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Margaret Sanger: Racist or Nah? Let Black Women Decide

Margaret Sanger ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I remember the first time I told someone I wanted to work for Planned Parenthood. I was 15 and had just started my sophomore year of high school. I turned to my friend and said, “I want to work for them someday.” She gave me a puzzled look and said, “You know they’re hella racist, right? The lady who used to run it was in the KKK and she like…wanted to kill black people. They put Planned Parenthoods near poor neighborhoods for that reason.” I was hurt and confused at first, struck with the fear that I had unwittingly been supporting an agent of white supremacy for many years.

I was skeptical of this news and went home that evening, immediately googling “Planned Parenthood Founder,” determined to learn as much about my beloved organization as possible; such a progressive foundation having such divisive roots just didn’t make sense to me. The more I read, the more I realized how misconstrued the historical facts on Planned Parenthood’s founder are.

It is nearing the 101st year since Margaret Sanger, an ardent champion for women’s reproductive rights, opened up our nation’s first birth control clinic. She believed in a woman’s right to control her own fertility, in her own words stating, “Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty.”

Among communities of color, particularly the black community, the legacy of Sanger’s fierce defense of reproductive choice is overshadowed by her enthusiasm for eugenics. Sanger explicitly supported birth control among black and other minority communities, especially after visiting many slums and ghettos of The South, seeing the poor conditions in which large disenfranchised families lived. In her 1946 essay, Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose, she writes, "Last year 40,000 Negro mothers and babies died in childbirth in this country... for the most part, as a result of inadequate medical attention, poor living conditions, improper diet and many other ills, which taken together made for mothers who were poor maternity risks from the start."

"However, historical facts expose these rumors as a drastic, irresponsible and manipulative mishandling of the facts."

Based on her ideals, many believe that she was a racist, genocidal advocate of selective breeding. Rumors of Sanger’s alleged alignment with racial hate groups have long been repeated by Conservative politicians and anti-abortion operatives to recruit minority support for the so-called “pro-life” movement. They do their best to portray her as anti-black and murderously so.

However, historical facts expose these rumors as a drastic, irresponsible and manipulative mishandling of the facts. In 1926, Sanger did accept an invitation to lecture a chapter of The Women of the KKK in Silver Lake, New Jersey to speak on the benefits of birth control and the need for reproductive justice. Though this agreement to meet with the organization was a misstep in terms of building trust among minorities, the truth is, Sanger was far from a supporter of the KKK. She actually seemed to regard them as juvenile and unintelligent. In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger writes of the event, “I was sure that if I uttered one word, such as abortion, outside the usual vocabulary of these women they would go off into hysteria. And so my address that night had to be in the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand.” This disparaging of the group’s collective intelligence does not make her seem like an avid supporter.

"[...] the truth is, Sanger was far from a supporter of the KKK."

Sanger, though a fervent and diligent advocate for the basic principles of eugenics, dismissed the racist aspects and supporters of the social movement as an ugly, misappropriated bastardization of the pseudoscience. Her support for the practice extended as far as selective breeding for ideal physicality and optimum brainpower amongst the human race. Therefore, her address to the Women of the KKK, in which she never even mentioned selective breeding, cannot be classified as an indicator of her sociopolitical allegiance. In fact, there is more evidence to support the idea that Sanger had no real lines drawn in the sand—“always to me any aroused group was a good group”—so long as she saw potential support for her cause, she would speak.

Given this information, why would conservatives and anti-abortion operatives miscommunicate these simple facts and portray Sanger as a violent, hateful racist?

  • To co-opt the black struggle in an effort to gain political capital;
  • To politicize a black woman’s choice to take control of her body; and
  • To present a false ultimatum to black women in which, if we are choosing to take charge of our fertility, especially by opting to go to Planned Parenthood, we are somehow undermining the social progression of Black Americans as a whole

This sets up a dichotomy in which black women, bolstered by misrepresented historical fact, are forced to make political choices about our reproductive health which, for some of us, means we deny ourselves and others of access to vital resources such as abortion, birth control, breast cancer screenings, STI testing and all the other health services Planned Parenthood health centers provide. Without this access, it becomes easier and easier to trap black women in a world where two specifically harmful stereotypes about us—the hyper-sexual Jezebel and the hyper-fertile welfare queen—are easier to perpetuate. These two stereotypes shape the way our sexual health and safety is treated by others, thus creating a cycle in which our needs are neglected both from within and outside of our community.

Margaret Sanger ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Conservative ideology and policy relies on the helplessness that comes from denying women their reproductive rights and the division of minorities and white people. If black women, as a whole, were to become collectively educated on the history of Planned Parenthood and take advantage of its resources, that knowledge could embolden us to join the political front and push for reproductive rights, which would spell trouble for white supremacy and patriarchy.

The fight for women’s liberation and reproductive rights has been put on the backburner of civil rights and social justice movements for far too long. Often, when we bring attention to the needs of our gender, such as proper feminine hygiene care in prisons and reproductive autonomy, we are met with contempt or silence. We are told that we’re being selfish, needy, brainwashed, or even disrespectful. Ironically, black women have a long history as the backbone of these movements, serving as chief strategists and key supporters of their progression.

In situations like opting to get an abortion or calling attention to rape culture, we—black women—are presented with a challenge: stand with our gender or stand with our race. It is made very clear to us on both sides that we cannot occupy the political capital of these two identities at the same time. If we align ourselves with black men on the platform of racial justice, we are undermining the efforts of the suffragettes and creating a deeper, more colorful space in this world for misogyny. If we stand by our fellow femmes and assert our right to our bodily and political autonomy, we are spitting on the legacy of such great civil rights icons as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and/or Huey P. Newton; we are sell-outs, bed-wenches, complacent facilitators of white domination.

Having said that, it is time to let black women steer the conversation on Margaret Sanger. We are more than fully capable of the proper analysis it takes to assume an opinion on the matter. Sanger’s complicated roles in gender advocacy and racial progression do not need to be spoon-fed to us like we’re primary schoolchildren settling into our first lesson on cultural nuance. Co-opting the black struggle to recruit political support in favor of policies that actively seek to deny women their rights is a classic example of racialized, anti-black gender oppression—a phenomenon known as misogynoir.

Black women are capable of extensive political thought and we are watching you; we do not forget the face of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Respect us and do not try to impede our decisions about our bodies.

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