Margaret Sanger has frequently been in the headlines over the last few years – and not in relation to the forever on-going debate about women’s reproductive rights. Instead it has been tied to one of pop culture’s favorite feminist icons: Wonder Woman. We’ll look at what the Amazon princess has to do with the founder of Planned Parenthood, and the importance of primary sources in understanding the legacy of Sanger’s crusade for women’s rights and the struggle to make birth control accessible around the world.
“In creating Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston was profoundly influenced by early-twentieth-century suffragists, feminists, and birth-control advocates,” wrote Jill Lepore in her New Yorker article “The Last Amazon”1 based on her 2014 book The Secret History of Wonder Woman.
Relying on primary sources, including the papers of Marston and Sanger, Lepore’s research revealed “that, shockingly, Wonder Woman was inspired by Margaret Sanger who, hidden from the world, was a member of Marston's family.”
It turned out Sanger was the aunt of Olivia Byrne who was involved in a polyamorous relationship with Marston and his wife. This unconventional relationship was kept secret to avoid scandal for the family and prevent potential harm to Sanger’s crusade for women’s rights and family planning.
Sanger and her sister, Ethel, who was Olive’s mother, co- founded the organization that became Planned Parenthood, the first birth control clinic in the United States. Ethel was arrested and convicted of obscenity charges after an undercover policewoman busted her for explaining how to use a diaphragm. In prison, Ethel went on a hunger strike, according to Lepore in an interview on Fresh Air2, arguing that that birth control was “more important than the right to vote because women are dying every day in New York” from illegal abortions.
Sanger managed to get her sister released after promising the authorities that Ethel would no longer be involved in her cause. Despite whatever rift this may have caused between the siblings, Sanger went on to have a close relationship with her niece and frequently visited the house where Byrne lived with Marston and his wife. It seems she didn’t have any qualms with the love triangle, and it is apparent Marston had profound admiration for his mistress’s aunt.
The writer hired to help with the storyline of Wonder Woman was given a copy of Sanger’s Woman and a New Race for inspiration. The new race of women Sanger envisioned in the book – and which is embodied in the character of Wonder Woman – is freed from sexual repression, in control of her body and reproductive choices, and empowered to pursue a life of health and happiness with equal rights to men, regardless of whether the path she chose for herself involved marriage and motherhood.
Sanger understood that one of the most critical ways for these ideals to be realized was by making birth control easily accessible to women around the world.
These notions proved to be radical in the 1920s – as well as throughout the 20th century and into the present day.
One of the most fascinating ways to explore Sanger’s legacy and the evolution of the movement she launched is by exploring how her rhetoric has played out in on-going conversations and debate about birth control over the course of the subsequent decades.
Consider an address given in 1953 at the World Conference on Planned Parenthood held in India. Sanger headed a delegation of 40 from the United States to the first such event in Asia, where India’s Vice-President Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan delivered “a brilliant and profoundly moving address,” according to a brief in the International Women’s News3. He told members of the conference:
If you subject women to frequent childbirth you will be guilty of cruelty to human beings…you will be undermining their health; you will be making difficult marriages, which otherwise might have been successful. If, therefore, your intention is to safeguard the health and happiness of family life you must determine the time of childbirth. I take it that to determine this is family planning. If, therefore, your main interest is secure the health and happiness of both mothers and children; if your main interest is to bring down infantile and maternal mortality in this country (India) which is so grievous, it is essential for us to adopt a system of family planning. I appeal for that in the name of social welfare of both parents and children.
In 2014, at the World Health Assembly, members of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Asian Development Bank (ABD), an international finance institution dedicated to reducing poverty in Asia and the Pacific, conducted a panel on women’s reproductive health as a human rights issue.
Although more than 60 years had passed since the World Conference in India, little progress had been made in the vision outlined by Radhakrishnan. In the Lancet4, Temmerman and Say summarize the event with members of WHO and ABD. The panel’s findings revealed that:
Although a range of regulations and strategies to strengthen sexual and reproductive health and related rights have been implemented, certain areas required further attention, which include unmet need for contraception, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents and young people, as well as prevention and management of the consequences of unsafe abortion, gender equality, violence against women and girls, and cancers related to reproduction.
“Universal access to sexual and reproductive health,” the panel advised, “is not only an essential human rights priority to ensure women's empowerment and gender equality, it is also a key international development priority.”
The panel emphasized the necessity for governments to create greater health equity, ensure gender equality, and promote and protect human rights.
On the darker side of Sanger’s legacy, questions and concerns persist around the relationship between birth control and eugenics, the practice of controlling human population to increase desirable genetic characteristics. The concept was popular in the 1920s but fell into disfavor in the ‘30s when it was used to justify racial policies in Nazi Germany.
Sections of Sanger’s writings reflect some of the rhetoric of the early 20th century, but scholars argue that Sanger’s words are often taken out of context or manipulated to misconstrue their meaning.
In a 2001 article, The Feminist Psychologist asked: “What exactly did Margaret Sanger say about race and eugenics issues that made her both a threat to and an ally of the eugenics movement?” To answer this question, professor of psychology Nancy Felipe Russo delved into the Margaret Sanger Papers, an archive of correspondence, reports, interviews, speeches, articles, and diaries.
Such primary source content is invaluable for providing context to deepen understanding necessary to “clarify the record” on claims of Sanger’s support for the eugenics movement, Russo argued, and called upon readers to explore the Sanger papers to draw their own conclusions:
Read and be inspired by the vision and courage of this remarkable woman. Was she flawed and by today's standards "ignorant"—yes. Will you flinch and be deplored by her views on the procreation of individuals with genetic defects? Probably. Should she be judged by the totality of her motivations and actions and understood in the context of her time? I would argue—definitely.
COMING SOON: We’re excited to announce the Margaret Sanger Papers (MSP) will be available from ProQuest History Vault! Check out our blog soon for an interview with the director of the MSPP, Esther Katz, and learn more about this new module.
From Suffragettes to the “Me too” movement, give students access to primary sources to develop critical thinking and diverse content that deepens research. Watch the video sample Changing the World, in Makers: Women Who Make America, available in Academic Video Online and explore related resources.
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For further research:
Sanger, M. (2012). The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger.
Sanger, M. (2014). Happiness in Marriage.
Sanger, M. (1956). Motherhood in Bondage.
Sanger, M. (1922). The Pivot of Civilization.
Sanger, M. H. (2016). What every girl should know.
Available from Academic Video Online
Atwood, D. (Director), & Barrow-Murray, B. (Producer). (1978). The Politics of Women's Healthcare [Video file]. WGBH Boston Video.
Dyer, J. (Director), & Dyer, J. (Producer). (n.d.). Reproduction & Contraception [Video file]. Dallas County Community College District.
Estomin, L. (Director), & Estomin, L. (Producer). (1993). The Other Side of the Fence [Video file]. Filmakers Library.
Goodman, B. (Producer). (2013). Changing the World [Video file]. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). See a sample of the video!
Kammen, G. (Producer). (2007). Sex and Sexuality [Video file]. Intelecom.