In the spirit of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, the provocative and compelling story of one of the most fascinating and influential figures of the twentieth century: Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood—an indomitable woman who, more than any other, and at great personal cost, shaped the sexual landscape we inhabit today.
The daughter of a hard-drinking, smooth-tongued free thinker and a mother worn down by thirteen children, Margaret Sanger vowed her life would be different. Trained as a nurse, she fought for social justice beside labor organizers, anarchists, socialists, and other progressives, eventually channeling her energy to one singular cause: legalizing contraception. It was a battle that would pit her against puritanical, patriarchal lawmakers, send her to prison again and again, force her to flee to England, and ultimately change the lives of women across the country and around the world.
This complex enigmatic revolutionary was at once vain and charismatic, generous and ruthless, sexually impulsive and coolly calculating—a competitive, self-centered woman who championed all women, a conflicted mother who suffered the worst tragedy a parent can experience. From opening the first illegal birth control clinic in America in 1916 through the founding of Planned Parenthood to the arrival of the Pill in the 1960s, Margaret Sanger sacrificed two husbands, three children, and scores of lovers in her fight for sexual equality and freedom.
With cameos by such legendary figures as Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, and the love of Margaret’s life, Havelock Ellis, this richly imagined portrait of a larger-than-life woman is at once sympathetic to her suffering and unsparing of her faults. Deeply insightful, Terrible Virtue is Margaret Sanger’s story as she herself might have told it.
Title: Terrible Virtue
Author: Ellen Feldman
Genre: Fiction | Literary | Historical | Biographical
Published: March 22, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 272 pages
Disclosure: Thanks to HarperCollins for providing an ARC of Terrible Virtue and to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review it. I was not compensated in any other way, nor told how to rate or review it.
In the wake of our current political climate–storm clouds gathering with a huge abortion case before the U.S. Supreme Court, one of the presidential candidates calling for women who have abortions to be punished, and people still talking about last year’s “sting” videos that shone an unfavorable light on Planned Parenthood–Ellen Feldman’s new novel, Terrible Virtue, could not have hit the bookstores at a more opportune time.
Terrible Virtue is a biographical novel in which Feldman reveals the life of Margaret Sanger, foundress of Planned Parenthood. Sanger’s life was never easy, was always controversial to some, and complicated by Sanger’s own flaws and drive to improve the world of women. It is amazing that Feldman was able to condense Sanger’s life into such a short book, i.e. 272 pages.
Sanger was born Margaret Higgins, the child of an atheist father and a Catholic mother. Her mother lived a life of drudgery, surviving multiple pregnancies producing 11 children, not to mention the miscarriages along the way. Margaret’s mother had no choice in the matter; the man ruled his household no matter how drunk he became, how much money he wasted, or how many times he impregnated his wife. Margaret and two of her sisters declared they would never marry.
Margaret did marry and gave birth to three children, two sons and a daughter. Her husband professed to love her dearly, but her complicated psyche would not allow her to avoid dalliances with other men. There are too many to name here, so you’ll have to read Terrible Virtue.
Margaret did feel compassion for the women across the country, and she traveled often to speak, seek out supporters for her cause–freeing women to make choices about the care and treatment of their bodies, and frequency of sex with their husbands–and eventually setting up clinics. This doesn’t include the time she spent behind bars for breaking the law. Speaking publicly or handing out information about birth control was against the law. Margaret intended to see that changed.
This reader patiently waited for some sense that Feldman had researched and investigated the subject of eugenics in the United States during this time period. It is left to a few words on two or so pages. However, direct quotes from Margaret Sanger–not in this book but as cited here–indicates knowledge of eugenics and her beliefs about same as she advocated:
a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” —“A Plan for Peace,” Birth Control Review, April 1932, pages 107-108
And one other:
As an advocate of birth control I wish… to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit,’ admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation.
On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective. – Margaret Sanger. “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda.” Birth Control Review, October 1921, page 5
It seems to me, and this is only my opinion, a bit more of the revelatory facts about Sanger’s beliefs on eugenics and her real desire behind her efforts to educate other women about birth control would have been a fair use of space in her book.
Most of the book is written in first person as if we are listening to Margaret Sanger tell her story, except for several instances where we hear from one of her children, her husband, or one of her lovers. I enjoyed this point of view and think Feldman could have taken advantage of many other instances to show the lack of interaction between Sanger and her children while foregoing her own motherhood to campaign for a better life for hundreds, perhaps thousands of other women.
Margaret Sanger did not have to have children. As a married woman and someone with the funds to engage a physician, she could have accessed some of the available methods to prevent pregnancy but she chose not to do so. Why choose motherhood when you come so close to abandoning them? This is an issue for each reader to decide but a little more of the reasoning behind leaving her children in favor of her cause would have made for a more well-rounded telling of her life.
Overall, Ellen Feldman has done a good job researching and bringing to the page what she did with these exceptions noted here. However, she could have written so much more giving the reader a real chance to get to know Margaret Sanger in detail.
Any interest in women’s rights, birth control and contraceptives and how they were treated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the struggles women faced in that time period will be served fairly well in Terrible Virtue.
Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, is the author of five previous novels, including Scottsboro, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and Next to Love. She lives in New York City.
For more information on Ellen and her work, please visit her website, www.ellenfeldman.com.
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