Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story
At first thought, the biography seems like an easy format to do as a comic. Just portray the family and background, select some key incidents, and you’re done. Except when you’re telling the story of Margaret Sanger, birth-control pioneer. Her life was so unique, fiery, and jam-packed with events that it’s hard to summarize it. Woman Rebel is a stunning read, an inspiring look back at a fight against ignorance and for women’s self-determination. Plus, author Peter Bagge made the great choice to fill in more details with an extensive end-note section that reinforces his research and the many points of interest in Sanger’s life.
Margaret Sanger was one of 11 living children of an Irish Catholic and a socialist artisan. From an early age, she was outspoken, opinionated, and able to convince others through her determined willpower. She became a nurse, and although she married a handsome architect, she also continued taking lovers. That was the part of her story that was most surprising to me, since most biographies don’t talk about free love and the resulting assignations, including one with H.G. Wells — and yet, it made perfect sense, given her spirit and honesty and focus on being herself. Knowing her background also puts her quest in better context.
Sanger went back to work in spite of having three kids, where she saw how unrestrained fertility ruined poor women’s lives. Her experiences drove her growing political consciousness and convinced her to share contraceptive knowledge in spite of it being illegal. She made connections among the well-to-do, gave speeches, wrote columns and books, and even went to jail. Although some were put off by her radicalism, her independence inspired others, eventually leading to the founding of Planned Parenthood.
I worried at first that Bagge’s loose, curvy-limbed style wouldn’t quite fit the content here, but it’s a great match, humanizing the figures and working well with the period hats and other trappings. His style universalizes everyone, so even though the story starts in the 1880s, we can relate to their fears and struggles. His extensive notes add a lot of necessary context, including addressing the questions of whether Sanger supported the eugenics movement and the time she spoke to a gathering of Klan women, as well as listing his sources.
Many modern readers won’t have previously thought about how much hard work and suffering Margaret Sanger had to go through in order to bring sexual freedom to women. Woman Rebel is an eye-opening, entertaining read. (The publisher provided a review copy.)