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A Parents’ Problem or Woman’s?

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No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body.

No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.

Think! Did your Mother Consciously Choose to be or not to be your Mother?

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A Parents’ Problem or Woman’s?

By Margaret Sanger

Many people who believe in Birth Control as the means of voluntary motherhood say that the propaganda of the movement is directed too much to women and too little to men. They contend that the appeal should be to men quite as much as to women and that a strong effort should be made to arouse the masculine half of humanity to its responsibilities in relation to the evils growing out of the enslavement of the reproductive function.

It is true that the propaganda of the Birth Control movement in America has been addressed almost entirely to women. It has been couched in the terms of woman’s experience. Its prime importance to her has been continuously and consistently stressed. The reason for this course is at once fundamental and practical.

The basic freedom of the world is woman’s freedom. A free race cannot be born of slave mothers. A woman enchained cannot choose but give a measure of bondage to her sons and daughters. No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.

It does not greatly alter the case that some women call themselves free because they earn their own livings, while others profess freedom because they defy the conventions of sex relationship. She who earns her own living gains a sort of freedom that is not to be undervalued but in quality and in quantity it is of little account beside the untrammeled choice of mating or not mating, of being a mother or not being a mother. She gains food and clothing and shelter, at least, without submitting to the charity of her companion, but the earning of her own living does not give her the development of her inner sex urge, far deeper and more powerful in its outworkings than any of these mere externals. In order to have that development, she must still meet and solve the problem of motherhood.

With the so-called “free” woman, who chooses a mate in defiance of convention, freedom is largely a question of character and audacity. If she does attain to an unrestrained choice of a mate, she is still in a position to be enslaved through her reproductive powers. Indeed, the pressure of law and custom upon the woman not legally married is likely to make her more of a slave than the woman fortunate enough to marry the man of her choice.

Look at it from any standpoint you will, suggest any solution you will, conventional or unconventional, sanctioned by law or in defiance of law, woman is in the same position, fundamentally, until she is able to determine for herself whether she will be a mother and to fix the number of her offspring. This unavoidable situation is alone enough to make Birth Control, first of all a woman’s problem. On the very face of the matter, voluntary motherhood is chiefly the concern of the mother.

It is persistently urged, however, that since sex expression is the act of two, the responsibility of controlling the results should not be shifted to woman. Is it fair, we are asked, to give her the task of protecting herself when she is, perhaps, less rugged in physique than her mate, and has, at all events, the normal, periodic inconvenience of her sex?

We must examine this phase of the problem in two lights – that of the ideal and of the conditions working toward the ideal. In an ideal society, no doubt, Birth Control would become the concern of the man as well as the woman. The hard, inescapable fact which we encounter today is that man has not only refused any such responsibility but has individually and collectively sought to prevent woman from obtaining knowledge by which she could assume this responsibility for herself. She is still in the position of a dependent today because her mate has refused to consider her as an individual apart from his needs. She is still bound because she has in the past left the solution of the problem to him. Having left it to him, she finds that instead of rights, she has only such privileges as she has gained by petitioning, coaxing, and cozening. Having left it to him, she is exploited, driven and enslaved to his desires.

While it is true that he suffers many evils as the consequence of this situation, she suffers vastly more. While it is true that he should be awakened to the cause of these evils, we know that they come home to her with crush-force every day. It is she who has the long burden of carrying, bearing and rearing the unwanted children. It is she who must watch bedside the beds of pain where lie the babies who suffer because they have come into overcrowded homes. It is her heart that the sight of the deformed, the subnormal, the undernourished, the overworked child smites first and oftenest and hardest. It is her love life that dies first in the fear of undesired pregnancy; it is her self-expression that perishes first and most hopelessly because of it.

Conditions, rather than theories, facts, rather than dreams, govern the problem. They place it squarely upon the shoulders of woman. She has learned that whatever the moral responsibility of the man in this direction may be, he does not discharge it. She has learned that, loveable and considerate as the individual husband may be, she has nothing to expect from men in the mass, when they make laws and decree customs. She knows that regardless of what ought to be, the brutal, unavoidable fact is that she will never receive her freedom until she takes it for herself.

Having learned this much, she has yet something more to learn. Women are too much inclined to follow in footsteps of men, to try to think as men think, to try to solve the general problems of life as men solve them. If after attaining their freedom, women accept conditions in the spheres of government, industry, art, morals and religion as they find them, they will be but taking a leaf out of man’s book. The woman is not needed to do man’s work. She is not needed to think man’s thoughts. She need not fear that the masculine spirit, almost universally dominant, will fail to take care of its own. Her mission is not to enhance the masculine spirit, but to express the feminine spirit; hers is not to preserve a man-made world but to create a human world by the infusion of the feminine element into all of its activities.

Woman must not accept; she must challenge. She must not be told how to use her freedom; she must find out for herself. She must not be awed by that which has been built up around her; she must reverence that within her which struggles for expression. Her eyes must be less upon what is–more clearly upon what should be. She must listen only with a frankly questioning attitude to the dogmatized, fossilized opinions of church, state and society. When she chooses her new, free course of action, it must be in the light of her own opinion – of her own intuition. Only so can she give play to the feminine spirit. Only thus can she free her mate from the bondage which he wrought for himself when he wrought hers. Only thus can she restore to him that of which he robbed himself in restricting her. Only thus can she remake the world.

The world is, indeed, hers to remake; it is hers to build and to recreate. Even as she has permitted the suppression of her own feminine element and the consequent impoverishment of industry, art, letters, sciences, morals, religions, and social intercourse, so it is hers to enrich all these.

Woman must have her freedom–the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she shall be a mother and how many children she will have. Regardless of what man’s attitude may be, that problem is hers–and before it can be his, it is hers alone.

She goes through “the valley of the shadow of death” alone, each time a babe is born. As it is the right neither of man nor the state to coerce her into this ordeal, so it is her right to decide whether she will endure it. That right to decide imposes upon her the duty of clearing the way to knowledge by which she may make and carry out the decision.

Birth Control is a woman’s problem. The quicker she accepts it as hers and hers alone, the quicker will society respect motherhood. The quicker, too, will the world be made a fit place for children to live.

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Margaret Sanger, “A Parents’ Problem or Woman’s?,” March 1919.

Published article. Source: Birth Control Review, Mar. 1919, 6-7 , Margaret Sanger Microfilm S70:817 .

This is part of a series of articles written in response to a letter to the editor signed M B H under the title “Birth Control A Parents’ Problem or Woman’s?” that appeared in the in the Nov. 1918 issueBirth Control Review, 7. It was immediately followed by a response from Sanger which indicated the Birth Control Review would publish a discussion of the issues raised in future issues. For these discussions see, Lily Winner, “A Woman’s Problem,” Dec. 1918, 5, 15-16; Mary Ware Dennett, “The Problem of Both,” Dec. 1918, 16; E R C, “Problem of Both,” Jan. 1919, 11; {no author}, “A Fathers’ Problem Too,” Jan. 1919, 11; M. C. Lasell, “The Woman’s Problem,” Jan. 1919, 15-16; Lulu MacClure Clark, “Woman Must Solve it Alone,” Jan. 1919, 16. An editorial preceding this article reads: “This article by Margaret Sanger closes the discussion of this subject, which has been given space in several numbers of the BIRTH CONTROL REVIEW.”