dramatis personae

08.11.134:45 AM ET

The Cult of Margaret Sanger

A new play is the latest product of a feminist icon’s resurging popularity.

In times of trouble, what better to rally around than an icon? And for women and girls who fear a very particular kind of Trouble-with-a-capital-T, the patron saint of Choice-with-a-capital-C has lately been Margaret Sanger, mother of Planned Parenthood and coiner of the term “birth control.”

A play by Monica Byrne, What Every Girl Should Know, running at the New York International Fringe Festival from August 15–24, takes that sainthood to a new level. Set in a Catholic reformatory in 1914, and taking place entirely inside a bedroom, the play tells the story of four adolescent girls, best friends with a playful penchant for masturbation. When one reveals contraband pamphlets on family planning, taken from her mother’s stash, they pin Sanger’s photo on the wall and form a cult in her honor, praying and writing fantastical letters to their new idol.

The show takes its title from a 12-part series of articles Sanger wrote for the socialist magazine New York Call from December 1912 through March 1913. Writing in relatively blunt terms for the era, she detailed physiological matters from first menses to pregnancy. Her tone is sex-positive, describing the act as precious for man and wife, and decries the “black pall of prudery” that keeps women from knowing their own bodies—and drives them to naively debase themselves. “IGNORANCE OF THE SEX FUNCTIONS,” she writes, “is one of the strongest forces that sends young girls into unclean living.”

The articles came early in Sanger's career, before she devoted herself wholeheartedly to the birth control movement (and before she drew critics for her support of eugenics). But the advice was forward-thinking. “Reading the pamphlet,” says actress Emma Meltzer, who plays the youngest, most naïve character, “it’s horrifying to think about how far we haven’t come.”

Some of the science was still quite fuzzy in Sanger's era, and unlike the protagonists of Byrne’s play, she deems masturbation “perverted.” Still, her message is a beacon of hope for four girls, abandoned in the world, each with a history of sexual abuse. In their fantasies, they travel the globe as an exiled Sanger was doing at the time, frolicking with lovers and assassinating enemies. “They start to get wrapped up in the idea of this world where they have power,” says director Jaki Bradley. “Then they have to deal with the reality which is that, in their day to day lives, they are not powerful.”

The actresses in rehearsal. From left: Danielle Beckmann, C.C. Kellogg, Maggie Raymond, and Emma Meltzer. (Jaki Bradley)

Byrne (no relation to Sanger’s sister and colleague Ethel Byrne) took inspiration for the play in part from the vivid dream world she shared with her friends as a child. The other part was prompted by a friend who said to her one day, “There’s no great work of art dedicated to Margaret Sanger, and I think that’s a shame.”

“Who’s Margaret Sanger?” she asked.

“It’s terrible that you don’t know that,” he said.

Even now, lots of people (feminists included) don’t know much about the birth-control pioneer. But she has found new followers of late as women’s reproductive rights have come under attack. In response to the recent restrictions in Texas, a group of protesters from Planned Parenthood named one of their tour buses “Maggie” in homage to Margaret. And a November, 2011 article by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker drew the lineage from Sanger’s opponents to the loudest pro-life voices in today’s GOP (though Sanger herself did not support abortion—only pregnancy prevention). One historical quote illuminated the unstated truth of what many women feel drives the current attacks: not only valuing the fetus but also policing sexual morality. The judge in Sanger’s 1917 trial said no woman has “the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”

As contemporary Americans look to their foremothers to better understand the cause, a play like What Every Girl Should Know feels perfectly timed. It’s historical but vibrant, full of the young actresses’ mischievous energy and emotionally heightened dance reveries to the music of Amanda Palmer. They take great joy in their sacrifices to Margaret Sanger, which includes absinthe poured into a diaphragm. They take even more joy in each other’s friendship. Just as in Sanger’s writing, the play is all about “the world that is possible when young women have information about and control over their bodies,” says Bradley, “and then the consequences when they don’t.” And, as for the women of Sanger’s era (not to mention the women of today), there are consequences for the girls of the reformatory.

“It’s a little disappointing,” Bradley says, “that 99 years after Margaret Sanger was advocating for birth control information distribution, we’re still having this conversation, and it’s still controversial, and very much in the forefront of the discussion. That being said, we’re also thrilled to be working on a piece that we feel is important and topical.”