Sanger and her associates were forced to pass out their pamphlets by standing on the street corners. Small news stands refused to handle birth control issues, as Helena Smith wrote in an article in The Outlook, “the small dealers are not sensitive, but have been bluffed by threats of prosecution from Roman Catholic devotees” (686). Not only did the Catholic Church have influence over the newsstands, but they also had influence with law enforcement officials.
For example, in 1921, Sanger organized the first national birth control conference in the Hotel Plaza in New York. And on the last day of the convention, she had planned a discussion at the Town Hall on the question, “Birth Control; Is It Moral?” Sanger wanted her opponents to come and present their side of the issue, but her discussion was banned. When she showed up at the convention, she found an army of police surrounding the hall. Later Sanger discovered that the police were “acting under orders issued through the Catholic Archbishop Patrick Hayes” (Smith, Mortimer 234).
However, as we move into the twenties, Margaret Sanger changed from a rebellious woman to an ally of her old enemies. This is revealed in periodicals from the twenties and her autobiography, and biographies written by authors of that time. Although difficult to find information pointing the exact reason why Sanger’s ideas changed, there was abundant evidence showing her drastic transformation in strategies and ideals. By the end of the twenties, Sanger turned against the very people she initially defended. The once admired strong-willed woman had joined forces with the upper class and turned into a hypocrite.
As the decade of the twenties approached, a less radical and a more hypocritical Sanger emerged. As Parrish mentioned in Anxious Decades, “Sanger faced a hard choice: join forces with the conservative, male-dominated medical profession or continue direct-action tactics that gave women a central role in providing birth control through clinics run by midwives and nurses” (144). The twenties’ Sanger decided to join forces with the doctors that originally told her to mind her own business.
Mary Dennett, one of the founders of the National Birth Control League, and a former director of the Voluntary Parenthood League, described Sanger’s change in strategy as an “extraordinary swing of the pendulum from revolutionary defiance of all law to advocacy of special-privilege class legislation…” (201). By changing her strategy, namely joining forces with the medical field, her fight for birth control was no longer geared directly to help the poor. An example of her change in strategy was when Sanger, along with her new associates introduced the “doctors only” bill into Congress in 1923. This bill, while it did not repeal the unfair birth control laws, set out to amend them, giving permission only to doctors to disperse birth control information (Dennett 200). Male doctors, not women, were now in charge of the birth control movement.
One theory as to why Sanger changed her strategies so drastically is that Sanger probably saw that her fight for birth control was not going as far as she liked. Being opposed by both the law and the Catholic Church, Sanger probably decided that siding with the influential medical profession would eliminate one of the two enemies. Sanger never explained why she changed her mind. Yet, she did try to justify her actions in her autobiography by saying, “Getting together was the trend of the times” (415).
Further into the twenties, Sanger made an even bigger mistake: she joined forces with the eugenicists. The change was a strategic one, yet more importantly; it was a transformation of her ideals. By joining the eugenicists, Sanger was essentially contradicting her original goals and ideals of the birth control movement. As Parrish criticized, “Once the guardian of the poor and the working class, Sanger now linked the new birth control movement openly with militant eugenicists, who hoped to prevent the propagation of ‘unfit’ and ‘defective’ human beings…” (144). Not only did Sanger “link” the birth control movement to the eugenicists in the late twenties; she preached the ideals of eugenics.
In a speech at a birth control conference, collected by the article “Are There Too Many of Us” in Literary Digest, 1925, Sanger was recorded to have said that “… no attempt whatever is made to discourage the rapid multiplication of undesirable aliens and natives within our own borders.” Sanger went on, complaining that immigrants, as well as the poor, underclass people not much different from her own family in her past, were “idiots, defectives, diseased, feeble-minded and criminal classes…” A woman that once asked the Socialists to support her movement, went on to argue “The American Public is heavily taxed to maintain an increasing race of morons which threatens the very foundation of our civilization…” (10). By the end of the twenties, Sanger turned against the very people for which she originally defended.
The reasons as to why Sanger’s ideals changed from helping the lower-class women to eliminating the lower class were not found through research. Nevertheless, there are two speculations. The first probable reason for the drastic change was her marriage to the oil industry millionaire Noah Slee, in 1922. Now rich and a member of the upper class, Sanger most likely lost connection with the poor by associating with a different class of people.
The second reason proposed is similar to criticism in Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbit. Like the character George Babbit, Sanger was defeated by society. When Babbit took a socialist viewpoint his friends and co-workers ostracized him. After a period of rebelling, Babbit relented to the pressure and conformed to society. Sanger did essentially the same thing. By that, her ideals radically shifted from the liberal to the conservative because, as Parrish pointed out in his chapter, “Republican Restoration”: the general sentiment of the public was in favor of the Republicans. Sanger conceded and conformed to the popular opinion.
The earlier Margaret Sanger was more an ideal based “heroine”. The Margaret Sanger of the twenties was a hypocrite that turned completely against her original beliefs and ideals. What this implies about the twenties, like in Babbit, is being a part of the mainstream and respectable society, one must conform to the communal ideals. The power of the twenties’ society was stronger than even its greatest rebel, Margaret Sanger, succumbed to its manipulations.