• U.S.

Books: Sanger Saga

2 minute read


In 1914 a tuberculous, 30-year-old nurse named Margaret Sanger began publishing singlehanded a feminist paper called the Woman Rebel. Six months later she began raising money for a pamphlet called Family Limitation, the opening gun in her campaign to spread the gospel of Birth Control.

She called on Dr. Abraham Brill, just then bringing out a translation of Freud. Dr. Brill asked if she had been psychoanalyzed. “What is psychoanalysis?” asked Mrs. Sanger. He explained, and then declared that after six weeks of his treatment she would not want to go on with the pamphlet. “Then I won’t be analyzed,” said Mrs. Sanger.

Told last week in Margaret Sanger’s 504-page autobiography, that anecdote was symbolic of her singleminded, 23-year fight against police, courts, churchmen and ridicule to legalize birth control in the U. S. Most of the public highlights of her story—Congressional lobbying, duels with the Catholic Church, her sensational visit to Japan in 1922, a whirlwind missionary tour of India—are well known. But her beginnings—as the sixth of eleven children of a free-thinking tombstone carver in Corning, N. Y., as a nurse on Manhattan’s lower East Side, and as a central member of the group of famous pre-War radicals which included Walter Lippmann, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, Mabel Dodge—make the best reading.

Margaret Sanger’s autobiography is one of the most dramatic stories in the history of U. S. reform. Last year, when the U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that physicians might send contraceptives by mail, her career became a “success story.”

The irony of that story is one that Margaret Sanger is herself the first to see. Behind the applause she hears a rumbling a thousand times more ominous than any that ever came from court or church—a rumbling from Europe’s dictator-ridden countries, which distinctly do not want Birth Control, are much more interested in cannon fodder than in eugenics.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com