Highlights of P4P’s Conversation with Ellen Feldman

 

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On Sunday, Janaury 22nd, the Politics for the People book club spent an hour talking with Ellen Feldman about her book, Terrible Virtue which is a fictional biography of Margaret Sanger.  I am sharing a few highlights of our conversation below and you can listen to the entire recording at the end of this post.

(Note: if the audio links do not appear in the email version of this post, just click on the email to come to the blog.)

Our first audio clip includes my introduction of Ellen, a look at what drew her to the story of Margaret Sanger, a discussion of the controversy surrounding Margaret’s pioneering activism, and discussion of the increased scrutiny Ellen came under when news of her novel’s movie deal went public. Take a listen:

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In this next clip Dr. Jessie Fields shares her fascination with the ways by which we access history.  Why is it that Ellen chose this format, a fictional novel that is firmly routed in fact, to explore the inner workings of a historical figure like Margaret Sanger?    Here Ellen’s explanation below:

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Independent activist Richard Ronner juxtaposed his impressions from the novel that “to be a visionary or make profound change, to be driven in such a way as to spend all of one’s life doing it, is ultimately a lonely and isolating experience” with his own experiences, sharing that what allows him to remain engaged and active is being part of building community. Give a listen:

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Kerry Malloy, an actor and member of the IndependentVoting.org national team, asked Ellen to talk about the experience of selling the rights to the novel to a become a movie. Give a listen to their exchange:

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Juliette Leak spoke with Ellen about the history of contraception being illegal in the US in the clip below:

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Attorney and Independent activist Harry Kresky touched on the ferocity of opposition to contraception, and how long it took for it to be legal for anybody. Was that a religious issue or was that the result of American puritanical attitudes towards sex? Ellen thinks it is both:

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Activist and P4P member Juliana Francisco struggled to understand why margaret got married – more than once no less – given her apparent aversion to the institution, and was intrigued by Sanger’s relationship to the suffragettes at the time.  In giving voice to suffragette opposition to Sanger and her outspoken approach to female sexuality, Ellen said they wanted to avoid being painted as morally questionable, “we don’t want to dirty our skirts with that, the vote is all that counts.” You can listen to their exchange here:

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As we neared the end of the call I asked Ellen to touch on Sanger’s relationship with the African American community, as we talked about her work with under represented female communities.

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You can listen to the entirety of our fascinating call with Ellen Feldman below. It was a timely treat to explore Margaret Sanger’s life and work with all of you.

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Stay Tuned

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Politics for the People

We will be hosting a lively exchange of our favorite political poems and some original poetry by our members as well.

NEXT SELECTION

 RATF**KED:

The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy 

By David Daley.

We will be kicking off this selection in April and our conference call with the author will be on Sunday, June 4th at 7 pm EST.

 

 

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.  

 

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

TOMORROW

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Readers’ Forum–Steve Richardson & Lou Hinman

STEVE RICHARDSON

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I finished the book last night.  Honestly, it was not my type of book.  I rarely read novels and found the quasi-biography and this author’s style awkward.  I could not even remember who Sanger was, so I did learn some ugly truths about the history of contraception.  I could have learned more from a brief article, but this book was written for people who already knew her public story.  I may be reading too much into the story but should get an interesting reaction from Ms. Feldman, either way.

Terrible Virtue is an intriguing title that isn’t really explained in the quote of Margaret Sanger or by the author.  Most readers, myself included, are probably grateful for the deeds that ultimately led to reproductive freedom for women in the U.S. and wondered what was terrible about them.  The answer comes in the form of letters/testimonials by Sanger’s family and friends.  They paid the price by loving someone who could not love them the way they wanted and probably deserved to be loved.  Over and over, Margaret made the choices that contraception would make possible for all women.  It did not paint a pretty picture; it made her appear selfish.  But it did keep her from falling into the traps that had kept virtually all women in misery until she made rebellion her singular goal.

Sanger indulged what ambitious men learned long ago – that great achievements require indifference to expectations, especially those of loved ones.  History is not made by people who cling to comfort and sentiment.  Anyone moved by friends’ ordinary concerns cannot hope to withstand extraordinary challenges from enemies.  This does not mean there are no feelings; it means there are many choices to be made and those choices have consequences.  Margaret Sanger was willing to endure the judgment and disappointment of those she loved to pursue a worthy objective.  Feldman’s book reminds us that heroes are not always seen that way by those who were sacrificed on their journey.        

