Reader’s Forum–Harriet Hoffman

TERRIBLE VIRTUE

A Novel by Ellen Feldman

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Harriet Hoffman at an informational picket protesting the privatization and undermining of public housing in NYC.

Margaret Sanger was not just a fighter for access to birth control and the founder of Planned Parenthood.  She was a political maverick who defied all kinds of cultural norms at great personal cost and was attacked as much for her personal lifestyle decisions as for the courageous campaign she led to provide birth control information for poor women.  As a political activist and mother of two children, I deeply felt the emotional pain and the social cost of her refusal to abide by the rules of the time, especially her decision to reject the expectations of traditional motherhood.

Actually universal access to birth control information took a very long time to be accepted in the U.S.  Before the sexual revolution in the mid-1960s there was little talk about birth control.  Those of us who were adolescents in the late fifties and early sixties can certainly remember what that was like.  “Nice” girls didn’t have sex and certainly didn’t tell anyone if they did; abortions were illegal until 1973 when Roe vs. Wade was decided; and you usually had to either get married or put your child up for adoption if you got pregnant.  In fact sex education in schools was practically nonexistent until about 20 years ago.

Sadly, this is a very timely book.  It is one hundred years since Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne, and Fania Mindell opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY, and today Planned Parenthood is under serious attack. Sanger chose Brownsville for her clinic because it was home to poor women whose lives and health were being negatively impacted by their lack of knowledge and access to birth control. While the attacks on Planned Parenthood today are focused on abortion, most people are unaware that Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of low cost health care and birth control in the U.S.  An estimated one in five women in the U.S. today has visited a Planned Parenthood health center at least once in her life.  Without Planned Parenthood it is young and low income women and men who will likely be the ones to lose needed health services.

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is the coordinator of the popular monthly independent volunteer gathering, Talkin’ Independence, a program of IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

 

 

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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.

***

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#

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#

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.

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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