A zippy and rousing graphic biography tells the story of the activist who fought to legalise birth control in America
Last year was a good one for feminism, so I thought I'd begin 2014 with a review of Woman Rebel, a zippy and rousing graphic biography of Margaret Sanger, the American birth-control campaigner, by Peter Bagge, a Harvey award-winning comics writer (let's start as we mean to go on).
In a work of tremendous concision and vigour, Bagge crams this long and controversial life – Sanger was born in 1879 and died in 1966 – into just 80 pages; sometimes, the story rushes along at such a pace, a single frame will contain as many as six, even eight, speech bubbles. But while Bagge is clearly on Sanger's side, admiring of her pluck, determination and wildness (she had an open second marriage, counted HG Wells among her lovers and continued to enjoy a sex life well into old age), he acknowledges that she could be disagreeable, selfish and glory-seeking. This is important, for it was surely her flaws just as much as her virtues that kept her going when the struggle to make birth control legal seemed as though it would never be won.
Sanger's background was hardscrabble. Her mother, who passed her TB on to her daughter, had 18 pregnancies; her father was a carver of headstones whose income was barely enough to keep his huge family. Sanger escaped, marrying a malcontent architect, William Sanger, with whom she had three children.
But this relationship turned out to be another kind of a trap and it wasn't long before she was working as a nurse, visiting patients in New York's more deprived tenements. This, in turn, led her to activism, campaigns that often saw her locked up. It was shortly after her return from a period on the run – she escaped to London, where she met Wells and the psychologist Havelock Ellis – that her daughter, Peggy, fell ill and died. Sanger was devastated, but used the public sympathy provoked by her loss to good effect, exploiting it with more public speaking. In 1916, she opened America's first birth-control clinic, in Brooklyn.
Bagge is brilliantly economical. The years pass and you hardly notice. I love the scene in which Sanger uses her "gynoplaque" (a plastic replica of the female sex organs) to demonstrate contraceptive techniques to a Ku Klux Klan women's auxiliary meeting, only for one of the audience to ask: "What's a vagina?" (She had been advised not to speak to the KKK, but she was determined that all woman have access to information about their bodies.)
Ditto the encounter with Havelock Ellis, played for laughs when she offers to satisfy a sexual fetish of his. And then there are the poignant final pages, when she is an older woman, her work done (though the federal obscenity laws that effectively outlawed contraception were not finally overturned until 1970). In a combative television interview, she crumbles and winds up showing her interlocutor pictures of her grandchildren, an act that would have appalled her younger self. Bagge pictures her (once abandoned) son with his head in his hands, unable to watch. But perhaps his horror is braided with a thread of relief. No man wants to be orphaned by a cause, not even a very good one.