"IT WILL GO DOWN IN history with the greatest advancements of the human race, along with the invention of the stone hammer, the mastery of fire, the discovery of electricity, and the invention of the art of printing." Julian Huxley's words, as Madeline Gray quotes them in her lively biography give the measure of Margaret Sanger's achievement. It is also the measure of what we now take for granted.
Gray recalls for us a time in America when it was possible to take a tuberculous mother or six all over New York City without finding one doctor brave enough to risk prescribing a contraceptive for her; when diaphragms, know for three generations in Europe and prescribed in Dutch government clinics, had literally to be bottlegged in liquor bottles; when doctors who associated themselves with birth control risked loss of hospital connection. Even as late as 1936, after Margaret Sanger and others had been working for 25 years, nearly half the nation's 75 top medical schools gave their students no instruction in contraceptive methods at all. The phrase, "the murder of the unborn," quoted here from an attack on Sanger in a 1951 Novena Notes , is still part of right-to-life Catholic rhetoric. We forget the long years in which it meant, not abortion, but "the detestable practice of birth control."
We need to keep her achievement in mind, for it would be all too easy to read the story Gray tells as exactly the kind of moral tale Sanger's enemies would most have relished. She started poor, charming, socialist, free, talented and extraordinarily pretty. She ended rich, superstitious, parsimonious and addicted, craving the women's magazines that brought her the love-stories she could no longer live, and the drugs that could make her forget loneliness -- the loneliness of those who are finally committed only to themselves, having claimed and got "utter liberty for both parties" in love or marriage to "live utterly free from the other."
She can be seen as a monster of egoism, refusing to share her Cause with anyone. When her sister Ethel attracted too much publicity by a jail for the Cause no longer. Sanger wanted no allies she could not control. She made it almost impossible for even sympathetic physicians to work with her. She was spiteful against other women leaders in birth control, like Marie Stopes ("that viper") and Mary Ware Dennett, and she was complacently brutal to her first husband, Bill Sanger. She neglected her children, flitting off with a lover while little Peggy lay ill with polio, making the boys, packed off to boarding school, wait in vain for promised visits that never came. She once told 10-year-old Grant, when he asked where he was to spend Thanks-giving, to go to the apartment and "Daisy the black maid... would cook him a nice dinner." Having secured herself and furthered the Cause by a second marriage to a millionaire, she had her portrait painted, full-length, for $1500.
Yet it is the achievement of Gray's biography that it shows us more than this. Margaret was a liar ("Being Irish, I never tell the same story twice"). She was the only center of her universe. Yet she was warm, generous, unexpected, fun. Age could not wither her, or custom stale. And she was faithful in her fashion even to those she crude, coarse and offensive that he was really a caricature. Schapiro thinks such a charge unjustified; but Turgenev, who both admired and resented the radicals, had a much more ambiguous attitude toward them than his biographer is willing to admit. Certainly he endowed Bazarov with qualities he valued -- strength of will, sense of purpose he valued -- strength of will, sense of purpose. But it is excessive to say that "of his [Turgenev's] deep sympathy for Bazarov no fair-minded reader could be in doubt." Sympathy perhaps, but mixed with anxiety and fear as well.
This is only one instance of a general tendency in the book to overlook the complexities of Turgenev's relations with his compatriots and to assume that if he came under attack, it was invariably because of incomprehension or ill will. His own protests prove nothing, and should not be taken as probative; there was more deviousness in him than Professor Schapiro allows for. But this is of course a question of opinion and interpretation, and does not diminish the merit of his scrupulously careful, thoughtful, and very well-written book. No one wishing to learn about Turgenev could have a better or more reliable guide.