A couple months ago I had the privilege of sitting down for coffee with Carolyn McCulley, author, speaker, and founder of the documentary company Citygate Films. Carolyn is someone that I look up to in the realm of women’s ministry. She is a sharp and intelligent Christian woman whose unique work places her at the forefront of women’s ministry’s entrance into 21st century relevance. Her writing is intellectually engaging while also remaining spiritually sensitive and insightful.
This past year, Carolyn published a book entitled “Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World.” In this book she explores the three waves of feminism and Scripture’s pro-woman response to them. While I have not read the book myself (every time I’ve gone to stores to purchase it, it’s been sold out!) I follow her blog regularly and I am consistently challenged by her engagement of Scripture and culture.
With that in mind, what follows is an excerpt from her new book “Radical Womanhood.” It appears in a chapter entitled “The Mommy Wars” and it explores the development of the birth control movement, its effects on pro-life ideology, and its connection with a Gospel message that includes God on a cross. It is a moving read, and it is a caliber of historical research, cultural engagement and theological reflection that I hope to aspire to in my own ministry.
I pray you will be blessed and challenged by her words.
“The Clogs and Destroyers of Civilization”
Margaret Sanger was the founder of the modern birth control movement and a vocal proponent of eugenics — the theory of race improvement that was the cornerstone of Nazi Germany. Sanger believed that all evils stemmed from large families, especially large families of those she deemed as unfit. As she wrote in her 1920 book, Woman and the New Race, “The most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”3
I can’t even fathom saying such a thing, but Sanger’s personal history undoubtedly influenced her thinking. She was born in 1879 in Corning, New York, the sixth of eleven surviving children. Her father was a stonemason and a supporter of radical socialist causes. Sanger’s mother succumbed to tuberculosis at forty-nine. Sanger later said the strain of eighteen pregnancies was what broke her mother’s health. 4
Sanger went on to study nursing and married in 1902. Her first pregnancy was a difficult one that landed her in a sanitarium for her confinement and recovery. But she regained her health and gave birth to two more children. In 1910, she began to work as a midwife and home nurse on the Lower East Side of New York City. A year later, she joined a radical labor movement and participated in several labor strikes.
By 1912, Sanger began writing a series of articles on female sexuality and contraception in the socialist publication, The Call, in bold defiance of then-current laws against the dissemination of information on sexually transmitted diseases and contraception. Two years later, by then separated from her husband whom she would later divorce, she founded the monthly magazine, Woman Rebel, under the slogan, “No gods; no masters!”5 In 1914, she fled to Europe after she was indicted for violating U.S. postal obscenity laws. But two years later, having avoided imprisonment, she was back in the U.S. to open the nation’s first birth control clinic, in Brooklyn, New York. After ten days of operation, she was arrested and jailed. The trial made her a national figure, and it handed doctors the right to prescribe birth control advice.
In 1921, Sanger organized the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. For Sanger, the birth control movement was founded on two goals: limiting the reproduction of the “unfit” and challenging Christian teaching by creating a “new morality.” She campaigned against women “with staggering rapidity” breeding “those numberless, undesired children who become the clogs and the destroyers of civilization.”6 Sanger’s scorched-earth writing left no one guessing about her views:
While unknowingly laying the foundations of tyrannies and providing the human tinder for racial conflagrations, woman was also unknowingly creating slums, filling asylums with insane, and institutions with other defectives. She was replenishing the ranks of the prostitutes, furnishing grist for the criminal courts and inmates for prisons. Had she planned deliberately to achieve this tragic total of human waste and misery, she could hardly have done it more effectively.7[T]he most urgent problem to-day is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective. Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon American society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupid, cruel sentimentalism.8
She was equally as caustic about Christianity and the Bible’s teaching on sexuality:
Let it be realized that this creation of new sex ideals is a challenge to the church. Being a challenge to the church, it is also, in less degree, a challenge to the state. The woman who takes a fearless stand for the incoming sex ideals must expect to be assailed by reactionaries of every kind. Imperialists and exploiters will fight hardest in the open, but the ecclesiastic will fight longest in the dark. He understands the situation best of all; he knows what reaction he has to fear from the morals of women who have attained liberty. For, be it repeated, the church has always known and feared the spiritual potentialities of woman’s freedom.9
When women have raised the standards of sex ideals and purged the human mind of its unclean conception of sex, the fountain of the race will have been cleansed. Mothers will bring forth, in purity and in joy, a race that is morally and spiritually free.10
I think it’s safe to say that with the perspective of nearly a century of hindsight, we have hardly attained a cleansed human race that is morally and spiritually free. To expect this kind of salvation from women is unwise, unbiblical, and downright impossible. As we will see in a following chapter, women did not manage to raise the sex standard — in fact, third-wave feminism gave rise to the feminine “raunch culture” we live in today. Yet, Sanger was so confident about the fruits of birth control and the new race that she predicted exactly the opposite of what has come to pass:
When motherhood becomes the fruit of a deep yearning, not the result of ignorance or accident, its children will become the foundation of a new race. There will be no killing of babies in the womb by abortion, nor through neglect in foundling homes, nor will there be infanticide….
