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Esther Katz, ed. The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger. With the assistance of Cathy Moran Hajo and Peter C. Engelman. Vol. 1, The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. xxxviii + 512 pp. Ill. $65.00 (0-252-02737-X).
Since her death in 1966, the birth control crusader Margaret Sanger has drawn the attention of academic historians eager to write the history of women reformers and of partisans in the culture wars over abortion and reproductive rights. Sanger has been praised as a brave advocate of sexual liberation and reproductive autonomy for women, and damned as a racist and eugenicist who advocated sterilization of the "unfit" and helped to create a culture in which millions of the [End Page 237] "unborn" are murdered through contraception and inducted abortion. An Internet search will reveals dozens of sites where Sanger is demonized, but we also have one place that provides access to the historical record of Sanger's career, the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, founded by New York University historian Esther Katz in 1985 (http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger). Katz and her able staff published excellent microfilm editions of Sanger materials gathered from the major collections at the Sophia Smith Collections and the Library of Congress, as well as from more than 1,500 other archives and private collections. They hope to follow that magnificent service for professional scholars with a four-volume book edition of Sanger's papers.
The publication of the first volume of Sanger's selected papers is most welcome, in part because it provides a kind of reality check on the vast and proliferating nonsense about her that has been generated by zealots in our contemporary culture wars. More than 80 percent of the documents provided in The Woman Rebel are letters that trace the transformation of an Irish-American housewife into a social activist who moved from being an organizer for the International Workers of the World to an increasingly self-conscious feminist intent upon pursuing a separate agenda of sexual liberation for women. By 1928 Sanger had bested her rivals for leadership of the birth control movement and had mobilized the resources for the birth control clinics, where it was definitively established that safe and effective contraceptive practice was possible. By 1937 she and her allies had even won a resolution from the American Medical Association supporting contraception as a service that ought to be a normal part of medical practice. Ironically, Sanger disliked abortion, and her fellow-traveling with eugenicists was part of her effort to win the support of academic, medical, and social elites.
This meticulously edited first volume of her Selected Papers provides ready access to a complicated and compelling career. If you want to know the real woman who led the successful fight to remove the stigma of obscenity from contraception, this is an excellent place to begin.