Book Club: Woman Rebel – The Margaret Sanger Story

Now that comic books have become the source material for blockbuster movies, the oft-told story of the maligned and misunderstood superhero should be a familiar one, even to many who have never read a comic. Think Professor Xavier’s cohort in the X-Men movies or Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. They’re extraordinary. They’re also flawed, often unable to shake the ghosts of an uneasy past. But their powers, not their shortcomings, are the reason they’re so maligned. No matter their good intentions, they challenge what is known and established, earning them fear and distrust.


Bagge’s graphic novel is a refreshing contribution to a medium that is often a guilty pleasure at best.


Given that trope, maybe it wasn’t such an odd idea to give the comic book treatment to the life of Margaret Sanger, the reproductive rights pioneer and founder of Planned Parenthood. Writer and illustrator Peter Bagge, a veteran of alternative comics, does just that in Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013). The outcome is a graphic novel that doesn’t let exaggerated expressions, vivid colors, and terse speech bubbles derail an intelligent and sensitive retelling of Sanger’s life.

Comparing Sanger to a superhero might be hyperbole, but Sanger’s trailblazing work not only created the movement to advocate for birth control but also spurred the development of the oral contraceptive, or “the Pill.” She had the drive and the know-how to contribute to the movement as an author, editor, lecturer, and founder of a reproductive health clinic. Along the way, Sanger helped change the laws that stood in the way of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy, while rubbing shoulders (and sometimes developing romances) with many luminaries of her time, from novelists to political agitators to wealthy industrialists. March is Women’s History Month, and this year’s theme is Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment — a theme perfect for someone of Sanger’s stature. Sanger’s visionary efforts earned her many accolades — as well as a campaign of character assassination that has called her everything from a fascist to a proponent of genocide.

In the first several pages of Woman Rebel, it’s apparent that Bagge knows how to handle this biography, deftly dramatizing episodes from Sanger’s life that reveal how she arrived at her views. We see a childhood among several siblings, with a father whose income is not steady enough to support his family, especially as it keeps growing. We see a mother whose life and health are always on the brink of falling apart as pregnancy after pregnancy results in more births and more miscarriages. With each pregnancy, Margaret fears for her mother’s well-being.

In spite of the family’s limited income, Margaret experiences a lucky turning point in her life when she gets into a private school, Claverback College, through the help of her sisters and a work-study program. It’s at Claverback that she learns she has a knack for persuasion — and the resolve to stand by her ideas even when her classmates find them radical or bizarre.

Claverback gives Sanger the academic boost to pursue a career in nursing later. As a nurse, Sanger sees the challenges her mother faced writ large. Working in impoverished neighborhoods in New York City, she sees first-hand the life-threatening effects of complicated pregnancies, and she quickly becomes outraged at the laws that forbid her and the doctor who employs her from providing advice on birth control. She knows that the advice would save lives — and give the families in these impoverished neighborhoods a better chance at survival and social mobility by putting child-rearing in line with financial readiness.

It was that outrage, combined with her early involvement with the radical leftist Emma Goldman, that turned Sanger into the advocate we know today. Bagge does excellent work fitting Sanger’s political thought into speech bubbles, which don’t lend themselves well to a lot of elaboration. He is at his best when he portrays Sanger delivering a speech at the Park Theater in New York in 1921: “Tonight I’d like to discuss the morality of birth control. When one acts recklessly and irresponsibly we regard such behavior as immoral … except, we’re told, when it comes to procreation.” At the same time, Bagge stays true to the comic form. Nonfiction graphic novels (a seeming oxymoron, but they exist) run the risk of reading like drastically abridged history texts that are awkwardly mashed together with sequential illustrations that distract more than they illuminate or entertain. Sometimes the idea doesn’t gel — but not this time. Bagge captures both the spirit and intellect of Margaret Sanger in his graphic novel. Nonetheless, there’s room for more commentary, which he takes the time to write in his afterword, “Why Sanger?”

