If you wanted some birth control right now, say, a box of condoms or birth control pills, you could get either with little forethought and planning, and with relative ease. (For the time being, anyway.) We have Margaret Sanger to thank for this convenience, and her story is told well, graphic-novel style in Our Lady of Birth Control – A Cartoonist’s Encounter with Margaret Sanger.
A century ago, a woman who wanted to prevent pregnancy – even if she already had 10 children – was considered “obscene.” Sanger, one of ten children, saw the ill effects of excessive pregnancies, births, and miscarriages in her own family, and devoted her life to giving women access to options that would give them a better quality of life. Sabrina Jones tells this story with sparsely drawn images and text entirely in black and white. Sometimes the drawings are so crude, they look like they were slapped together quickly as a mock-up to be beautified later. But the sometimes-clunky drawings do not detract from the text. Sanger’s life story, from child of Irish immigrants to birth control education crusader, was un-put-downable.
Interspersed between chapters of Sanger’s story are tales of Jones’s own experiences of sexual awakening and vocal advocacy, beginning with young Sabrina secretly reading Our Bodies, Ourselves, and concluding with Jones watching Sandra Fluke being criticized by Rush Limbaugh for demanding birth control pills at her university. While it’s interesting to see Jones’s experiences, I didn’t enjoy her story as much as I did Sanger’s, and it felt like it should have been a separate book. Sanger’s story is so engrossing, I never wanted to be interrupted, and that’s what the “Jones” chapters did. I was always eager to return to the Margaret Sanger story.
The history lessons that came through in this book are enlightening and enraging. Lack of access to birth control goes back centuries, and this book illustrates how churches, local governments, and even local judges all had a hand in limiting that access. It feels a little too much like a modern tale. “I always said they can’t claim to be for women’s health. They want to control our morals,” a fictional Margaret Sanger tells a cartoon version of Sabrina Jones.
How true, Ms. Sanger. During Sanger’s childhood in Corning, New York, she witnessed first-hand the suppressive, poverty-inducing cycle childbirth had on the working class. Her mother had 18 pregnancies in her life, resulting in 11 births, one infant death, and seven miscarriages. Her alcoholic father worked as a sculptor, carving headstones and statues for the Catholic Church. After he attended a speech by Robert Ingersoll, “The Great Agnostic,” the church no longer had use for him. Margaret’s siblings went to work, and Margaret was forced to take care of her younger siblings, and take in laundry for money. She was eight years old. Years of childbearing and tuberculosis took their toll on Margaret’s mother, Anne. She died at age 50.
Margaret devoted her life to educating women about their options around pregnancy, and did so at a dizzying pace. She founded the American Birth Control League which eventually became Planned Parenthood (a name she hated). Sanger spread the word through her speeches in the United States and England. Throughout her travels, she had multiple affairs, all while remaining married to Bill Sanger. She persisted through multiple arrests, and the shut-down of her clinic by the government. It’s fascinating to see all the efforts that went into something that most of us take for granted today. It’s also fascinating to see the eclectic group of admirers and supporters she drew – Socialites, Radicals, Working Class, and Brownsville Mothers all rallied to support Margaret.
Our Lady of Birth Control is an important book, especially during today’s tumultuous political times when resources like Planned Parenthood are being threatened. In the panels that recount Sanger’s arrests and suppression by government, it struck me how little has changed in a century. “Margaret Sanger stood for the right of all women to control their own bodies, lives, and sexuality,” writes Jones, followed by an image of a nude Sanger, who says, “Isn’t that what my slanderers are afraid of?”