If you're going to do a graphic biography of a great American woman, you could do worse than to start with Margaret Sanger, feminist, firebrand, advocate of birth control, free love, and eugenics (more on that later). At least that's how Peter Bagge (pronounced "bag"), a comic book artist best known for Hate, his series satirizing 90s grunge culture, saw it.
"I was researching other possible biography subjects," he says. "The subject I was interested in was woman authors between the two world wars. In their political and life philosophies, they were very autonomous. They wanted autonomy for everybody. They lived their lives that way. Before women's rights, they lived their lives like men. They weren't masculine. They did what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. Their gender didn't hinder them. They also weren't hindered by pregnancy and babies. And that interest in birth control led me to Margaret Sanger."
As it turned out, Sanger's life was so packed with incident that Bagge had trouble squeezing it all in to the 72 pages of Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story. "There were so many stories," he says. "The book could've been 1000 pages long."
To summarize: Sanger was born in 1879 into a large Irish-American family in upstate New York. Growing up, she saw how her mother's health had been ruined by her 18 pregnancies (11 children, 7 miscarriages). In one of the more chilling incidents in Woman Rebel, young Maggie's father, an artist and political radical, takes her along to a graveyard in the middle of the night to dig up the body of her dead baby brother so he can make a death mask to comfort her mother. (It was not entirely misguided: she is, indeed, comforted, not freaked out.)
Margaret's original dream, to be a doctor, was thwarted when she had to leave school and take care of her mother, who was dying of tuberculosis. She eventually became a nurse. In 1901, she married William Sanger, an architect. They had three children and settled into a bourgeois life in the suburbs. But after their house burned down, they moved to Greenwich Village where they hung out with political radicals and bohemians and Margaret began working as a nurse again. She was appalled by the conditions in the Lower East Side ghetto where she worked. One case in particular moved her: Sadie Sachs, a poor woman with too many children who nearly killed herself with a home abortion. When Sachs begged the doctor for advice about preventing future pregnancies, he told her, "Tell your husband to sleep on the roof!" (The Sachs story became a mainstay in Sanger's lectures. It ended with Sachs's death from a second illegal abortion. It was also, writes Bagge in the book's lengthy appendix, impossible to confirm, but reliably inspired tears and donations.)
Galvanized, Sanger began giving public lectures on contraception, although she was extremely shy and, throughout her life, routinely threw up before each appearance. She published a pamphlet called "What Every Girl Should Know," which was almost immediately suppressed by Anthony Comstock, the U.S. postal inspector who would become her most enduring enemy. But she also recognized that getting censored was fantastic publicity and began publishing her own newspaper The Woman Rebel. She endured a stint in jail (where she and her cellmates protested the less-than-sanitary conditions by pouring the contents of their overflowing toilet onto the floor); exile in Europe to avoid a criminal trial and extended imprisonment; the death of her daughter Peggy; and a seemingly-endless series of battles with Comstock, the police, and her fellow birth control advocates. Her inability to get along with other strong women was a lifelong issue, but strangely enough, some of the most virulent opponents of birth control were women. "Those women wished her dead," says Bagge. "They wished she'd been birth controlled."
Throughout her life, she kept a schedule of lecturing and writing that, says Bagge, "doesn't seem humanly possible. She had the ability to multitask." She also enjoyed a series of famous lovers, including H.G. Wells, who called her "the greatest woman in the world," and a second marriage to an oil millionaire who accepted her philandering but not her frequent traveling. ("I feel so bad for the guy," says Bagge. "She so hated being told what to do.") And, most controversially, she was an advocate for eugenics.
"If you search her name on the internet, you get extremely varied descriptions of her," says Bagge. "It's like the story of the blind men describing an elephant. I got the sense that she had been quite deliberately maligned. Now people equate eugenics with Hitler. This was not the case in the 1920s. Her take was not much different from what the average American thinks now."
In the book's appendix, Bagge elaborates:
They were faced with brand new social problems, the likes of which humanity had never dealt with before: exploding population growth, rabid urbanization, and massive waves of immigration. . . . All this led to increased rates of crime, poverty, and mental illness that overwhelmed major US cities while placing an enormous financial strain on private charities and government agencies. In the face of all this, the idea of sterilizing violent criminals, drunks, drug addicts, and/or people with mental and physical disabilities seemed like not only a good idea, but the most humane one, considering the options available at the time (another popular solution was to exterminate some or all of the above). What Sanger was trying to do was expand our options, so we wouldn't have to resort to such extreme measures.
It can be difficult to illustrate such a life. Some scenes popped into Bagge's head immediately—most notably the scene where Sanger meets the British sexologist Havelock Ellis, who confides that the only thing that arouses him is the sight of a woman peeing. It concludes with Sanger grabbing Ellis's head and crying "Arrgh! Your brain! It's so big! I want it!" and then offering to pee for him.
"Where it got really tricky," Bagge says, "were the scenes that didn't lend themselves to visuals, the ones with people sitting and talking. I had to include them and show what was going on behind the scenes of this change in western civilization."
Unfortunately, the only film footage that still exists of Sanger is a humiliating 1957 appearance on the TV program The Mike Wallace Interview in which Wallace handily rattles and then eviscerates her. Instead of drawing from photographs in which Sanger usually appears quite demure, Bagge usually shows her in motion, and she is ferocious. Bagge's Sanger's is wild-eyed and expressive, and her mouth is nearly always open, talking.
Bagge hopes that Woman Rebel will be the first of a series of books about remarkable women from the first half of the 20th century. He's currently working on a graphic biography of Zora Neale Hurston, the novelist and anthropologist. "She had an amazing and ultimately tragic life," he says. You can ask him about both Sanger and Hurston tomorrow, 10/19, at 7 PM at Quimby's, where he'll be showing a slideshow about Sanger's life and talking about the creation of Woman Rebel.