Bagge’s afterword answers how and why he decided to write about Sanger, explaining among other things where he used his artistic license. More importantly, he addresses many of the accusations that have been leveled against Sanger. After using his graphic novel to tell her story as accurately as the medium allows, he uses his afterword to expose the lies that have been told about her. Even though her first marriage was to a Jewish man, she was a Japanophile and repeat visitor to Japan, she once fired a nurse who made a racist comment about black patients, and in many other ways showed her inclusiveness and forward thinking on race and ethnicity, her critics have accused Sanger of being an advocate of ethnic cleansing, due in large part to her association with the eugenics movement. Bagge takes this accusation head on:

Yet another irony is her association with the eugenics movement, which her critics often use as evidence that she was an advocate of “ethnic cleansing” and a hero of Hitler’s (her books were among the very first to be banned by the Nazis, in fact). One would never know it by the hysterical way the subject is discussed today, but there was no uniform “school” of eugenic thought — rather, it was a catch-all term for a set of practices its proponents believed would improve the human gene pool, including nutrition, hygiene, environmental protection, prenatal care, and, of course, birth control, all now universally acceptable. In fact, most eugenics advocates of the early 1920s (including several U.S. presidents) didn’t regard Sanger as a legitimate spokesperson for the movement at all, partly due to her refusal to acknowledge ethnicity as any kind of measure of human “fitness.”

Bagge’s graphic novel is worth picking up just for its afterword, which sets the record straight about Sanger, addressing many of the most repeated accusations and criticisms Sanger has faced both then and now. As a whole, the work is a refreshing contribution to a medium that is often a guilty pleasure at best. Women are significantly underrepresented in comic books and are frequently secondary, less powerful characters who are sexually objectified; and works like Michael Sheyahshe’s Native Americans in Comic Books: A Critical Study give us painful reminders of how poorly the medium does on other counts. While honest about her stubbornness and other flaws, Bagge’s work is an important step in redeeming Margaret Sanger from the relentless smear campaign against her, and it’s a welcome alternative in a medium with a questionable track record.

23 thoughts on “Book Club: Woman Rebel – The Margaret Sanger Story

  1. “and in many other ways showed her inclusiveness and forward thinking on race and ethnicity, her critics have accused Sanger of being an advocate of ethnic cleansing, due in large part to her association with the eugenics movement.”

    I could pick a hundred quotes that proved that this is a lie, but here’s one in particular that sticks out:

    “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. According to one writer, the rapist has just enough brain development to raise him above the animal, but like the animal, when in heat knows no law except nature which impels him to procreate whatever the result.”

    And here’s the source: https://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/webedition/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=304923.xml

    Just another racist white feminist that other white feminists will insist on defending and revering until the cows come home. Is the next article in the series ‘Mary Daly: Not Transphobic After All?’

    • Thanks for the citation; I will look into it. l certainly appreciate the groundwork that Sanger laid for family planning and birth control, though when I researched her for the series I wrote on her time in Tucson for this blog I didn’t find her to be entirely likable. I think you underestimate people when you imply that those who defend her from illegitimate character assassination are necessarily mindlessly revering her. There are those of us who can appreciate a warts-and-all description of a complicated historical figure. You seem to be making other assumptions here as well, and I think it is pretty offensive to jump to some of these conclusions.

      My support for Planned Parenthood stems from the important work they do now. I appreciate that some people put a higher priority on the organization’s history and the controversy surrounding its founder than I do. I assume they hold Ford Motors, Procter & Gamble, Tucson Medical Center, and other such entities in similarly low esteem and are just as ready to voice their disdain when the topic comes up.

      • And by the way, equating “called for the forcible sterilizations of people with disabilities” to “not entirely likable” makes you part of the problem. So does the fact that you still don’t seem able to acknowledge the fact that PP has flat-out lied in defense of Sanger.

