Terrible Virtue, by Ellen Feldman, is one of the most directly relevant pieces of historical fiction I’ve read in a long time. I can usually find connections between the news and what I’ve been reading; it’s how my brain works. But I genuinely hope that Terrible Virtue gets a lot of attention when it comes out next month. Feldman’s book is a fictional account of the life and work of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger.
Sanger was one of 13 children in her family. Her mother was constantly sick and worn out caring for her family and, in the nineteenth century, there was nothing to be done to prevent pregnancy for poor women. Sanger’s mother died at 49. There’s little doubt in my mind that Sanger’s early life started her down the road to working in women’s health. Later, she worked as a nurse in poor areas of New York. She grew more and more radical as the years passed. In the years before World War I, Sanger was going up against Anthony Comstock and his campaign against “pornography” to distribute information about contraception and reproductive health. Sanger lived long enough to see the pill become legal.
Terrible Virtue is not formatted like a traditional work of fiction. Sanger is a first person narrator, explaining her ambitions and actions, but we also see rebuttals from the people in her life. The book addresses many of the controversies in Sanger’s life: the accusations about eugenics and racism, stealing credit for other’s work, neglecting her family, and inventing stories to win support for her cause. I love this approach to history. Complexity and nuance are too often left out of history education. Terrible Virtue deftly introduces both. Sanger was far from a saint, but I think we’re sophisticated enough to recognize her achievements and her failures at the same time.
This book also resonated with me because of the parallels between the early days of birth control and 2016, where access to sexual health education, contraception, and abortion are under fire from legislators. (The Guttmacher Institute reported last July that 282 new laws about reproductive health had been passed since 2010, usually restricting access.) In 1916 and in 2016, there is a double-standard when it comes to women’s sexuality. In 1916 and in 2016, women are still stigmatized about their choices to be or not be mothers. I can just imagine that Sanger and other early suffragists and feminists are spinning in their graves when a new law is passed limited women’s access to reproductive health care.
I finished reading this book about five hours ago and I’m still kind of worked up about it. Can you tell? I’m very curious to see what happens when this book hits the shelves. Everything about this book—from subject matter to structure—sets readers up for a serious discussion.
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 22 March 2016.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for all readers, especially American readers who need to be forcibly reminded of the repercussions of Puritanical laws on people’s day-to-day life and health.