If You’re Forced To Have A Baby, Don’t Throw It Out With The Bathwater (Or, Of Margaret Sanger & Eugenics)

margaret-sanger-1927In Margaret Sanger in Context, Tracey McCormick defends the vilified Margaret Sanger. Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood and advocated for planned parenting & birth control before women even had the right to vote, is often misquoted or quoted out of context.

McCormick takes up defense of Sanger against New Jersey Congressman Christopher Smith’s quoting of Sanger from Sanger’s book, Woman and the New Race (1920): “The most merciful things a family does for one of its infant members is to kill it.”

This is McCormick’s response:

The line in question comes from Chapter 5, “The Wickedness of Creating Large Families.” Upon closer inspection, we see that Congressman Smith has left out the word “large” before family.

…But what if we read the entire paragraph or even the whole chapter?

…Apparently she hated miner families. Excessive childbirth in these families caused ill health in mothers, financial hardship to fathers, and I’ll quote directly for its effect on the children: “In the United States, some 300,000 children under one year of age die each twelve months. Approximately ninety per cent of these deaths are directly or indirectly due to malnutrition, to other diseased conditions resulting from poverty, or to excessive childbearing by the mother.

To demonstrate her hate, Sanger provides us mortality statistics of miner children, quotes a study by Arthur Geissler, which was later cited by Dr. Alfred Ploetz before the First International Eugenic Congress. (Eugenics is a scary word; if we took it out of context we’d realize that that’s what Hitler was up to. And if we practiced some really sloppy thinking, we’d say Sanger = Hitler. But we’re much smarter than that.)

To return to the statistics of children surviving through their first year. The first five children of these large miner families had about a 75% survival rate. The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-born approach a 70% survival rate. The eighth and ninth, about a 65% chance. The tenth, 60%; the eleventh, 50%; and the twelfth, 40%.

Five sentences later, Sanger drops her bomb: “The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”

I didn’t know the woman personally, but I don’t think Sanger was a proponent of infanticide: I think she was trying to say and do something about the infant mortality rate. But you shouldn’t believe me. This is, after all, nothing more than a 750-word soundbite.

For context, you can read the entire chapter here.

For more-more context, the entire book, Woman and the New Race, is available here.

If you have four hours to spare, you can watch the entire hearing, “New Beginnings: Foreign Policy Priorities in the Obama Administration,” here. (Thanks, C-Span!)

Then, you’ll have context of Sanger and her relationship to “New Beginnings.

I applaud McCormick for taking up the fight here — both in terms of Sanger specifically and the issue of context in general. But one thing is missing from this conversation: The subject of eugenics itself.

The word “eugenics” has become an ugly thing, and rightfully so; but it too has its own context which must be understood. Understanding the context & origins of eugenics is key not only to understanding Sanger (and others), but its lessons are the epitome of the cornerstone of studying history: So that we do not repeat it.

Eugenics should not be simply or only equated with racism or even a scientific excuse for racism; that fine institution, racism, had already been in long practice. Eugenics has been around since the dawn of man; ancient societies, of all races, practiced infanticide for such purposes and Plato advocated that human reproduction should be monitored and controlled by the state. At the root of eugenics is a drive to improve human genetic qualities, better sustain the species, which includes everything from prenatal care for mothers to euthanasia.

But, yeah; racism sure was a part of eugenics for many.

American eugenics, as we speak of it here (referring to movements and social policies), was born in a post Civil War world where rapid growth of industrialization (including the increased mechanization of agriculture) created the first major migration away from farms, including former slaves. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution there were a plethora of problems from such rapid urban growth. Cities were unable to keep up with the increasing populations; the exploitation of labor created militant labor organizations; swings in prices bankrupted many businesses — all of this led, in 1873, to a series of depressions which occurred roughly every decade through the early 1900s.

The depressions further fueled labor & over population issues, which were then additionally burdened by huge waves of immigrants (especially from southern and eastern Europe), which peaked just before World War I (and again after the war too). Then, as today, many Americans began to resent immigrants “stealing” their jobs, their housing, and even their spots in charity programs.

At first, “the poor” and the social & economic problems were, philosophically and physically (via social work, charity organizations, churches, etc.), addressed by Social Darwinism, the application (if not perversion) of Charles Darwin’s biological theory. While Darwin himself did not extend his theories to either social or economic levels, many educated people believed that “survival of the fittest” applied to (and therefore could be used to explain as well as manipulate) social and economic inequalities. But the irony was that the wealthy & powerful, “the fittest,” were endangered. Not only were the working class and the poverty stricken organizing themselves against the wealthy, but a declining birthrate among the captains of industry meant that the lower classes were out-reproducing them too.

Enter progressivism.

