We continue our talk with underground comics legend Peter Bagge (Hate) at Earth Prime Time to talk about his latest: 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.
DIGBOSTON: You could say she was a loudmouth. She wrote columns in newspapers, she was a socialist. There’s so much to her.
Peter Bagge: She lived a long life, she was in her 30′s when she became very active in politics in general and more specifically in birth control.
Her politics, as is the case with most people, evolved over time.
You know that adage, if you are young and not a liberal, you don’t have a heart, if you are old and you aren’t conservative, you don’t have a brain. That would describe her. It’s not like she did some 180.
Some people would say to me, did you know she voted Republican? Technically yes, that was true, she was more supportive by the 1950s of Republicans, but that was only because the only people that would support birth control were the Republicans. By then, the Democrats, a huge part of their constituency were blue-collar Catholics.
Yet one more irony, the one person in Washington who was the most upfront about legal access to birth control was a senator from Connecticut, Prescott Bush, George W. Bush’s grandfather—who lost re-election for sticking his neck out for birth control.
From the cover of your book, here in Boston in 1929, Sanger was on stage with a gag over her mouth.
When you talk about what I’m describing, it is so blatantly unconstitutional. There was a very conservative Catholic mayor, John Curley, that banned her from speaking. She was allowed to visit, but she wasn’t allowed to speak in public throughout the ‘20s. That group, at Ford Hall, they put a gag on her, while someone else read her speech, still technically not saying anything.
That’s just ballsy, I love that.
She was a genius at responding to her critics and her oppressors, especially the Catholic Church. Even her friends would joke that she would be nothing if it wasn’t for the Catholic Church constantly oppressing her. Whenever they did, they were always guaranteeing she would make headlines within a week. She’d always find a very clever way to turn it on its head and throw it right back at them, getting a lot of attention at the same time.
Are you a Boardwalk Empire fan? Are you aware of the Margaret Sanger references in that show?
I started researching Sanger right around the time Boardwalk Empire started. I remember reading about her famous pamphlet that she made right before she left the country, “Family Limitation.” It was always illegal, but she and her friends printed hundreds of thousands of copies. It was like a Tijuana Bible, if you wanted to find one, you could get it somehow.
Right as I was looking at old copies of “Family Limitation,” there was Margaret Schroeder reading it, and using Lysol as a douche. Which is funny, I still keep coming across images and information that I wish I could have included. Now people are outraged, and even Sanger herself, because so many women didn’t dilute the Lysol, many women damaged themselves, and hurt themselves. So she dropped that recommendation from her Family Limitation packet, but Lysol caught wind of the fact that women were using this, so they began to advertise, right up to the 1940s as a feminine hygiene product. There’s tons of hilarious ads, if you Google them. It’s funny, it’s always that women used this to cut down the smell of your private parts, but that was a euphemism, everyone knew the real reason they were using it.
I understand Sanger was arrested many times, is that correct?
Yes, at least 5 or 6 times. It’s tough to say because early on she would go on a speaking tour, she would get arrested right after she spoke or before she spoke. More often than not, they wouldn’t follow through on it. A judge would throw her case out.
Police Chiefs and D.A.s were much more enthusiastic about prosecuting her than judges were. Judges more often were asking, “Why is this person in my courtroom?”
She lived a good long life, even with some health problems and did a ton of traveling and did so much for women, birth control, and planned parenthood. This is great. This is an amazing book!
Thank you so much.
On the cartooning side, I had a couple of observations or questions for you. You really packed in so much information. How did you fit so many actors on a page? That must have been a challenge for you.
The work I’ve been doing for Reason Magazine, I’m now used to shoehorning this information in. I actually made a very deliberate effort to give it more air, to not cram as much information as I had been doing in my Reason pieces.
To me, this is pretty light and airy. (laughs) A lot of times with establishing shots, I very much wanted to fit all of these figures in, especially early on or toward the end, with The Pill team. Everyone she gathered together to create the birth control pill — it was so important to give the readers a hint of who these people are. Mostly because I didn’t want people to think she was operating in some vacuum, that she was there all by herself. These other people, all of them deserve their own comic books, they had amazing lives of their own.
What else do you have coming down the pike? More work for Reason, I’d assume?
Yes, the most recent issue of Reason has an autobiographical piece, “The Death of the Age of Stuff”. Its all about how me and my wife, because of the Internet, we don’t need physical objects anymore. We stream all of the entertainment, so we are trying to unload books, records, movies. Of course no one wants to buy them because everyone is in the same situation as us. We should have sold this stuff 10 years ago. You literally can’t give away a CD anymore. I also talk about how I save money entertaining myself for free with the Internet, it is also how it is hurting me financially. Just like musicians have to tour to make money these days. It is more the less the same with cartoonists. More than ever, I go to comic conventions, and I make better money at comic conventions than I used to, doing sketches, or selling old giclée that I still have. Just like musicians, that’s how I have to make a living these days, just by traveling.
Musicians are selling merch and CDs at their shows.
Yes, otherwise, I have to keep moving.