Margaret Sanger, the revolutionary fighter for women’s contraceptive rights and founder of Planned Parenthood, joins the pantheon of figures whose lives have been turned into historical novels.
Born into grinding poverty, Sanger observed, keenly, the toll that pregnancy after pregnancy took on her exhausted mother, who had 13 children. An escape from her childhood home and the opportunity for formal education, both provided by her devoted older sisters, exposed her to the possibilities of a life unfettered by destitution and despair. A devotion to political activism as well as the exploration of all sorts of personal freedoms became the hallmarks of Sanger’s tumultuous life, which she narrates in a lively first-person voice, which Feldman occasionally intersperses with sections addressed to Sanger from her nearest and dearest, including children, lovers, and husbands. A spectacular tension between the demands of motherhood and the zeal with which she pursued all of her passions—political as well as sexual—forced Sanger to choose, on more than one occasion, between being present with her children or forging onward in her battle to provide access to birth control, and arguably better lives, for women in dire circumstances similar to those of her childhood. The choices Sanger made to further her crusade were not without cost, and Feldman deftly illuminates the terrible tolls (both inflicted and self-inflicted) they took upon her heroine in a narration that is elegiac as well as triumphant. Cameo appearances by the great names of Sanger’s time add notes of gossipy interest for the historically aware reader while placing the events of the novel in a broader social context.
Feldman’s (The Unwitting, 2014, etc.) well-researched treatment of the often tragic realities of the life of a formative figure in American social history offers much to contemporary readers living through current culture wars.