By Ellen Feldman
Authoring a biography of a life lived publicly can be fraught with challenges, among them the question of veracity, as Virginia Woolf artfully and humorously lampooned in Orlando. Harder still is digging deeper into a famous life, down to the emotional self of the person to illuminate the sacrifices a person makes, particularly if the person engages in a virtuous crusade against centuries of belief and tradition, as did Margaret Sanger. Ellen Feldman lifts the title of her novelization of Sanger’s life from her subject’s own words: in the pursuit of a virtuous cause, Sanger suffered in many ways, among them the sacrifice of a home life with her three children, with the haunting self-accusation that she contributed to the death of her daughter, to a broken marriage and love affairs, to alienation of family and friends.
Sanger witnessed firsthand as a girl growing up in Corning, NY, the toll of unlimited childbirth on her mother and her very large family. She also saw that well-off women avoided having a half dozen, even a dozen, children, as did poor women who could ill afford them. She set about learning everything she could about limiting family size, until, while only a visiting nurse, she knew more than most doctors. And unlike those doctors who did understand birth could be prevented with a bit of education, some of whom were familiar with methods used in more liberal European countries, she set about disseminating that information and those methods, particularly the diaphragm (known then as pessary, and earlier as a womb veil). The latter she learned about when pursuit by the federal government under the guise of Anthony Comstock, a U.S. postal inspector dedicated to preserving Victorian morality at nearly any cost, forced her to flee the U.S. for Europe.
A movement like birth control certainly could not be achieved by just one person. As Feldman’s novelization dramatizes, many of the leading radicals of the day and leading society women supported her cause. However, as was illustrated with her coopting of her sisters Ethel’s hunger strike, Sanger was not above directing the spotlight on herself, alienating many, not the least of whom her own sons who wished for a mother, or at least a bit more of her in their young lives. She also wasn’t immune to stumbling down and supporting discredited causes, the most notable being eugenics, though as Feldman has Sanger point out, this was a couple of decades prior its use to eliminate and prevent what one group or another felt were “undesirables,” namely the Nazis, as well as practitioners of serialization in the U.S.
Sanger proved herself, too, to be a woman of interesting contradictions. Socially and philosophy, while herself engaging in her own version of free love, she did not advocate excessive sex, though she did believe, and found this to be true herself, that birth control could allow women to enjoy and better express their sexuality. She enjoyed time with many famous lovers, with the likes of Hugh de Selincourt (Brits will know him), Havelock Ellis, and H.G. Wells appearing in Feldman’s novel. Also, while a woman firmly rooted in the social causes and pleasures of a worldly life, she was a spiritualist, as the final pages of her life illustrate, her particular expression being Rosicrucianism.
Feldman’s novelization follows a linear path from early life, to working life, to death. From time to time, and with great effect and insight, she interjects statements highlighting and criticizing aspects of Sanger’s life. These statements come from her sister Ethel, her sons Stuart and Grant , her first and second husbands, her legal defender and lover J.J. Goldstein, as well as others, and serve to add dimension showing the effect she and her driven determination had on those close to her.
All in all, Feldman’s novel is a worthwhile and at times penetrating look at a woman who in the eyes of many changed the world for the better by starting a campaign that by no means is anywhere near over. w/c