Book Review

woman-rebelBiographile, October 15 2013.

Peter Bagge
Drawn & Quarterly. $21.95

In cartoonist Peter Bagge’s new graphic biography Woman Rebel, the birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger is a flame-haired, rubber-limbed crusader, whose eyes pop in fury and disbelief at the small-minded opposition of powerful men to her cause. Bagge’s wildly funny treatment presents a necessarily edited version of Sanger’s extraordinary life, although detailed notes at the end of the book explain “Who’s Who and What’s What,” and flesh out the various characters with whom Sanger tangled throughout her long life.

The first pages skip rapidly through the early life of the girl born Margaret Higgins in Corning, New York, one of ten surviving children of Irish Catholic immigrants. It’s clear that the fate of Margaret’s mother, who had eighteen pregnancies in twenty-five years, shaped Margaret’s views on the necessity of family planning; on her deathbed, gray and fatalistic, Anne Higgins tells her daughter “it was the Lord’s will” and “that’s what happens when two people love each other.” Sanger’s activism, in this story, begins early and is also shaped by her father’s fiery socialist views. When she learns that she has contracted tuberculosis, the disease that killed her mother, she is groggy but determined that it will not slow her down.

Margaret and her husband, William Sanger — an aspiring architect working as an architectural draftsman — begin their married life in a conventional way, in a New York suburb where they have three children in quick succession. But in Bagge’s drawings, children are heavy and burdensome: ugly, outsized bundles that hamper women’s freedom of movement. Sanger’s marriage, similarly, becomes burdened by the obligation to care for the children amid the increasingly powerful pull of politics. In her work as a nurse in poor New York City neighborhoods, Sanger witnessed the misery of women driven to desperate botched abortion attempts by unwanted pregnancies and children they couldn’t support, and became increasingly determined to bring to these families the contraceptive information that had long been quietly available to upper-class women.

In 1912, a column Sanger published in the socialist newspaper The New York Call brought her to the attention of her nemesis, postal inspector Anthony Comstock, who used his position to prevent the distribution of any material he considered obscene — which meant anything remotely to do with sex. It would be Comstock — and the sweeping Victorian-era anti-vice laws named for him — against whom Sanger would eventually triumph in the 1936 trial that effectively legalized birth control for distribution by doctors. The unforgettably named “United States vs. One Package of Japanese Pessaries” was precipitated by Sanger’s ordering contraceptive devices from Japan, with the intention of getting them intercepted and forcing the trial.

Due to the nature of her work, Sanger is frequently pictured in the dock, fuming in courtrooms presided over by whiskered judges, or imprisoned in gloomy, unsanitary cells. Throughout her career, as her signature red hair gradually turns gray, she remains a forceful presence, often shown in horrified close-up in response to various friends, co-conspirators, and opponents who try to obstruct or distort her message. Bagge’s warts-and-all style gives Sanger a personality that jumps off the page.

In his afterword “Why Sanger?” Bagge takes note of the many negative myths that have arisen around Sanger and her work, and he doesn’t shy away from portraying controversial moments. Yes, Sanger once addressed a meeting of a women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan, but she was never a member or sympathizer, despite her use of then-common terms like “negro.” She would speak to any group of women who agreed to hear her, and use any means to share her message with, especially, impoverished women who had never been taught even the most rudimentary biology — Bagge’s version of the KKK event has Sanger interrupted by a young woman asking “what’s a vagina?” Her sympathy for eugenics is harder to unravel, but Bagge notes that in the early twentieth century, the much-feared term covered a vast and wide-ranging ideology, and its supporters advocated everything from clean water and improved nutrition to sterilization of the “unfit.” At the time, hardline eugenicists criticized Sanger for being insufficiently committed to the movement and for refusing to use race as a category of “fitness” — and far from being a Nazi sympathizer, Sanger’s books were among the earliest to be banned by Hitler’s regime.

“It’s an irony festival!” Bagge writes about the various denunciations of Sanger, emphasizing how difficult it is to judge her by twenty-first-century standards. It’s hard for us to see how the founder of Planned Parenthood could also be staunchly anti-abortion, how a woman working so hard for women’s rights could often be a fierce antagonist to other female activists, and how Sanger could balance her enthusiasm for “free love” (which included affairs with H.G. Wells, among many others) against what often looks like neglect of her own family. In Bagge’s unfailingly entertaining telling, Sanger is no saint — but she is something like a heroine.

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