Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, is the author of five previous novels, including Scottsboro, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and Next to Love. Now, she takes on the story of Margaret Sanger, the woman who fought so hard for birth control for all classes of women, and was the founder of Planned Parenthood. Terrible Virtue is a disturbing novel no matter how you feel about Sanger's actions.
Sanger was the daughter of a hard-drinking free thinker, and a mother who was worn down by giving birth to thirteen children. Margaret Sanger's entire life was affected by her youth. She took after her father in her political stances, and fought so that women would not have the same life as her mother did, dying at fifty. The Higgins sisters agreed they wouldn't marry and turn into their mother. Margaret and her sister, Edith, went to nursing school. But, Margaret ended up quitting school after marrying Bill Sanger and getting pregnant. Her comment about her marriage. "His love filled the hole my childhood had carved out of me."
Feldman's entire novel is about Sanger fighting the opposing forces within her. Although Sanger tells her story of her fight for all women to have access to affordable contraception, her fight against the Comstack laws, and the U.S. government, their are other voices represented in the story. Her husbands, the men who loved her, the children who were desperate for her attention, the sister who lived in Margaret's shadow, all voiced their opinion of Margaret, and it's those voices who paint a picture of a woman who was not a saint. She was single-minded when it came to fighting for women's rights for birth control, and she used all of her wiles and skills, fighting in court, fighting with publicity, to gain those rights. At the same time, she left behind the people who loved her, and her affairs were frequent and short-lived. And, one of her sons, in his letter, said, "People got hurt, Mother."
While Feldman shows Margaret Sanger as a woman whose personality was a dichotomy, the book will leave readers feeling of two minds about her as well. On one hand, she was a woman who spent her entire life fighting for access to birth control for all women. On the other hand, history shows that she supported eugenics. And, the novel shows her as a woman who talked about love of her children, and left them behind in her campaign. Feldman also shows her as someone who had sex with any man at the drop of a hat.
Terrible Virtue was an educational, informative novel. But, it was also a sad story of a woman who achieved her goals, achieved success for all women. But, at what cost to her own family and those who loved her?
Ellen Feldman's website is www.ellenfeldman.com
Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman. HarperCollins. 2016. ISBN 9780062407559 (hardcover), 272p.
FTC Full Disclosure - I received the book to participate in the TLC Book Tour.