Volume > Issue > Margaret Sanger & 'The New Woman'

Margaret Sanger & ‘The New Woman’


By Anne Barbeau Gardiner | September 2006
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is a Contributing Editor of the NOR. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century, and is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York.

Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, saw herself as “The New Woman,” one emancipated from traditional religion and morality, empowered to have sex without procreation, and able to compete publicly with men. Yet behind this façade was a soul lost in emptiness and degradation.

An atheist who scorned all hope of an afterlife, Margaret Sanger lived entirely for the here and now. Born in 1879, she married twice and cheated on both spouses. Her first husband, whom she wed in August 1902 and divorced in 1921, was the socialist Bill Sanger. With him she had three much-neglected children. While married to Bill — and this is proven by letters and journals that survive — she had many affairs, some lasting for years, with such men as the Editor of American Parade Walter Roberts, the well-known English sexologist Havelock Ellis, the Spanish radical Lorenzo Portet, and the English patrician Hugh de Selincourt, as well as his wife Janet. These are facts, not rumors or suspicions, since her adulteries are well documented in the definitive biography, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America written by Ellen Chesler, who makes use of the archives in Smith College and the Library of Congress. Why did Margaret not destroy these compromising papers? Like a female Dorian Gray, she kept her scabrous self hidden away for her entire life. But perhaps she thought that was long enough and wanted to be “outed” after her death.

A rich friend from early days, Mabel Dodge, recalled that Margaret was the first woman she ever knew who openly propagandized the pleasures of the flesh “as a sacred and at the same time a scientific reality.” This is a crucial point: It was Margaret’s trademark to speak of sex with a combination of sentiment and science. Science here means the pseudo-science of eugenics, part of Herbert Spencer’s religion of evolutionism, which was a public craze at that time. Margaret and her associates wanted to legalize not just birth control, but also forced sterilization of the “unfit,” so those classes would breed less and ease the burden on rich taxpayers. In the 1920s she was subsidized by a set of wealthy people who dabbled in population control (as the ultra-rich still do today). These millionaires imagined that they were the “fit” class and that they could seize the reins from Nature and direct the evolution of the human species to a higher level. Mostly they wanted to ensure that the breeding of inferior classes would be curtailed. Angela Franks has recently published an important work, Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy, which demonstrates how deeply the founder of Planned Parenthood was implicated in eugenics and in the Spencerian faith in evolutionism.

These two ways of looking at sex — sacred and scientific — would be contradictory if not for the fact that sacred here is only a smokescreen to hide the main point — that human sex is nothing more than the crude coupling of animals. When Margaret was going around lecturing about the need for medical control of human breeding and lacing her talks with sentimental rhetoric, she was only repeating what she had learned in England in 1914 from her mentor Havelock Ellis, also an atheist. Ellis taught that sex was a matter of biology and anthropology, but it could have a spiritual dimension. A precursor of Kinsey, Ellis produced the first clinical study of homosexuals, claimed their orientation was genetic, and demanded legal protection for them. He supported co-education and sex-education for children, as well as organized feminism, and he labeled as normal even the sexual perversions of sadism and masochism. Chesler says that it is “virtually impossible to overestimate” his influence on Margaret Sanger. She imbibed his theories uncritically and formed from them the basis of her birth-control agenda. She also saw his teaching as a green light for her own misbehavior.

Later, though, when Ellis’s memoirs came out posthumously in 1940, Margaret was disappointed at the romantic nostalgia with which he wrote about his marriage to Edith, a lesbian. (Part of this was the result of guilt, since his sexual infatuation with Margaret had hastened his wife’s death.) Margaret complained that these memoirs “undermined the empirical scientific basis of Ellis’s sex research and theory,” which had been the “foundation” of “her own life and work.” Here she made it perfectly clear that a “scientific” approach to sex was the groundwork of her Birth Control League, later to be called Planned Parenthood.

Margaret’s second husband was Noah Slee, a multi-millionaire who was 20 years her senior and who left his wife within months of meeting Margaret. They were married in September 1922. At the time, Noah was unaware that Margaret — even in the weeks leading up to their wedding — was meeting secretly with multiple sex partners in England. In 1924 she would also add Harold Child and H.G. Wells to her list of playmates across the pond. Wells once flattered her by saying she had a “scientific quality of mind,” a compliment on which she preened herself even to old age. In the 1920s she also became sexually involved with three Americans: Bill Williams, Herbert Simonds, and Harold Hersey. From 1933 to 1935, in her mid-fifties, she engaged in an affair with Angus Sneed MacDonald, explaining at the end that she could not marry him because it would damage her reputation to be twice-divorced. Thus, the New Woman had to weigh private pleasures against the public appearance of virtue. Even in the 1940s, when she was in her mid-sixties, she had a six-year fling with Hobson Pittman, a landscape painter who was 20 years her junior. She told close friends that he was for fun, “not for keeps,” and that she dared not marry him, for fear of what the press might say.

