Sometimes I get these crazy thoughts that hit like mortar rounds lobbed from some hidden source, shrapnel everywhere. They come unprovoked, often when I’m taking a shower, or most inconveniently, when I’ve turned the light off, anticipating a good night’s sleep. Such unexpected musings doubtless find their sources in the vestiges of a day’s stimuli: TV news, a chance website, a desultory conversation, something I read.
Last night, I started thinking about American heroines, and there are many, and who they are, and why we don’t celebrate them more consistently and noticeably, as in a day set aside, a holiday if you will, something akin to International Women’s Day (March 8), though not a holiday. Why not a Women’s Day in America, and with holiday status? We have two specific holidays when American heroes, Washington/Lincoln (President’s Day) and Martin Luther King, Jr. are honored, and yet no women, who outnumber males. Mother’s Day doesn’t count as a holiday any more than Father’s Day, though they’re great for mall sales.
Me, I’d like to see a day commemorating a specific American heroine who has contributed richly, and vitally, to the American fabric. Yes, I’m a male, but I would like to think in a day of shrinking gender boundaries it doesn’t matter. What we do need is understanding, fair play, and good will. We need each other.
And whom would I pick?
In her recent book, American heroines: The Spirited Women Who Changed Our Country, Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson features her roll call of fourteen heroines, among them stalwarts like Emma Willard, Amelia Earhart, Mary Austin Holly, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Sallie Ride. Heroines they surely are, yet I want more than that. Hutchinson has written a safe book, free of controversy, a rendition of the feminine scene, sanitized and plastic wrapped like a dry-cleaned comforter. I want a heroine transcending occupational breakthrough, or singular achievement. I want a heroine fashioned on the anvil of heated struggle for emancipation from the weight of custom in its myriad guises: social, political, economic, and religious.
I want a heroine with an enduring, formidable legacy, effecting change in social consciousness. I hold that truly great heroes do not merely inspire; they transform. I have employed this tenet as a litmus test to assess our greatest presidents, for me, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. We are profoundly affected by their deeds, which also define us as a nation committed to social justice. By this standard, I nominate Margaret Sanger.
She came from poverty, the 6th of 11 born to her mother, who ultimately had 18 pregnancies, before succumbing to tuberculosis at an early age. Sanger, called home from school to assist , contracted tuberculosis. Her mother’s circumstances in a society outlawing contraception would define Sanger.
Becoming a nurse, she gave her efforts to the poor on New York’s East Side, often besieged by women desperately seeking counsel on limiting their offspring. Courageously, she championed their right to such counsel, coining the term birth control we now use freely. At that time, advocating contraception was a criminal act, or violation of the Comstock Law (1873), outlawing contraception devices and literature promoting their use and abortion. Along with pornography, sending such material through the mail could result in prosecution. Sanger was imprisoned eight times. This didn’t deter her from founding clinics to advise on family planning and distribute diaphragms. She is regarded as the founder of the Planned Parenthood organization.
The law remained on the books until 1965, when it was modified, though not revoked, to allow dissemination of contraception devices and literature for married couples. Not until 1972 (Eisenstadt vs. Baird) was it allowed for the unmarried. The pornography provision of the post office act remains.
Sanger is not without controversy, especially for those on the Christian right. In 2010, Fox’s Glenn Beck called her “ one of the most horrible women in American history.” She is often associated with eugenics because she held that the mentally enfeebled shouldn’t be allowed to have children. She has been called a racist because many of her clinics were located in urban minority areas. Sanger’s defenders contend that this is simply where the demand was highest, representing impoverished women. Martin Luther King, Jr. apparently endorsed these clinics and was given an award by Planned Parenthood shortly before his assassination. In truth, she opposed abortion, regarding it as a taking of life no matter when performed. Birth control was its preventative.
In the mid 60s, the contemporary feminist movement got underway in earnest with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem. Certainly, Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) can be regarded as the movement’s manifesto and one of the last century’s most influential books. Still, Sanger made the way easier and paid for her struggle with repeated imprisonment and ostracism. With her began an incipient shift in the social paradigm, a growing consciousness of a woman’s right to sovereignty over her own body, freeing her with opportunity for greater self-realization and emancipation from poverty. Without the right to birth control, the feminist movement could not have achieved its revolutionary breakthroughs.
Today, birth control is exercised as a right, covered by most health insurance, and practiced even among many Catholics. Sanger lived to see the birth control pill, a pharmaceutical development she had encouraged, her successful efforts in combatting laws restricting contraception easing the way for its distribution.
She is remembered in the Wellesley College Library, where a room bears her name. There is a building at Stoney Brooke University named in her honor. In New York City, there is Margaret Sanger Square in Greenwich Village.
Her life story is presented in two films:
Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story
Margret Sanger: A Public Nuisance
She needs more than this. She needs a holiday in her honor.