Margaret Sanger, Wonder Woman and Me


I just finished reading the new book about The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.  What a wild ride that was.  I have a hard time reading non-fiction books that don’t have a story line, but this one did and it kept me captivated.  I never read Wonder Woman comics, didn’t really have an interest in her.  I always thought she was some sexist mans idea of a female superhero, just because of the way she was dressed I guess.  Was I wrong.  Wonder Woman was a feminist, conceived by a man  who believed that someday women would run the world and it would be a better place because of it.

There’s a fascinating story behind Wonder Woman, and reading this book I got a crash course in the history of feminism.  But the part I related to most was learning about Margaret Sanger, her book  Women and the New Race (which was the template for the Wonder Woman Comic) and her life long struggle to gain freedom for women through contraception.

Sanger lived in a world (early 20th century America) where contraception was not only unavailable, but illegal.  And she believed that if women could choose how many children to have or not to have children at all, they would be free to pursue the life they chose.   And not be restricted by societies idea of  what a wife was, which at the time meant mother and homemaker.

This is where I come in.  Because even thought I grew up in the height of the 1970’s wave of feminism, 50 years after Margaret and her sister Ethel Bryne were arrested for educating women about birth control, in my family it was believed that a girl was supposed to graduate high school, become a secretary, then get married and have  kids.  Having children and taking care of them and your husband, full time, was what a woman did.  So in a way, the family  I grew up in was the same world Margaret Sanger lived in.

Of course, one big difference was that  Margaret Sanger helped create Planned Parenthood.  And although it ultimately was not the organization she envisioned, because of it, I have been able to live the life that she dreamed women would have the freedom to live.   A life shaped by my choice not to have children.

Although I’ve never regretted not having children, I’ve often wondered about my decision.  I’ve sometimes felt that maybe there was something wrong with me for not wanting children.  I’ve known many women who said they never wanted children, then at age 35 or 28 or 41, they suddenly have a biological urge to have kids or at least one kid.  I’ve never had that urge.

The closest I’ve come is early in my relationship with Jon when I understood for the first time why two people in love would want to have a child together.  Not that I can explain it, just that it felt like the most natural thing to do.  So my choice not to have children, probably comes partly from not having been married to a person I wanted to be my child’s father.   But also, I felt that my childhood was so difficult, I didn’t want to have to have another human being go through something like that.  And I certainly didn’t want to be the one responsible for doing that to another human being.

Some people feel just the opposite and want to have children to, “do it right”.  Somehow, this thought never occurred to me.  I’ve also never really enjoyed taking care of kids.  I’m easily bored and frustrated being around kids.  I’d much rather be doing my work or reading a book.  My mother felt sorry for me when I told her I didn’t want to have children, my brother called me crazy.  In my family it was just what you did.

But when I read about Margaret Sanger, and her life long fight to legalize and distribute contraceptives so that women can chose not to have children, I suddenly felt I had found my tribe.  And it is an ancient tribe, as Sanger explains in her book Women and The New Race.  As long as we humans have been writing down our stories, they tell of women trying to gain some kind of control over reproduction.

After reading about Margaret Sanger,  I feel like a direct descendent of her life’s work.  I feel legitimate.  As if my choice is one some women have craved since the beginning of time.  And I’m lucky enough to live in a time and a place where it’s possible to make that choice.   Suddenly I see my place in history.  And if it wasn’t for author Jill Lepore and that feminist Wonder Woman, I might never have known what good company I’m in.

23 thoughts on “Margaret Sanger, Wonder Woman and Me

  1. I love that you shared this broadly, and loved when we talked about it (when you were still reading the book). I didn’t think I would have kids in my early twenties (sort of a ‘why?’), and then it seemed a very natural thing to do, but your discussion above reminds me that I took the fact that it was my choice – at each of these points in my life – for granted. Thank you for reminding me to be mindfully grateful.

    1. Yes! I was kinda amazed how much I took for granted that it was a choice and that birthcontrol was available. Really, any woman who has used birthcontrol in this country has been touched by Sanger.

  2. never once–truly not even one time–did I ever want to have children. They were cute when they belonged to someone else, but not from me. No way. I don’t know where this thought came from, but it has always been my truth.

    It has cost me a couple of relationships (partners thinking they could change my mind)–but it’s too ingrained, too real to deny.

    I had many years where it was just me and my dogs.

    I did feel like an alien for a bit, then I met my now husband how feels just like I do. No kids. It’s about us, not them, and there is nothing more than that.

    That idea that being a couple equates somehow with children is up for discussion, over and over. But when you know your truth, that is all there is to say.

    Good on you, Maria, for knowing this deeply and truly.

  3. OH MARIA!!THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS!! Altho my experience was polar opposite of yours, I truly do love learning other people’s philosophy of life. And you are just the most FASCINATING, UNIQUE person I’ve ever “met”! Such a privilege to us readers that you are willing to share your private experiences with us. Annie

  4. Very thoughtful and inspiring. We all should have the free will to choose. You are a wise woman and I am glad you found your tribe.

  5. Hey Maria, count me in your tribe too. I loved Wonder Woman on tv in the 70’s, didn’t read the comics, and totally had a ball in collage with Women’s Studies courses, what an eye opener! I also totally get your not wanting to have kids. I have some of the same reasons you do. I wonder if a painful childhood affects a lot of women this way? Probably not enough as I see so many bad mothers and unhappy kids. I’m also just too selfish. I cant see giving up so much of myself to take care of a child. And since I knew this about myself in my late teens, I was able to just not go there as so many of my peers did. I also wasn’t going to do it alone, and if there wasn’t a good guy in the picture then no way. Sanger was amazing and yea even now there is still a bit of judgment about not having kids, but the biggest change I think, is that most women don’t care about the judgment as much. Time has given us more choices yes, but its also changed how much “society” opinion matters. Or maybe its being older but I couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks about my life. When the nurturing bug bites I get kittens. No back talk and cant beat the purr.

