Killing Black Agency

Error Correction: It turns out that Writey McScriberson is living in Illinois. When I wrote this post, I was under the misimpression that WM was located in the UK. My bad. I have not changed the text below, but any commentary speculating on differences between the UK and the US were obviously motivated by my own misimpressions, not the actual life, experience, or writing of WM.

Shiv’s blog is such a great source of things that need discussion, it is entirely unsurprising that another of her recent posts has inspired me to write.

As I try to do when blatantly ripping off ideas from Shiv, I will be writing about something she mentions but does not explore in depth and let her main points speak for themselves, as they do so reliably and so well.

Recently Writer McScriberson, reachable at the twitter address*1 @afroSHIRL tweeted out the following:

Dr wouldn't tie my tubes cuz I wasn't married and maybe someday my husband might want kids. Medically, my body belongs to a man I haven't met.

Writey McScriberson telling her story in text. Could it be any other way?

I found this particularly interesting because in the USA for perhaps 20 years there were ongoing disagreements about the appropriate feminist position on sterilization between white feminists with stable income and a coalition consisting mainly of Black and multi-racial feminists born in the US with a few feminists with other racialized backgrounds and a few (typically low and insecure-income) white feminists thrown in. In this post I will, entirely-hyperbolically, refer to these disagreements as the Sterilization War.*2

The SW began with the development of a large enough second-wave feminist movement for large numbers of feminists to meet on the ground and discuss local feminist issues. It was aided by consciousness-raising groups which helped develop the positions on each side of the war and also helped the two primary sides to come into contact and learn that there was another position on voluntary sterilization with which they might disagree.

The two sides were largely divided in the manner that they were because the Eugenic history of the US had led many doctors to involuntarily sterilize – often (perhaps even as standard procedure) without consent or even information – poor and/or Black women who gave birth via C-section. “So long as we’re in there,” the thinking seems to have been, “might as well do some good for the world by ensuring fewer poor/Black babies, because we all know how horrible Black people and poor people are, amirite?”

However, at the same time, economically stable white women were being denied voluntary sterilization. It appears that the doctors denying sterilization overlapped significantly with the doctors performing sterilization without information or consent. This isn’t hard to understand, the same racist and eugenic thinking that led doctors to believe that Black people are of less value and that the world’s population should be less Black would also lead doctors to believe that white people are of more value, and that as many white babies should be born to economically stable white mothers as possible, because the world would benefit from being more white.

Even from the perspective of the racist, poor-hating doctors the system wasn’t perfect, not least because racial identification is not reliable, but in feminist circles there was a tremendous disagreement about how to address this unspoken eugenic policy. Access to birth control had long been an important feminist issue. Though Margaret Sanger*3 clearly held horribly racist beliefs and also clearly held eugenic beliefs about heritability of poverty, heritability of criminality, and a distinction between deserved and undeserved poverty, the organizations through which she worked sought first to educate. They believed that individuals had the right to choose to access or reject birth control even if they did have personal opinions (strongly influenced by the Eugenics movement) about which choice was correct for those individuals.

Out of this imperfect right-to-decide philosophy was born efforts to overturn laws that forbid access to medical contraception and sterilization. The culmination of the fight for access to temporary methods of contraception was the SCOTUS case Griswold v Connecticut  381 U.S. 479 (1965). The language used in that decision, including a “right of privacy” and scary language about policing “marital bedrooms”*4.  That right to privacy was extended to unmarried people in 1972 (in Eisenstadt v. Baird) and was interpreted to include the right to abortion in 1973 (in Roe v Wade, but you knew that already).

Despite more than 15 years of court fights, the right to access abortion or contraception had won only what the Supreme Court had to give: restrictions on government prohibitions. While the government could no longer jail doctors for providing abortion or contraception (including sterilization), nothing before SCOTUS or within the normally understood scope of its power permitted it to force doctors to provide those services. While it was relatively easy to provide prescriptions for medical birth control, clinics equipped to interview patients and provide paper prescriptions did not necessarily have the surgical necessities to provide sterilization. These clinics were also located in lower-income neighborhoods and served a disproportionately low-income clientele. So economically stable white women continued to ask their own doctors for birth control. While temporary birth control was more and more forthcoming, many doctors drew a line at sterilizing a woman who might someday give birth to middle-class white babies.

And so white women who faced ongoing difficulties with accessing their preferred methods of birth control wanted to destigmatize sterilization. Other women, especially Black women and women on welfare (these groups being the primary targets) saw sterilization as a constant threat and as too-frequent violence inflicted on themselves by doctors who might feel even more entitled to sterilize them without their consent if the surgeries were made to seem as normal and sometimes even positive events.