 

Steve Richardson is a founding member of the Virginia Independent Voters Association and serves on IndependentVoting.org’s national Election Reform Committee.

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LOU HINMAN

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Terrible Virtue, by Ellen Feldman, is the story of Margaret Sanger, and her pivotal role in the long struggle to make birth control accessible and legal in the United States.

I remember that Lisa McGirr’s book The War on Alcohol (a Politics for the People selection two years ago) exposed how Prohibition was aimed at denying alcohol consumption to poor people, and the rapid influx of working class “foreigners” into American cities.  At the same time, the discriminatory enforcement of the Volstead Act allowed the well-to-do to go on consuming alcohol.  McGirr showed how the 18th Amendment was only possible because the development of democracy was subverted and held back at a time of rapid social change and economic growth, and how it’s overthrow was made possible by the rapid enfranchisement of new working-class voters during the 1920’s and the building of a new electoral coalition.

The struggle for reproductive rights (although not over even now) overlapped the struggle against Prohibition, and involved the same underlying issue.  The rich and the well-to-do had access to birth control, but poor people did not.  Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in American in 1916.  In 1921 (the year after the Prohibition became law) she founded the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

One of the virtues of Feldman’s book is its account of the appalling oppression of poor and working class women without access to birth control.  I have to confess that as a political activist who came of age at about the time that Margaret Sander passed away in 1966, I never thought much about this.

Another important virtue is Feldman’s moving account of Margaret Sanger’s development as a rebel.  Her rebellion was rooted, not in ideology, but in her hatred of oppression, and her fellowship with other working-class women – her sisters.  As she developed as an agitator and organizer, and as support for her work grew, she came to know many wealthy and influential people.  But she never let herself be deflected from her goal, and used her privileged social location to broaden the base of support for her cause.

Another virtue of Ms. Feldman’s book is that she depicts the personal conflicts and sacrifices Margaret Sanger endured in becoming a leader.

Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Reader’s Forum–Natesha Oliver and Richard Ronner

NATESHA OLIVER

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Independent Voting activists Natesha Oliver and June Hirsh (r) at the National Conference of Independents, March 2015

One of the things that weighs heavily on Me about the struggle that Margaret Sanger endured to bring information to Women about and for Women is the way Men took such an offense to Women making decisions about their own bodies. If Men didn’t approve they could force conformity because they are essentially the “powers that be” and they enforced “laws” with no regard or consideration to the health, mental or otherwise, of Women. Yet these laws always negatively affect impoverished communities the most and are almost always never enforced on those with money.

It is mind-blowing how something as simple as WANTED birth control could create so much havoc. I personally do not know what it’s like to live in a time where Women had very little control over themselves and although Women still face gender challenges today, it’s nothing like it was. Margaret Sanger sacrificed a lot and admittedly there were times when Her sexual choices seemed out of character and shocking yet not really because She totally believed in freedom of choice as a Woman. She took up a cause that without a doubt is one of the most vital and important choices of being a Woman, the choice of procreation.

The way Ellen Feldman captured Her life coupled with the letters from others in Margaret’s life gave a broader view of Margaret as a Woman and a activist. Ellen Feldman gave a raw version of a real pioneer and that enhances the appreciation that I have for Margaret Sanger’s actions because although I came around many years later if Margaret had not picked up the cause I probably would not have had access to birth control measures because from the reading very few people cared about solving a problem versus medicating consequences.

Natesha Oliver is the founder of MIST, Missouri Independents Stand Together. She lives in Kansas City.

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RICHARD RONNER

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Medical Alert: Do not read this book if you have high blood pressure (or at least make sure you’re taking your BP medication as prescribed)! This book will make your blood boil, along with firing up your passion. The backwardness that Margaret Sanger encounters on every step of her journey – the mysogeny woven into the fabric of culture and life, the denial of women as full human beings – I’m left speechless. Women’s true and only function (maybe besides the sexual gratification of men) is to reproduce the human race. And to know and stay in their place. Sanger’s work on educating women and men about the possibility and methods of birth control was (a) the devil’s work; (b) illegal; (c) seditious and anti-American; and (d) against nature.

