By Lenore Skenazy
One hundred years ago in Brownsville, Brooklyn, our modern era began. In a squat building that no longer exists, a pretty and soft-spoken mom named Margaret opened an office where women could get something they’d never been allowed to obtain before.
The place wasn’t called Planned Parenthood in 1916.
“It didn’t really have a name,” says Sabrina Jones, author of an upcoming graphic novel, “Our Lady of Birth Control: A Cartoonist’s Encounter with Margaret Sanger.”
Back then, the idea of preventing unwanted pregnancies was so new and controversial, even Sanger herself didn’t expect to provide family planning to anyone other than… families.
At the time, Brownsville’s population was predominantly Eastern European and Italian, so Sanger made her fliers in Italian, Yiddish, and English.
“She assumed the clients would be mothers married with lots of children. Publicly, she never offered birth control to unmarried people—that was too far,” says Jones.
Sanger didn’t even seem like a revolutionary. Delicate and poised, she had three children of her own and had, for a while, been living a quiet suburban life up in Hastings. Her husband, a draftsman, worked for the architect Stanford White. He’d urged young Margaret Higgins to marry him while she was still in nursing school, because he was afraid that she’d fall in love with a doctor.
Sanger complied, but soon grew restless. As Jones put it, “She wanted a wider world.” Wilder, too.
So in 1911 she moved to the Village and was soon mingling (and more) with the socialists and revolutionaries she met. Her new comrade, anarchist Emma Goldman, was probably the person who introduced her to birth control, and did so with an economic argument: Why is it that poor people, who can’t afford more children, always have more of them, while the upper classes don’t?
The wealthy had something the poor did not, and that something was contraception. Back then, family planning was still dicey and pricey.
“Condoms were very expensive,” says Jones. They were made out of sheep gut. “People washed them and reused them.”
Poor women rarely even knew about these. For them, the only birth control was abortion. Sanger worked as a nurse in the slums, where desperate women begged her to tell them the secret: How could they avoid having kids they couldn’t feed, or the abortions they despised?
Legally, she wasn’t allowed to tell them. Nobody was. Discussing birth control was against the law, as was dispensing it. When she finally decided to open her clinic, it was “an act of civil disobedience,” Jones says. Sanger went a step further and actually alerted the district attorney to her deed, because she wanted to go to court and get those laws thrown out.
The road to that goal was fraught with protest, prison, and a nearly lethal hunger strike on the part of Sanger’s sister. But in the end, the law cracked, and finally doctors were legally allowed to tell their clients about condoms.
Jones’ graphic novel tells that whole story along with the reason she felt compelled to write it. She woke up one morning, turned on the radio, “and I heard the story of a young woman testifying before Congress about the need for contraceptive coverage in student health plans.”
That woman, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, was immediately lambasted by Conservative Rush Limbaugh, who called her a slut and a prostitute.
“She wants to be paid to have sex!” Limbaugh told his listeners. “She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception!”
“I was horrified that in 2012 a woman could still be shamed for advocating birth control,” says Jones. “When I came of age, birth control was a done deal that had achieved near universal acceptance. All the battles were about abortion.”
Realizing Sanger’s crusade was back in the crosshairs, Jones reached for her drawing board—literally. Creating “social justice comics” is her standard M.O.
Her topics range from army recruitment wiles to Walt Whitman. My favorite is her book about mass incarceration—a graphic novel version of Marc Mauer’s “Race to Incarcerate,” which tells the story of how America came to imprison a bigger chunk of its population than any other country, including China and Iran. It is stunning in its clarity. Reading it feels like a punch in the gut.
Graphic novels have a way of making problems present in a way that simple paragraphs (like these!) cannot. Margaret Sanger had her clinic, Jones has her paintbrush, but they share the same mission: Freedom to live and to love.