Both sides clearly had good points and important issues of sexism and racism to address. However the control of establishment-respected feminist organizations (i.e. the organizations who could get their representatives on national television) was disproportionately white and monied, and too often white feminists did not hear the message that there were ways to gain increasing access to voluntary sterilization without raising risks of involuntary sterilization for others. It is not necessarily that Black feminists are inherently better feminists or better thinkers, but that white, monied control of feminism-amplifying organizations made it necessary for marginalized and racialized feminists to tailor their messages to white feminists, while the feminists who already had control of mouthpiece organizations faced no practical requirement to convince marginalized feminists of the rightness of a course of action or a rhetorical tactic. Those feminists who did not practice inter-feminist dialog would not be as skilled at inter-feminist dialog, and they tended to be the establishment feminists.

So in the US, the SW slowly, fitfully ended as intersectionality became more integrated into feminist thought. Mainstream feminists took up the fight for an end to involuntary sterilization and that battle was eventually (largely) won. The widespread moral condemnation for FGM was in fact an outgrowth of mainstream feminists learning to listen to Black feminists on the issue of involuntary sterilization. Without incorporating Black perspectives, there might be an instinctive revulsion to the sexist and violent mutilation of female bodied people, but the widespread media attention anti-FGM perspectives received would likely not have happened in an alternate world where mainstream feminism had not yet grappled with the issue of involuntary sterilization.

Intersex activists and advocates have also benefited from the work of Black and poor feminists on the issue of involuntary sterilization. With the success of those feminists in the SW, intersex feminists were able to build on the condemnation of involuntary sterilization, comparing the involuntary surgeries performed on intersex children to the involuntary surgeries mainstream feminism had already learned to condemn.

So the SW is largely over, and has been for some time: feminists largely agree that any work on the issue of voluntary sterilization must not overlook possible misuse of that work to support involuntary sterilization. The feminists originally working against involuntary sterilization have repeatedly emphasized the “involuntary” and made clear that it is not sterilization itself which is offensive or oppressive. This has also benefited transfeminists and trans advocates. Like economically stable white women, surgeries for transsexual people and other trans folk requesting surgical intervention has sometimes been denied using the justification that most if not all of the genital altering surgeries available include steps that have the effect of sterilizing the trans person.*5 Making sure the focus has been on voluntariness and not on sterilization itself has provided direct help to transfeminists learning to craft effective arguments to use with medical providers and indirect help through a slow shifting of the awareness of medical providers on the importance of the individual’s control over hir own reproduction and body.

But if the SW within feminism has been over for some time, it is not over for society at large – not in the USA, not in Canada, and not in the UK*6. Involuntary sterilizations continue to occur, though they appear to be much less common, possibly even quite rare, in those three countries today.*7 But access to sterilization for those who want it is still very much an issue. In the US while there are enough doctors willing to perform the procedure for women in urban areas, there are large patches of the country where access to such doctors is difficult or even impossible without lengthy travel. The largest barrier in the US to voluntary sterilization, however, has been the lack of insurance coverage. As a voluntary procedure, it was typically excluded from coverage. The ACA changed that for most persons, though Hobby Lobby restricted the scope of US requirements on insurers to provide coverage.

It is my acute awareness of the long history of this fight that led me to add bolding to the text mandating coverage of voluntary sterilization in Oregon’s HB 3391 in my post about it the other day. And then, immediately after writing about that victory in the 70+ year old fight for access to voluntary sterilization, Shiv posts about Writey McScriberson’s story, the story of a twitter user whose picture appears to be that of a Black woman and whose twitter address “@afroSHIRL” implies Black identity.

I find it entirely fascinating that this user was asking for sterilization and being denied on the basis of sexism. To me, it seems to speak to something about the relationship of sexism, racism, and eugenics in the UK. Is racism decreasing faster than sexism in the UK, such that even if sexist refusals to perform voluntary sterilization are less common than before, they are more common in the case of Black women whom UK doctors in the past might have been eager to sterilize for eugenic reasons? While the UK did (and does) have a eugenics movement, was it never quite as strong there as it was in the US? Or was it stronger?

