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Progress ideology, colonial racism, right to life and family planning

Source of illustration

Progress ideology and colonial racism in 19th, 20th and 21st century US politics

Margaret Sanger, nurse, feminist, and family planning pioneer, has been accused of a racist agenda to reduce the black population of the US, but this is to single her out unfairly among her peers. Her project was really a neo-malthusian one which attempted to empower poor women, black or white. Her most strongly held policy was that it was up to the woman to decide whether she wanted a child or not.

She has been quoted as if she were advocating eugenics for the black population of the US but that case: "We do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten that idea out if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members," [Source:Robert Marshall and Charles Donovan, Blessed Are The Barren; The Social Policy of Planned Parenthood, Ignatius Press, 1991, pp. 17-18.] relies on misinterpretation. It seems pretty clear that Sanger, despite her upper social-class blinkers, was attempting to empower black women by appealing to black spokespeople so that US blacks would not mistaken her efforts as eugenicist. She succeeded and one of her spokespersons was Martin Luther King.

Right to Life and similar associations have often mis-used the above quote as a political tool against contraception, abortion and feminism, but pro-life banning of abortion and contraception has been misused in turn to promote large populations of labourers among the dispossessed for centuries. They have also been used to promote war - for instance by Hitler and Petain. In these cases, rather than look at racism in pro-lifers or in neo-malthusians, it would be better to ask the question, "Who benefits?"

Racist ideology then and now

The ruling classes of the 19th and 20th century colonial world used racist ideology to justify as progress the empire's oppression of the peoples it dispossessed. Most people accepted this ideology without question, because they learned it from the newspapers, from schools, and in universities. How could millions of immigrants have justified the massive dispossession of Indian nationals, Indian Americans, Black Africans and Aboriginal Australians and the disempowerment and political disruption of Chinese and Japanese, Pacific Islanders and so many others - in any other way? Otherwise intelligent people rarely had occasion to question this view of the world, without which so-called 'economic progress' could not and cannot continue. Humanitarians among the upper classes saw it as their duty to assist the unfortunate or the oppressed to rise somehow out of what was seen as their natural and historical state. Most of the time they would not have had any idea of the depths to which their own governments sank. See for instance this record of experiments on Africans by the US government until 1972.

The Celts as backward peoples

Malthus himself evolved his political theory in a society where the Irish were deemed congenitally stupid and recalcitrant and this had been used as an excuse from Elizabeth 1's time to dispossess them violently, destroy their forests for wood, and force them to labour for Anglo-settlers. A reading of Chrétien de Troyes' Le Conte du Graal (written in 1179) will show that, in Roman times on the continent, Celts were treated as hapless fools as well by their Roman dispossessors,

"Sire, sachiez tot entresait
Que Galois sont tuit par nature
Plus fol que bestes en pasture."

["Sire, everyone knows that Celts are all by nature sillier than grazing cattle"]

( Source: Chrétien de Troyes, Le Conte du Graal[1179], ed. Charles Mela, Livre de Poche ( Lettres Gothiques 14 ), Paris, 1990v. 236-238 )".

Depending on the sectarian perspective, in the past and today, 'improvement' might be brought by 'bringing civilisation' as the Romans called it, preaching Christian or other religions, through education, through the provision of 'jobs' and industry, through hygiene and mechanised agriculture. Anything but returning land to people and getting out of their countries. Anything, even promoting larger populations of the dispossessed and the new possessors, which can only, of course, make things worse for all.

There is little difference between colonial ideology and corporate ideology in globalism, as we can observe in so many examples - from the ongoing calvary of 'free' Nigerians living near Nigerian oil-fields or of Australians in Australia (which remains a British possession), as land-prices and population are inflated to please property developers and mainstream press (which markets property), contributing to the re-dispossession of black and white Australians alike.

Racism and counter-racism arguments focus away from land-rights and dispossession

Obviously new methods of birth control are a poor second to not stuffing up the original steady-state societies of exploited countries. Malthusian and neomalthusian approaches, however, whilst usually not recognising the original damage and fault, nor restoring land-rights, nonetheless attempt to empower those who, through dispossession and authoritarian population-boosting, are exploited through their numbers and vulnerability.

Most of us swallow culturally vectored political stupidities whole

With any political program, it is necessary to always to look at the pieces that make up the whole, and discard the bits that don't make sense.

Sanger was born in 1879 and died in 1966. Although she had an enlightened attitude to women's rights, which was reflected in support from women who appreciated her efforts on their behalf, like many of her educated fellows, Margaret misinterpreted Darwin's theory in Spencerian terms. Here, for example are her ideas about human development, in which she says ghastly things about Australian Aborigines.

"It is said that a fish as large as a man has a brain no larger than the kernel of an almond. In all fish and reptiles where there is no great brain development, there is also no conscious sexual control. The lower down in the scale of human development we go the less sexual control we find. It is said that the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets." Source: Sanger, What Every Girl Should Know, 1920, p. 47

Ironic in a neo-malthusian, if you know that Malthus's first work was inspired by Joseph Banks's observations about the low birth-rate and small population of Australian aboriginals, whose lot he compared favorably to that of the overpopulous British of the late 18th century. See: "Thomas Malthus and Australian Thought"

Sanger, like most doctors and nurses of her time, was also frightened by masturbation:

In my experience as a trained nurse while attending persons afflicted with various and often revolting diseases, no matter what their ailments, I have never found any one so repulsive as the chronic masturbator. It would be difficult not to fill page upon page of heartrending confessions made by young girls, whose lives were blighted by this pernicious habit, always begun so innocently, for even after they have ceased the habit, they find themselves incapable of any relief in the natural act. [...] Perhaps the greatest physical danger to the chronic masturbator is the inability to perform the sexual act naturally.

