A Letter to Margaret Sanger

From Juliana Francisco

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Juliana marching in the 2016 African American Day Parade, Harlem

Thank you, Mrs. Sanger.

I’m learning your story now and I need to thank you for everything you did. I wanted to let you know that your courage and determination has inspired me and that you have saved so many women that you will never know – myself included.

I also need to apologize to you. I judged you before I even learned your story. I demanded perfection from you because of my anger at society – and at myself. I went into the reading expecting to thump my nose up at this outdated woman who fought for women only like herself and ignored the plight of other less fortunate women but I was wrong. As I read on I found a sister.

Growing up I was a little woman rebel too. I was raised in a conservative Catholic household in a society which largely was not as progressive as it pretended. As hard as it must have been for you to have an openly atheist father and be teased as the devil’s children I think in a way it was a blessing. You were taught to question society early. As a little girl, I was not encouraged to question society or the church. When I look back on my earliest years, I feel intense heartache because I believed in everything I was told I should be as a girl and what they were projecting for me to be as a woman.

I had a much smaller family than you – it was just my mom, my two brothers and myself. My mom was always there for us and I praise her for all the sacrifices and hardships she endured to raise us. I no longer blame her for what she couldn’t control. In the last months of your mother’s life you tried to get her to confess her regrets. “I wanted her to say that if she’d had her choice, as the women on the hill did, if my father believed in French letters as fervently as he did in the single tax and socialism, she would not have spent her life populating the world and cleaning up after it.” [page 15] When your mother finally passed away, as you, your siblings and your father stood around mourning you compared it to vultures around carrion. This visual shook me and I openly wept on the subway. I understand now that my mother, even though she was so encouraging of me and so loving, was not taught to question her society or the church, which gave comfort and meaning to her sacrifice. She was only doing what she thought was best for me. I’ve made peace now but as a teen when I finally started questioning everything I was furious with her. Anger born out of insecurity. I was desperately lonely at that age and I wanted someone, anyone to love me – to “fix” me. But I, like you, never wanted to marry. I knew it was a trap. As much as I longed to be loved, I knew I would just end up forced to have children and abandon all my hopes and dreams and passion because of what was expected of me as a woman – something I was ardently rebelling against. I was also angry at myself for being born and preventing my mother from living the life she wanted – or at least the life I decided she must have wanted.

By this age, I was suffocating under all the pressures and expectations of “womanhood”. I didn’t want to end up like all the women I knew – imprisoned at home, caring for 2 or 3 or 5 children, married to a husband that was always cheating and never there. I wanted to travel and have adventures and create art and change the world and I knew that the women in my life must have felt the same way when they were my age only to be imprisoned by husbands and children and “womanhood”. At the same time, I had internalized so much shame and misogyny. At some level, I must have still believed in everything my upbringing taught me a woman should be. I was terribly lonely and depressed at that age. As uncomfortable as it is for me to admit now, I think a way I elevated myself over my peers, whom I still resented for their taunting and for not liking me, was that I was “pure”. I was a virgin and I wasn’t having children in high school like some of the other girls. I’m so embarrassed by this now. Sure, I had begun questioning society, the church, and gender roles but I couldn’t bring myself to reject the patriarchal myth of “virginity” and “purity” because, in a way, it made me feel some self-worth at a time when I felt completely worthless.

However, you saved me, Margaret. Planned Parenthood was the catalyst that helped me unlearn all the bullshit I was taught. I still remember it – I was around 15 and was learning about politics. Unfortunately, the men in power nowadays don’t really care about women’s rights, just like when they were indifferent when you were alive, but I digress. I was learning that Planned Parenthood was under attack but I didn’t even know what Planned Parenthood was. I went to their website and, of course, I was scandalized! Sexual health?! They’re encouraging promiscuity?? In teenagers?!?!

