Published on December 12th, 2016 | by Sabrina Jones0
OUR LADY OF BIRTH CONTROL: Selections from A Cartoonist’s Encounter with Margaret Sanger by Sabrina Jones
Can you imagine being dragged into a police wagon for birth control? That’s what happened a hundred years ago this fall, when a radicalized nurse and mother committed civil disobedience against the Comstock laws that banned contraception as obscene. Margaret Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic, and went to jail for 30 days. She did it because she was fed up with seeing her patients die from illegal abortions.
Birth control was also handy for Margaret and her Greenwich Village comrades who embraced free love (to the dismay of her devoted husband), but for her poor immigrant clients, it was a matter of survival. Sanger made it her life’s work to change the obscenity laws and public opinion, to research and disseminate more effective contraception, and build a network of clinics and advocates that would become Planned Parenthood.
I came of age in a very different era, when liberation movements abounded, a sexual revolution was rumored to be going on, hands-free contraception heralded the possibility of carefree sex, and zero population growth was a goal. By the 1970s, birth control, far from being scandalous and immoral, seemed to me sensible, socially responsible, and widely accepted. I anticipated the same growing acceptance of its more controversial cousin, abortion. But not everyone shared my definition of progress.
My first acts of protest and activist art were in defense of Roe v. Wade. The ensuing years of tug of war between pro-life and pro-choice forces have affected funding, access, security, and attitudes towards women’s healthcare. When law student Sandra Fluke was shamed as a slut on national radio for demanding birth control coverage in student health plans, I realized Margaret’s battles were still being fought, we could not take birth control for granted, and I made her the hero of my next graphic novel.
I was captivated by Margaret Sanger’s story while researching early 20th century Greenwich Village. Like the 1960s of my childhood, the Village scene was a cauldron of idealistic experiment, where social conscience met joyous rebellion. Sanger worked with Socialists and anarcho-syndicalists before focusing on birth control, determined to spare women the fate of her own poor mother, who had eighteen pregnancies, eleven surviving children, and died at fifty. Of all the radical movements of her time, Sanger’s fight for birth control struck me as the one to shape our lives most profoundly, both as individuals and as a society. Since her death, Sanger’s accomplishments have been smeared by anti-abortion groups, who falsely accuse her of crimes from racism to genocide, but that’s another story.
I am fascinated by how Margaret rose up from gritty origins to mobilize legions, including pillars of society. She went from applauding those who plotted to blow up the Rockefeller estate, to getting Rockefellers to donate to her cause. In Our Lady of Birth Control, we follow Sanger’s transformations from restless housewife to passionate rebel, to powerful agent of change with a carefully honed public image as a respectable wife and mother. In the above excerpt, Margaret flees her first indictment for her Rebel Woman magazine, and is embraced in more ways than one by her European counterparts, who forge lifelong bonds, providing guidance, support, and a reprieve from what she considers America’s persistent Puritanism.
Comics are excerpted from Our Lady of Birth Control by Sabrina Jones (Soft Skull Press, 2016), reprinted with permission.
“Sabrina Jones’ Our Lady of Birth Control is a heartfelt homage to the birth control advocate who helped us all gain, as Sanger said, ‘the right to love without fear.’ Jones deftly intertwines the past and present of women’s reproductive rights, traces the history of contraception, and follows Sanger’s personal history with fluid, freewheeling drawings and clear, concise text. Showing us the brutality of the past when women were kept ignorant and bound to a life of servitude, Jones put in perspective the threats on our freedom today.” –Lauren Weinstein, comic book artist and author of Girl Stories