Review: Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story

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Guest writer Rebecca Henely reviews Peter Bagge’s biography of controversial birth control advocate Margaret Sanger.

Woman Rebel: The Maragret Sanger Story

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Story and Art by Peter Bagge

Drawn and Quarterly

Despite my interest in feminist history and the reputation of Peter Bagge, I considered Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story one of my riskier buys when I picked it up at Bethesda, Md.’s Small Press Expo late last year. While the visual aspects of comics can bring history to life, sometimes creators of biographical comics are too content to let the captions do the heavy lifting, and even the great Harvey Pekar’s recent biography of the Beat Poets sometimes read like a condensed Wikipedia page with pictures.

Bagge resists that compulsion in his novel, making for an overall better read. A seminal figure in the fight for women’s reproductive rights, Sanger is well-known for her role in creating the organization that would eventually become Planned Parenthood, as well as founding numerous clinics for women and her overall birth control advocacy, which sometimes spanned continents.

The famed creator of Hate portrays these and other highlights of Sanger’s life more or less through one-page humor comics, starting with a caption that briefly lists the time and place and letting the scene unfurl. Beginning with her childhood as one of 11 children in a poor family in Corning, N.Y., the graphic novel goes from the early days of her career as a nurse to poor women in New York City suffering after botched at-home abortions, to her first middle-class marriage that nevertheless involved sending their three children to a school run by noted anarchists Sasha Berkman and Emma Goldman, to her incendiary public speeches and protests, and finally her death shortly after Griswold v. Connecticut legalized contraceptives (“What is there to say,” Sanger says in Bagge’s graphic novel, “other than ‘It’s about time.’”).

The approach works both because it makes the graphic novel read more like a story, and also because Bagge’s natural talents for humor and cartooning make what could be a dry subject more enjoyable. Bagge gives Sanger’s voice a wry, biting sarcasm that seems to have been based on real life, while his characters’ exaggerated expressions and noodle-like limbs bring Sanger’s inner frustrations, passions and even vulnerabilities to a visual, four-color life that may not have been possible in a straight written biography or even in a more realistically-drawn biographical comic.

Despite the controversy that surrounds birth control and abortion even to this day, the book assumes birth control as a necessity and a natural good. (The novel has less to say about abortion, with Bagge even stating at one point that Sanger did not care for it.) This has the benefit of making the work about Sanger as a person rather than the eternal debate surrounding her politics.

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Yet if Bagge takes the sum and substance of Sanger’s social justice work on its face, he makes pains to defend her against the accusations of racism her memory has been asked to answer for. A notorious incident in which Sanger spoke to a gathering of women in the KKK, her use of outdated and offensive terminology such as “negro” and “imbecile,” and her association with the American eugenics movement have all led to accusations that Sanger’s activism was based on racial supremacy or even as proof that she was part of a conspiracy to wipe out black people, both among conservatives and even those on the left such as Black feminist activist Angela Davis. Bagge, however, argues through the pages of his comic and the afterword that while Sanger was no saint, most of this impression is due to smears that take her words out of context or ignorance of the past.  In his portrayal of the KKK meeting, Bagge has Sanger say to the crowd that she disagrees with their politics but believes all women need access to information on birth control. Bagge also tempers Sanger’s association with the American eugenics movement by showing Sanger opening a clinic with prominent civil rights activist W.E.B. du Bois in Harlem, and arguing in the notes that she never advocated for the superiority of any race. He said those who believe Sanger intended to diminish the black population through the Harlem clinic could easily make the same argument that she wanted to wipe out whites by giving the same information to the KKK members.

Bagge also writes in the afterword:

One would never know it by the hysterical way the subject is discussed today, but there was no uniform “school” of eugenic thought – rather, it was a catch-all term for a set of practices its proponents believed would improve the human gene pool, including nutrition, hygiene, environmental protection, prenatal care, and, of course, birth control, all now universally acceptable. In fact, most eugenics advocates of the early 1920s (including several US presidents) didn’t regard Sanger as a legitimate spokesperson at all, partly due to her refusal to acknowledge ethnicity as any kind of measure of eugenic “fitness.”

While other readers may not be so swayed, I found Bagge’s approach convincing. On a similar note, the level of research Bagge has put into the novel makes it a rich experience. Woman Rebel can be easily understood on the first read-through, but his notes, which reminded me very much of Alan Moore’s in From Hell, point out the greater historical context of his scenes, as well as cameos from famous figures such as the aforementioned Du Bois, science fiction legend H.G. Wells and “The Yellow Wallpaper” feminist scribe Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Yet what Bagge is truly fascinated with in Woman Rebel is how Sanger’s passion often caused personality clashes with fellow women allies – including her own sister, and how much of her notoriety and success was due to her media savvy. At one point in the story, she lets the police raid her clinic (at the behest of the Catholic Church), stating that the clinic is nearly broke and the publicity from the raid can only help them. While not portrayed within the book’s pages, Woman Rebel’s cover shows Margaret Sanger from an event in which, banned from speaking in Boston, she appeared on stage with her mouth taped closed and had the mayor of Boston read her speech for her. The cover is thus arresting not only because it plays into the well-known narrative of women being silenced for speaking out for social justice, but also because Sanger was ultimately in full control of the situation and knew her protest would bring her more attention.

All this adds up to a memorable and breezy biographical comic that exalts without deifying, defends but still criticizes, teaches yet entertains, and overall humanizes a larger-than-life key player in America’s and feminism’s history. Given its subject matter it will never be for everyone, but those sympathetic to its cause may find themselves enlightened and educated in unexpected ways.

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