Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Margaret Sanger's "The Children's Era" Analysis

From the early 1900’s until well into the 1960’s, New York native Margaret Sanger led the crusade for birth-control and contraceptives. Being the daughter of a radical liberal father, and a mother who died young after birthing eleven children, shaped Margaret into a strong, opinionated, independent women, as shown through figure 1. After studying to become a nurse, starting a family of her own, and becoming involved with the socialist party in New York, Margaret began working with poor immigrant women in the slums in 1912. The experiences she had with these women strengthened her sentiment that women should be in total control of childbearing, an outlook she had developed after witnessing her mother’s death, which she blamed on the fact that she had so many children. The horrendous tales of self-induced abortions and difficult pregnancies appalled Margaret to action.

Figure 1:"Margaret Sanger: The Children's Era" Mar. 1925. Photograph.
American Rhetoric.
Web. 5 October 2010.

or the next few years Margaret Sanger’s crusade provided great tension with law enforcement as she sent pamphlets regarding contraceptives through the mail and even opened a birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, in blatant violation of the Comstock Act and other laws. By the 1920’s Margaret’s tactics had become less radical. She founded the American Birth Control League, later to become Planned Parenthood, in 1921, one of the biggest milestones in her crusade. In 1925, as a part of the first national birth-control conference, she delivered her landmark speech “The Children’s Era.” In the speech, Margaret attempts to show the importance of women’s control over childbearing as it applies to society as a whole, and the children who will eventually be born. Margaret Sanger’s purpose is impeccably conveyed through various stylistic choices and the use of analogous situations.

Margaret Sanger’s speech begins by asserting that although the twentieth century was supposed to “see this old world of ours converted into a beautiful garden of children,” as she quotes from the Swedish femenist Ellen Key, little progress has been made toward making it the century of children. Sanger continues with this analogy between raising a garden and raising children when she states, “You cannot have a garden, if you let weeds overrun it,” using it to prove the lack of success in creating a century of children. This analogy shapes much of the beginning of Sanger’s speech, driving home the message because of the simplicity and familiarity of gardening to the audience. A garden creates images of intimate, welcoming homes where children are not only taken care of, but adored, by the tender, nurturing hands of a willing mother who, like a gardener, takes pride in cultivating new life.

The garden analogy is concluded only as Sanger introduces the next analogy, going from what should have been done, to what has been done. She explains that “So far we have not been gardeners. We have only been a sort of silly reception committee, a reception committee at the Grand Central Station of life.” A train station thereby becomes the basis for examining the ways society had been dealing with unwanted or too many children, as “trainloads” of children come in and the so-called reception committee “establishes emergency measures: milk stations, maternity centers, settlement houses, playgrounds, orphanages, welfare leagues, and every conceivable kind of charitable effort.” Unfortunately, as Sanger goes on to explain, these effort are not enough and “the overworked committee becomes exhausted, inefficient, and can think of no way out.” The analogy of the reception committee at a train station is successful, much like the garden analogy, because of its apparent simplicity. In contrast to the warm atmosphere of a garden, Grand Central Station, the largest station in New York, is a cold, unfeeling, and mechanical environment. The notion of a committee in this harsh environment being responsible for dealing with the delicate task of caring for infants illustrates the painful realities of institutions and orphanages. An audience would no doubt be intrigued by such analogies, amazed at how things as complex as these social issues can be viewed in understandable terms through things that they encounter everyday.

Together these extended analogies provide a basis for the entire speech. Sanger continues by proposing her tactics for achieving the era of children which the century had promised to be. She makes many more analogies throughout the speech to make her message more understandable, but none as complex as the two previously discussed. When Sanger is speaking of the need for motherhood to be a choice for women, a main theme of the speech, she remarks that “we have got to free women from enforced, enslaved maternity,” relating unwilling mothers to slaves, another powerful analogy. A final notable analogy comes when Sanger discusses a hypothetical way in which she thinks children’s entrance into life should be viewed in order to best benefit them. She wishes that the unborn children could interview prospective parents to be sure they are able to provide a suitable home. Sanger puts this idea forward in the form of an analogy when she states, “When you want a cook or housemaid, you go to an employment bureau. You have to answer questions. You have to exchange references. You have to persuade the talented cook that you conduct a proper well-run household. Children ought to have at least the same privilege as cooks.” Although the idea is clearly unrealistic, it shows how strongly Margaret wants to better the experience of children in the twentieth century.

With each example Sanger’s analogy gives her purpose a sense of clarity and relatability that would not have been present had she simply droned on about boring social issues the entire time. Instead the stylistic choice to use analogies not only made the purpose more clear, but made the speech more interesting, and therefore more effective at delivering the intended message. “The Children’s Era” is only a sliver of Margaret Sanger’s life-long work in her crusade to improve not only the lives of children, but their mothers, by providing alternatives to the horrors she had witnessed working in the slums of New York City. Near the end of Sanger’s involvement with this cause, the impact of her work was culminated through the development of the birth control pill, a huge victory for the crusade. Sanger’s legacy is undoubtedly a controversial one, but clearly the words of a gifted speaker hold tremendous power.

Work Cited

Sanger, Margaret. "The Children's Era." American Rhetoric. N.p., 2009. Web. 3 Oct. 2010.

Work Consulted

"Margaret Sanger." American Social Leaders. N.p.: n.p., 2001. N. pag. eLibrary. Web. 3 Oct. 2010.