The Catholic Conference of Bishops opposes individual choice in sterilization (because of course the celibate Catholic hierarchy has to tell the rest of the world how evil it is to choose not to reproduce). Does the Anglican church? NHS coverage for voluntary sterilization came before the ACA’s guarantee of coverage for most insured US residents. There are so many possibly significant differences that play into the experience of Black women being denied access to voluntary sterilization in a manner that used to be characteristic of a certain class of white women. Am I to be hopeful that perhaps this means Black babies are valued more than in years past? Am I to cry over this fight still being waged after so many years of feminist effort? And to what extent do the different histories of racism in the UK and the US make comparisons difficult (or meaningless or – the worst possible outcome – misleading)?

Nothing in the struggles against oppression is ever easy and setbacks are common, but victories do occur. The importance of Writey McScriberson’s story is that it highlights the difficulties, the setbacks and the victories all in 140 characters. Where once the medical profession’s primary thinking on Black women and sterilization was that sterilization was a good way to kill the Black body. Now it might be that this has lessened, but the medical profession has given us new evidence that it thinks of sterilization as the limit of tolerable Black agency. Forgive me if I’m not overly enthused at this development that seems to better tolerate the existence of Black people … only so long as they aren’t making important decisions for themselves.

Stay tuned to this space: if I can interview Writey McScriberson for a future post, I will.

*1: See my previous post about my uncertainty regarding this term. If I should be using another word than “address” please let me know in the comments of that post & keep this post for the actual issues of agency, ethics, feminism, and history that are raised here.

*2: Mostly I’ll do that because it gives me a handy abbreviation that will soon have confused George Lucas fans gaining feminist consciousness by accidentally reading this post and wondering what it has to do with Ewoks.

*3: Many people believe she founded Planned Parenthood, but this is incorrect. She founded the first reproductive health clinic in the US and also co-founded larger, coalition-style organizations of birth control advocates once others had followed her lead and opened up reproductive health clinics in other areas. These larger networks evolved into Planned Parenthood, but PP was not founded by Sanger directly.

*4: From Douglas’ decision: “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship,”

*5: I don’t have good research on this, but I would expect to find that the objections to transsexual requests for genital surgeries were also more frequently directed to (or at the very least more strenuous in the case of) white patients. However, with sexism’s emphasis on the importance of male virility and fertility, it may be the case with trans persons AMAB that such objections were less race-focussed than for persons AFAB. It would be an interesting question to answer, though I doubt a reliable answer could be obtained. I simply don’t see a methodologically sound way of reaching widely generalizable conclusions.

*6: and surely not in other places as well, though I’m not personally equipped to speak to them, and had already done enough work in writing this blog post so I didn’t feel like researching the state of racism’s and sexism’s effects on access to reproductive health in, like, every country in the world. Of course, if you have sources on how racism and sexism are affecting reproductive health access anywhere in the world, please feel free to call it to my attention in the comments.

*7: It’s hard to know exact rates when this practice is always accompanied by lies and secrecy. Rarity in prosecutions might reflect a rarity in getting caught, a culture supportive of doctors performing involuntary surgeries, both of those, or a genuine rarity in involuntary sterilization itself. I believe the practice is much less common today than in the 60s, but precisely quantifying the drop is hard to do.

Special note: I was unsure where to attach this note. I’m afraid I minimize it by placing it at the end, but I couldn’t make it work elsewhere, at least I couldn’t make it work in a way that felt satisfying and natural to me. Anyway, here’s the note:

You should know, too, that my writing here on the history of the SW before 1990, though consistent a single incident in my own history, is almost entirely based on the great feminist Dorothy Roberts and the history laid out in her book, Killing the Black Body and a few separate papers of hers that largely overlap with the content of that book. Comments on developments after 1990, including speculation on feminist responses to FGM and my perspectives on intersex feminism of the 1990s-2000s is based on my own experience, original research by me, or by authors other than Dorothy Roberts. Of course, any errors in the parts about the SW before 1990 should still be attributed to me. I wasn’t reading from Killing the Black Body as I wrote this, and Roberts is too worthy a scholar to be saddled with my mistakes. As must be obvious by now, the title of this post is also meant in praise of and reference to that book and the scholar who wrote it.


  1. says

    From my perspective, this simply goes into wholesale sexism. When I started seeking sterilisation, I was patted on the head and told to come back when I was “grown up” and much, much worse. In a majority of states, women are routinely refused sterilisation, even if they are married, because “they will want children, or more children, come back when you’re over 35.” Many states have laws to the effect that no one can be sterilised unless they have their spouse’s consent. While it is easier for men, it’s still pretty much a fuckin’ nightmare for most women, especially those who have decided they don’t want children. And yet, a 15 year old will get knocked up, and these same doctors won’t say a damn word about it.

