On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic in American history, in Brooklyn. Sanger was arrested nine days later, charged with distributing “obscene” material, and served 30 days in jail.
Sanger is one of my favorite Progressives. As she accompanied her physician husband on home visits, she was appalled at the living conditions she saw on the Lower East Side of New York, conditions she thought were created or exacerbated by the large number of children in the families. As a result, she committed herself to helping women get information about birth control and access to safe abortions.
But Sanger also epitomizes one aspect of the Progressive movement that has always troubled me (and my students as well): Progressives often appear to be self-righteous and willing to impose their WASP-ish middle-class values on people not like themselves. Getting safe medical treatment, including abortions, was obviously something poor immigrant women needed and wanted. And Sanger’s assumption that too many (unwanted?) children led to poverty and other social problems wasn’t necessarily wrong. But it was also the case that many immigrant families needed those children. Not only was the infant mortality rate amazingly high in poor neighborhoods, but their poverty demanded that families have as many potential bread-winners as possible in order to simply make ends meet.
So did Sanger misunderstand or ignore the nature of immigrant family life and assume that she “knew best” what was good for them (i.e., fewer children)? Or did she “get it” and simply provide her patients with the safe medical care they might not have gotten without her? My guess is that, as with most Progressives, it was a bit of both. It’ s hard to deny her selflessness—Lord knows she paid an extraordinarily high price for it throughout her life—but it’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that she thought she knew better than the women she helped.