And Sanger, as revealed in this brilliant historical novel, is not only revolutionary and visionary, she is a passionate, flawed and sexual human being. It’s really thrilling to read of a time when, despite the deeply conservative and essentially religious superstructure of our society, the very activity of building and organizing progressive organizations, such as the Socialist Party, allowed people to live radical and progressive lives. Sanger and her contemporaries fought sexist double standards and challenged conservative and religiously-infused institutions such as marriage, fidelity, and women’s (and men’s) roles. It was, by turns, heady and punishing. It’s also a bit shocking to realize that for as long as we have been fighting these fights – and with all the cultural evolution, revolution and development that has taken place – we are still, a century later, fighting some of these same bugaboos! This is a book you cannot put down!

Richard Ronner is a nurse practitioner and a long time independent activist.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Readers’ Forum–Tiani Coleman

 

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My Thoughts on Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman

A Novel about Margaret Sanger

Raised in a conservative religious family, I still remember the first time I heard of Margaret Sanger.  I don’t recall my age, but I was young, in elementary school.  My sister was doing a research paper, and was showing my mother (and me) horrific photos of aborted fetuses, and how Margaret Sanger was the woman who had started Planned Parenthood, with a eugenics motive, to purify a race — evil like Hitler.  It left a deep impression on me.

Without doing my own research on Margaret Sanger, I continued to hear negative things about her here and there throughout my life.  So when I heard that the book selection was Terrible Virtue, about Margaret Sanger, I hesitated briefly, despite being an independent now, who does not politically identify as a social conservative.  But I decided I would give it a shot, and I genuinely looked forward to being exposed to more information, ready to gain a more enlightened, positive view of Margaret Sanger.

The beginning of the book grabbed my attention quickly.  Margaret Sanger was a keen, fiercely independent girl, raised in a poor, large family (11 living children, with a mother who had also experienced 2 infant deaths and five miscarriages).  Margaret had been scarred by the religious, wealthy members of her community who had shunned and taunted her family.  She was fighting to not repeat her mother’s life, which seemed to consist of nothing but pregnancy, birth, child survival, bare-necessity household chores, and early death, and while Margaret loved her father’s free-thinking spirit, his alcoholism and taboo atheism made things harder – describing a chaotic, unhappy life for her family.  My large family while growing up had been happy, but I felt sympathy for Margaret Sanger.

I could appreciate Margaret’s need to solve a difficult conflict she saw in people’s lives.  On page 59, where Margaret struggled with the desperate, hellish family life in the tenements where she was a nurse, her character said, “Surely a world so vicious and bereft of love could not give birth to new life, but it teemed with it.”  She shuttered at the abject poverty and abhorred the domestic violence and the scenes of people attempting abortions; she wanted to make abortion unnecessary and provide a way for all people to legally access birth control so that children would only enter the world if they were wanted and loved.

But as I continued reading, my discomfort grew.  “I could not give up the fight for all children, even if it meant losing my own,” Sanger’s character says.  What?  By the middle of the book, I was quite upset, thinking, “Is this what it’s supposed to mean to be an enlightened, revered feminist by the progressive movement?”  The rampant promiscuity, the elevation of cause over family — what she did to Bill (and other men), her three children and others showed little appreciation or concern for their happiness, or their pain.  I was shouting “No!” inside, thinking, “I refuse to adopt this type of morality; the people in our lives should supersede any cause, and motherhood has deep value.  Besides . . . selfish, impulsive promiscuity, at the expense of family, isn’t freedom.”

I took a short break from the book, and then returned to finish it.  By the end, my heart had softened towards Margaret Sanger.  I think the turning point for me started to sink in at page 207, where after much struggle, she lost her court appeal, but still “won,” in that the judge broadened the law to allow birth control clinics to be legal as long as they were staffed by doctors.  The book indicates that she felt Peggy’s presence that night (her daughter who had died at age 5) — an allusion, perhaps, to “redemption.”  I decided to allow for Margaret Sanger’s redemption and not view her only by her follies, but see her as a complicated, real human being, with beauty and tragedy – not a perfect model to follow, but someone who took what she had, what she was, and what she believed, and made a valuable offering to the world.