The relentless efforts of reactionary authority to suppress the message of birth control and of voluntary motherhood are futile. The powers of reaction cannot now prevent the feminine spirit from breaking its bonds. When the last fetter falls the evils that have resulted from the suppression of woman’s will to freedom will pass. Child slavery, prostitution, feeblemindedness, physical deterioration, hunger, oppression and war will disappear from the earth…. When the womb becomes fruitful through the desire of an aspiring love, another Newton will come forth to unlock further the secrets of the earth and the stars. There will come a Plato who will be understood, a Socrates who will drink no hemlock, and a Jesus who will not die upon the cross. (emphasis added)11
God forbid. God forbid!
I type that quote with tears on my cheeks. Without the cross, we are doomed. There is no hope of new heavens and a new earth, free from the effects of the fall, without the atonement of our sinless Savior. There is no hope for mercy to triumph over judgment unless it be at the foot of that cross. There is no hope for “child slavery, prostitution, feeblemindedness, physical deterioration, hunger, oppression and war to disappear from the earth” if the Father’s righteous anger against these terrible sins is not satisfied. Where would justice be in the universe if such sins go overlooked? No, on the contrary, our only hope is the cross! If Jesus had not been obedient to this plan of salvation, who could possibly be our mediator?
And who could possibly atone for the slaughter that eventually arose from this “new morality”? Only Jesus Christ, our Savior!
So let’s not get lost in a smokescreen. I don’t quibble with Sanger’s observation that numerous pregnancies can be very hard on a woman’s body or that poor families with many children can suffer tremendous financial hardship. But right observation does not always lead to right interpretation. Sanger saw poor health, poverty, sin, anger, abuse, and numerous other challenges and her interpretation was that the “unwanted” children were the root problem — or even that some people shouldn’t reproduce at all. Thus, she was able to make the outrageous statement that “the most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” That is the farthest thing from mercy! But her thinking has influenced our culture. Therefore, contraception is not the true issue of contention. (Abortifacients, however, are. We need to clearly distinguish between prevention and abortion.) Understanding Sanger helps us to understand why children are now disposable — seen as anything ranging from inconveniences to parasites — instead of being received as gifts from God.
Margaret Sanger lived to see the development of the first birth control pill in 1960 — something she had worked toward. She died in 1966, the year the Johnson administration incorporated “family planning” into its foreign policy and domestic health and social welfare programs for the United States.12 Her life bridged the first and second waves of feminism, but her philosophies were the booster rocket for the most profound effects of second-wave feminism.
Of the myriad changes created by second-wave feminism, the most pronounced would be the movement’s unwavering commitment to abortion. This is where second-wave feminism parts most sharply with the first-wave, as 19th-century women’s rights activists were generally pro-life. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, called abortion infanticide and wrote, “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.”13
3. Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (New York: Brentano’s, 1920), 63.
4. Deborah G. Felder, The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time (New York: Citadel Press, 1996), 12.
5. Ibid., 13.
6. Estelle Freedman, The Essential Feminist Reader (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 214.
7. Ibid., 213.
8. Margaret Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), 15.
9. Woman and the New Race, 174.
10. Ibid., 185.
11. Ibid., 232–234.
12. Deborah G. Felder, The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time, 14.
13. Letter to Julia Ward Howe, October 16, 1873, recorded in Howe’s diary at Harvard University Library.