Blurred lines in defining history’s ‘heroes’

In the case of Margaret Sanger she is widely regarded as a heroic feminist figure who is largely responsible for the birth control measures that are currently in place today. By launching Woman Rebel, Birth Control Review, two publications that sought to spread information about contraceptive measures, and the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood, Sanger’s mark on history was no small feat. Her actions directly had an effect on legislature and on the public dialogue surrounding contraception. Despite the threats of jail time and governmental pressures she continued to push forward in order to help the women she knew needed this information in order to have a better quality of life for them and their families.

Despite the good that Sanger did, it is not right to leave out the racist rhetoric she often included in her writing. In the article titled “Sanger’s Legacy is Reproductive Freedom and Racism” from We News Sanger wrote, “‘Our failure to segregate morons who are increasing and multiplying … demonstrates our foolhardy and extravagant sentimentalism,’ she wrote in the recently republished ‘The Pivot of Civilization.'” This statement leads one to think that she was in support of eugenics or at least was not strongly against it. Another quote from the article was, “In a 1921 article in the Birth Control Review, Sanger wrote, ‘The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.'” Once again this brings to mind the thought that she supported eugenics by introducing contraceptives into communities she deemed “defective” and stupid.

Having this eugenics angle on Sanger puts more general concepts into perspective. Mainly the idea of heroes and if they should be remembered only for the good they did or if their work should be discredited based on the negative things they might have believed/publicized.

An example of this can be found with Helen Thomas, a former journalist who is often credited with being a pioneer for women in journalism. During her career she covered several presidents and remained a strong voice in the white house. However, in 2010 Thomas made inflammatory comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which resulted in her being terminated from her then current position with Hearst. When Thomas died in 2013 former president Barack Obama released a statement saying, “Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism…”

The main question that rises in the cases of Thomas and Sanger is: how should the public respond to these historic figures when their personal beliefs are revealed? With Sanger, during that period of time, the concept of eugenics was not so far-fetched. It was a time of great racial divide meaning her comments did not receive the amount of backlash they would have warranted today. However, she still revolutionized women’s’ rights in terms of birth control and proper sexual education. This creates a sense of tension and uncertainty when deciding on how to portray her in history.

With Thomas, her comments had immediate repercussions, and even though Obama praised her decades-long career, the backlash from her statements was severe. From these two women no clear answer is put forward on how to view figures who publicized negative personal sentiments. For every heroic public figure that arises it only seems to be a matter of time before they say something to discredit their entire legacy.



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