    I had an extremely difficult time getting anyone to agree to an IUD when I was 17, but I got the damn thing, after a 3 hour argument with a PP doctor about how I should consider the pill, even though it’s medically contraindicated for me. Thankfully, the IUD did what doctors refused to do, so I got my sterilisation in the end.

  2. secondtofirstworld says

    Elections will be held in my home country next year, and thanks to an unfortunate choice of words from a leading opposition politician, the current buzzword is, that if the governing party doesn’t get elected, the NATO border fence will be demolished, and refugees (or as they see it, terrorists) will come in in droves.

    The point behind that is, that my home country’s racial politics are a lot like the South. We don’t have black people, but Romani, at around 6% of the total population. It might be twice as much in reality, but fear of discrimination drives numbers down. What Neo-Marxists don’t know, deny happening, or ignore, that under communist rule, these countries used involuntary sterilization on Romani women, and still treat them like trash if they go for childbirth in a clinic. Having universal healthcare, that covers a lot of pregnancy related treatment does not mean health professional can’t be dicks to minority women (or women in general, depending on the issue). The issue was equally a low access to abortion versus involuntary sterilization, except there were no big debates.

    That’s because, based on centuries old traditions, the white natives exiled various minorities to their own communities. The difference came with WWII, after the deportation of Jews and ethnic Germans. The Romani people still fight and uphill battle for integration, including being able to live with the majority. They’re of course not being helped by some of their semi-nomadic members, who do tricks and other crimes. Being an EU member has somewhat elevated their status, so at least the horrors of the past can’t be repeated.

    This is why I’m pissed, when fellow white people of mine don’t accept what privilege is, or that very bad ideas are not a thing of the past. Only because it doesn’t or can’t happen to me it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Also, I tend to get into conflicts over the definition of a fiscal conservative. As a general rule, wanting to procreate should be a choice, not a mandate or chore. Furthermore, if a woman for any reason can’t secure the requirements to offer a life to a newborn on a level that a newborn needs, and she knows that, it has to be her choice. If things change in the future, adoption is still a thing. It’s “funny” that my gender wants to tell women what to do with their bodies, when most of the time we rely on women to tell us where are favorite shirt is. A shining example of being in control.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Margaret Sanger*3 clearly held horribly racist beliefs and also clearly held eugenic beliefs about heritability of poverty, heritability of criminality, and a distinction between deserved and undeserved poverty…

    Citations, please – and not from the anti-choicers who love to spread these quote-mined &/or misattributed slanders, which all too many progressives parrot without checking. Sanger did “ally” with some who held such views by publishing articles in their journals – because nobody else would print her arguments for voluntary contraception – but she did not support them.

    Pls note that (a) the authoritative biography of Sanger, Ellen Chesler’s Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America reports only one clear statement of racism on Sanger’s part: an anti-Jewish stereotype uttered shortly before she married a Jew; and (b) very racism-sensitive contemporary African-American leaders, such as Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. DuBois, did not hesitate to work with and endorse her efforts at outreach in their communities.

  4. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Pierce R Butler:

    Thanks so much for engaging! I appreciate your question and will attempt to answer it in the briefest way I know how. It’s too easy for me to makes these responses even longer, and though additional citations might help, I have to keep length somewhat reasonable. Now on to the substance of your comment!

    Sanger held Eugenic ideas, such as those expressed in this piece contained within the NYU database of Sanger’s collected papers.

    My idea that she held views that were racist is based upon my own standards of what constitutes racism and not that of those who lived many decades ago. I have said that she held these beliefs, but that unlike the mainstream “eugenists” (her word, more frequently written today as “eugenicists”) she believed in free choice by the individual to control their own fertility and reproduction. Quotes that support my ideas include the following, taken from the linked NYU-housed piece, though it is not the only piece of her work I could have used:

    Seemingly every new approach to the great problem of the human race must manifest its vitality by running the gauntlet of prejudice, ridicule and misinterpretation. Eugenists may remember that not many years ago this program for race regeneration was subjected to the cruel ridicule of stupidity and ignorance. Today Eugenics is suggested by the most diverse minds as the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems. The most intransigent and daring teachers and scientists have lent their support to this great biological interpretation of the human race

    …the campaign for Birth Control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical in ideal, with the final aims of Eugenics.

    First: we are convinced that racial regeneration like individual regeneration, must come “from within.” That is, it must be autonomous, self-directive, and not imposed from without. In other words, every potential parent, and especially every potential mother, must be brought to an acute realization of the primary and central importance of bringing children into this world.

