MADAM PRESIDENT, I come to the floor today in a state of disbelief. With millions of people out of work, with an economy recovery still far too fragile, with students and families being crushed by student loan debt, with millions of seniors denied their chance at one hot meal a day with Meals on Wheels and millions of little children pushed out of Head Start because of a sequester, with the country hours away from a government shutdown and days away from a potential default on the nation’s debt, the Republicans have decided that the single most important issue facing our nation is to change the law so that employers can deny women access to birth control coverage. In fact, letting employers decide whether women can get birth control covered on their insurance plans is so important that the Republicans are willing to shutter the government and potentially tank the economy. Over whether women can get access to birth control. In the year 2013. Not the year 1913. The year two thousand thirteen. I have a daughter and I have granddaughters and I will never vote to let a group of backward-looking ideologues cut women’s access to birth control. We have lived in that world and we are not going back. Not ever.
That impassioned passage, the first 93 seconds of a five-minute-long speech, was given by Massachusetts’s Junior Senator Elizabeth Warren on September 30. Warren, 64, was standing on the floor of the Senate, and she was enraged, frustrated by the imminent shutdown of the federal government by the Republican-controlled House, which had decided to stake the present and future well-being of millions of Americans — not to mention the relevance of its own party — on the apparently controversial issue of whether or not American women should have access to contraception and reproductive health services. Warren’s speech was angry, yes, but it was also relevant and important — a YouTube video of the speech has, as of this time, over 1.3 million views.
It was also culturally timely: the conditions and struggles faced by women and health providers a century ago and referenced in Warren’s speech can be found throughout renowned comic artist Peter Bagge’s slim but entertaining new book, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn & Quarterly), a 72-page illustrated biography of the formidable and colorful iconoclast who made women’s reproductive rights her life’s work.
Sanger, for those unfamiliar with her biography, was the fiercely proud, independent, opinionated, and unapologetically determined Irish-American activist who helped make birth control not only legal but also widely available in the United States. (In 1921, Sanger helped found the organization that later became known as Planned Parenthood.) In 1913, the year that Senator Warren cited, Sanger, who had grown up in upstate New York, was a 34-year-old mother of three, ambivalent wife (she married her architect husband, Bill, at the age of 23), former nurse, and upper-middle-class proponent of the idea that women’s lives — and those of their offspring and other family members — could be free when and only if they could decide how and when they bore children. (At the time, information about birth control and pregnancy prevention was deemed illegal in the United States, based on anti-obscenity laws.) Sanger understood and appreciated, perhaps more than many women of her era and station, that biology was destiny — that a life without control over the means of reproduction was often a life that could not be lived to the fullest. As Bagge’s book outlines, Sanger’s own mother, Anne, had been pregnant 18 times and suffered through multiple miscarriages. Sanger’s work as a nurse in tenements of lower Manhattan in the second decade of the 20th century confirmed for her that women’s economic, physical, and spiritual potential were directly related to their ability to plan and care for their families. In a graphic and disturbing set piece that appears early on in Bagge’s book, the author depicts a 33-year-old Sanger at the bedside of a profusely bleeding young mother on the Lower East Side who is so despondent at the idea of having another child that she has performed an abortion on herself.
In March 1914, Sanger, a pro-union activist further radicalized by the censorship of a sex education column she wrote for a local socialist newspaper the year before, published the first issue of her controversial newsletter, The Woman Rebel, which unapologetically promoted the use of birth control. The title of the newsletter — and Bagge’s book — was not only a reference to Sanger’s love of rule-breaking and chronic questioning of authority, but also to the idea that only by rejecting societal norms surrounding sex, reproduction, and caretaking would women ever be free. This was an era, of course, in which men made most, if not all, of the decisions in and outside the home, and indeed, the combative Sanger’s life was one long rebellion against patriarchy, including refusing her father’s demand that she care for him after the death of her mother, and her husband Bill’s request that she give up or downgrade her own career, so that he could realize his dream of becoming an artist. The couple, parents to three children, divorced in 1921.) In fact, although there were women who, here and there, thwarted Sanger’s efforts, men were behind almost every substantial obstacle Sanger faced, every setback she absorbed, and most of the ridicule she suffered. Politicians and public officials refused to distribute her writings, arrested her for indecent language, mocked her during public appearances, raided her home and place of work, canceled her speeches, and put her in jail. (“He’s a man,” that ailing, bleeding young mother tells Sanger, after an attending male physician refuses to educate her in pregnancy prevention. “He doesn’t understand.”
Bagge’s depiction of Sanger’s stubbornness is almost tender in its execution, and the veteran artist’s energetic, appealing, and often grotesque renderings give an urgency and humanity to a person many simply regard as a long-dead historical figure with a famous updo, an intense stare, and her name on a downtown Manhattan street sign. His is an admiring portrait of a woman whose agitations and provocations are just as relevant today, a woman who seemed to make it part of her mission to be difficult to pin down — she railed against marriage, yet succumbed to its charms, then railed against it again — and who is even more difficult to define. (Sanger, while in favor of contraception, was opposed to abortion.) Bagge’s portrait of Sanger also upends the tired trope of the feminist as joyless, sex-starved, man-hating harpy; in his telling, Sanger finds nourishment and inspiration not only in her activism but also in her substantial appetite for fashion, travel, and sex. (Sanger enjoyed the attentions of numerous lovers around the world and was even willing to urinate in front of an older man for his sexual gratification.) Nor does he shy away from the internecine tensions and resentments within feminist and social justice movements over policy, ideology, and press, highlighting a certain competitiveness between Sanger and her former colleague Emma Goldman. He also shows the tendency of men on the organized left to discount or pooh-pooh women’s concerns about reproductive rights politics as fringe or “pet” issues. (Sound familiar?)
Bagge’s decision to utilize the comic style to tell the story is a savvy one: the illustrated panels and spare text serve as easy entry points into this remarkable and very American story, and, for those who wish to know more, Bagge provides many pages of supplementary “Who’s Who and What’s What” annotated material that digs deeper into the trajectory of Sanger’s life and teases out Bagge’s biographical choices and decisions. Still, anyone seeking a well-rounded portrait of the activist will have to go elsewhere. The limitations of the medium and the book’s brief length are such that the reader comes away with much more of an understanding of the emotion and drama of Sanger’s life than the subtext and nuance. (Cue Ellen Chesler’s excellent 2007 biography of Sanger, Woman of Valor.) Bagge seems either unwilling or unable to depict the driving forces — other than her sense of duty and self-interestedness — behind his subject’s most important, complicated, and intimate relationships, which can sometimes give one the feeling that Sanger was less woman rebel than female trouble, a human tornado hurtling over — or through — anyone or anything that got in her way. (His depiction of Sanger’s truncated reaction to the death of her daughter, Peggy, from pneumonia is a strange one, a part of her biography that seems to appear out of nowhere and merits only one page. “I have too much to do … I need to snap out of it …” Sanger tells herself after learning of Peggy’s passing.)
That said, Bagge has achieved that rare feat: the depiction of a woman who is the unapologetic and ambitious master not only of her own domain but also her own narrative.
Anna Holmes is a writer and editor based in New York, and the founder of the popular women's website Jezebel. Her The Book of Jezebel drops today.