Pierce R Butler, a regular reader of this blog and the author of many thoughtful comments around FtB, recently asked an important question about Margaret Sanger, one which I answered in the comments of Killing Black Agency. But it also got me thinking about a project in which I’ve been interested for some time: writing about individual feminists’ philosophies and ethics.
Sanger is a much-maligned feminist (ah, but I repeat myself) who did important work for several causes, including reproductive rights, rights to bodily autonomy, and rights to education. She was also a product of her time and worked very hard to make eugenicists into allies of birth control advocates. She believed in (human-) racial improvement through better breeding and the improvement of separate races…which clearly implied a belief in biologically distinct races. I find many of her views to be unacceptable today, though I understand that in forming her ideas she relied (as do I) on university professors and others considered to have specialized expertise in relevant areas. Though there are many views that Sanger (apparently) held that I find unacceptable, I find the process by which she came to those views to be mostly reasonable and I cannot say that I would necessarily have been better on those issues had I lived in her lifetime.
Sanger has quite a bit of ongoing relevance today because of her early work founding reproductive health clinics, advocating birth control and advocating free education about birth control, and creating networks of locally-founded outlets for birth control and/or information about birth control. One result of her work is that national networks of like-minded advocates, experts, and clinics continued to develop and quite clearly morphed into the organization known as Planned Parenthood today. Though she didn’t found PP with that name, she clearly founded some of the organizations that became Planned Parenthood. Though abortion wasn’t the focus of her education work or her activism, she seemed to consider criminalization of abortion to be an ill.
Her status as foremother of Planned Parenthood makes her a favorite target of the anti-abortion right wing and especially of theocratic right wingers. These people apparently love to paint Sanger as a raging racist hell-bent on Black genocide. This is politically useful in the USA where right wingers and Republicans are each (separately and together) distrusted by Black communities and Black voters, but many Black citizens are highly religious and sympathetic to at least some anti-abortion arguments. Painting PP as genocidally racist through painting founding-figure Sanger as genocidally racist is one method that right wingers will use to scare some votes away from Democrats and possibly even towards Republicans.
Understanding who Sanger really was, what she advocated and why, thus has immediate political relevance. As we have seen in two presidential elections in the past twenty years, small numbers of voters can hold the power to cause large national consequences. Thus, it turns out, efforts to more accurately understand feminists and the actual arguments feminists have made can (at least theoretically) have very practical consequences for people across the US and the world.
Sparked by Pierce R Butler’s quest for better information, I’ve decided to implement a series of posts on feminists and the feminist ethics and feminist philosophies that those individual feminists advocated. There is a long list of tragically misunderstood feminists. Though my own expertise starts only a few years before Seneca Falls, I am more qualified than most to discuss the feminist ethics of women (and others) from at least Sappho on forward.
So I am going to make a request in this post for suggestions on which feminists to cover. Although the post will remain in the recent posts for a relatively brief period of time, I will republish it from time to time and also pin it in my sidebar next to the very first post of this blog so that we get a good number of people able to contribute to the requests. I encourage you to ask for profiles on any feminist, from currently productive feminists such as Kimberly Springer, Sandy Stone and Marilyn Chin to feminists who wrote most of their work and received more of their attention before the year 2000, like Pat Parker, Cherie Moraga, Zitkála-Šá, Susan B Anthony, Mitsuye Yamada, Angela Davis, Sylvia Rivera or Andrea Dworkin. Don’t take these names to be specific suggestions, however. I want to write about the feminists that you would like to know better, and I especially would like to write about them if they are coming up in your local political and social contexts.
So please! Hit me up: what feminists are at the tops of your lists for people about whom you’d like to know more? Whether the interest comes from hearing things you know are likely to be misrepresentations that you hope to see corrected or from a deep knowledge of feminists you respect but whose work you’d like to see reach others, I’m happy to write about feminists both already familiar to me and those new.
With each profile, I will focus on works produced, philosophy espoused (or implicit in writings/statements), and actions advocated. For each feminist, I will inevitably discuss a certain amount of background because I want to make visible how different feminists have come to different conclusions about social problems and social solutions. This does not mean, however, that there will be a large amount of biography. There probably will not be, at least as a percentage of everything written. I intend to write about the feminism of each person and not necessarily their families or hobbies or day jobs.
As an added bonus, I hope to show how the ethics of different feminisms differ in how they attempt to determine what problems need social attention and what changes are ethical (or ethically demanded) for people to make. After a number of profiles, I think you will begin to see patterns of thought that can help categorize feminists much more meaningfully than mere generational waves, and that will enable us to examine how wave theory is not meaningless, but is nonetheless much less useful than it could be if we saw waves as times of popularity for particular types of ethical reasoning rather than as times belonging to particular people or generations.
I look forward to reading the names of feminists you suggest in the comments below.
*1: As most of her mentions of abortions were in the service to the argument that birth control is preferable to abortion, and some mentions paint a brutal picture of criminal abortion and stress ridiculously high costs of legal abortions, it may be that she saw an ideal world as one having no abortions. However, readers of such statements should not take that to mean that her advocacy of autonomy ended at the abortion clinic door. Ultimately her personal feelings about abortion are harder to determine than how she saw abortion as useful in her arguments. Still, there are on-point quotes that seem to say she opposes criminalizing abortion and also on-point quotes that seem to say she opposes all abortion. I merely want us to remember that one can be against a thing without believing that it is useful or good for government to criminalize a thing. I think embracing Nazism is bad, but I don’t want people thrown in jail for reading Mein Kampf.
CORRECTION NOTE: After being notified that I had ended up with the name “Andrew Dworkin” instead of “Andrea Dworkin”, I have now changed that – at 11:30pm PDT 8 July, 2017.
Thanks against to suttkus for pointing out my error.
Minor edits: changed an instance of view to views, and of to that. 2:30pm PDT 9 July, 2017