Personal Cost of Sanger’s ‘Terrible Virtue’

Personal Cost of Sanger’s ‘Terrible Virtue’

Leah R. Harrison

Leah Harrison is a reporter and copy editor for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

Ellen Feldman will bring her historical novel to the Book Festival at noon Friday, Nov. 11.
Ellen Feldman will bring her historical novel to the Book Festival at noon Friday, Nov. 11.

From the outset, it is clear that Margaret Sanger was an unconventional thinker. Her views were progressive and her morals outrageous for the times, but things split wide open when she was asked to stand in at a women’s meeting of Socialist Local No. 5 and speak about women’s right to vote.

All at once, her years of rage at the plight of women having no voice and being subject to the whims and compulsions of a male-dominated society came to the fore, and she focused her speech instead on “women’s health,” or ultimately available, legal contraception.

Terrible Virtue By Ellen Feldman HarperCollins, 260 pages, $25.99
Terrible Virtue
By Ellen Feldman
HarperCollins, 260 pages, $25.99

Word spread, and that audience of seven next led to a crowd of 100, feeding her advocacy until it eclipsed the other aspects of her life. She drew on her memories of her mother, who died young — weak, ill, exhausted and spent from a life of bearing and caring for 13 children — and on her recollections of a childhood devoid of parental nurturing and creature comforts as resources were stretched too thin.

She also called on her experiences as a nurse dealing with women’s issues at a time when birth control was prescribed by doctors only for men to prevent the spread of disease in an era when women’s health and personal choices were not even an afterthought. Finally, as a mother she thought of her anger “at a society that would let children enter the world unwanted and unloved.”

Sanger, a seemingly happily married but personally unfulfilled mother of three, was catapulted into a life of activism and research that resulted in the founding of Planned Parenthood and the opening of the first illegal birth control clinic in America in 1916.

Thus, the seeds were sown. In the novel “Terrible Virtue,” Ellen Feldman provides a historical depiction and psychological study of the driving forces behind Sanger, who would become known as “the mother of the birth control movement.”

Along the way Sanger faced many perils, including prison sentences and the decision to flee the country, and made some scarring sacrifices, including her marriage and relationships with those she loved and anyone willing to risk life within her inner circle.

“I’m not like other women,” Sanger’s character says. “Nothing could have kept me from my work. Nothing did keep me from my work.”

It is fitting that Feldman brings us this historical portrayal in 2016, the 100th anniversary of Planned Parenthood and the establishment of that first women’s clinic, and that ‘Terrible Virtue” is being presented at the Jewish Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center at noon Friday, Nov. 11, with Jennifer S. Brown’s debut novel, “Modern Girls,” which deals with the issue of abortion less than 20 years later. It is clear how much progress was made in women’s rights in that short span.

Feldman neglects to provide ages or dates to give historical context beyond referencing actual events within the story (women’s right to vote was ratified in 1920; Sanger founded Planned Parenthood in 1916; and in 1950, in her 80s, she secured funding for the research that led to the creation of the first human birth control pill). All are significant and pivotal issues, but they ebb and flow without reference to era or time until the last 25 pages of the book.

Amid her somewhat lofty prose, Feldman often uses ominous foreshadowing, referencing events or characters yet to be introduced. More foreboding and annoying than intriguing, this writing style creates questions and confusion as it distracts the reader from the story at hand.

Later, as we learn more about Sanger’s flawed character, the book becomes more of a psychological study in what drove her to so steadfastly and single-mindedly pursue her mission that she sacrificed her personal relationships to change the world for the better.

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