        • I never said why I found her not to be “entirely likable.” The series l wrote was about her time in Tucson, and focused mainly on her personal life. During my research of this period of her life, l came across descriptions of off-putting aspects of her personality, as well as evidence that she treated her house staff quite poorly. She certainly was a flawed personality in her private life.

          To acknowledge the “flat-out lies” I need to be aware of them, if they exist. In another thread you simply said that the whitepaper linked to in this post was filled with lies, but to my knowledge did not provide support for this claim or cite particular examples of these “lies.”

          Your other comment is in moderation and probably in violation of this site’s commenting policy. l will respond to it soon, but for now l’d like to say that the people here are receptive to friendly disagreement backed up by legit references. Your initial comment was rather hostile, and you implied that we were a bunch of transphobes on top of everything else. That doesn’t stimulate productive dialogue; it shuts down conversation. Speaking personally, I am very interested in productive dialogue and very open to the possibility that Sanger said and did some heinous things. I am not interested in flame wars and we strive to keep the comments section free of them. That doesn’t mean that we don’t allow dissent — we just don’t see this as a place for personal attacks.

          • And part of the problem is that you’ve created an environment in which being called out for racist apologetics is a ‘personal attack’ and can therefore be safely ignored. Why do you think so many WOC feel unwelcome in feminist politics?

            Perhaps you chose not to read my citations, but they were provided. For example, the white paper claimed that “But Sanger always believed that reproductive decisions should be made on an individual and not a social or cultural basis,” whereas in reality she pushed for laws l that would make the sterilization of women with disabilities mandatory. Source: Source: https://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/webedition/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=101807.xml

            I get that it’s more comfortable to write off any criticism of these racist actions as just being right-wing attacks motivated by anti-choice ideology, but the reality is that you’re continuing to defend white supremacy with your actions.

          • Calling out racism isn’t a problem. The problem is using limited information to assume the worst about others. You say I defend white supremacy with my actions. My actions so far, as I see them, have been:

            1) to demand citations for claims that I have thus far only heard from opponents of abortion and birth control
            2) not to have immediately read your citations in full and therefore not yet engaging your claims at this point

            That Sanger could have said and done reprehensible things is not outside the realm of possibility for me. If these are historical facts then I am interested in learning more about them, and I am going through your sources on my own timetable, taking into account my other obligations.

      • I’m confused- where did you get the idea I disliked Planned Parenthood? To the contrary, I donate money to it every year. I would consider myself a very strong supporter of the organization.

        That doesn’t mean I approve of everything it does; for example, publishing flat-out lies in defense of its racist, colonialist, genocide-apologist founder. Sanger did not support women’s reproductive freedom; she supported reproductive freedom for white upper-class neurotypical women. For other women she supported mandatory sterilization, forcible abortions, and internment in concentration camps.

        To pretend that working to help white upper-class neurotypical women and working to help all women are the same is racist, classist, and ableist, and that’s what you, this article, and Planned Parenthood continue to be.

        • I got the idea that you disliked Planned Parenthood from a comment you said in another thread, which is unprintable here. (I asked the communications department about f-bombs before, and was not given the green light.)

          To pretend that working to help white upper-class neurotypical women and working to help all women are the same is racist, classist, and ableist

          I do not believe these things are the same, any more than I believe that the Founding Fathers’ work to create a democracy for white, landowning males is the same as creating a democracy for everyone. As I’ve said before, I am receptive to claims that Sanger has said and done reprehensible things, but I have to see the evidence. I am going through the sources you have linked to.

          ETA: [This paragraph originally had more personal information that I have since deleted.] Speaking personally, due to past experiences with verbal and emotional abuse in different contexts, I react poorly when I perceive others to be jumping to the most sinister conclusions about me, coming at me with guns blazing, etc.

          • As another person who’s been lurking and reading this discussion, I wanted to say that Idouglas2 isn’t the only one who’s interpreted your comments here as racist.

