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Happy Mother’s Day; Reassessing Margaret Sanger

BY REV. DONNA SCHAPER | Planned Parenthood in New York City wants to remove the Margaret Sanger Square sign from the corner of Bleecker and Mott Sts. Sanger championed birth control and is said to have defied the New York attorney general, in 1925 declaring from the steps of Judson Memorial Church, “Tomorrow we will start giving out free birth control. Please arrest us.”

Sanger also embraced the eugenics movement, an ableist and racist philosophy, to advance her birth control campaign. By doing this, she aided and abetted racism.

At first, I didn’t want to sign the petition to change the sign. I changed my mind. I read more about how foundational eugenics are to modern-day protesters against women of color in reproductive-health clinics. I read about the consequences of stupid “theoretical” ideas.

People at Planned Parenthood here in town finally just got fed up with women being insulted on their way into their clinics. They got fed up knowing the genuine harm that modern eugenics continues to do with people of color. They joined the national reckoning about race. They saw their corner of the universe as a “teaching moment.” I became a pupil, a resistant one for sure.

I’ve always been more than proud of Sanger defying the New York State attorney general. Will I have to lose that pride in order to support the changing of the street corner’s name? Yup.

At Judson Memorial Church, we often call ourselves “the perfect church for imperfect people.” Sanger is a great example of an imperfect human. We welcome her gifts and lament her failings.

Her failings are more than mistakes. I understand why Planned Parenthood is trying to do “something” to repair the failings. I also don’t see animus against Sanger driving them, so much as another possibility. What if we don’t take every opportunity to stop racist ideas in their tracks? What if we tolerate eugenicists because everybody used to think that way? I started with those apologias for my reluctance.

Fortunately, I got educated by some friends, a lot of reading and a lot of thinking. Was I being pure in attacking purists? What about a deeper dive into doing what little you can to leverage change?

Purity is a frequent theme in scripture and never fails to show its ugly face in the religious right. Fundamentalism, of all kinds, on either the right or the left, depends on purity theory. You can’t just be a regular person, but you need to be a perfect person. There are things that are right and things that are wrong. No one in the movement to change the sign is demonizing Sanger. They understand she is limited. Instead, they are teaching a moment and letting a moment be a teacher. That moment is the anti-racism reckoning going on today. It wasn’t going on in 1925. It is going on now. Why not be a part of it, instead of just being weary of imperfection?

To the religious right, abortion is wrong and therefore they oppose it in absurd ways at Margaret Sanger Square, regularly, with their hateful violations, shoutings and signage of all kinds of women who get abortion services there. They actually imagine that they are in charge of these women, many of whom are people of color and all of whom have their own agency and mortality and freedom. I have personally accompanied many women to wonderful services at that clinic. I help them walk past the haters, who show up even in New York City. I always wear my clerical collar.

Women suffer more than others because of purity theorists. We are either Mary Magdalene the whore or the virgin mother. And guess what? Most of us are neither. We have our own names and it is not always Mary. We who are white also have the privilege of not taking risks or making change. The last thing we want to be pure about is our privilege.

On Mother’s Day, the Hallmark people come out in pastel and go all perfectionist about motherhood. Don’t they know that even reverends like me once said to all three of her children, and meant it, “I hate you all equally.” Mothers aren’t perfect. Margaret Sanger wasn’t perfect. Women are neither whores nor virgins but a delightful mixture of both.

When motherhood becomes compulsory, women get hurt. So do children. Why is this a Mother’s Day story? Because birth control is a great Mother’s Day gift, that’s why. Forget the brunch, forget the card, give me the birth control.

Unwanted children hurt women and some of these children go on to hurt the world. There is enormous collateral damage to children, the real ones, not the unborn ones, when mothers don’t have the birth control and freedom of choice that we need.

On behalf of a more mixed view of women, and mothers, and children, and Margaret Sanger, Happy Mother’s Day.

The City Mouse/Country Mouse is Donna Schaper, now living in Orient, New York, after serving 15 years as the pastor at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. She also writes as the Dolly Mama. Her forthcoming book is REMOVETHEPEWS.COM.

One Comment

  1. mary reinholz mary reinholz May 8, 2021

    No, Margaret Sanger wasn’t perfect and neither is any human, so therefore I don’t see the need to erase her history as the ah “mother” of birth control and remove the sign on the street near the clinic that bears her name. That’s to give in to a bunch of anti-intellectual censors who could care less about truthfulness.

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