The Progressive Racism of Margaret Sanger
This is the third Margaret Sanger article I’ve written in as many weeks. I suspect it will be my last for a while, but there are a lot of misconceptions to cut through, particularly on the issue of race. Among those who oppose abortion, Planned Parenthood’s founder has been broadly typecast as a Nazi-sympathizing white supremacist. For those looking to discredit the abortion giant, it’s a handy narrative to maintain—especially in today’s political climate. The only problem is, the evidence to substantiate such a claim is entirely lacking. I know because I’ve looked for it.
Margaret Sanger was anti-God, anti-marriage, and anti-America, long before it was fashionable to be so, but she wasn’t a racist—at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Was she bigoted? Certainly, but her bigotry wasn’t ethnically driven. It was bigger than that. Sanger’s devotion to eugenics wasn’t built on a contempt for people of color; it was built on a contempt for the poor and ignorant, which is why she despised most Christian charities.
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Over the last few years, I have read virtually all of Sanger’s surviving works, and while the term “unfit” shows up throughout, there is no indication that she ever used it as a euphemism for black or brown. In fact, she explicitly denounced any such possibility in a 1934 letter to a Yale student reporter. "If by 'unfit' is meant the physical or mental defects of a human being," she wrote, "that is an admirable [position], but if 'unfit' refers to races or religions, then that is another matter which I frankly deplore."1 If Margaret Sanger had been the racist many of her detractor’s claim, it’s unlikely that Martin Luther King Jr. would have accepted the inaugural Margaret Sanger Award, bestowed on him the year Sanger died, or spoken of her in such glowing terms. The following comes from King’s 1966 acceptance speech, delivered by his wife Coretta Scott King:
There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist—a nonviolent resister. She was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions... She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions.2
If Reverend King’s life had not been cut tragically short, he may well have reevaluated his support for Margaret Sanger’s birth control program. It certainly has not delivered the future Sanger promised us, but even if his faith in birth control had held firm, it’s worth noting that Margaret Sanger was stridently anti-abortion. The American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood, was explicitly founded to eliminate abortion. That’s why King could credibly reference her “higher law to preserve human life.” It wouldn’t be until 1970, four years after Sanger’s death, that Planned Parenthood performed its first abortion—under the guidance of then-president Alan Guttmacher.
W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil-rights activist who co-founded the NAACP was also a vocal birth-control advocate among the black population. When Margaret Sanger complained that the black community “still breed(s) carelessly and disastrously,”3 it was a line she’d borrowed from Du Bois. The “Negro Project,” which serves as Exhibit A in most efforts to demonstrate Sanger’s racism was nowhere near as insidious as many Sanger opponents make it out to be, nor was it even implemented according to her wishes. This is how Sanger explained the project in a letter to Mary McLeod Bethune, a black social activist and educator:
With our limited means we can only go out to educate your educators with the hope in our hearts that they in turn will feel the responsibility of the message of enlightenment to pass on down to those next to them. So far we are heartily encouraged and we do believe that we will show in a short time a diminution of the death rates of mothers and children among the colored people, that with fewer children there will be better opportunities for those that are here, better educational advantages, better clothing, food, and higher standards of living. If we can hold the birth rate in check for twenty years and have only the number that can be adequately provided for and decently educated, you would live to see the day that your own people would have the respect and consideration due them.4
Much has been made of a 1939 letter to a colleague in which Sanger wrote, “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.”5 Taken out of context, you can see how this statement would raise some eyebrows. But the facts themselves paint a different picture. By every indication, Sanger’s awkwardly-worded statement should be taken at face value. She didn’t want the black community, which was highly suspicious of birth control, to wrongly view it as a mechanism for extermination. That’s why Sanger wanted to hand the project over to black ministers and physicians.
