Margaret Higgins Sanger grew up in a small town in New York (Corning), and in Terrible Virtue, the fictionalized tale of her life and her quest, we come to understand more about what drove her.

A hard-drinking father and a worn-out mother who had given birth to thirteen children would set the stage for the pursuits she followed. Escape from the small town life and from the destiny she would face if she chose to follow her mother’s path, Margaret’s obsession to help women choose when and how many children to have kept her outside the norm in many ways.

For in the early twentieth century, birth control was still illegal, and only the wealthy had the privilege of finding ways around the laws.

When Margaret began her nursing career, she also launched her studies of contraception, and set out to enlist those who could aid in her research and help her bring the knowledge to those who were downtrodden and impoverished.

Along the way, she met and married Bill Sanger, they had a brief time as an “ordinary” couple, and they had three children…but Margaret’s overriding passion would take her away from her husband and children on a regular basis.

Not only did she have a passion for her work, she was drawn regularly into sexual liasons, which set her apart from those around her as well. Her path crossed with the thinkers of the day, some of whom were also passionate about sexual quests. We see her meet up with John Reed, Emma Goldman, and ultimately, Havelock Ellis, who some would say was the love of her life.

How would Margaret reconcile her work with her family life? How would her losses fuel her passions? Would jail and fighting the establishment stop her, or spur her on? And how would one loss continually haunt her?

Narrated in Margaret’s first person voice, hers is joined by the occasional letters and thoughts of others, rounding out the tale for the reader. I could not put this book down, and while I thought I knew a bit about the movement, now I know a lot more.

These stories take me back to my own early days, after the pill and Planned Parenthood. In the 70s, volunteering in a clinic, there was still so much more to be done. We counseled women and girls in rooms no larger than a bathroom. I remember putting my clipboard across the sink while I filled in forms. We have come a long way! But even now, there are those who would take away some of our rights. Let us not forget the long hard journey. 5.0 stars.


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