Source: Sanger, What Every Girl Should Know, 1920, p. 47

At least she had moved on from the general belief that siphilis was caused by masturbation. In fact she was persecuted for her militant attempts to educate people in how to avoid infection from siphilis and other venereal diseases. Siphilis, in common with HIV, has a long, virtually silent lead-up time. In the pre-antibiotic era it was a leading reason for long-term institutionalisation in physical and mental hospitals, but also for many still-births and congenital malformities. In mental hospitals it was known as 'General paralysis of the insane', cause, 'masturbation'. [Interestingly for Australians, in the first volume of the Australian 3 novel work by Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, writing as Henry Handel Richardson, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930) we read of how the narrator's father, a doctor, was ferried across the Yarra River to the psychiatric hospital ('round the bend') because he had succumbed to general paralysis of the insane.]

Faked photograph

This photograph is faked for ideological purposes; it is a mock-up from Jill Stanek's Pro-life Pulse. There is a website that holds a contest each year for the best PhotoShopped creation depicting the event. It looks like they have expanded to video this year.

There is no real information about the event, no copy of invitations, her speech, or her motivations to talk to the Klan meeting. At the time, the American Birth Control League was trying to organize birth control leagues in NJ and gather support for legislative bills.

Sanger's account of her trip to talk to the Klu Klux Klan

Source:Margaret Sanger, Margaret Sanger An Autobiography 1971 reprint by Dover Publications, Inc. of the 1938 original published by W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 366-367.

"All the world over, in Penang and Skagway, in El Paso and Helsingfors, I have found women's psychology in the matter of childbearing essentially the same, no matter what the class, religion, or economic status. Always to me any aroused group was a good group, and therefore I accepted an invitation to talk to the women's branch of the Ku Klux Klan at Silver Lake, New Jersey, one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing.

My letter of instruction told me what train to take, to walk from the station two blocks straight ahead, then two to the left. I would see a sedan parked in front of a restaurant. If I wished I could have ten minutes for a cup of coffee or bite to eat, because no supper would be served later.

I obeyed orders implicitly, walked the blocks, saw the car, found the restaurant, went in and ordered some cocoa, stayed my allotted ten minutes, then approached the car hesitatingly and spoke to the driver. I received no reply. She might have been totally deaf as far as I was 1 concerned. Mustering up my courage, I climbed in and settled back. Without a turn of the head, a smile, or a word to let me know I was right, she stepped on the self-starter. For fifteen minutes we wound around the streets. It must have been towards six in the afternoon. We took this lonely lane and that through the woods, and an hour later pulled up in a vacant space near a body of water beside a large, unpainted, barnish building.

My driver got out, talked with several other women, then said to me severely, "Wait here. We will come for you." She disappeared. More cars buzzed up the dusty road into the parking place. Occasionally men dropped wives who walked hurriedly and silently within. This went on mystically until night closed down and I was alone in the dark. A few gleams came through chinks in the window curtains. Even though it was May, I grew chillier and chillier.

After three hours I was summoned at last and entered a bright corridor filled with wraps. As someone came out of the hall I saw through the door dim figures parading with banners and illuminated crosses. I waited another twenty minutes. It was warmer and I did not mind so much. Eventually the lights were switched on, the audience seated itself, and I was escorted to the platform, was introduced, and began to speak.

Never before had I looked into a sea of faces like these. 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.

In the end, through simple illustrations I believed I had accomplished my purpose. A dozen invitations to speak to similar groups were proffered. The conversation went on and on, and when we were finally through it was too late to return to New York. Under a curfew law everything in Silver Lake shut at nine o'clock. I could not even send a telegram to let my family know whether I had been thrown in the river or was being held incommunicado. It was nearly one before I reached Trenton, and I spent the night in a hotel."

Sanger can be seen as an imperfect human being like all human beings, but who rose above most of her fellows and did great good with great courage. This document and others available about the context and personages in the history of family planning and population policy are of great importance for human beings to understand the political systems we live in today. They contain both inspirations and cautions.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project is a historical editing project sponsored by the Department of History at New York University. The Project was formed by Dr. Esther Katz in 1985 to locate, arrange, edit, research, and publish the papers of the noted birth control pioneer.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project has published a two-series microfilm edition, the Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition Smith College Collections and the Collected Documents Series. Work on the Smith College Collections entailed the rearrangement and organization of over 50,000 Sanger documents in the Margaret Sanger collection and seventeen other collections at the Sophia Smith Collection and Smith College Archives. Work on the Collected Documents Series included a ten-year international search of over 1,500 archives and private collections, photocopying material and organizing over 9,000 documents for publication. Both series have been published with a printed reel guide that includes an item-level index by University Publications of America, a division of Lexis-Nexis.

The Project is currently working on a four-volume book edition of Sanger's Papers, to be published by the University of Illinois Press. The first two volumes, subtitled The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928 and Birth Control Comes of Age, 1928-1939 have been published.

The Project also published an electronic edition of a small sample of documents related to Sanger's Woman Rebel and is working on a larger electronic edition of Sanger's speeches and articles.

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Robert Engelman,Population, Nature, and What Women Want (Island Press, Washington, DC, 2008). Engelman rejects accusations that Sanger was a racist, about eugenics: "A rebel in so many ways, Sanger disap­points her admirers today not for racial prejudice but for the con­viction that differential genetic endowments threatened progress and justified reproductive coercion. Sanger was overawed by the scientists of her day, and eugenics was seen - inaccurately - as an outgrowth of evolutionary biology. A heroine of reproductive rights, Sanger was nonetheless all too human and all too much a person of her time. Heroes and heroines usually are." (p. 193)