Wednesday, October 3, 2007

More on Margaret Sanger

Peter and Zoe are engaged in an interesting debate about Margaret Sanger in the comments section of the previous post. The debate, as I understand it, is this: do we need to contextualize Sanger in her own period to understand the ethical dimensions of her work? Zoe notes the complexity of this issue, but also argues that we need to judge knowledge, and the way people act on knowledge, in relation to what individuals understood to be true in their own time. This becomes particularly important, she argues, in relation to science, where evolving scientific "truths" become critical to the formation of ethical frameworks for action. To do other than to judge individuals by the standards of their own world, Zoe concludes, is not history, but presentism. There is a lot of merit to this position, and many historians I know would back her up.

Peter, on the other hand, argues that Sanger's eugenic theories had consequences that were discriminatory in her own time, and became disastrous as they were actualized in other historical phenomena, such as Nazi race science and the Holocaust (I would add to this, Peter, involuntary sterilization of the poor, a practice that continued in the United States well into the late twentieth century.) Given that we know these things are an outcome of eugenic theory, how can we not judge Sanger by a presentist ethical standpoint? How can we assume that Sanger could not have been aware of how her work would be used -- or indeed, the unavoidable consequences of such theories in a society where citizenship was drastically unequal and race a potent method for sorting the desirability of individuals for citizenship? Given social inequality and hierarchies of economic and political power, then, How could Sanger have not known on some level what "we" know: that one woman's reproductive "choice" could be another woman's reproductive "restriction?" Furthermore, she had a great critic in her own time, the Caholic Church, which did argue against her work and its science from a moral and ethical standpoint. I am glad to say that a great many historians would be on Peter's side too in this argument.

Zoe and Peter have hit on one of the great methodological problems of historical writing. It is a particularly important issue when we are addressing historical issues about citizenship that continue to be fiercely controversial, like a woman's right to choose whether to bear children or not. Indeed, many people would argue today that the fetus also has citizenship, an argument that would not have been made in Sanger's day, and some of our laws now reflect that premise. Perhaps some of you have suggestions as to how and why you might make a decision about this kind of problem in your own work. I'm also going to see if I can get one of my colleagues to comment on this issue.

One thing I learned in the last few days as your teacher is that Sanger siezed people's imaginations and raised a number of questions relevant to this section of the course: next year, I'm going to do a day where some of the questions and arguments you all raised about her are more central.


Hannah Freece has done us the favor of sending in an online source about women's suffrage: the digital archive for the National Women's Party. Hannah had some very specific images in mind, but for some reason the links were not admitting me to the right places (they kept telling to go back "home." I am home, dammit!) Anyway, hat tip to Hannah: this is a great source.

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