    Secondly: Not until the parents of the world are thus given control over their reproductive faculties will it ever be possible not alone to improve the quality of the generations of the future, but even to maintain civilization even at its present level. Only by self-control of this type, only by intelligent mastery of the procreative powers can the great mass of humanity be awakened to the great responsibility of parenthood.

    Thirdly: we have come to the conclusion, based on widespread investigation and experience, that this education for parenthood and of parenthood must be based upon the needs and demands of the people themselves. An idealistic code of sexual ethics, imposed from above, … can never be of the slightest value in effecting any changes in the mores of the people. Such systems have in the past revealed their woeful inability to prevent the sexual and racial chaos into which the world has today drifted.

    The almost universal demand for practical education in Birth Control is one of the most hopeful signs that the masses themselves today possess the divine spark of regeneration. It remains for the courageous and the enlightened to answer this demand, to kindle the spark, to direct a thorough education in Eugenics based upon this intense interest.

    Birth Control propaganda is thus the entering wedge for the Eugenic educator. …

    As an advocate of Birth Control, I wish to take advantage of the present opportunity 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 to the mentally and physically fit though less fertile parents of the educated and well-to-do classes. On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.

    Birth Control is not advanced as a panacea by which past and present evils of dysgenic breeding can be magically eliminated. Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism.

    But to prevent the repetition, to effect the salvation of the generations of the future–nay of the generations of today–our greatest need is first of all the ability to face the situation without flinching, and to cooperate in the formation of a code of sexual ethics based upon a thorough biological and psychological understanding of human nature; and then to answer the questions and the needs of the people with all the intelligence and honesty at our command. If we can summon the bravery to do this, we shall best be serving the true interests of Eugenics, because our work will then have a practical and pragmatic value.

    Sanger is here discussing the idea of
    1. Biologically distinct races, with separate and distinct characters
    2. Races solving their problems “from within”, suggesting (as she also does in other writings) that each race must embrace its character and that mixed-race children are undesirable and that members of one race can only best actualize themselves by embracing the characters of their race.

    In respect of these, the fact that she has generally positive things to say about Black people does not change my mind that embrace of the concept of separate races with distinct racial characters is itself racist, in the same way that I claim it is sexist when “benevolent sexists” insist upon “recognition” of natural differences in natures and capacities of male humans and female humans supposedly for the good of both males and females, as each will be frustrated and unsuccessful if pursuing goals consistent with the nature of the other.

    Further, note that she’s discussing eugenics positively, and suggesting that birth control, properly applied (not a mere moralistic campaign, but a campaign of “honest education” about how having children affects those already living in poverty and about how to have sex without having children). Sanger sees birth control as playing a role in poverty elimination. And, yes, there are non-classist reasons for seeing birth control that way: children do cost money to raise and take up time that might otherwise be spent in education, training or work. However, in the context of Sanger’s embrace of Eugenics “ideals”, I think a reasonable, contextual reading of her works as a whole show her to believe that some people actually pass on genetic predispositions to poverty and to anti-social behavior, including criminality.

    In particular take note of the last paragraph with any highlights: Sanger clearly says that “civilization” suffers from problems created by past “dysgenic” breeding, but that the goal should not be an increase in fertility among the “fit”, rather the goal should be a drastic reduction in the fertility of the “unfit”. Moreover, she sees an apocalypse in society’s near future should certain people continue to breed. Recall this line:

    Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism

    This really isn’t terribly different from the “invading hordes” rhetoric of modern-day anti-immigrant groups. There is a “bad” group and a “good” group. The “good” group is encouraged to fear the consequences of allowing the “bad” group to grow in numbers sufficient to take control of society (or otherwise to disrupt the governance and institutional functioning of a society). BUT, the good group isn’t faced with the burden of raising more children and the work and expense that comes with that. Rather, the rhetorical demand is that the “bad” group be reduced in numbers (or at least, prevented from growing in number).

    Other writings of Sanger emphasize that parenting children while impoverished is separately undesirable from parenting while “unfit”. Take this excerpt from an article titled “Birth Control and Racial Betterment”:

    We who advocate Birth Control, on the other hand, lay all our emphasis upon stopping not only the reproduction of the unfit but upon stopping all reproduction when there is not economic means of providing proper care for those who are born in health. The eugenist also believes that a woman should bear as many healthy children as possible as a duty to the state. We hold that the world is already over-populated.