Progressive reformers believe(d) in the increased role of government to manage & plan for economic and social issues. Beneath working for the passage of legislation advancing the rights of the newly freed slaves; the establishment of labor unions, child-labor protections, & minimum wage laws; conservation of natural resources; direct elections in primaries, fairer taxation, & control of lobbyists; legislation to control monopolies, banking reform, & trust-busting; and working for women’s suffrage, lay science. (And a managerial class of educated experts capable of long-range planning.)

It didn’t take much for progressive reformers to convert inventive Americans to a strong faith in science as the way to address the problems plaguing the country. This opened the door, using the new science of genetics to spawn an even newer science of social engineering — eugenics. If genetics held the key to such things as alcoholism, criminality, “feeble-mindedness,” and poverty, eugenicists argued, society, who paid a high price caring for such individuals and their issues, should invest in the knowledge & planning to ensure a better genetic America.


Some went as far as to say that sterilization of one “defective” adult could save society thousands of dollars over future generations. So when researchers became interested in the heritability of such illnesses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression, the findings of their studies were used by the eugenics movement as proof of its legitimacy, prompting state laws prohibiting marriages for and forced sterilization of the mentally ill in order to prevent the “passing on” of mental illness to the next generation. (These laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 1927 and were not abolished until the mid-20th century.)


Now remember the afore mentioned context; not only were social & economic issues a matter of The Haves & The Have Nots, but great tension arose from the fears of going from the former to the latter. The power of labor unions & the rise of the American socialist party combined with world events such as the successful Bolshevik Revolution, increased these fears, inspiring the wealthy to support eugenics. As today, funding for research & media meant that the wealthy could steer, if not actually dictate, the work of eugenicists. The repugnance for class struggles and political radicalism certainly figured into eugenics, resulting in selective immigration restriction.


In short, eugenics put such a focus on defective genes, individuals, and ethnic groups that it removed the focus from all the problems of the structure of American society itself. And the copious amounts of “scientific evidence” for eugenics being the rational and efficient plan for a harmonious future allowed the wealthiest in society to feel justified in blaming & controlling the victims.

I won’t go so far as to say that Margret Sanger was only philosophically identified with eugenics from the point of view of individual families using birth control to combat their economic & societal problems; there’s too much evidence that Sanger was into eugenics far deeper (& dirtier) than that. (While her work with The Negro Project & her acceptance of invitations to speak to women in the KKK remain controversial, there’s no arguing that Sanger was an eugenicist, including a proponent of using immigration laws to keep out those with “objectionable traits”.) I’m not even saying we should forgive & forget Sanger’s association eugenics because it gave us birth control. I’m saying we have to look at the context of the times — societal issues & individual concerns, education & prevailing science, fears & beliefs. And it’s clear that for a century, from the mid-1800’s through the mid-1900’s, eugenics was a huge part of the culture. So I think we should if not forgive, then at least not entirely condemn; but we certainly should not forget — not to be kind, but to see… To not dismiss. As Garland E. Allen wrote:

The problem with demonizing the older American eugenicists (many of whom thought they were taking the most modern, scientific and progressive approach to social problems) is that we distance ourselves from them and so can easily fall prey to our own biases today.

Margaret Sanger was not perfect. But looking at her life & work in context we are able to admire what is valid and also learn to accept the warnings we must heed about what is not valid.

Why We Vilify Single Moms

When I was in college I was a single parent. Finding myself struggling personally with the demands of continuing education and single parenting (a special needs child too yet) was challenging enough; but this was at the time that Tommy Thompson was governor & he made bashing single moms & welfare a public sport. (Yeah, some of us fought back; like the Welfare Warriors.)

It was incomprehensible how those of us left with children were not only held accountable while biological dads walked away Scott-free, but were to blame for all of society’s ills. Even those who raised children alone by design & without public assistance were vilified, a la Murphy Brown. It wasn’t just moral outrage (though that did & does exist); it wasn’t an ignorance — these were educated people saddling us with unrealistic responsibilities and ludicrous outcomes. We were being scapegoated with such an intensity that it must be hiding a deep fear of some sort… Was it simply another way to display the classic fear & hatred of “female,” or was there more?

It got me thinking: Certainly being a single parent had never been easy, but had it ever been easier? At least from a societal point of view?

A classmate & friend, another single mother herself (shout-out to Vicki Davidson, if she can hear me!), decided to investigate. What we found would later be presented at one of those extra-curricular brown-nosing events (in the history department, which didn’t help with any of our majors; but we did, I will say, impress the department staff with work that, I quote, “was at or above masters work”).

What we discovered, was that the vilification of women having (&/or raising) babies out of wedlock dated back to Victorian times. This may not surprise many who would attach such times to the origins of our currently held morality — but it wasn’t (at least entirely) Queen Victoria’s morality that had done the deed & made single mothers dirty; it was mainly a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution.

