon of feminist valor, a woman of courage who fought off the forces of reaction in her decades-long birth control campaign that liberated women from the tyranny of biology.

But Sanger had a very dark side, usually omitted in all the posthumous praise. She was a blatant eugenicist, and indeed, her birth-control campaign was not primarily focused on empowering all women, but rather on tamping down procreation rates for categories of women she considered the unfit — including African-Americans.

Erased from Women’s History Month?

With that history finally coming to the fore, some want Sanger erased from Women’s History Month. For example, a column attacking Sanger in The University News, by college sophomore Anastasia Hanonick. From, “Margaret Sanger Does Not Deserve a Place in Women’s History Month”:

Everything she stood for is fundamentally opposed to feminism. While on the surface it appears that Sanger fought hard for women’s rights and equality, a deep dive into some of her personal narratives reveal shocking truths that demonstrate otherwise. In her infamous essay titled “A Better Race Through Birth Control,” she emphasized the importance of birth control use to improve the “quality of humanity,” thereby justifying her views on eugenics. In this article she went on to say: “It is reasonable to assume that women of subnormal mentality, however lacking they may be in vision and altruism, would prefer to avoid the pain and responsibilities of procreation, if the satisfaction of sex could be divorced from reproduction. Given Birth Control, the unfit will voluntarily eliminate their kind.”

Hurray! An articulate article by a young feminist exposing Sanger’s vile motives. Talk about long overdue.

What the Author Gets Wrong

But here is where I think Hanonick goes wrong:

Planned Parenthood may no longer have eugenics and racism as part of its mission, but knowing the history and the origins of the organization is extremely important for educating oneself about how prominent racism and eugenics were in the United States. Margaret Sanger is not a “queen,” nor an “icon” like I have been seeing so many people call her. She is a racist eugenicist who grafted her hatred onto the lives of hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting people. She should never, under any circumstances, be praised or celebrated.

Given the ubiquitous presence of Planned Parenthood in African-American communities, I would dispute that racism has been eradicated from PP’s core values. Indeed, and ironically, Sanger opposed abortion (while supporting infanticide of disabled babies).

That point aside, I don’t see how any Women’s History Month would be complete without discussing Sanger’s birth-control campaign. Sanger changed the country profoundly and there is no denying that the place of women in society was altered profoundly because of her efforts.

So, no. Sanger should not be erased from Women’s History Month. Just stop sanitizing her. Tell the truth about her motives and deeds, and let people come to their own conclusions about her legacy.

Cross-posted at The Corner.