    Note that Sanger here separates the idea of being unfit from being without economic means to properly care for children. This doesn’t mean that she sees no possibility of heritable poverty, but rather that she sees poverty as multi-factorial and that it is possible for some “fit” persons to be without the money necessary to raise children. Later in the article, in fact, she articulates what becomes reason to believe she sees more people in the “fit but for poverty” category than in the “unfit in any case” category:

    Among the great majority of wage-workers, the frequent arrival of children means not only the wrecking of the mother’s health and the physical handicapping of the child, but often the disheartening and demoralization of the father, the stunting of the children through bad living conditions and early toil, and in that generation or the next, the contributing of morons, feeble-minded, insane and various criminal types to the already tremendous social burden constituted by these unfit.

    While I personally believe in the sterilization of the feeble-minded, the insane and syphilitic, I have not been able to discover that these measures are more than superficial deterrents when applied to the constantly growing stream of the unfit. They are excellent means of meeting a certain phase of the situation, but I believe in regard to these, as in regard to other eugenic means, that they do not go to the bottom of the matter. Neither the mating of healthy couples nor the sterilization of certain recognized types of the unfit touches the great problem of unlimited reproduction of those whose housing, clothing, and food are all inadequate to physical and mental health. These measures do not touch those great masses…

    This can make things problematic: exactly whom does Sanger see as unfit, and why? In “A Better Race Through Birth Control” Sanger writes:

    …the intelligence tests made on our soldiers during the recent war indicated that approximately 25 per cent of our population never attains a mentality superior to that of a twelve-year-old child. When we consider that the mentally deficient reproduce more rapidly than those of normal intelligence, we may well look into the future with dismay. Unless a halt is called, and that speedily, our race is doomed to inevitable deterioration.

    The object of civilization is to obtain the highest and most splendid culture of which humanity is capable. But such attainment is unthinkable if we continue to breed from the present race stock that yields us our largest amount of progeny. Some method must be devised to eliminate the degenerate and the defective; for these act constantly to impede progress and ever increasingly drag down the human race. This is especially the case in the nations which have reached the highest degree of civilization, for it is just in these nations that the degenerate and defective are enabled to produce the largest number of progeny.

    It is impossible to conceive of eugenic legislation that would be acceptable and that would cover the present need. Our knowledge is insufficient to insure intelligent race culture through statute law. Fortunately, however, Birth Control offers an avenue of escape. It is reasonable to assume that women of subnormal mentality, however lacking they may be in vision and altruism, would prefer to avoid the pain and responsibilities of procreation, if the satisfaction of sex could be divorced from reproduction. Given Birth Control, the unfit will voluntarily eliminate their kind. On the other hand Birth Control will permit large numbers of intelligent women, such as our teachers and nurses, to enter upon marriage, in the knowledge that they can limit their families to their economic conditions. While these women would probably not have large families of children, nevertheless those that they give to the world will be of rare value and will assist materially in the improvement of the race stock.

    So, she has no rigorous definition, but tends to rely on the eugenic language of the day (using terms such as “feebleminded”) and when pressed further, the most specific she gets is that 25% of the population has an IQ significantly below the mean (big surprise there). She is aware of her lack of a rigorous definition of “fit” and “unfit”, she opposes the types of eugenic legislation made popular in some states and countries. Instead, she asks that we appeal to the minimal and selfish intelligence of the unfit slut to see for herself how she might benefit from having the pleasures of sex without the procreative results.

    Like any other historical figure, if we’re attempting to judge Margaret Sanger as a “good person” or a “bad person” we must consider not only what she believed, but why she believed it and what evidence she might have had that would undermine each belief or support incompatible beliefs.

    However the beliefs themselves are good or bad, racist or not, regardless of whether the information necessary to prove them abhorrent was then available.

    I’m perfectly happy with simultaneously seeing Sanger as a “good person” who actively worked to promote privacy rights, bodily autonomy, increased education for both children and adults, and reproductive health and at the same time seeing the belief system to which Sanger subscribed as built upon racist, classist foundations that are entirely demolished by modern data as well as shown through historical research to have been spread in part by their appeal to common-sense prejudices that might have sounded true or might have appealed to what people wanted to be true, but which -even at the early stages before becoming widespread- were supported only by selective data sets and flawed methodologies.

    I don’t want to demonize Sanger. I do have a massive hatred of eugenics and I do have reason to believe that Sanger clearly saw common cause with eugenicists and believed that she and eugenicists had many ends in common, even if they differed on the means.

    I hope this gives you enough to believe that I have a reasonably supported conclusion about Sanger’s beliefs and have not merely given myself over to right wing propaganda making Sanger into a monster.