Before the Industrial Revolution, children had great value in farming; any additional mouths you have to feed come with additional, literal, farm hands. Mom, dad, older siblings still did their work as they watched the littler ones; little ones automatically observed the work and therefore received on-the-job training under the auspices of childcare. Large families meant there was no need to hire help — and mom & dad were assured someone would be there to care for them as they aged.

This, more than church-hurled slurs about paganism, is the more practical reason why when Mr. or Mrs. Farmer wandered down to the next farm for a roll in the hay, no one worried about an illegitimate child. Why fuss about Mrs. Farmer being knocked up by a neighboring farmer when it’s just more farm hands? Especially when you spotted proof of your own afternoon delight working at a neighbor’s farm. (It was not uncommon for casual acknowledgment of such situations; no rows ensued, unless someone wanted those little hands for their own farms. And it begs for some research regarding jokes about the farmer’s daughters.)

But the rapid growth of industry, including the increased mechanization of agriculture, created the first major migration away from farms to cities and changed everything.


Among the many problems with such rapid urbanization comes the devaluation of children. Children are not only less desirable industrial workers (especially after childhood labor reform acts), but they also become an economic drain; more mouths to feed, but no automatic work hands.

As Nicole Lemieux wrote:

From 1861 through 1885, several Acts were instituted which significantly affected the working-class mother. The first of these Acts was the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. According to Carol Smart, in her essay “Disruptive Bodies and Unruly Sex: The Regulation of Reproduction and Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century,” this was established to deal with “rape, procuring, carnal knowledge, abortion, concealment of birth and exposing children to danger” (13). Throughout the nineteenth century, incidents of infanticide were continually on the rise, in large part because little was done to convict the guilty party. Violent acts by desperate working-class women resulted in a movement to put more emphasis on holding someone, namely the mother, responsible for these deaths came to a head with the passing of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. As working-class women oftentimes found themselves financially challenged, they would accordingly find themselves financially unable to support their children (Smart 17). Women who gave birth to illegitimate children found themselves in a particularly questionable situation. On the one hand, if a woman kept the baby, she would likely be unable to properly provide for it; however, if she concealed her pregnancy and abandoned the child, she would be held liable, with the potential of being sentenced to hang, regardless of whether the baby was born alive or dead (Smart 16). Women who had children out of wedlock, who were unable to financially support their children had to face the difficult decision whether to keep the child or turn the infant over to another’s care, thus avoiding the repercussions of being found guilty of infanticide.

But what of the children?

Those visions you may have of beautiful Victorian cherub-children, the history which boasts of Victorian times “finally” bringing about children’s toys & a time “when children could finally be children,” these are not representative of most children. The average child in Victorian times was trapped the poverty, grime & disease of the Industrial Revolution — just as their parents were. The juxtaposition of the images isn’t graphic fantasy; there were two worlds. (Just as there were two worlds in terms of Victorian morals & sexuality; but that is for another time.)

birthday-holiday-greeting-victorian victorian-child

The wealthy children may have found themselves clean, well dressed & with plenty of playtime on their hands, but most rural children spend their time hungry & packed in one room with 3-9 siblings & their parents or working as hard as their parents to ensure the family’s survival. And those were the lucky ones. Some went to prison — yes, children went to prison for their crimes, and some were even hung for them.


Disease & injury at work, along with other conditions of urban poverty, did leave some children orphaned; and with no family nearby, or none willing & able to take them in, there became the street urchins of Oliver Twist tales. However, orphans were not the only urchins running the streets.

vistorian-street-children-called-street-arabsAlong with orphans, there were abandoned children & children of the homeless living on the streets. The streets were littered with trash & children (including some children who were there just trying to help their families eek out a living). These children were often called “street Arabs,” an ethnic slur for nomadic activities that weren’t understood.

To care for the orphaned & stray children, the Victorians built many large orphanages (along with lunatic asylums and infirmaries to house, if not care for, those unable to work, and workhouses).

Once built, orphanages housed more then orphaned & abandoned children. Poor mothers and fathers negotiated with institutions to place their children there temporarily, for assistance to overcome short-term family and economic crises. These children were called the “ins and outs” or “casual children” because of there frequent short stays at institutions.

As you can imagine, what with all the popular “fallen woman” & prostitution stories from this time, a large number of casual children came from single parent households. Not all single parents were unwed or even single mothers. Some single parent situations were created by deaths, of course, but it was also not that uncommon for one parent to be institutionalized, put in a dreaded workhouse, or in prison; leaving the other parent to fend for themselves and the children alone. But single mothers were among the majority of those who used the orphanages as temporary shelter for their children or abandoned them there entirely. Some even used the institutions as a sort of childcare; placing their children there while they went to work as live-in maids etc., visiting the children on days off.

Whether these buildings were public works or run by private charities, at some point people began to stand up and ask themselves, “Why am I paying to support someone else’s child?”