I hadn’t meant to harshly judge Margaret Sanger, but I felt threatened, and perhaps fell into the trap Margaret’s character described, “Sometimes I think my sex is less than generous to its own.”  As an activist who often gets immersed in my causes, I’m cautious about getting carried away.  As the mother of 5 children who love and beg for my full attention, including a 5-year-old daughter who is a joy of my life, and a husband who can feel resentment when his hard work and commitment to our family feels isolated, it has been a difficult challenge to strike the right balance, without feeling a failure on all fronts.  I already have voices telling me to drop my causes; I didn’t need my independent cause, through the book club, whispering that my sense of duty to family is weak and outdated.

Certainly, I had taken it too personally.  Perhaps because I relate too well, “Why can’t you be like other women?  Why can’t you be satisfied . . . [and] stop trying to save the world . . . Give up.”  Or the poignant description on page 151, where a successful speech with 150 – 200 people only yielded 6 signatures of women demanding the dissemination of birth control information, and only 3 admitting they used it – “Every time I start to think I’m making progress, there’s another setback. . . .  Giving me a dinner is the easy part. . . . Putting themselves on the line is another story.”

In closing, the book was a short, quick read.  It held one’s interest, being a novel instead of a biography.  If its intention was to convince antagonists that Margaret Sanger was really a heroine, I think it failed.  Being a novel, there was no documentation, and the character development reinforced the types of criticisms leveled at the movement by conservatives; the eugenics criticisms were addressed superficially as out of context, without providing strong, specific examples.  If the intention was to provide a quick, captivating novel for those who are already convinced, or likely to be convinced, of Margaret Sanger’s heroic influence, it probably accomplishes that.  And for people like me, the book was successful in personalizing Margaret Sanger enough to get me to start doing more in depth research.  I’ve already read some of her actual pamphlets and writings in her Public Writings and Speeches and in the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, sponsored by NYU.  I found what she wrote about Havelock Ellis, for example, to be an insightful treat into who she was.  And it’s so interesting to read how tasteful and noncontroversial by today’s standards her pamphlets that landed her in jail in the early 20th century were.  Today, largely because of Margaret Sanger, more than 99% of women between the ages of 15-44, who have ever had sex, have used at least one birth control method.  I can see how Margaret Sanger felt so compelled to her cause, like she was the only one who cared enough to make it happen.  But with the advent of the Internet, I think we become more aware that there are many competent people who share our concerns and who want to make a difference.  We don’t have to carry the burden by ourselves.  We just have to find better ways to collaborate.

Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

A Review of Terrible Virtue

NY JOURNAL OF BOOKS: TERRIBLE VIRTUE

BY: JANET LEVINE

March 29, 2016

“The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography.”

Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman is fictional autobiography (told almost exclusively in an imagined first-person narrative voice) of 20th century feminist icon and birth control advocate and activist American, Margaret Sanger.

But is this the autobiography Margaret Sanger would have written if she had chosen to do so toward the end of her life?

The title stems from a Margaret Sanger quote from 1914: “It is only rebel woman, when she gets out of the habits imposed on her by bourgeois convention, who can do some deed of terrible virtue.” She adds: “A woman’s duty: To look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in her eyes, to have an ideal, to speak and act in defiance of convention.”

With these words, Sanger, as Feldman notes, found her mission.

What is also “terrible” in this novel perhaps is the toll Sanger’s lifelong activism imposed on her two husbands, three children and many lovers. Among other questions, Sanger’s crusading raises the dilemma of whether activists living for a cause, can also be married or even raise children. Of course the “virtue” resides in the remarkable effectiveness of the activism Sanger espoused.

The novel takes the reader of a fascinating and compelling gallop through the surface of Sanger’s life as imagined by Feldman. The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography. Yet the novel does range over the highlights of Sanger’s life from a small town in upstate New York to a final home in Tucson, Arizona.

Sanger was born into poverty, a daughter of an alcoholic free thinker and town renegade and a haggard mother always exhausted by the bearing of and caring for 13 children. Due to the sacrifice of two older and devoted sisters Sanger was able to train as a nurse. Early on she championed several social justice causes, mingling with, learning from, and working with other progressives.

