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A Life of Passion

by Jean H. Baker

Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8090-9498-1
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A sympathetic biography that seeks to clear the noted birth-control pioneer's name of the charges of elitism and racism, which have darkened her reputation in recent years.

Feminist historian Baker (History/Goucher Coll.; Sisters: Lives of America's Suffragists, 2005, etc.) tells both Margaret Sanger's (1879–1966) personal and public stories. Born to a large, poor Irish family, Sanger transformed herself from middle-class housewife to internationally renowned sex educator. Although trained as a nurse, she left school before earning a degree and consequently worked primarily as a midwife in New York's Lower East Side. It was the death of a young woman from a self-induced abortion that impelled her to take up the cause of women's rights to contraception. Baker chronicles her early years as an activist, mingling with bohemian intellectuals and developing her skills of writing, organizing and fundraising. For her forthright language on sexual matters, she was charged in 1914 with violating the Comstock anti-obscenity laws. The charges were later dropped, but Sanger was imprisoned briefly in 1917 for opening a clinic and disseminating forbidden information. Into her account of Sanger's years of activism, the author weaves the story of her several debilitating illnesses, her two marriages and numerous sexual alliances, her encounters with the famous (e.g., Havelock Ellis and Mahatma Gandhi) and her gradual displacement as leader of the birth-control movement. Baker ably illuminates the time period, making clear the attitudes that Sanger confronted and the political and religious forces that were arrayed against her. She acknowledges Sanger's support of eugenics but asserts that Sanger was being pragmatic, requiring allies and finding many in the then-popular eugenics movement. Baker also asserts that to label her as racist is an unjust tactic of pro-life groups and that, in her day, Sanger, who opposed segregation, was more racially tolerant than most Americans.

A wealth of information about the birth-control movement and the dedicated woman who was long at the center of it.