Great pains were taken to interrogate mothers & the children themselves to ascertain the name of the father, so that he could be held accountable. This meant financially responsible — but not in payments or support of any kind to the child or the mother herself; no, responsibility was only a matter of repaying the state or institution, or claiming the child so that the father’s household supported the child. In cases of wealthy fathers, women were sometimes paid not to name them, lest wives or potential wives would use the current morality to dismiss the marriage or diminish (shame) them socially. (This is the start of many of those fantasies of a wealthy parent who will come for a child & rescue them.)

More then simple resentment at having to part with money though, the was another moral issue: Poverty.

workhouse-womenPoverty was seen as a character defect; not a circumstance. The poor were poor because they were vagrants, drunkards, morally bankrupt prostitutes, etc., and when it came to their children it wasn’t only that no one wanted to fork over their money to feed a little hungry mouth they did not create, it was a mistrust of the irresponsibility involved.

Because it’s always been easier to vilify victims than to address the problematic social structure.

The most offensive & objectionable children the charitable organizations & social institutions served were the casual children who went back & forth between decent orphanages and “no good” poor parents. These children were commonly referred to as sources of “evil,” suggestive of their status as disease carriers & corruptors of morality (including alleged sexual knowledge), infecting the innocent & redeemable orphaned & abandoned children. It was the attitudes about these casual children which actually infected the general society with a sense of distrust about orphanages.

orphaned-street-childrenTo combat societal distrust, reformers & social workers began PR campaigns to paint all the children in orphanages as orphans and strays. This may have begun simply to improve the images of orphanages & garner funds, to distance the children themselves from the sins of their pauper parents, but in many cases the positive spin shifted to advocating legislation.

Attempts were made by so-called social reformers to do away with casual children by removing their parents from the picture, making them into situational orphans, often using legal maneuvers & legislation to prevent pauper parents from having rights to their children. Such removal of parental rights was, understandably, feared even more than being sent to the workhouses and argued against. But the legislation was pushed hard by many. One of the reformers, Florence Hill, put it this way, “Parents who have cast the burden of their children on the State should not be free to interrupt their being made good citizens, for evil purposes of their own.”

But in their quest to increase charity and government aid to children, such reformers cast the poor not only in a poor light but cast them even further away from the Victorian social body. The poor became even more disenfranchised, more vilified.

victorian_mother_and_childAnd this, my friends, is why single mothers continue to be scapegoated today. The poor continue to be judged as possessing character defects, children remain an economic drain — or “investment” if you prefer (so much money in before you might expect any return), and society doesn’t want to help with either the investment in those children or take a serious look at the very structure of society which in all actuality creates the poverty in the first place.

This is made worse for single mothers who continue (despite scientific knowledge to the contrary) to be blamed for bringing their children into this world. Ironically, the very women we blame for (further) impoverishing themselves by having children have the least access to family planning, are the most restricted regarding exercising their rights to their own bodies, and continue to be courted by religious & “moral majority” groups who judge, condemn, & ostracize them.

History repeats, continues, if we do not learn from it.

Naughty Secretaries Vs. Bosses Gone Bad

The myth of the naughty secretary was created & used to perpetuate fears among Victorian housewives, who, as the arbitrators and guardians of morality, were thought to be able to dictate who took dictation via two paths.

One path was the ability to hen peck their husbands’ hiring practices, and therefore not have female applicants get picked for the jobs. (Often women would suggest male candidates, as they needed to support families — or have enough income to get married.)

The other path was to pressure their ‘sisters’ into conforming to womanly virtue. Like their Chinese counterparts, women would bind their sisters’ economic feet — only through lecture, condemnation, and societal pursuit. But women would be hobbled just the same — and, as males preferred, the women would direct their anger and blame at the feet of their sisters. (Like foot binding, this female-on-female action would only further divide the sisterhood of women, fracturing bonds of trust and creating suspicion among women — which only added to resistance of the messages & mantras of moralistic matrons as well as causing the matrons to believe that women who wanted or needed to work were of poor virtue, ready & willing to debase men and even steal husbands.)

Case-by-case analysis of individual hen pecked husbands & women worried into conformity aside, the plan not only failed (as evidenced by more women continuing to enter the work force for years to come), but backfired into male & female belief that women who did seek employment outside of hearth & home were of poor virtue and suitable not only for dictation but dick-takin’.

Of course, the sexually harassed and abused women found little-to-no comfort or assistance regarding their complains in the arms of their sisters; for in their eyes the secretaries were seen as having it coming (if not the perpetrators of sin themselves, seducing men into indiscriminate behaviors).

Insert jokes about naughty secretaries (and naughty maids), such as these vintage French mechanical cards below, which carried the same weight and purpose in the 1950s atomic age as they did in Victorian times. After all, the concerns were the same.