Ultimately she brought her leadership skills, powerful personality, and idealism (abetted by constant awareness of her mother’s childbearing suffering that caused her untimely death) into legalizing contraception. This struggle consumed her life and led often to violent conflict with puritanical, patronizing lawmakers, sentenced her several times to prison, and left her little option to further her work but to seek asylum in Edwardian England.

Sanger’s narrative is interrupted by short accounts from her children, husbands, sisters, and lovers that counterbalance and often confute Sanger’s telling of her life in which she gives short shrift to the great cost she exacted from those she loved and who loved her. Another fascinating element of the novel is the vignette appearances of the likes of Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, and other luminaries of progressive movements in the early to mid-20th century.

Among many other pioneering ventures, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 (illegal), founded Planned Parenthood in 1952, and in 1960 heralded Congress’s legal protection of “the Pill.”

This is a timely book. Since 2010 hundreds of new laws chip away at women’s choice, access to contraception, sexual education, and abortion—all passed by conservative lawmakers. Women’s rights are assailed today by the same puritanical zeitgeist that railed against Margaret Sanger in 1916. Sadly, Sanger’s work is not yet completely done.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Readers’ Forum–Jeff Aron

 

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Jeff Aron with his mother Sylvia (pictured here, at age 95), a Polish Jewish immigrant raised in Brownsville, Brooklyn

After reading the wonderful novel, Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman, I wanted to comment on the controversy regarding Margaret Sanger and the accusations of racism which have been made against her.

I grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn on Amboy Street near Pitkin Avenue, just a few doors down from the original site of Margaret Sanger’s first birth control clinic (established in 1916). When I lived on Amboy Street (in the 1950’s and 60’s), there was no plaque or marker for that clinic (I do not know if there is one now). In 1916, Brownsville was home to poor Eastern European Jewish and Italian immigrants (my grandparents were typical of the immigrants from Poland who lived in Brownsville and my family continued to live there as it was transitioning to becoming a poor neighborhood of African Americans and Latinos). While I did not know about this clinic, I knew that Margaret Sanger, a socialist, like my parents, was committed to giving poor and working class women the right to determine if and when to have children. And that her commitment was complete and heroic.

So it was no surprise that she found common cause with W.E.B. DuBois and African American socialists fighting for the rights of women of color. In 1930, with their support and that of African American doctors, nurses, social workers and ministers she established the first birth control clinic in Harlem. More than three decades later, in 1966, Martin Luther King was the recipient of the first annual Margaret Sanger Award (shortly before she died). Statements by both Dr. King and Coretta Scott King at the award ceremony paid tribute to Margaret Sanger and her contribution to family planning and to “the human race”.

However, it was a surprise to learn that there are critics of Sanger’s who have likened her efforts on behalf of poor and working class women and in particular, African American women, to a Black holocaust. Most of the comments from these quarters come from the political or religious right and have taken Sanger’s statements out of context as part of an effort to discredit planned parenthood,  to shame Black women for exercising their right to choose and to separate out the struggles of women, people of color and poor people – an effort which is in direct opposition to Dr. King and the movement he led.

One criticism of Sanger (from both the Left and the Right) is that she spoke with women who were members of the Ku Klux Klan (keep in mind that five presidents of the United States were members of the Klan at one time in their lives). And that this proves that she was a racist. However, as an activist and a political organizer, it is an inspiration to me that she was willing to speak to any and everyone on behalf of birth control and women’s rights. This criticism also ignores the fact that African American women, since the earliest part of the 20th century, have been very active participants in the reproductive rights movement and in the struggle for safe, affordable and reliable family planning services (something that is seldom highlighted).

For many progressives, there is on-going concern about the international family planning movement (funded by organizations such as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations). There are anti-imperialist critiques of the excesses of population control. And there are arguments from the perspective of cultural relativism that point to family planning as a “western” practice that is insensitive to non-western societies.

Thus, in a sense, Left and Right critiques serve to impede women’s access to birth control.

I think it is important to acknowledge the highly charged emotional, political, and  economic issues in these debates and in the diverse interests of classes, communities and countries. It is in this context, that we should honor Margaret Sanger’s commitment to providing all women with the educational, medical, and other resources they need to actively and forcefully take control of their lives.