            So that you know for the future, it’s racist to minimise racism to “not entirely likeable” or “warts and all”. It’s racist to demand that people of colour be perfectly polite when calling out racism. It’s racist to take greater issue with the tone people use to call out racism than with the original act of racism. It’s racist to see the mere act of calling out racism as being hostile. It’s racist to create an environment where calling out racism is a personal attack but saying something racist isn’t. It’s racist to refuse to use the word “racism” to discuss racism.

            And I’m saying all this so you can learn. I’m guessing that you want feminist spaces to have room for all women, not just white women. Part of that is taking a back seat and not tone policing discussions of racism, or positioning people who identify racism as the aggressors and people who are called on racism as the victims. I really do hope you listen and learn.

          • “Not entirely likable” was not a reference to racism, though I apologize that I did not make that more explicit in my original comment. I would not want to minimize racism with such a phrase. I was referring to a series I wrote about Sanger’s years in Tucson, where she came to retire (mostly) from public life. The material I came into contact with for my research didn’t cover her early years or any of her writings about race, sterilization, or other issues that have been brought up here. Instead, I came across many descriptions of her personality, and I found that she could be very stubborn, vain, and arrogant. That is what I found to be “not entirely likable.”

            The “tone policing” issue is one that I am very conflicted about. On the one hand, it makes sense that racism should inspire anger, and for that anger to be voiced without compromise. On the other hand, while I don’t think that the mere act of calling out racism is necessarily aggressive, hostile, or impolite, I have seen conversations that could have been productive be shut down when one person feels attacked. Regardless of whether or not those feelings are legitimate, I wonder if more growth would take place if the tone were different. On yet a third hand, is it the responsibility of the person calling out the racism to fully accommodate their target’s feelings? Is it guaranteed that to do so will make that person more receptive to new ideas? Everyone’s approach will be different, but based on my current thinking, when arguing with people with whom I disagree, I believe that I am more likely to plant a seed in their minds if they don’t feel put on the defensive, so I do try to accommodate their feelings. When I used words such as “hostile,” I was mostly reacting to perceptions of assumptions being made about me and words being put into my mouth. The fact that we don’t know each other makes it very easy to create strawmen.

    • I’d be curious to know what the other 99 quotes you could pick would be. The one you used is right from the Wikipedia article about Margaret Sanger; it’s not one that anyone would have to dig very deeply to find.

      Really, though, whatever you could scrape up is irrelevant to me. I am already perfectly aware that Sanger did and said some very inexcusable things in her time, but her record on race is far from being consistently bad enough to merit the blanket condemnations she has received. That record is far better than her slanderers make it out to be.

      You seem to have already made up your mind about me, but if it matters at all, I’ve also been involved in a significant amount of anti-racist activism. Excusing anyone’s racism is not in my interests. But at the same time, I’m generally not interested in sniffing out and exposing racism among feminists (or for that matter sniffing out and exposing sexism among anti-racist activists). If I’m going to be a detractor to anyone, I can think of better targets. Feminists already have enough detractors among those who are entrenched in the privilege they challenge. In short, I’ll exercise greater patience with people I can consider my allies on many issues (if not all), and I’ll exercise greater scrutiny with people who seem to have little or no common cause with me.

      • “But at the same time, I’m generally not interested in sniffing out and exposing racism among feminists”

        Annnnd there we have it. White women matter, WOC don’t.

        • Yes, there we have it: your selective attention to what I write and your straw-man arguments make it pretty clear that I am wasting my time with these replies.

    • If profanities aren’t allowed in the comments on this blog, I’m not sure how your comment above got approved. It’s one step removed from a healthy dose of profanity through the link you provided. I’ll leave that warning for those who might find it inappropriate.

      That aside, I’d like to point out that nowhere in my piece did I say that Sanger was consistently or thoroughly forward thinking in her views on race; such absolute qualifiers can too rarely be applied, even today. What I did mean to point out was that her critics have resorted to a great deal of slander, and they’ve made little or no effort to reconcile that slander with some very contradictory evidence.

