There is arguably no person more important to the history of women's sexual health and education than Margaret Sanger. Without her, we would not have the term "birth control," and we would not have Planned Parenthood, the organization that has saved the lives of countless women throughout its storied and oftentimes controversial history. But for all the undeserved negative press dearly departed Sanger and her organization receive, there's finally a reason to celebrate.
Planned Parenthood turns 100 years old on Sunday—though it doesn't look a day over 25—and what better way to mark the occasion than with a biography of Sanger? Especially one with a twist. Our Lady of Birth Control: A Cartoonist’s Encounter with Margaret Sanger is a comic-style telling of Sanger’s colorful life and times: The illustrations are interwoven with the author-illustrator’s own personal engagement and experiences with her sexual health and the women’s rights movement. And it’s pretty damn great.
“Reproductive rights was the first issue around which I became politically active as an artist,” New York-based author-illustrator Sabrina Jones told me of what helped drive her to engage with the character and history of Margaret Sanger in this medium. “I felt that excitement of doing work and reaching an audience around an issue that felt urgent and personal—having grown up in the era of progressive liberation—and then feeling the pendulum swinging back the other way just as I was ready to enjoy the fruits of the sexual revolution.”
Jones recalls how Planned Parenthood was attacked in the '80s for its abortion care, but never gave much thought to its contraception access (though they've always been criticized by anti-women’s health politicians for it). She always thought of contraception access as a "sensible" thing that wouldn’t be challenged—that is, until it was. And aggressively so.
“I was shocked, as many were, that the college activist Sandra Fluke was shamed on a national radio program by Rush Limbaugh," Jones said, referring to the 2012 incident. "She was called a slut and a prostitute for simply advocating for birth control coverage in student health plans and I thought, ‘Oh my God—birth control is still radical, and it’s still contested.’"
And to Jones, this fear—and infusion of morality into women’s health decisions—only “proves how much of a threat it is to some people that women have gained what we have in terms of our ability to control our fertility and thus be able to be full participants in public life."
Beyond Sanger's legacy as the founder of Planned Parenthood, what many may be surprised to learn is that she herself was against abortion. As part of her anti-abortion stance, she pushed the spread of birth control. But regardless of her personal feelings, she vowed to “protect women’s health and at the same time their dignity and their ability to participate in life," as Jones put it.
Her passion for promoting birth control was also personal: Sanger had multiple sexual partners, considered quite scandalous for her era. And it was because of birth control that she was able to safely live this lifestyle and still serve women in her community—and later, around the country.
But a century after its inception, Planned Parenthood faces more political attacks than ever. Jones hopes more people will take a lesson from the Sanger playbook and realize the health centers are “not just a place where you go to have an abortion or to get birth control, but a place where you learn to take care of yourself. That was the thing I experienced when I went to Planned Parenthood as a teenager. They don’t just give you birth control, but education."
Jen Gerson Uffalussy is a regular contributor to Fusion. She also writes about reproductive and sexual health/policy for Glamour, and television for The Guardian. She lives in Atlanta.