Jeff Aron is the son of Sylvia Aron who, like Margaret Sanger, was a loving, passionate and “difficult” woman, and for more than 8 decades lived and fought on the front lines for social, racial and economic justice and was an inspiration to many of us in the independent political movement.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Radio Interview with Ellen Feldman

Planned Parenthood Founder Gets Novel Treatment

Ellen Feldman’s “Terrible Virtue” Brings Margaret Sanger To Life

March 10, 2016 on NPR’s To The Best of Our Knowledge

 

Ellen Feldman appeared on “To The Best of Our Knowledge” shortly after Terrible Virtue was released.  I think you will enjoy listening to the show in anticipation of our conference call with Ellen on Sunday, January 22nd.

In the interview, Ellen talks about what drew her to writing a novel about Margaret Sanger,

Ever since I was a kid, I geuss, I thought she was the most amazing woman who wrought an amazing revolution….

…I think the history of what this country was like before she started her work.  Contraception was illegal in this country. It could only be prescribed by doctors and only to men and only to prevent disease.  And [Margaret] fought long and hard and went to jail repeatedly to make birth control legal and to improve women’s lives and children’s lives….She really changed the landscape of our country, the sexual landscape, the political landscape and the social landscape certainly.”

The interview runs about 11 minutes and is a far ranging conversation about Margaret’s controversiality, her relationship to the African American community, her history with eugenics, and her radical political roots in socialism and anarchism.

Reader’s Forum–Jessie Fields

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Dr. Jessie Fields testifying at City Council Hearing on public housing. Dr. Lenora Fulani is sitting next to Dr. Fields.

Margaret Sanger: A Rebel

Margaret Sanger was a bold activist who took extraordinary risks fighting for women to have access to birth control and sex education. She was a complex woman whose very public life and work spanned over half a century and whose legacy lives on.

The novel “Terrible Virtue” by Ellen Feldman richly captures the personal struggles and conflicts of Margaret Sanger’s life as well as her activism and commitment to improving women’s lives.

Margaret Sanger cared for her own mother who was ill with tuberculosis, and who died at age 48 after giving birth to 11 children (Margaret was the sixth child) and enduring seven miscarriages.

As a woman from a poor family she was locked out of becoming a doctor. She became a nurse.

In the novel Margaret agonizes with grief and regret over the death of her own daughter, Peggy who developed advanced pneumonia while living at a boarding school.

Weaved throughout the novel are letters from people who were close to her: her children, lovers, husbands, and one of her sisters, Ethel who worked beside her in the clinic, was jailed and went on a hunger strike.

The book dives deeply into pivotal moments in her life such as the first time she speaks to a group of working women who were “bleary-eyed from a long day spent sewing piecework and making artificial flowers, bone-tired from cleaning other women’s houses,..”

She was filling in for a suffragette who was to give a talk on votes for women but Margaret instead gives a talk on what she knows about women’s health, “the facts of life”, menstruation, pregnancy, sex and reproduction. Her talks became very popular, attracting hundreds of women. She then write a series of articles “What Every Girl Should Know” for a New York socialist daily newspaper, The New York Call.

As a nurse she worked on New York’s Lower East Side.

In the tenements I was a savior.”

She decides to devote her life to freeing women from the physical bondage of unwanted pregnancies.

I would give up nursing and devote myself to contraception. I would free women from their biological shackles. I would liberate love from its consequences. And I would make sure that every child entered the world desired and cherished.”

She had to first go on a journey which included travel to Europe to learn about options for birth control for women. Her work in the clinics helping women to obtain autonomy and freedom in sexual practices is portrayed in the novel.

Sanger published a magazine called “The Woman Rebel” with the masthead “No Gods No Masters” and she moved in the socialist circles that included Emma Goldman, Bill Haywood, Floyd Dell and many others.

She remains controversial today and has been an easy target for those who aim to discredit Planned Parenthood, an organization she founded and which for 100 years has served women from all walks of life.

In 1916 she opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn which immigrant women and “women of every race and creed flocked to”. In 1930 with the support of Black leaders such as W.E.B. Dubois and the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses she opened a birth control clinic in Harlem.

Margaret Sanger dared to speak publically not only about birth control but also about sexual gratification for women. Her publications were considered obscene and she was jailed for violating the federal Comstock laws that made it illegal to distribute birth control information.

