Rebel with a cause

Birth-con­trol pioneer gets graphic-novel treat­ment

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

THE birth-con­trol pill is some­times listed as the most im­por­tant in­ven­tion of the 20th century. For that we to thank have tire­less cam­paigner Mar­garet Sanger (1879-1966), who spent her life try­ing to make women “the ab­so­lute mis­tress” of their own bod­ies. In this vivid, dense graphic bi­og­ra­phy, Peter Bagge tells the his­tory of the birth-con­trol move­ment through this colourful woman’s life. Bagge is an in­flu­en­tial yet un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated Seat­tle artist whose best-known 1990s se­ries, Hate, sat­i­rized grunge cul­ture. In ad­di­tion to pro­duc­ing Spi­der­Man, Hulk and other ti­tles for DC and Marvel, he has an on­go­ing se­ries of His­tory of Sci­ence strips for Dis­cover mag­a­zine and pro­duces comics for the lib­er­tar­ian mag­a­zine Rea­son. In his af­ter­word to The Woman Rebel, he notes that Sanger’s life was so ac­tion­packed he im­me­di­ately thought of do­ing a comic book about it. Sanger was born into an Ir­ishAmer­i­can fam­ily in the fac­tory town of Corn­ing, N.Y. Her stone­ma­son fa­ther was an out­spo­ken so­cial­ist and athe­ist who sup­ported women’s suf­frage; her mother was a de­vout Catholic who had 18 preg­nan­cies in 25 years, with 10 of the chil­dren sur­viv­ing into adult­hood. (She died at 49 of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, which the 19-yearold Mar­garet be­lieved was wors­ened by her many preg­nan­cies and mis­car­riages.) Sup­ported by her sis­ters, Mar­garet at­tended nurs­ing school and then found work serv­ing im­pov­er­ished im­mi­grants in New York’s Lower East Side. Mar­garet wit­nessed the hor­rific re­sults of a self-ad­min­is­tered abor­tion but was legally un­able to of­fer the sur­viv­ing woman med­i­cal ad­vice on how to pre­vent fu­ture po­ten­tially fa­tal preg­nan­cies. Bagge con­veys the emo­tional im­pact of this and other scenes ef­fec­tively through his sig­na­ture ex­ag­ger­ated, ex­pres­sive faces. Sanger started writ­ing sexe­d­u­ca­tion col­umns for the New York Call, a so­cial­ist news­pa­per, with ti­tles such as What Ev­ery Girl Should Know. In 1914, she coined the term “birth con­trol” and launched The Woman Rebel, a monthly news­let­ter that pub­lished frank con­tra­cep­tive in­for­ma­tion. She was ar­rested in 1916 for open­ing the first U.S. birth-con­trol clinic, but per­se­vered and in 1921 founded the Amer­i­can Birth Con­trol League, the pre­cur­sor to Planned Par­ent­hood. As Bagge tells it, birth con­trol was as much a free-speech is­sue as a woman’s-rights is­sue. Sanger fought life­long le­gal bat­tles against the 1873 Com­stock Act, which made it il­le­gal to send ob­scene ma­te­rial through the U.S. post of­fice. Bagge draws postal of­fi­cials as cartoon vil­lains in­tent on de­stroy­ing Sanger. Judges even­tu­ally ruled in Sanger’s favour in 1932 re­gard­ing a mail or­der of Ja­panese di­aphragms for her clinic. The sec­ond half of her life re­ceives a more com­pressed treat­ment, as Bagge showss Mar­garet goin­gin on in­ter­na­tional speak­ings tours, gain­ingg the sup­port of “so­ci­ety ma­trons,” be­ing at­tacked by the Catholic Church, fund­ing re­search into the oral con­tra­cep­tive pill that re­ceived FDA ap­proval in 1960, and even­tu­ally hand­ing over the reins to new lead­er­ship at Planned Par­ent­hood. This chang­ing of the guard is one of the se­quences where Bagge ac­knowl­edges Mar­garet’s con­tro­ver­sial po­si­tions on eu­gen­ics, race and abor­tion (she was op­posed to the lat­ter, but for ma­ter­nal-health rea­sons rather than moral ones). An in­for­ma­tive set of end­notes ex­plains Mar­garet’s com­plex po­lit­i­cal stances and refers us to Bagge’s sources. Along­side this pro­fes­sional his­tory of Mar­garet the ac­tivist, Bagge tells the per­sonal story of Mar­garet the bo­hemian free­thinker who, like her ally Emma Gold­man, be­lieved in free love and in­sisted on open mar­riages. We also learn about her sis­ter Ethel’s role in the move­ment, and the of­ten tense yet loyal re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two women. All of this is drawn in Bagge’s rub­bery cartoon style, rem­i­nis­cent of R. Crumb and early Warner Broth­ers car­toons. Like Ch­ester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Bi­og­ra­phy, The Woman Rebel tells the story of a real life in the larger-than-life form of comics, re­mind­ing us that reg­u­lar people and su­per­heroes are per­haps not that dif­fer­ent. Can­dida Rifkind teaches Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture and graphic nar­ra­tives in the English depart­ment of the

Univer­sity of Win­nipeg.


In this 1934 photo, Mar­garet Sanger ap­pears be­fore a Se­nate com­mit­tee

for federal birth-con­trol leg­is­la­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Woman Rebel: The Mar­garet Sanger


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