Du Bois himself lamented the black community’s distrust of birth control, writing in 1932, that “The mass of Negroes know almost nothing about the birth control movement, and even intelligent colored people have a good many misapprehensions and a good deal of fear at openly learning about it.”6 When Sanger wrote to thank a donor for helping to fund the Negro Project, she expressed hope that their efforts would help the black community “maintain better standards of health and living for those already born, and to create better opportunities for those who will be born.”7
If we are going to charge Margaret Sanger with racism, we must more narrowly define the term. Specifically, there are two fronts on which Sanger’s behavior is open to criticism. First, she was prone to paternalism, as evidenced by her insistence that the black community had a “responsibility” to embrace birth control. Of course, Sanger believed that every community had a responsibility to embrace birth control, and she had little tolerance for anyone who disagreed with her. Second, Sanger demonstrated a willingness to pander to racist sensibilities if it would help advance her agenda. Sanger, it seemed, would say or do almost anything in the service of birth control. Esther Katz, who founded the Margaret Sanger Papers Project and edited The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, writes that Sanger used “language that appealed both to eugenicists fearful of unchecked black fertility and progressives committed to shepherding African Americans into middle-class culture.”8
In a very real sense, Margaret Sanger’s racism was ahead of its time—and I don’t mean that as a compliment. She demonstrated the soft bigotry of low expectations long before it was a named entity, but this more subtle form of prejudice is a far cry from actively trying to exterminate a group of people. We can and should condemn Sanger’s eugenic leanings, but we must also remember that Sanger never advocated for the taking of human life. This is what separated Sanger’s eugenics from that of the Nazis. In her letters and journal entries, Sanger decried the madness of Adolf Hitler. In a 1939 speech, she declared Nazism to be a “twin sister to Communism” and spoke of the necessity to “combat the advance of Nazism”—“by every means available.”9 In a 1944 letter, she wrote that “Hitler and his thugs” were “creatures of some Evil Force,” and unless that Force is destroyed, “more Hitlers will continue to live.”10 Here again, and despite what you may have heard, Margaret Sanger was no Hitler. Esther Katz summarizes the dichotomy of Sanger’s position this way:
[Margaret Sanger] failed to recognize the insidious parallels between her attempts to discourage reproduction among those individuals likely to pass on mental disease or physical defect and the Nazi’s race-infused eugenic beliefs underlying their efforts to expel or exterminate not just these groups but Jews and other racial minorities as well. Sanger had expressed outrage over the Nazi persecution of the Jews and spent several years trying to help Jewish physicians and birth control advocates escape Germany, Austria, and Eastern Europe, but she seemed not to realize the link between her eugenic discourse on improving the health of the population and Nazi racial purity programs.11
Margaret Sanger wasn’t anti-black or anti-Jew, though we might say she was anti-people. She certainly wanted fewer of us around, and saw the “swarming, spawning millions”12 as a burden, not a blessing. In that sense, Sanger’s bigotry was far broader than even her staunchest detractors generally realize. Whether she ever contemplated it or not, Margaret Sanger made it her life’s ambition to prevent the births of children just like her. If her own parents had followed the advice she would so vehemently come to espouse, Sanger herself would have never been born.
Children born to large impoverished families, Sanger assured us, never amount to anything. They merely drain preciously scarce resources. And yet there she was, an open refutation to her own eugenic calculations. Was it the superiority of her genetic stock that allowed Sanger to escape her environment and become one of the most recognized and revered women of her time? Or did the trials and tribulations in which Sanger was raised actually fuel the relentless determination that made her so successful as an activist and fundraiser?
In doing herself what she claimed all others to be incapable of, Sanger may have formed the basis for her own brand of messianic narcissism. She could be charming to her global network of acquaintances, but she was also cantankerous and contentious—and extremely opportunistic. She embraced people, beliefs, and social structures according to their usefulness, and when they ceased being useful, she cast them off. When it served her interests to be a Socialist, she was a Socialist. When it didn’t, she wasn’t. And the same goes for anarchism, feminism, pacifism, and even capitalism. She largely abandoned her socialist convictions and working-class credentials, for the sake of birth control—and perhaps for the opportunity to marry an old, rich Republican who funded both her lavish lifestyle and her social activism on remarkably easy terms.
As you see, I am no fan of Margaret Sanger or her religious devotion to birth control, but I’ve come to realize that many of the accusations against her have been grossly exaggerated. Anyone who makes her out to be a Hitler or a Stalin is running roughshod over the historic record. That is both dangerous and dishonest. In today’s political climate, calling someone a racist or a Nazi is often nothing more than a lazy way of disparaging an ideological opponent. Those with right-leaning political convictions quickly cry foul when such dispersions are cast their way, but are we perhaps doing the same thing with regard to Margaret Sanger? Those who profit from the violent deaths of unborn children are ready to pounce on any false statement that abortion opponents make—no matter how big or small, which is why we must never be guilty of simply recycling politically-useful hearsay. Do the research. Verify the sources. Think critically. If we don’t, we sacrifice our credibility, and credibility is not something we can afford to spare.
Margaret Sanger, 1934 letter to Sidney L. Kassel Jr., The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 2, Ed. Esther Katz (2006), 278.
Martin Luther King, Jr, Margaret Sanger Award 1966, Delivered by Coretta Scott King on May 10, 1966.
Margaret Sanger, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 14.
Margaret Sanger, 1942 letter to Mary McLeod Bethune, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 131.
Margaret Sanger, 1939 letter to Clarence James Gamble, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 25-26.
W.E.B. Du Bois, Quoted in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 27.
Margaret Sanger, 1942 letter to Albert Lasker, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 136-137.
Esther Katz, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 14.
Margaret Sanger, “Hitler and War’ Speech Manuscript (1939) The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 34-35.
Margaret Sanger, 1944 letter to Juliet Barrett Rublee, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 173.
Esther Katz, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 111.
Margaret Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization (Public Domain. Kindle Edition, 1922, 2013), LOC 1344.
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