The novel includes her many affairs with men and it also celebrates her relationship to women, especially immigrant and poor and working women. During the month she spent in the Queens Women’s Penitentiary she sometimes would read aloud to the other inmates and she taught them about sex and birth control. In one scene in the novel when she is released from prison, “A crowd of women standing in front of the jail came into focus. There must have been a couple of hundred of them, friends of the movement, women we’d treated at the clinic, society matrons from the Committee of One Hundred, and Ethel”.

The women sang “La Marseillaise”.

As I stood listening to them, fighting back tears, I heard other voices behind me joining in. I turned my head and looked up. In the second- floor windows, the women who moments ago had been my fellow prisoners were gathered shoulder to shoulder, looking down at me, and humming along.

I look forward to the Conference Call with Ellen Feldman, the author of this intimate and powerful novel.

Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Readers Forum–Susan Massad

Review of Terrible Virtue

1/1/17

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Dr. Susan Massad at a recent protest against efforts to privatize and undermine public housing in NYC.

Terrible Virtue is an extraordinarily apt title for this fictional account of the life of Margaret Sanger, rebel, feminist, founder of Planned Parenthood, and crusader for the right for all women to access effective birth control.  Thru diverse narrative voices, of Sanger’s children, her lovers, her sister and husband, the author, Ellen Feldman, gives us a way into the life of this very historically conflicted character.  Margaret Sanger was a  complicated and difficult woman. Called by some, even today, a eugenicist, racist, and quack.  And, for the many women whose cause she championed, Sanger was a hero.

I found myself alternately applauding her and judging her: Self sacrificing and self-centered; champion of the poor and seduced by the rich; passionate lover and manipulator of emotions; single issue cause and worldly vision; love of family and single-minded passion for the cause; rebel and conformist; blind to the individual and embracing the mass.   Many of these contradictions and conflicts that Feldman exposes in the life of this committed social/political activist are ones that I, as a long-time political activist, have experienced and could easily identify with.

In reading the book I realize how close we still are in 2016 to Sanger’s cause of providing effective measures for family planning for all woman. Planned parenthood is under attack, access to effective birth control information restricted, abortion rights greatly curtailed, and funding for research on more effective methods of contraception virtually halted.  America’s deeply religious and moral roots have been exposed as a woman’s right to choose becomes once again a question rather than a fact for millions of women all over the world.

In 1961 I was in my final year of medical school at the University of California in San Francisco when the “pill” was introduced into our world. As part of a routine lecture to our class of 100 students, ten of whom were woman, we were told that there was now a pill that woman could take that would prevent pregnancy.  This rather amazing scientific breakthrough was presented as yet another fact for us to put down in our notebooks–how the pill works, dosage schedules,  side-effects, cost, etc. The derisive comments and  sniggers scattered thru-out the room, and the handful of students who walked out of the lecture hall were not even worthy of comment. To most of us the pill was just one of the amazing contributions that medical science had made to our “can do” post-war society.  We were enamored by science. It was our great love.

At the time, so great was the distance between our science and our lives that I did not even make the connection between my own experiences and this extraordinary breakthrough in technology.  Both of my two sisters had experienced unplanned “out of wedlock” pregnancies.  In our middle class home the pregnancies were concealed from all but close family and friends, and the off-springs sent to a loving families for adoption. I was berated by our family doctor whose office I visited at the age of 21 to ask about being fitted for a diaphragm.  He wanted to know how I could even be thinking of having sex when my sisters had already shamed our family.  And then there were my many friends who had crossed the border to go through the ordeal of a Mexican abortion.  The “pill” like most other scientific breakthroughs, was not neutral. Terrible Virtue is a stark reminder of this fact.

Feldman’s Margaret flirts with spirituality, eugenics and the temptations of an upper class life at the same time she champions the cause of masses of poor woman who did not have access to contraception. The book is bookended with the question, “If you could do it again, would you do it the same?”  In these early years of the 21st Century where a woman’s  right to access effective contraception is again under attack it is not even clear that one could do it the same. Sanger was unique for her time and, to me, her commitment to providing, against all odds, effective means of pregnancy prevention to poor woman is a legacy worth applauding.

Dr. Susan Massad is a retired physician. Dr Massad is on the faculty of the East Side Institute and an activist with the New York City Independence Clubs.

 

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

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