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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Margaret Sanger: Rebel with a Singular Vision


This past Thursday's salon evening – our last before we break for the summer and head out West with the wine women and philosophy roadshow -  was entitled "Stepping Up, Speaking Out, Standing Apart." Drawing on insights gleaned from our current Philosophy Club series, "Rebel with a Cause,"    participants explored what it takes and what it breaks to put one's vision for a better world ahead of all else. To help us with this work we focused in on a woman who certainly did just this: American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). Our chosen 'conversational' format for the evening was soapbox oratory - a 'step up, speak out, stand apart' form of address that Margaret Sanger enthusiastically embraced in the name of her cause – legal and easily accessible birth control for all women – and employed, albeit with butterflies in her gut, in a variety of ways throughout her life.

Because Club members had already spent four weeks exploring the trope of the female rebel, they were counted on to act as co-hosts for the evening. At an informal level, this meant helping anyone who hadn't been part of the session to understand more about how we had worked this trope: through the lens of 'The Master's Tools' as elaborated by Audre Lorde; through the notion of 'world-traveling' as suggested by Maria Lugones; and through the lives and works of three other rebel women – 18th Century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, French woman of letters Colette, and surrealist artist Leonora Carrington.

On a slightly more formal note, and in preparation for the evening, Philosophy Club members had  been asked to read excerpts from Ellen Chesler's 1992 biography of Margaret Sanger, Woman of Valor; a chapter from Margaret Sanger's An Autobiography, (1938) in which she reflects back on the period of her life – 1914 – when she produced her radical magazine promoting birth control, The Woman Rebel; and a selection of editorials that appeared in this magazine, along with details of Sanger's indictment for 'Misuse of Mails' that followed the publication and distribution of it, as discussed by Esther Katz.


Out of this rich body of material, Club members were expected to pick up on a concept or to select a passage that spoke to Margaret Sanger's cause-related brand of rebelliousness, and that equally spoke to them. Then, they were to craft a short oratory piece out of it. In delivering the resulting piece, they were encouraged to experiment with the soapbox that sat in the middle of the room – to stand on it, sit on it, refuse it, do a handstand on it, whatever!...Just so long as they experienced what it felt like to negotiate a place for themselves in relation to that soapbox and to the assembled crowd, and to take note of the feelings that accompanied that negotiation. But that is to slightly jump ahead. First, before we starting using that soapbox, we had  to familiarize ourselves with the history of this egalitarian and generally improvised form of communication.

Also known as street-corner oratory, the two or three decades preceding World War I are considered to have been the heyday of soapbox oratory in both the UK and North America. In England, the consolidating of the North-East corner of London's Hyde Park as 'Speaker's Corner' in 1872 paved the way for a lively soapboxing culture that continues to this day: this former site of the gallows, where public hangings had been sure to draw a sizable crowd, giving way to the educating and entertaining perogatives of free speech. Though largely a platform for political and religious proselytizers, basically anybody with some bone to pick and some semblance of an elevated platform from which to do that picking (wooden crates in which soap was delivered just happening to be cheap and readily available, hence the adaption of the term 'soapbox') was welcome to participate. And because crowd heckling was an equally important part of the formula, this was a form of entertainment that everybody could get involved in.

In a previous salon evening devoted to the art of conversation and the value of asking good questions (see blog entry on February 11, 2012), we had looked at how the Golden Age of Salon Culture in France, and to a greater extent the growth of Coffee House Culture in England, had loosened the hold of the ruling classes over freedom of expression, and had acted as both training ground and semi-public forum for the exchange of ideas and opinions. If these institutions marked the beginnings of the democratization of talk, the evolution of soapbox oratory marked its pinnacle. To soapbox or to listen to someone soapboxing required no official venue, no entrance fee, no formal credentials. Here was an art form that was aimed at the masses and that, moreover, represented the concerns of the masses. For accompanying the burgeoning of street corner oratory both in the UK and in North America was the burgeoning of trade unionism, of anti-religious sentiment, of calls for universal suffrage, of radical politics, of educational reform, of activism aimed at improving the lot of the disenfranchised and the disadvantaged...In short, it was an out with the old and an in with the new era. In the UK, this meant breaking free of the straight-laced yoke of Victorianism. In the USA, this meant an insistence that the First Amendment, as constitutional rhetoric, translated into the right to free speech, as practiced on the factory floor and the busy street corner. In Canada, this meant severing the umbilical cord with England and the emergence of national identity, national health, and national heroines like Nellie McClung...But more on her next week!  

