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Letter to the Editor: Complex histories – Artist weighs in on inclusion of controversial figure

Susan Bielenberg wrote to Our Town expressing her concern about the October 2022 cover photo (Vol. 19 No. 19) featuring my painting of Margaret Sanger, one of the women represented in my October exhibit at Lunaria Gallery, “Portraits of Inspiring Women in the Classical Style.”

I’m very glad Susan wrote. She is correct to object to Margaret Sanger’s involvement in the eugenics movement prevelant in her era of the 1920s, and she correctly states that Planned Parenthood has removed Sanger’s name from its building. 

But I fear Susan is dangerously wrong to conflate abortion with birth control because the current polemics about the overturning of Roe v. Wade are dangerously poised to spill over onto pre-pregnancy birth control. Sanger was not an advocate of abortion. Sanger’s core mission was to prevent unwanted pregnancy with birth control. Planned Parenthood did not offer abortions until they were made legal under Roe v. Wade in 1973. Sanger died seven years earlier in 1966. 

I want to relate why I included Margaret Sanger’s portrait in my paintings of inspiring women, even though my daughter, a Ph.D. in American Studies and professor of history, warned me about the controversies that Susan brought to attention in her letter. It’s very personal: my mother left her five living children (two babies did not live), having been pregnant every year since marriage, and making that decision while stirring spaghetti sauce in the midst suffering a miscarriage of her eighth pregnancy. 

Her desperate departure was devastating to my father and his family and changed all of our lives. I lost my family and “my children.” I was the eldest, and at age four I was tasked with taking care of my siblings. I was called “the little mother.” The result of my mother’s departure was a divorce, in which the two eldest (my sister and I) were given into the custody of my mother, and the youngest (my three brothers) were given to my father. I did not see my brothers again until my mid-twenties. 

I do not want women to ever be in the state of desperation that led my mother to flee, leaving five children, her youngest at age two. I am very grateful for birth control and for Margaret Sanger, whose pursuit of “the Pill” led to the first generation of the one I used as a young woman, a pill that hormonally directs the menstrual cycle and ovulation, and thus prevents an unwanted pregnancy.

For an article that discusses the relationship of Margaret Sanger to eugenics, see “The Published Writings and Speeches of Margaret Sanger, 1911-1959” by The Margaret Sanger Papers Project hosted at New York University (www.nyu.ed/projects/sanger). 

– Ann Shams, Silverton


Our Town’s Facebook page received a comment in response to Susan Bielenberg’s letter that included a link from Reuters Fact Check:


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