Who would have thought that Margaret Sanger, the mother of American birth control, would one day have her story told in a drawing style that simultaneously recalls that of Cathy Guisewite (Cathy), R. Crumb (Mr. Natural), and Jack Cole (Plastic Man). Sounds ungodly, doesn’t it? But such is the hysterical, intense, rubbery look of Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, by Peter Bagge, best known for his Hate comics. In Woman Rebel, Sanger, though her story is definitely of the superhero variety, comes across visually as Mary Poppins on a bad day — red-haired, booted, angry, her shoulders stooped, her mouth a weird worm crawling across her face. (I’ve seen pictures of Sanger and this isn’t even close; she’s actually quite fetching.)
Well, no matter. The real draw is Sanger herself, whose main mission in life was to make birth control easily available to all American women. Sanger was a true hero, or a super-hero, if you will. And like some other superheroes, she used her parent’s own misery and death to fuel herself. (Her mother dropped dead after eighteen pregnancies.) Sanger was a ball of energy, intelligence, and fury. She was also a proponent of free love (though not of abortion, prostitution, or pornography). She learned about free love from the socialist activist Emma Goldman and she practiced it (while married) with the writer H.G. Wells, who called her “the greatest woman in the world,” and the impotent sexologist Havelock Ellis, who was turned on by watching women pee. But I digress.
Sanger’s story begins in 1880, when Margaret was a girl, in Corning, NY, watching her poor mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, try to raise nine babies, “not counting the ones she lost.” Margaret’s father, Michael Higgins, a socialist and atheist, worked at the other end of the life business, carving tombstones and making death masks. The first sign we see of young Margaret’s charisma is her cajoling her college classmates into going out dancing with men. Rather than being expelled from school, Sanger was advised by a wise principal to use her “power over people” for good causes. And her super-hero response? “Gasp. I have super-powers!”
Before Margaret learns to harness her furious charisma, though, she gets on with the nuts and bolts of her life. (Every superhero must have an ordinary life.) While in nursing school, she meets an architect, Bill Sanger, with whom she falls in love. (That is, their eyes meet in a dotted line and they both think, “Wow!”) After a brief Popeye-inflected romance, in which little pink hearts bubble from their heads, the newlyweds move to Hastings-on-Hudson and produce two boys and a girl.
Soon, though, Sanger’s cause took precedence over everything else. In one crucial scene, while the littlest child screams, “No! Mama stay home!” and the husband harrumphs, “You promised to attend the Cezanne exhibit with me tonight…,” Sanger, a blue-coated, rubbery-armed, furious nurse, decamps to the filthy streets of New York City to treat a woman suffering from a self-inflicted abortion. After the medical crisis has passed, the woman pleads with Sanger to reveal the secret of birth control – “Tell me how I can prevent it? Prostitutes know. … Rich women know. …Why can’t I know?” – and Sanger is set on her life’s path.
Sanger starts off by writing a column, “What Every Girl Should Know,” for the socialist newspaper The New York Call, which gets censored by the U.S. Post Office. But, as she herself notices, what wins her fame isn’t the column itself but Sanger’s sarcastic headline, written in reply to the censorship: “What Every Girl Should Know: Nothing! By Order of the Post Office Dept.” Then and there Sanger becomes a celebrity and realizes the value of being censored in public: “I see immense advantages in being gagged. It silences me but it makes millions of others talk about me, and the cause in which I live.”
Censorship was Sanger’s goad to battle. From this point on in Woman Rebel, it seems that everyone’s eyes are bloodshot and crossed with rage, and you can see rubbery limbs swinging wildly on many a page. Sanger was at war with practically everyone, even those on her side. She fought left-leaning socialites, who approved of her causes but not her hardball tactics. She battled with her first husband, Bill, who supported her cause – even went to jail for it –but resented her time away from the family. She argued before Congress against the so-called Comstock Laws, which kept birth control information from being sent through the U.S. mail. She battled with the Catholic Church (of course). She fought with her sister Ethel, who deemed Margaret “a glory hog.” Gosh, she even argued with her idol, Mahatma Gandhi, whose favorite form of birth control was, argh, abstinence.
As you may know from history, our superhero prevailed. Sanger managed to publish a magazine, The Woman Rebel: No Gods, No Masters, devoted to sex education. She wrote a how-to guide about birth control methods (including pessaries, a.k.a. diaphragms). She lectured many a group about how to limit family size, including a women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan. (“What’s a vagina?” one woman asks.) By the time Sanger died, in 1966, at the age of 86, the diaphragm was well know, family planning clinics were around (if not always easy to find), the pill was available, and Planned Parenthood was founded (though Sanger reviled the name – “Planning what? A picnic?”).
Sanger was not un-dented in the war. Far from it. Bagge depicts Sanger abusing Demerol and champagne toward the end of her life. And she was terrified of public speaking. But her biggest battle scar was her guilt over the death of her youngest child, Peggy, age 8, from pneumonia, in 1915. Sanger blamed herself for it. (“I’m a nurse and yet I couldn’t nurse my own child back to health.”) She went to seances to talk with her dead daughter, who, she believed, lived on as an adult in a “parallel universe.” Perhaps Sanger’s lifelong remorse stemmed from the fact that it was this tragedy (and Sanger’s picture with her two remaining children, splashed on the front of The New York Herald) that finally won Sanger enough sympathy to get the Feds off her back and her cause on track.
Fascinating as Sanger’s life is, and timely as it is now, I don’t think I ever would have read a full-scale biography of her. Biographies are long, life is short. The reason I read this one was that it’s in comic book form. The particolored pictures, bizarre and unflattering as they are, make the history go down nice and easy. Bagge’s research, far as I can tell, is phenomenal. (There are extensive notes at the back of the book.) The paraphrasing is entertaining. (Bagge admits that he “tweaked the timeline here and there and added and subtracted certain players from certain scenes…”) And that’s to say nothing of the story’s lovely brevity – only 72 pages!
Woman Rebel, though on one level functioning as a superhero comic, also fits onto a certain growing shelf of books with other admirable short biographies and compressed works of fiction such as Fahrenheit 451 – handy works of compression that, for many years now, have served as the “Cliff’s Notes” of our age. Hey, Bagge might not be Leonardo or even R. Crumb, but he’s done us all a wonderful service by turning Margaret Sanger’s life into a comic book that you can read in a day. In doing so, he has transformed Sanger into a real live superhero who will herself live to see another day.