    My statements about her beliefs were fairly general, so i have supported them in only a general way – not with statements that she believed X very specific thing about Y very specific racial group. I don’t feel a need to defend such statements as I haven’t made them, but if you have specific questions about details of Sangers beliefs that aren’t answered here, I might be willing to write even more on the topic than I have already. She’s an interesting person and her life and work raise interesting questions.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Crip Dyke … @ # 4 – Boy Howdy, that’s a reply and a half! (Coming in on a day when I have a big-project deadline to meet, so I can’t give it the response it deserves…)

    Quickly scanning, it strikes me that Sanger uses “race” here in ways that could apply to “the human race”, as she (and Darwin, and Galton) were prone to do. The elitism that oozes through her words, calculated to appeal to upper-class biases, also reflects the crude sociology of the 1920s-1930s from which this piece seemingly dates: how much she personally believed it, given her rad background and manipulative tendencies, forms an open question. (Yes, I agree that pushing such a given line insincerely still adds up to net support for that position.)

    I might note that modern sociology also observes economic class is largely heritable, particularly in the 21st-century USA (more so than in the 20th-c USA, it seems).

    You make a pretty good short case for Sanger’s classism, but imnsho haven’t – so far – supported your assertion of “clearly held horribly racist beliefs”. That hot button, in particular, drives most of the modern leftist hostility to Sanger yet remains, sfaict, an unsubstantiated anti-choicer slander.

    Thanks for the detailed response – gotta get back to work…

  6. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    You’re welcome and you’re correct. I did try to acknowledge that she does use “race” to mean the human race, then at other times uses it to mean something else. Because of the multiple definitions, it’s not always immediately obvious what she means. If I have time later, or if Sanger comes up again in the Suffragist to Be Named Later thread, then I might track down some quotes that might be more convincing to you.

  7. anat says

    Another place where SW comes up: in the objection to prescribing puberty blockers to transgender children. That by listening to their children (who can’t possibly be sufficiently informed) parents are sending the kids down the path of sterilization.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Finally got that project wrapped up (enough to scramble after a few other things, anyway).

    From the “Suffragist to be named later” post: [Sanger] believed in (human-) racial improvement through better breeding and the improvement of separate races…which clearly implied a belief in biologically distinct races.

    If you provided a quotation to support that latter implication, I missed it.

    Sanger’s education in biology apparently extended little further than that of nursing training, so we shouldn’t demand a grasp of modern genetics from her (perhaps just as well, given the racism of science in her formative years and middle age). She dwelt, and worked, on the status of women practically exclusively, and treated everything else as secondary or tertiary.

    As a working-class radical in her youth and a libertine (some would say slut) in her personal life, she in effect subscribed to some flavor of egalitarianism. Many accuse(d) her of “selling out” the movement when she (mostly) abandoned it to focus on the single issue of contraception: I see some truth in that, but it reminds me of similar charges when women in the ’70s left antiwar groups to support feminist campaigns.

    Yes, those women no longer actively opposed “the” war, but they remained under the progressive umbrella and did resist “The Man” in different ways. Some of them, we see now, took their feminism to the point of unconditional support for, say, Hillary Clinton – and in those cases I’d agree that they certainly (like Clinton) have explicitly turned against the peace movement. (Someone more at home with that subtle-nuance stuff will have to address the distinctions between them and the likes of blatant sell-outs such as David Horowitz & Eldridge Cleaver…)

    Anyhow – Sanger as racist: evidence, please?

  9. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Pierce R Butler:

    I think you’re looking for me to support something I didn’t actually say. Sanger was vocally anti-racist in her context.

    Nonetheless, she held ideas that i find unjustified and harmful. I’ve read Sanger extensively. I do not say that I see “Sanger as racist” to use your words. I have said

    Margaret Sanger clearly held horribly racist beliefs

    I think that what’s holding us back from seeing this similarly is that likely the poisonous fog blown by the forced birth crowd to keep people from seeing Sanger and today’s PP as they are. Given this poisonous air, perhaps I should have written,

    Margaret Sanger clearly held views that seemed reasonable, even progressive in her day, but that are nonetheless racist beliefs and that are considered racist today.

    I probably also should have given her praise for certain anti-racist efforts at the same time as I said what I said in criticism.

