Academic journal article Nursing History Review

Motherhood in Bondage

Academic journal article Nursing History Review

Motherhood in Bondage

Article excerpt

Motherhood in Bondage By Margaret Sanger; foreword by Margaret Marsh (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000) (472 pages; $57.95 cloth; $19.95 paper)

Motherhood in Bondage, printed in 1928 and recendy re-released by The Ohio State University Press, was one of Margaret Sanger's tomes arguing for women's right to contraceptive care. Originally trained as a nurse, Sanger recognized the pressing necessity of securing safe, reliable birth control methods for women of all social classes. She devoted her life and career to this mission and was once jailed for violating interstate obscenity laws. Through books, pamphlets, speeches, and court battles, she became the most famous birth control advocate of the twentieth century. With Motherhood Sanger attempted to harness the first-person accounts of suffering mothers to convince the public to lobby in favor of the birth control movement.

The timeless relevance of the book's subject matter cannot be denied. During the past two years, U.S. Food and Drug Administration hearings, Senate examinations of Supreme Court nominees, and discussions in the lay media and professional journals prove the contemporary resonance of the politics of motherhood and fertility. Despite this topicality, however, Motherhood rings surprisingly hollow. Both politically and emotionally unaffecting, the volume, a compilation of 470 letters received by Sanger from women nationwide, reads as repetitive and flat. Although certain letters are engaging and effectively crystallize women's struggles, the redundancy of the stories, combined with the sheer volume (.Motherhood contains an exhausting 400 pages of letter excerpts), nearly inures the reader to theit impact. The stories impress with the desperation of the women's tone and of their circumstances; however, Sanger's first and more well-known book, Woman and the New Race, provides a more concise, articulate, and readable exploration of the topic.

Sanger's introduction, in which she lays out the themes and goals of the book, may be the most affecting and readable part of Motherhood in Bondage. Each chapter begins with a brief introduction reiterating her argumentative stance and summarizing the missives. The letter excerpts follow, grouped thematically into such chapters as "Girl Mothers" and "Doctor Warns - But Does Not Tell." The choppily edited letters narrate what Sanger terms the "bondage of enforced maternity" (p. xlv). One of the most notable aspects of the women's experiences tends to be the number of pregnancies. One thirty-one-yearold woman writes that she is "the mother of eight living children, one baby dead and a three months miscarriage" (p. 15). Nearly all of the women live in extreme poverty, with litde health care and no access to bitth control. The scourges of theit impoverished status compound inextricably theit "enforced maternity."

As a nod to the eugenics movement, popular at the time, Sanger describes many of the women as "biologically 'unfit'" (p. 102) and decries the "disastrous folly of bringing defective children into the wotld" (p. 101). The lettet writeis themselves declare their unfitness for motherhood, due to a variety of physical, mental, and social conditions. …

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