Her first husband was aware of her infidelities. In response to his rebukes, she insinuated that their marriage might survive if their adulteries were mutual. It was his fault, then, if he was unadventurous, for she would accept no blame for her conduct — such being “the way of an adulterous woman, who eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I have done no evil'” (Prov. 30:20). Her second husband, Noah, seems to have been blind to her doings. She managed to keep him in the dark by making him sign a prenuptial contract, pledging that she would have her separate residence with separate keys and that she, the New Woman, would retain full freedom to visit and entertain friends in privacy. She guarded this privacy fiercely — as well she might. Such was the founder of Planned Parenthood. And since figs are not gathered from thorns, or grapes from the bramble bush, the organization which sprang from Ellis and Sanger still keeps the same drumbeat today, now urging the privacy rights of minors — little girls lured into promiscuity by sex-education, then advised to have abortions without parental knowledge or consent.

How empty is a life spent running from one sex partner to another! St. Augustine speaks of how people like her are in endless motion, yet going nowhere — how they “go about and stand not, how they go in the circle of error, where the journeying is without end.” Again and again she confided to her journal that she was lonely, depressed, even despairing — yet she never changed. By then, maybe, she could no longer change, since vice had turned to addiction, a form of slavery. Though she found no joy in being the New Woman, she made it her life’s work to “liberate” other women, too, from chastity and “involuntary motherhood” by means of her Birth Control League.

Besides this, she had an addiction to vainglory. The stories she told about herself were peppered with lies meant to make her more admirable. She was the sixth of 11 children born to poor Irish parents, but she longed to be of the privileged class, at least by marriage, so she used to claim that Bill Sanger’s father had been an English merchant and his mother the daughter of a German mayor. She knew perfectly well that her father-in-law was a Jew who had immigrated in 1878 and worked in the garment district. Moreover, having little formal education but being gifted in the art of imitation, Margaret took over the feminist agenda and rhetoric of Emma Goldman, without so much as a thank you. Much of her talk about “voluntary motherhood” through contraception came from Goldman, but she pretended it was of her own devising, never acknowledging any debt in her autobiographies, and in 1934 even refusing to support Goldman’s attempt to regain U.S. citizenship. And here is another instance of how she rewrote her past life to raise herself: In 1939 she claimed that Havelock Ellis had guided her reading at the British Museum for a year and a half, when she had been under his tutelage for only a month and a half. Her fibs were meant to make her seem more ladylike, original, and educated than she really was.

In 1914, while traveling in Europe with Lorenzo Portet, Margaret sent home articles and letters in which she made her association with him public, but hid its sexual nature, intimating that she was the guest of Portet and his wife. Her biographer notes that beyond a handful of close friends — not family members or colleagues — no one knew of her Dionysian side. She rightly feared that the American public would turn in disgust from a birth-control movement championed by so disreputable a woman. From first to last, therefore, she wore the mask of virtue and pretended to fight for birth control for altruistic reasons, rather than because her private behavior made it a dire necessity. To this day, Planned Parenthood keeps up the same pretense of virtue, spreading and supporting unbridled sexuality, while purporting to be defending the rights of privacy and individual autonomy which are allegedly enshrined (though invisibly) in the U.S. Constitution.

To prove that what she really wanted was to free women from “involuntary motherhood,” Margaret would recount again and again the same sob story about a married woman named Sadie Sachs, who allegedly died in front of her as a result of a second self-induced abortion. Her story presented Sadie as the hapless victim of benighted laws that denied poor Jewish immigrants like her easy access to birth control. Never mind that such immigrants were precisely those whose fertility the eugenicists associated with Margaret wanted to limit or suppress. Margaret provoked tears over Sadie’s plight, then launched into the “scientific” side of sex and urged that the medical profession be put in control of women’s fertility. To this day, Planned Parenthood uses the same sort of sentimental ploy to preach the message of medical control over late-term abortions and experimentation with embryos.

When Noah built her an estate in Fishkill, New York, in the 1920s, she wrote to her playmate Hugh: “If only I could fly by night to London to see you & Havelock & Harold — I’d be ready to say this is paradise.” Then, when she was in England in 1924 sleeping with two new partners, H.G. Wells and Harold Child, she sent Noah effusive love letters, protesting that “England is nothing without my adorable lover husband.” She wrote to him at length about her meetings with Harold Child, but made their association look perfectly above board. In later years she would laugh about how she fooled her husband, as for instance on February 2, 1934, when she wrote to Angus MacDonald that she had lied to Noah and his guests about the flowers she had received. If her husband grew suspicious, she rebuked him sharply and then laughed about it later with her partner. Such conduct in a woman of 55 is infantile, and it is proof she had been going in a circle for a long time. No wonder Dante draws Hell as a set of closed circles.