As I kept reading I LEARNED SO MUCH! I never had sex education in school and my mom never spoke to me about sex. Planned Parenthood taught me everything about women’s health from condoms, to birth control, to body image. This sent me on an internet rabbit hole where I learned about feminism and woman’s rights. This will sound dramatic (I was 15 after all) but I felt like Giordano Bruno pulling up the curtain of the perceived end of the universe and soaring into the limitless universe in front of him. Suddenly nothing was sacred and my possibilities were infinite and no longer confined to my gender. I didn’t have to be a wife or a mother, pure or refined, sexy or pretty, or anything I was taught. I didn’t have all the answers at the time and I still don’t but I was finally unlearning what I was taught. I have you to thank for this. All your hard work and determination paid off. It WAS worth it! How sad it is that you would never live to truly see what you left behind.

I feel a deep kinship with you while reading your story. Like you I grew up very poor. I was teased for showing up with holes in my clothes and for wearing the same clothes from last year which I had already outgrown. I remember missing meals and coming home from school to find the lights turned off and the threat of eviction was always present. I’ll never forget it and you never forgot what it was like to be poor either. You fought hard for poor women, even the ones who didn’t look like you. When the wealthy suffragettes you were trying to bring onto the cause disparaged poor women for having so many children and implied they were daft for not caring about suffrage because of the other pressing issues in their lives you stood up for poor women and you never backed down.

I admit, without doing my research I thought you were like those wealthy suffragettes who didn’t care for the poor or for women of color and for that I apologize. You did fight for all women. You opened clinics in Harlem to help poor black women and in Brownsville to help the poor Jewish women and anyone who came by asking for help. My obsession with knowing and being right and demanding perfection from myself and my predecessors in the fight for social justice led me to disparage you and I was also influenced by the propaganda machine against you. People still twist your legacy and say you wanted to exterminate African-Americans and Jewish people through birth control and without doing my research I believed this. It was easy for me to believe this because, in my opinion, middle-class white feminism still doesn’t listen to poor women or women of color. Younger intersectional feminists and womanists are frequently ignored by them and I think we vilify one another. It’s complicated but at any rate I’m glad I learned the real Margaret Sanger. You weren’t perfect, you hurt your children and Bill but you had good intentions and I at least think you did the right thing. I’m not excusing everything. I’m still upset that you left your children suddenly without even saying goodbye but as an activist I understand your single-minded drive for your cause.

Reading your story has given me so much perspective about the fight for women’s rights and what it means to be an activist who courageously goes against society and the law even if it means going to prison like you, and Ethel did. As I mentioned I am an activist. I work for structural political reform to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. I’ve always cared deeply for social justice and women’s rights and I think fixing the political system is the best way for me to help the cause. As I’m writing this a racist, sexist president is being sworn in who’s vice president and cabinet members openly oppose women’s rights, gay rights, racial equality etc. I, however, am not despairing. I know that the work I’m doing is important because it will ensure that the people are heard and not the special interests. My activism is how I express my love for humanity and how I can help others. I don’t know what these next four years will be like but I do know that I will work hard for what I believe in and to help others. I’m reminded of you when Anita Block asked you to step in and lecture a crowd on the ballot for women and you didn’t feel you were an authority on this issue or that you knew enough to do so. Instead you spoke about women’s health and taught what every woman should know. This is so inspiring. I’m still developing my voice as an activist and will always be. It really struck me that instead of going through the motions and lecturing about something you didn’t really get you spoke from the heart and lectured about something you were so passionate about. You didn’t need to be perfect. The work you did transcended any of that.

I think my biggest takeaway from your story is to stop adhering to the illusion of perfection. I will never be perfect and I mustn’t let the fear of making mistakes stop me from my activism or from living my life. So once again, I thank you, Mrs. Sanger, for the wonderful work you did. Thank you for educating me and inspiring me. I celebrate your life and all that you accomplished. Tomorrow I will be marching with hundreds of thousands of people around the country who are swearing to uphold women’s rights in the face of adversity and you are a tremendous reason we can do this today. It’s now up to us to continue your legacy and fight for your cause and I’m proud to be there in your honor.

Juliana Francisco lives in Brooklyn and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.  

 

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1 Comment

  1. Caroline Donnola

     /  January 21, 2017

    What a beautiful and inspiring letter. The world is lucky to have you as one of its new leaders to carry on the struggle for a decent life for all.

    Reply

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