    1. I bet it’s a bit of both about the not caring part Kate. And I too put my nurturing instincts towards the animals. Without making them into kids.

  6. Just tuned into this discussion Maria, a little late but thank you for such a full and enlightening commentary on Margaret Sanger…I really didn’t know much about her or the direction of her work…I will read up on it more. As to children, I also never had a burning desire to be a mother, found that with my late husband, this wasn’t possible biologically but because I grew up much as you did with the same values regarding a woman’s role in life, though two generations earlier than you, we adopted two children. I didn’t become a mother overnight but somehow grew into it. Still, I understand not wanting children. While I enjoy my children (though one adoption has not turned out well, the other has) I think given the times, I would have had the reinforcement of thought and choice if born two generations later or so, I doubt I’d have gone the route of parenthood myself.
    SandyP in Canada

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this! Sometimes I’ve felt I was the only one in the world thinking this way. Clearly, nothing could be further from the truth.

  8. Thank you for your honesty, Marie! I,too, am like you. I’m now 51 and never had the urge to want kids. For a long time I felt shame and guilt around that, wondering what was “wrong” with me. I now see the universe had other plans for me and my life worked out just as it should. I’m so glad I didn’t give into what I “was supposed to,do.”

  9. Great post, Maria. I’m childfree by choice, though I was raised that marrying and having kids was the “normal” thing to do. I realized I wanted to be married (and have been for 41 years, mostly contentedly) but I did not want children. Thankfully I realized it in time to make sure that I didn’t fall into the “well, everyone has a baby, I guess I should do that, too” trap.

    The best thing, of course, is birth control, and I came of age just at the right time, when the Pill was readily available (1969). When I was 27, I had my tubes tied so I didn’t have to worry about it again. Very freeing.

    Interestingly, as the years have gone on, I’ve realized how many couples I know are also childfree, and also by choice. Mind you, my husband would probably have gone either way. While I know he is a much better uncle than he would have been a father (we are both somewhat on the selfish side, and to be a good parent you have to be very giving and nurturing), if he’d married someone who wanted kids, he’d have had them, probably. And she’d have done all the work. I was also not interested in that. I enjoyed my career as a librarian in a public library, but when I came home I wanted to read and relax. I used to tell young women who worked for me that they should do whatever they wanted, but to really think about it first, because you cannot “have it all” at least, not all at the same time. I think most of us can enjoy a career and a marriage, or marriage and children, but doing all 3 at the same time is really hard, harder on women than men, because even now, they do most of the work involved at home.

    I am a good aunt, I think, and very much love my 2 nephews, 1 niece and 1 grand-niece, but I could also give them back,and relax.

    I’m glad for you, Maria, and for all who commented here, that we live in a time when we truly can choose. My regret for humanity is seeing so many who follow “the norm” without really thinking of what they truly want. I saw a lot of good parents at the library and I saw far too many people who should never have been parents–they were terrible at it and ruining the poor children.

  10. Maria, it is a little surprising, sometimes, to realize how many prefer to be child free. Or, as I have learned over the years from friends, that people realize they might have preferred that choice, but it’s too late for them, now. Many love their children, but looking back over their lives, wish they had made another choice.

    When I was a librarian, I remember there were 2 or 3 books out, over those decades, on being childfree, and I bought them for the library, as I hoped people would truly think about it before making that choice.

    I am so thankful for Margaret Sanger and for Planned Parenthood and all those who have made it easier to be child free. I’m so glad that I live now, and not in the “bad old days” when women had so very few choices. I only wish I didn’t feel as if women’s rights are going backwards in this country nowadays. I thought we would be so much farther forward than we are, by now.

    1. It does seem to be going backwards sometimes, doesn’t it Melissa. And it surprises me how much has not changed, the feminists of the 1920’s were talking about some of the same issues we’re still talking about today. I have to believe and have hope that it’s just a long slow process and of course there are many changes.

  11. Maria, l wonder what made you pick up that book? Great post, wonderful responses… it is after midnight and everybody around me is asleep (husband, 3 dogs, one cat, no kids!), but l had to get the tablet out and write down a few of my own thoughts on this topic…at the moment one of our public tv stations is showing a series on female artists starting back in 15th century. For much of our existence as women artists we were not allowed to exhibit, sell our art, join guilds…it sometimes is excrutiatingly painful to watch it, but highly educational as well…just like your book.
    We have come a long way, but not really… it seems to me that as long as there exist child marriages, female genital mutilation, stoning, and forced pregnancies in this world we still have great need for quite a few more wonder women…

    1. It was Jon who gave me the book Sabina. I’m lucky, he’s really good at finding me books I like. And it’s true what you say about needing more wonder women. It’s a slow process, but I think we’re on the way.

  12. “You are EXACTLY like your mother!!” That single sentence paralyzed me with fear, sufficient to keep me child-free during my most sexually exploratory years (20’s and 30’s). I, too, felt that I didn’t want to bring another human being into the difficult childhood I experienced, especially if there was any chance I’d pass along that genetic makeup.When I finally had the opportunity to go to college in my 40’s, as a women’s re-entry student, I took a Women’s History class that included learning about not only Margaret Sanger but many of her predecessors. To say it was enlightening is an understatement of graphic proportions.
    And then life proved the greatest sense of humor. I became a magnificent ‘auntie’ and at age 45 became an awesome step-mom to three wonderful beings! They all learned that CHOICE is the most critical word in our language—and I’m blessed by serendipity.

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