      Historians can try to sort out how much of Sanger’s published writing was that of her editors and that of her ghost writer, Robert Parker. But even if we took all of her writing at face value and attributed it entirely to her, we still have to weigh that against other words and actions that stand in sharp contrast. From my perspective, that record hardly merits calling Sanger a “racist, colonialist, genocide-apologist founder.” And it hardly seems likely to me that W. E. B. DuBois (among others) would have been comfortable with a person who fit those labels; it seems insulting to his intelligence and his integrity to assume that.

      I came from a biracial (Asian and white) family and have been on the receiving end of plenty of racism. Apologizing for anyone’s racism is hardly a priority of mine. But at the same time, I think people like Sanger defy convenient labels, and the worst labels applied to her seem to be borne more of anti-feminist propaganda than a clear assessment of her words and actions.

      • Do you consider the following passage at all problematic?

        “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. According to one writer, the rapist has just enough brain development to raise him above the animal, but like the animal, when in heat knows no law except nature which impels him to procreate whatever the result.”
        -Margaret Sanger

        https://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/webedition/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=304923.xml

  2. That’s fair. We’re all shaped by our experiences.

    Can you understand why- though you may be the wrong target- I’m very angry with the author of this article and PPs handling of this issue? He, presumably, researched Sanger’s history in depth, as did PP. So when they makes claims like she believed in equality for all women, or when they minimize calls for genocide by saying she just had some “unpopular ideas that were more common in her time,” it’s presumably with the full knowledge that she felt that many women should be put in concentration camps or forcibly sterilized. What that says to me is that those women just don’t matter to PP or Matt- at least as much as protecting the memory of someone long dead for political reasons.

    If I seem overly angry, that’s why.

    • Sorry for the delay in replying. I have taken time to reflect on my own, which is often more helpful for me than rapid-fire Internet-mediated conversation. Matt and I have also been discussing some of these issues between ourselves.

      With some distance from this thread, I now feel that the most important issue (i.e., Margaret Sanger’s connection to the eugenics movement, as well as Planned Parenthood’s current framing thereof) has been buried in issues that might be viewed as peripheral. Right off the bat, both Matt and I felt that unfair presumptions were made about us. Speaking for myself, when I perceive that words are being put into my mouth or when someone who doesn’t know my background is making assumptions about me, one of my first reactions is anger, and I act by attempting clarification. This type of defensive position puts us on a path away from productive conversation, and distracts from the core issue that we are ostensibly here to discuss.

      It was easier to defend myself against what I saw as erroneous assumptions than it was to engage the core issue. Easier, because I could do it immediately. I wanted to read your links — not just the excerpts — but I knew I wouldn’t have time for more in-depth reading until the weekend. But addressing the assumptions? That was something I could do right away. In reality, it might have served to derail things into a “tone argument,” which, as I said in my reply to rainbowcolouredbroccoli, is something I have conflicted feelings about.

      Matt and I are both members of oppressed groups, so not only do we have experience speaking out against oppression and injustice, we also have experience being affected by oppression directly and personally. We also happen to have similar styles of rhetoric when it comes to “calling out” these things. My personal style is to attempt a more calm approach. I believe that it is less likely to shut down conversation or to entrench both sides in their polarized positions. I think a less threatening approach (because, yes, being called on deep-seated prejudices can feel like a threat to one’s own identity) is ideal, as it makes me more accessible and better allows for a Socratic style of conversation. I probably hold to these beliefs because I know that it is the approach that works best with me when I’m on the receiving end. I am mentioning this to show where I’m coming from, what my own preferences are for confrontation, whether I’m on the giving or receiving end. I’m not trying to be proscriptive and say that this is the best way for everyone — I understand that some people might respond well to other ways of being “called out,” or that other people might feel silenced by perceived demands to be nice, nonthreatening, polite, or what have you. But I definitely have my biases when it comes to rhetorical techniques.

