“I wheedle, I chip away, I argue, I reason, I cajole, I hope. But I do not expect.” A Delicate Truth, John le Carre
In 1879 she was born into hardscrabble Irish immigrant poverty in upstate New York, the sixth of eleven children, as Margaret Higgins. Her father was an emotionally scarred veteran of the Sherman’s Union Army that left scorched earth and blood from Tennessee to Atlanta. He treated his wife and daughters as virtual slaves. Her mother, Anne Purcell, was frail and suffered from tuberculosis, but dedicated to her alcoholic tombstone carver husband. The family suffered grievous poverty with its inherent gnawing hunger and relentless cold. Later in her life, she described her youth as “joyless and filled with drudgery and fear.” Margaret had a terribly difficult start and overcame much to found an organization that today exceeds one billion dollars in annual revenue and exerts great influence over the very center of power in America through a well funded lobbying and public relations machine.
Even though baptized secretly by her mother, her harsh and erratic father’s unrelieved cynicism about all things religious led her into a bitter hatred of the Catholic Church after her mother’s death when Margaret was seventeen. Her early attempts at making her own way were fitful failures. Finally escaping her father’s control, she went to Claverack College, a small, inexpensive co-educational boarding high school. There she first experienced unrestricted freedom, and as many have before and since, fell into radical politics, feminism and promiscuity. After running out of money and with failing grades, she left school, returning home just long enough to plan her final escape. She began a brief sojourn as a teacher of new immigrants, which she quickly gave up – not really liking her students much. She next worked as a nurse trainee in a small hospital. Although later cited in her “Autobiography” as extensive health care professional experience, this proved another of her fantasies: she mostly ran errands, changed bedding and emptied bed pans. Her early wild freedom, however, forever influenced her future.
Things finally started looking up for Margaret when she married Will, who while not rich, was a young, upcoming architect and financially secure. At first she enjoyed the fruits of marrying into money by lavish spending and a fine apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Will’s career flourished working on projects like Grand Central Station and the Woolworth Building. Three children later, he still struggled to keep her restless sprit satiated. To placate her, Will bought a substantial Long Island estate, but after a decade of this, Margaret longed once more for the energy and freedom of the city. They sold the estate and moved back to Manhattan.
Affluent Will rekindled his college fascination with radical politics and began attending Socialist, Communist and Anarchist meetings in Greenwich Village – not a great deal more mature in this regard from his days of adolescent fascination with utopian idealism. Margaret thought the fellow travelers boorish, but would tag along to meetings occasionally and continued her fidgety search for fulfillment in shopping, dining, theatre and New York society. All this changed when she met and became close friends with the renowned and charismatic John Reed, later the famed propagandist for the Bolshevik factions in Soviet Russia and buried as a hero in the walls of the Kremlin. She became completely immersed with all the enthusiasm of a recent convert, spending her time with Reed, Eugene Debs, Will Durant, Clarence Darrow and Upton Sinclair. As never before, she became a voracious reader, gulping down radical books and tracts.
Margaret fled from her former bourgeoisie entertainments as from a leaky ship and espoused with passion a Bohemian lifestyle. She threw herself into left wing politics, speaking and campaigning for the Socialist Party and Eugene Debs. When she became enthralled with the radical utopian feminist, Emma Goldman, Will started back peddling. At first he had encouraged her interest in something other than entertainments, self indulgence and parties, but Goldman was a step too far. Margaret had virtually abandoned her family, spending less and less time with Will and leaving the children with friends, relatives and strangers. As one contemporary wrote to a friend, “She became a raging river overflowing the banks of conventionality and propriety.”
Over the next years, her early wildness reemerged under the tutelage of Emma Goldman. She devoted the rest of her life to three causes, which were related. She wrote and advocated with skill and passion, becoming a heroine in all three movements to this day. The first eventually brought a close to her troubled marriage. The preaching and the practice of “free love” (there’s an oxymoron for you) was finally too much for Will. He had moved the family to Paris to try and distance them from Margaret’s obsessions and friends, but she abandoned him there to move back to New York. Her compulsion for sexual expression of all varieties and her public advocacy for it as a solution to all manner of human unhappiness became the focus of her lifelong search for meaning. Margaret began her experimentation with and championing of birth control. Her early recommendations were, to put it mildly, eccentric. Among them were Lysol douches.
“The most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” (Margaret Sanger – Women and the New Race, Eugenics Pub. Co.,1920)
She went on to found what was to become the largest provider of abortions in the world – over 300,000 a year in the United States. The third great passion after promiscuity and population control was the related movement of eugenics – the culling out or limiting the reproduction of inferior races and individuals. Her foundational work in the worldwide eugenics movement was highly regarded, especially her writings on the “genetic inferiority” of the black race, the enfeebled and the mentally challenged. She had a solution for them, which was especially well received among the women of the Ku Klux Klan.
Margaret Sanger advocated “to give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation [concentration camps] or sterilization.” (“A Plan For Peace,” Birth Control Review, a journal Sanger edited)
There is far too much for one entry – more to follow next post. Please come back.
Footnote: A group of high school basketball players in Texas had a different solution for the mentally handicapped than Maggie did. It’s worth a few minutes of your time. Love and dignity.