Hi Readers and Writers,
Jean Baker, author of Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion answered some questions for us on her new book. Professor at Goucher College and author of many books, expecially explorations of women of power and might, Baker brings her sense of history to bear on Sanger, a woman who fought for some of the same rights that have recently come under fire in the political machinations of state legislatures and also presidential candidates' rhetoric. Was she perfect? No, and Baker makes that clear, while showing us that some of her supposed faults, particularly her ideas of eugenics, were shared with many in her time, including famous scientists and even presidents, many of whom are highly regarded today and not devalued because they believed in this doctrine back in their own time, as Sanger has been often. Enjoy the interview! Laura
LH: Your most recent book is Margaret Sanger: Life of Passion. How did you choose Margaret Sanger as a subject to study?JB: After publishing a book on the suffragists, I wanted to see what happened to the woman’s movement during the 1920s when it stalled. Alice Paul could not get her Equal Rights Amendment (still not federal law) through the judiciary committee. But there was one reform that flourished during the 1920s and that was birth control. I came to see that much of the reason, besides changing attitudes about sex, was the savvy leadership of Margaret Sanger. And as I began my research I saw that Sanger was being unfairly vilified by opponents of abortion rights who used Sanger to threaten her institutional legacy—Planned Parenthood of America.
LH: What kinds of archival material did you use for the biography? Any sources that recently became available?
JB: The Sanger archive is formidable and consists of over 200 reels of microfilm. There is new Sanger material, especially on her personal life, in the Sophia Smith collection at Smith College. I also did some interviews with Sanger’s grandchildren. Of course there are also ancillary areas that demand attention, such as eugenicism and birth control technology, particularly relating to endocrinology. All subjects live in a certain period and it is essential to find the context for their lives.
LH: Do you have any recommendations for biographers in terms of finding sources?
JB: Read the footnotes of previous biographers and check world Cat and the Library of Congress catalogues and think imaginatively.
LH: Could you have written your book if Sanger were still alive? How did she feel about biographers?JB: Sanger detested efforts by biographers to write her life, once saying that she did not want to delve into the past. She always looked to the future.
LH: Did you interview people about their interactions with Sanger? How did you prepare for interviews if you did?
JB: My rule for oral interviews is to wait until I am well into the research before setting up any interviews and to try to not let the subject control the interview—sort of the opposite of what Howell Raines did in My Soul is Rested.
LH: What strategies do you use to recreate the feeling of a life lived while staying true to sources? What about dialog, setting, costume?JB: I try to read as much as possible about the time period and especially the places. In Sanger’s case her birth place Corning New York became almost a character in the book as did Tucson Arizona where Sanger lived during the late 1930s until her death in 1966. Quotes from the original material are also important to set the scene . As an historian I do not make up dialogue although some historians like Simon Schama do.
LH: It seems to me that her emphasis on birth control for the poor has made a lot of people in the blogosphere think she was racist. Is there evidence of specific anti-African American attitudes? How did you deal with that issue?LH: I was researching a woman geneticist who was befriended by Charles Davenport when he ran the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, and I’ve read about his very active support of eugenics, so I know eugenics was a well-accepted scientific theory in the US. Evidently, several presidents also espoused it too. But now, people tend to equate it with Nazism. How hard was it for you to deal with Sanger’s ideas about eugenics?JB: Yes, this remains the great elephant in the room for any biographer of Sanger. I tried to place her in the context of a progressive movement that most Americans accepted during the period . I tried to make the point that she used eugenecists who were the leading scientists of her day to give credibility to her movement and that she offered a feminist form of eugenicism and that was birth control!
JB: Margaret Sanger was ahead of her time in so far as contemporary racial attitudes were concerned. She set up a birth control clinic in Harlem in 1931 because Black leaders like W.E.B. Dubois asked her to do so. She opposed racial segregation well before most American did and she never singled blacks out as a group
LH: Did you go into your study of Sanger as a partisan, hoping to rehabilitate her reputation, or did you ask the material to “show me”?JB: The latter but of course all biography and history are the enactments of the past in the mind of the historian and I support women’s right to abortion and of course birth control.
LH:. The nature of truth in biography can be singularly slippery. Did you have any experiences in researching this book that underlined that problem?JB: I do not believe that there is any single truth about biographical subjects. Rather I think that there are different interpretations—see my interpretation of Mary Todd Lincoln.
LH: Recently, your books have focused on prominent women. Do you feel a special bond with women who fought for the rights of other women?JB: Of course—and perhaps that reeling is enhanced by our contemporary politics.
You can buy Jean Baker's biography of Margaret Sanger on Amazon.com (click here to order the book on Amazon).