In effect, the soapbox was where you honed your skills as an effective speaker and where you cut your teeth if you wanted to become a leader. In the days before the radio became a feature in every home, it afforded you and your cause a certain degree of visibility and a grass roots kind of following. In a sense, yesterday's soapboxers are today's bloggers...Which brought us back to the present, and that soapbox sitting in the middle of our salon, and our Philosophy Club members taking courage in hand and one by one stepping up, speaking out, standing apart. 

Appropriately - given that we were using this forum to learn all we could about Margaret Sanger - we had a club member who miraculously found herself channelling the dogged and tenacious proponent of 'family limitation' as she struggled to reconcile herself to having little time for her own family given the extraordinary demands of her vocational cause. Moved by the plight of poor working class women whose health and that of their existing children was severely jeopardized by their inability to limit additional pregnancies, Sanger drew on her experience as a young working nurse in the slums of New York to make a convincing case for both legal and affordable contraception and her own self-sacrifice.

Fast-forward to Margaret Sanger at 78, and two club members who had remodeled the soapbox into a Punch and Judy style stage in order to re-enact, with puppets, her famous 1957 TV interview with a chain-smoking Mike Wallace. Wallace's hounding of an ailing Margaret Sanger was relentless and her answers to his leading and pointed questions were tentative at best, incriminating at worst. If that interview has gone down in history as one of this pioneering woman's lesser moments, our club members' brilliant re-enactment of the interview constituted one of wwp's finer moments. So too did a beautifully delivered rendition of one of Sanger's spirited editorials in her inaugural issue of The Woman Rebel, in which she urged women to revolt against repressive laws denying them freedom over their own bodies. In between these stand out moments we were equally awed by a call to celebrate rather than repudiate the contradictions inherent in Sanger's personality and political choices; by an ode to Sanger as an inspirational working class heroine; by an impassioned critique of the kind of slandering and scapegoating that Sanger has been subjected to in recent years by pro-lifers, among others, who have twisted her words and robbed them of their original context in order to denounce her; by a clever analysis of Sanger's ability to ride between camps and rally a wide range of supporters to her cause; by a consideration of the message of hope that Sanger brings to women who are being personally demonized today for believing in, and fighting for, a cause that will be seen as part of 'natural' and 'common-sense' thinking tomorrow; and by a rousing tribute to the Sangers of the world who give women the courage and means to empower themselves and others.

Taking this message of empowerment to heart, those attending the salon who had not participated in the Philosophy Club were invited to try out the soapbox and give voice to their own concerns. A stirring soliloquy to package-less broccoli – yes, broccoli! - will live on forever in the memories of those of us lucky to witness it. On this verdant note, a few final words from Margaret Sanger which speak to her contentiousness as a public figure and the wide range of emotions she evoked:

            “I have been called in turn a vile person, a person with a barnyard philosophy, a God-send, the greatest woman of the century, the counterpart of Abraham Lincoln and a horrible creature...Rather conflicting epithets, but I go on doing what I believe to be right, carrying a message of help, as I believe it to be.”

In the spirit of Margaret Sanger we'll be carrying our 'Rebel with a Cause' series to its rightful conclusion this coming Thursday, when we turn our attention to Canadian suffrage campaigner Nellie McClung.