Rehabilitating an Unusual Libertarian Heroine

Cartoonist Peter Bagge on the life of birth control rights pioneer Margaret Sanger


Woman Rebel
Peter Bagge

Peter Bagge, who has drawn comics in reason for over a decade, is best known for his comic books Hate and Neat Stuff. More recently, he has taken a turn toward "graphic biography" with Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn and Quarterly). Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Bagge by phone in October.

reason: What possessed you to move into biography?

Peter Bagge: You are indirectly responsible for this path, Brian. With your book Radicals for Capitalism [2007], you talked about the three women who defined the modern libertarian movement, which is a curious irony since it almost seems like libertarianism is a boys club. I already knew too much about Ayn Rand. But the other two, Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane, I became curious and read their biographies and their novels.

Paterson was so fascinating, everything about her so out of step with the times. It impressed me she stuck to her ideological guns all through the New Deal era. I did a comic book bio of her for reason, which for reason was incredibly long at 12 pages. But I found it too short!

My next bio should be on Zora Neale Hurston [a black novelist of the Harlem renaissance with libertarian sympathies], and I intend to do Rose Wilder Lane. Hurston has a cult following around her. Lane, whenever I mention her name, it's "Who?" until I say she was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder [author of the Little House series]. Then it's, "Oh, is she the one they say secretly helped write her mom's books?"

I wondered how all these woman were able to live, even before the feminist movement, as freely as men did. I noticed they didn't get weighed down by pregnancy. For biological reasons women were so much more limited in what they could do. Which made me think about birth control, and when you look into that, Margaret Sanger's name kept coming up.

When you read about her, you get bombarded with so many conflicting perspectives. It's like the blind men describing the elephant. So I dug deeper and found she lived this incredibly productive, adventurous, wild life, very much the stuff of comic books! And her name and reputation are now being successfully destroyed by people on the right and left [largely over accusations of promoting birth control out of a desire for wiping out undesirable races].

Some of the accusations against her are outright lies, some distortions and taking things out of context, or just reacting to her use of the word "race." I read her book Woman and the New Race, and every time she used the word "race" she was always talking about the human race. I couldn't find instances where she made comparisons between different racial types, black vs. white or black vs. Asian or comparing different skin colors and concluding one is superior to the other. I couldn't find one instance of that, and I read a fuckload by her.

In the late 1910s, early 1920s, it was the norm to believe that white people were superior to everyone else. To academics their proof was, "Look around, we rule the world, how could anyone possibly argue whites aren't superior?" That was the position of almost everyone, and Sanger was remarkably, uniquely not racist in comparison. She was, like, the least racist person around at that time.

reason: What did you find interesting about Sanger in libertarian terms?

Bagge: She was always interested in legalizing birth control, allowing women to have access. You have to remember it was against the law to even tell someone how to keep from getting pregnant. She was a practicing nurse, and doctors and nurses did lose licenses and go to jail over this. It was a legitimate fear. She wanted to fight that, and to allow women access to birth control for health reasons-being baby-making machines can wreak havoc on the woman's body, especially if she's poor. She wanted people to be able to live their lives not as slaves to their own biology. And she fought this war and she succeeded! By 1966, when she died, we had the Griswold case and access to birth control was legal.

She was also instrumental in developing the birth control pill. She was not herself a scientist but she brought together the people who made it happen. In her work to bring about improved birth control techniques and availability, she completely changed western civilization for the better. Giving people that choice to be parents was the most libertarian thing to happen to human beings over the past 1,500 years.

The motivation for the deliberate trashing of her reputation is people are opposed to Planned Parenthood, which she founded. And they are against Planned Parenthood because they are against abortion, so they think it's their duty to trash Sanger. A gigantic irony is that throughout her entire life, she was 100 percent opposed to abortion. She thought it was immoral.

She did become quite a political animal. She always presented herself as this very serious woman, always photographed herself at typewriters or in front of bookshelves so she could be taken seriously as a lobbyist. But in how she conducted her personal life, she was quite the wild one. Her personal life she was exactly what her opponents feared-they didn't want women running around having sex out of wedlock.

I think that's a subtext in her constant headbutting with other women leaders in the feminist and birth control movement. I think that's why they had so much animosity to her, though they'd never say it specifically and publically.

reason: Does doing serious biographies in comics form mean that comics aren't just for kids anymore, Pete?

Bagge: In public presentations about the book I've done, no one from the Sanger/women's studies world has said a single thing about it being weird that this biography was a comic book. I think people have finally stopped saying that stupid thing about comics being "not just for kids anymore."