      Of course I understand why you are angry, just as I hope you can understand why I was angry. While I felt very viscerally that words were being put into my mouth and unfair assumptions were being made, you seemed to feel very viscerally that this was yet another disappointing or even enraging encounter with someone who minimized racism or is even denying its existence. As the conversation progressed, perhaps you even felt that my reference to your demeanor as “rather hostile” was an example of tone policing or an attempt to silence you or deny your right to be angry. While I noted it because it mattered to me (see above re: my “personal style” of being on both the giving and receiving end of confrontation), it probably was an example of tone policing, although I don’t think I ever thought you didn’t have a right to your anger.

      My own research on Sanger thus far has been limited. Usually, the only negative things I read about her originate from dubious sources — opponents of abortion and birth control. The first time I encountered criticism of her from a feminist perspective was several years ago (2007-ish?) when I read Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body. As I recall, she devoted an entire chapter to examining Sanger’s record on race, and I found it to be both disturbing and enlightening. But my own research (reading her writings or those of her feminist biographers) has focused on the last decades of her life, when she was retired in Tucson and not as politically active. In that research, I didn’t come across anything too heinous, except for the aforementioned descriptions of a personality that I found to be “not entirely likable” (again, by which I mean that she could be vain, arrogant, and stubborn). There was one vague reference to eugenics sentiments as late as 1950 (from a speech written by Sanger and delivered by her son, who was embarrassed by it), but I’m not sure what exactly those beliefs consisted of at that time.

      Now that I have free time, I’d like to spend some of my weekend reading your links and exploring the NYU website a bit more. Just as I would ideally like to read an original research article from a medical journal rather than rely on the media’s interpretation, I like to read original source material in context if possible. In a perfect world, I would have been able to do that immediately and respond to your first comments here with my thoughts on the actual links, rather than get distracted by the perceived need to defend myself against what I felt were assumptions and misinterpretations.

  3. I’m not getting a “Reply” link on rainbowcolouredbroccoli’s comment, so I’ll reply here. Please be reassured that if there were no controversy over your claims of racism, this piece, for starters, would have been written very differently. And your and ldouglas’s replies would have been preaching to the choir. The problem was that you presupposed a clear-cut, case-closed conclusion and then declared it to be racist apologetics — and assumed a lot about Anna and me — when we weren’t entirely receptive to that conclusion.

    The evidence ldouglas provided about Sanger’s racism was a link to a 1912 article. Well, I could take writings and recordings from the beginning of, say, Malcolm X’s early days as a human rights leader and find a wealth of sexist ideas therein. But I also know that in his later days he was far more receptive to women’s leadership (his friendship with Yuri Kochiyama is one example), and his early sexism was all but gone. How, then, do you propose I assess his record? When you take people from eras when much of the social progress we now take for granted was still in fledgling stages, you don’t often have neat boxes to put them in.

    You call Sanger a racist. I call her a mixed bag who hardly earned the blanket condemnations she has received. You and ldouglas raise great points, which I take to heart, but I don’t share your conclusions, and I take exception to accusations that my hesitation and Anna’s amounts to minimizing racism or otherwise bolstering white supremacy.

  4. Ok, well, in response to your question about ’99 other quotes;’ my attempts to post examples are all being eaten by the mod filter. Presumably that means you’ve seen them anyways, whether you want to admit they exist or not.

      • You’re correct, my apologies; I think they just ended up out of order.

        Here’s another example of Sanger calling for sterilization and internment of disabled people in concentration camps:

        “Feeble-minded persons, habitual congenital criminals, those afflicted with inheritable disease, and others found biologically unfit by authorities qualified judge should be sterilized or, in cases of doubt, should be so isolated as to prevent the perpetuation of their afflictions by breeding.”

        “Our failure to segregate morons who are increasing and multiplying demonstrates our foolhardy and extravagant sentimentalism… which brings with it, as I think the reader must agree, a dead weight of human waste.”

        Source: http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/webedition/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=213391.xml

        • pardon idouglas but i read the link you posted and couldn’t find the comment i assume it must have been a mis-link on your part would you mind telling me the page your quotes came from?

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