    However, having failed there, I thought I was clear that what distresses me about Sanger’s views on race is not some hostility toward one race or another, or a tendency to explicit white supremacy. No, she rejected white supremacy verbally, explicitly…

    …but: she nonetheless treated the races as actually real and actually separate. Though I admitted earlier that her use of “race” and “racial” in reference to the human race can confuse matters, I believe (and also said earlier) that when you read a lot of Sanger you can tell when she’s using race to indicate a subset of humans and when she’s using it to indicate the human race as a whole. Her use of “internal” racial improvement is one case where I think it’s clear she is saying that Black improvement can only come from Black leadership in Black communities.

    There are many other situations, as well, and her autobiography, if you’ve read it, speaks of her lectures to segregated Southern audiences where she gives similar but distinct messages to racially different audiences. A reflective interview, written near the end of her career has several easily cut/pasteable comments that reflect what I believe is her consistent treatment of races as separate and separately optimizable:

    In the first place, the Negro leaders should understand it. It is a basic principle for a sound healthy race. Leaders should have the courage in their respective communities to stand for the idea. Planned parenthood is not aimed at any one people. It is for all, and the objective is to do away with the waste of life

    A sickly race is a weak race. As long as Negro mothers die in childbirth at two and one-half times the rate of white mothers, as long as Negro babies are dying at twice the rate of white babies, colored homes will be unhappy.

    Greater understanding and practice of planned parenthood, through the use of contraceptive methods prescribed by doctors and clinics, will mean that there will be more strong and healthy children and fewer defective and handicapped babies unable to find a useful or happy place in life.

    I think this is quite consistent with both the good of Sanger (actively trying to reach across racial lines to share what she believes will be helpful with people of any race) and the bad of Sanger (treating races as separate peoples and populations that can and should breed separately so that each may create its own optimized populations).

    I don’t think that I can put my argument any more plainly than I have here. I don’t insist that you agree, but I hope that you can accept that the evidence is sufficient for me to reasonably claim that Sanger held views that I consider racist and that it is reasonable to consider to be wrong.

    I worry that you think I’m articulating something more judgemental about Sanger than I actually am. In fact, in some ways I think that you are not sufficiently generous to her:

    Sanger’s education in biology apparently extended little further than that of nursing training, so we shouldn’t demand a grasp of modern genetics from her (perhaps just as well, given the racism of science in her formative years and middle age). She dwelt, and worked, on the status of women practically exclusively, and treated everything else as secondary or tertiary.

    While her lectures were almost exclusively on the subject of birth control, she did make public statements, e.g., comparing white racism in the US to the racism of white Brits in India and criticizing Nazism and Nazi anti-semitism before WW2 at a time when few others where willing to call out Nazism so directly. I’m not as certain as you that she considered “everything else as secondary or tertiary”. For Sanger, I don’t think birth control was exclusively a status-of-women issue. Also, I think that her writing shows that for Sanger birth control access and the status of women are both secondary to a long term scheme opposing overpopulation and preventing the birth of poor persons and disabled persons. It was her belief that empowering women via birth control access was not merely a status of women project, but would be to the direct benefit of men and boys as well.

    I can see how you would make that statement, but I’m not sure that Sanger would frame it in the same way – that’s my hesitation.

    Anyway, thanks for the engagement.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    Crip Dyke @ # 9 – Thanks again for an informative reply.

    …but: she nonetheless treated the races as actually real and actually separate.

    A white American had very few opportunities to see racial issues otherwise before the ’60s, and Sanger was 76 when that decade began (your quotations almost certainly date from earlier, or at least pre-LBJ ’60s). I find it possible to read her “sickly race … weak race” as a description of political disadvantage rather than biological inferiority (especially since she seems to clearly acknowledge strong black individuals). Considering blacks as an inseparable sociopolitical bloc by necessity, in that time frame, must have looked like elementary realism from practically all sides.

    I worry that you think I’m articulating something more judgemental about Sanger than I actually am.

    Mebbe so, but when you use words like “horribly racist”, I don’t/can’t read that as leaving much slack.

    I’m not as certain as you that she considered “everything else as secondary or tertiary”. … her writing shows that for Sanger birth control access and the status of women are both secondary to a long term scheme opposing overpopulation and preventing the birth of poor persons and disabled persons.

    Whereas I read the same approach as aimed at preventing the stresses on women from oversized &/or impoverished families and exceptionally-difficult-to-raise children, phrased to draw support from “big picture”-minded men of influence. (And, yes, arguably biased by her decades among the eugenicists.)

    You clearly have not fallen into the error of many other progressives in jumping onto an opportunity for holier-than-thou-ism promulgated by antifeminists, as I first feared, and against which I was knee-jerk protesting. Thanks for setting me straight so calmly and lucidly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *