Underground comics legend Peter Bagge (Hate) joins Earth Prime Time to talk about his latest work, including Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story from Drawn and Quarterly. Peter’s biographical hardcover graphic novel takes a look at one of feminism’s most controversial and important icons. Sanger’s (September 14, 1879 – September 6, 1966) life’s work was devoted to legalizing birth control and played a part in forming what is known today as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Peter’s book tour stops at Brookline Booksmith on Monday, October 21 at 7pm.
DigBoston: The most obvious question, and the one you are probably getting a lot, is why Margaret Sanger?
Peter Bagge: I wish I had a short snappy answer to that question! For a while now I’ve been doing nonfiction pieces, mainly for a publication called Reason magazine.
Short journalistic comic strips, most recently I’ve been doing short biographical strips. It felt like it was starting to build up to the possibility of doing a book-length one. I ran a bunch of names by this one particular publisher who I thought would be interested, and they were the ones who published it, Drawn and Quarterly.
One of the names I ran past was Margaret Sanger. What was interesting was the other subjects I had in mind were all literary figures for the most part. I was very interested in women writers from the mid 20th century, from between the two wars. The reason I was interested in them, besides liking their work, was that they lived very autonomous, independent lives. Though these women weren’t the least bit masculine, they lived their lives as if they were men.
They didn’t let their gender hinder them from doing anything. And that made me wonder about birth control. I also couldn’t help but notice these women didn’t get pregnant, they weren’t saddled with a bunch of kids.
I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of birth control did they use, what was available if they were using anything.
While researching that, I kept getting taken to Margaret Sanger. I kept running across incredible contradictory things that people would say about Sanger.
It’s very much like that old adage about blind men describing an elephant, they can only describe the one part of the animal that they are touching.
That seemed to be the way people were describing her, I [thought], “Are they all talking about the same person?” So that’s when I started getting into her life and what she was really all about.
Do you feel like you are entering a new stage of your career? With biographical comics, is this something you’ve wanted to do for a long time?
It’s not a sudden thing, even aside from the Reason work. With Reason they did allow me to do a 12-page biographical comic about a woman named “The Isabel Paterson.” Even before that I was doing a strip for Dark Horse Publications called “Founding Father’s Funnies” — 1-to-8 page comic strips about various founding fathers. I very much enjoyed doing those.
I’d still like to do whole books worth of those strips. So I was enjoying it, the question was whether there was an audience for it. And again, that’s a big reason both me and Drawn and Quarterly settled on Sanger, she had the most name recognition and was still the most controversial.
The other people I wanted to write about were much more obscure. We figured if there was a market for this, the best was to find out was Margaret Sanger.
As you say, if you were to just do a Google search on Sanger, you come up with everything from that she’s a racist, she supports eugenics, and that she was a bad person to a lot of people—or perhaps a better way to put it is she was demonized.
It was intentional. It was an intentional demonization by people who wanted to discredit Planned Parenthood. No one will publicly say they are against birth control any more, depending on which side you are on, that battle has been won. But the people who were in Sanger’s lifetime that would have been her opponents now are part of the pro-life movement. Basically, it is because of abortion that they oppose Planned Parenthood. They figured they would do it by demonizing their founder.
And they succeeded. It’s incredibly ironic that people who support Planned Parenthood are of the left politically, but by labeling Sanger a racist, they made her toxic to people who otherwise would be her supporters and admirers.
They were incredibly quick to believe it. They just bombard you with all these quotes taken out of context.
What she actually did right, especially for her time, she seemed like the least racist person out there that was speaking or writing at the early 20th century.
As far as eugenics goes, that’s a sticky wicket, that’s the term that’s not redefined but more narrowly defined. Now when you use that word it is synonymous with Nazism. To the average person, there is no difference between the two words.
Back then, the word simply meant “How do you improve future generations? How do you make future generations healthier and of a heartier stock, mentally and physically from our generation.”
That’s what she was interested in. She was quite clear about it, she would write about eugenics, she was involved with debates about other eugenicists, many of whom were discrediting her at the time. The biggest reason there was a debate between her and the others was that she was not on board at all with the notion that superiority was tied to ethnicity. She never went along with that or said anything that bought into that notion.
She used the word “race” a lot. When you see this in a modern context, a modern reader assumes she is talking about the white race, but she’s not, she’s always talking about the human race, always.
Others too, said she was riding their coattails to get on this eugenics bandwagon, just to get her birth control cause some legitimacy. She was less concerned with improving the human race than she was with simply striving for female autonomy.
What is interesting is that those critics of hers at the time were 100% correct. The academic world was entirely on board with eugenics. The only pushback at the time were very conservative religious figures. Other than that, just about everyone was on board with the eugenics movement.
She was trying to make her birth control cause more scientifically legitimate.
She was deliberately attaching herself to the movement even though she was quite honest about the problems she had with it.