After the stock-market crash of 1929, Noah was virtually ruined, so Margaret felt less obligated to be by his side. She pretended she was devoting herself night and day to the birth-control movement and would spend months without seeing him (he died in 1943). Even so, she would, like Thaïs the courtesan (sunk in excrement for flatteries to lovers in Dante’s Inferno), send him flattering letters about what a terrific lover he was. When her husband grieved over the length of her absences, she told him in no uncertain terms that she was the New Woman who would never compromise her freedom or put aside her public work for any man. Sometimes, too, she used another ploy: She blamed him for misunderstanding her and thus for keeping her at a distance. Before his face, she was the aggrieved wife, but behind his back, a virtual Messalina.

At Noah’s memorial service in Fishkill, Margaret gave herself a eulogy, declaring that she had always “fascinated” Noah, for she was the “quicksilver” that he could never “quite catch.” Here she drew an uncannily accurate self-portrait. For quicksilver is mercury, a poisonous substance, and a person who is mercurial is cunning, restless, and unpredictable. Another time she told a sex partner that she was a “will o’ the wisp.” Again, she chose an eerily revealing image. For a will o’ the wisp is a delusory light that dances over a swamp and leads night travelers astray, even to their death by drowning. On some level she seems to have known how destructive a woman she was.

Since Margaret was an atheist who denied the Redemption and the Resurrection, she found guilt and death nearly impossible to face. When her daughter Peggy died of pneumonia in 1915, shortly after Margaret’s return from a year of cavorting abroad, she was haunted by the sound of halting footsteps (Peggy had limped from polio) and had nightmares of losing a child. She dreamed that she was in the middle of a disaster and worried about Peggy, and then she would realize in the dream that she had neglected her child for years and had no clue of her whereabouts. For help in this crisis she turned to the occult. Havelock Ellis introduced her to Rosicrucianism so she could empower herself by connecting to a “spark of divinity” within. He explained to her that science and this type of mysticism were not in conflict. Sunk in loneliness and despair, she would thereafter seek out psychics and theosophists to try to make contact with her child. Her dabbling in the occult led to a delusory comfort: She confided to a friend that she could now talk to her dead child and that she had created a space, separate from the rest of the world, in which Peggy could grow up to maturity. This Peter Pan substitute for the Resurrection did not keep her from bouts of depression, and her sexual escapades offered only temporary reprieves from dejection.

Toward the end of her life, she confessed that she had long ago “entrusted her spirit” to the Rosicrucian Society, yet she seemed to know little about the Society. In 1951, when she was in her 70s, she enrolled in a Rosicrucian mail-order course to learn more. From that course she became convinced that she would not die because, as her biographer reports, she saw that she “embodied the aspirations of all women on earth” and was “their chosen agent of liberation.” Evidently, the Rosicrucians were not in the business of teaching humility! In 1954 she said in an interview that she liked the Rosicrucians “because of their interest in the enhanced spiritual powers of women and their sympathy for political feminism.” In this fake spirituality she found fleeting compensation for the brutal emptiness of her scientific materialism.

After all that, it is not surprising to learn that Margaret had a rabid hatred of the Catholic Church. She rightly saw the Church as the great enemy and chief obstacle of the Birth Control League. In the 1920s Catholics presented a united front and gave public warnings that were clearly inspired and prophetic. They declared that legalizing birth control would lead to refined materialism and selfish individualism, would degrade marriage, would cause husband and wife to see each other as instruments of sexual gratification, and would weaken their self-control, as well as their capacity for self-denial. Even Gandhi agreed with the Catholic view when Margaret Sanger visited him and tried to bring him around to her worldview. Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes of New York put it bluntly: Easy access to artificial contraception would lead to a “wild orgy of atheism and immorality.” These predictions have manifestly been fulfilled.

In the 1930s Catholics also gave prophetic warning that if Margaret Sanger and her Birth Control League had their way, the floodgates of pornography would be opened and abortion would soon be legalized. A generation before Roe v. Wade, they could see that legalized abortion was around the corner once easy access to birth control made immorality rampant.

In conclusion, Margaret Sanger can be compared to Semiramis, the mythical queen of Babylon who supplanted her husband and made sexual immorality the law of the land. She did this because she herself was lascivious and her abrogation of virtue brought about the ruin of her nation. Margaret Sanger’s private life was obviously the hidden spring of her public actions. This now has to be admitted. She worked tirelessly to overturn the laws against obscenity, birth control, and abortion mainly because her secret lifestyle made all these things necessary. For at the root of her agenda and that of Planned Parenthood was and is a pseudo-scientific view of human sexuality as something even lower than the coupling of animals.

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