The Materials of the New Race

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The Materials of the New Race

Book excerpt

By: Margaret Sanger

Date: 1920

Source: Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race. New York: Bretano's, 1920.

About the Author: Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) was a nurse who fought for public access to information on contraception in the early part of the twentieth century. Her efforts to disseminate birth control information led to her repeated arrest for violating the Comstock Law in the United States. She helped to found Planned Parenthood, an organization that helps provide health and gynecological care for women in the United States.


The forces of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration combined in the early decades of the twentieth century to create social conditions for families in inner cities that were, at times, unbearable and deadly. With infant mortality rates as high as twenty percent for children under the age of five, reformers such as Lillian Wald of Henry Street, Jane Addams of Hull House, and Florence Kelley fought to change the social and policy conditions that fed into child mortality and poverty.

Margaret Sanger was a middle class, married woman with three children, one of whom died in childhood. She began working as a nurse in the Lower East Side of New York City in the early 1900s; as part of the Progressive Era reform movement, Sanger represented the well-educated, white middle class women who sought to help poor, immigrant, and minority women to assimilate into American culture and to fight against infectious disease, poverty, and high rates of child mortality.

Sanger viewed the lack of family planning options for families to be the single greatest social problems facing all families—upper, middle, and lower class. If families could not choose the timing and the pacing of their children, she argued, then they could not reduce or eliminate the social conditions that fed into the cycles of poverty, disease, and neglect so readily apparent in tenements and slums in the inner cities.

In addition, Sanger argued that when poor women were forced to work in factories and experience eight, ten, twelve, or more pregnancies in their lifetime, the nutritional and health toll on their bodies was so great that the next generation experienced a negative impact; in Sanger's words, "In the United States, some 300,000 children under one year of age die each twelve months. Approximately ninety percent of these deaths are directly or indirectly due to malnutrition, to other diseased conditions resulting from poverty, or to excessive childbearing by the mother."

In the following essay, from her book Woman and the New Race, Sanger focuses on the experience of the poorest sectors in American society, their affect on the culture, and the development of a "new race."


Each of us has an ideal of what the American of the future should be. We have been told times without number that out of the mixture of stocks, the intermingling of ideas and aspirations, there is to come a race greater than any which has contributed to the population of the United States. What is the basis for this hope that is so generally indulged in? If the hope is founded upon realities, how may it be realized? To understand the difficulties and the obstacles to be overcome before the dream of a greater race in America can be attained, is to understand something of the task before the women who shall give birth to that race.

What material is there for a greater American race? What elements make up our present millions? Where do they live? How do they live? In what direction does our national civilization bend their ideals? What is the effect of the "melting pot" upon the foreigner, once he begins to "melt?"

Are we now producing a freer, juster, more intelligent, more idealistic, creative people out of the varied ingredients here?

Before we can answer these questions, we must consider briefly the races which have contributed to American population.

Among our more than 100,000,000 population are Negroes, Indians, Chinese and other colored people to the number of 11,000,000. There are also 14,500,000 persons of foreign birth. Besides these there are 14,000,000 children of foreign-born parents and 6,500,000 persons whose fathers or mothers were born on foreign soil, making a total of 46,000,000 people of foreign stock. Fifty percent of our population is of the native white strain.

Of the foreign stock in the United States, the last general census, compiled in 1910, shows that 25.7 percent was German, fourteen percent was Irish, 8.5 percent was Russian or Finnish, 7.2 was English, 6.5 percent Italian and 6.2 percent Austrian. The Abstract of the same census points out several significant facts. The Western European strains in this country are represented by a majority of native-born children of foreign-born or mixed parentage. This is because the immigration from those sources has been checked. On the other hand, immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, including Russia and Finland, increased 175.4 percent from 1900 to 1910. During that period, the slums of Europe dumped their submerged inhabitants into America at a rate almost double that of the preceding decade, and the flow was still increasing at the time the census was taken. So it is more than likely that when the next census is taken it will be found that following 1910 there was an even greater flow from Spain, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Russia, Finland, and other countries where the iron hand of economic and political tyrannies had crushed great populations into ignorance and want. These peoples have not been in the United States long enough to produce great families. The census of 1920 will in all probability tell a story of a greater and more serious problem than did the last….

That these foreigners who have come in hordes have brought with them their ignorance of hygiene and modern ways of living and that they are handicapped by religious superstitions is only too true. But they also bring in their hearts a desire for freedom from all the tyrannies that afflict the earth. They would not be here if they did not bear within them the hardihood of pioneers, a courage of no mean order. They have the simple faith that in America they will find equality, liberty and an opportunity for a decent livelihood. And they have something else. The cell plasms of these peoples are freighted with the potentialities of the best in Old World civilization. They come from lands rich in the traditions of courage, of art, music, letters, science and philosophy. Americans no longer consider themselves cultured unless they have journeyed to these lands to find access to the treasures created by men and women of this same blood. The immigrant brings the possibilities of all these things to our shores, but where is the opportunity to reproduce in the New World the cultures of the old?

What opportunities have we given to these peoples to enrich our civilization? We have greeted them as "a lot of ignorant foreigners," we have shouted at, bustled and kicked them. Our industries have taken advantage of their ignorance of the country's ways to take their toil in mills and mines and factories at starvation wages. We have herded them into slums to become diseased, to become social burdens or to die. We have huddled them together like rabbits to multiply their numbers and their misery. Instead of saying that we Americanize them, we should confess that we animalize them. The only freedom we seem to have given them is the freedom to make heavier and more secure their chains. What hope is there for racial progress in this human material, treated more carelessly and brutally than the cheapest factory product?

Nor are all our social handicaps bound up in the immigrant.

There were in the United States, when the Federal Industrial Relations Committee finished its work in 1915, several million migratory workers, most of them white, many of them married but separated from their families, who were compelled, like themselves, to struggle with dire want.

There were in 1910 more than 2,353,000 tenant farmers, two-thirds of whom lived and worked under the terrible conditions which the Industrial Relations Commission's report showed to prevail in the South and Southwest. These tenant farmers, as the report showed, were always in want, and were compelled by the very terms of the prevailing tenant contracts to produce children who must go to the fields and do the work of adults. The census proved that this tenancy was on the increase, the number of tenants in all but the New England and Middle Atlantic States having increased approximately thirty percent from 1900 to 1910.

Moreover, there were in the United States in 1910, 5,516,163 illiterates. Of these 1,378,884 were of pure native white stock. In some states in the South as much as twenty-nine percent of the population is illiterate, many of these, of course, being Negroes.

There is still another factor to be considered—a factor which because of its great scope is more ominous than any yet mentioned. This is the underpaid mass of workers in the United States—workers whose low wages are forcing them deeper into want each day. Let Senator Borah, not a radical nor even a reformer, but a leader of the Republican party, tell the story. "Fifty-seven percent of the families in the United States have incomes of $800 or less," said he in a speech before the Senate, August 24, 1917. "Seventy percent of the families of our country have incomes of $1,000 or less. Tell me how a man so situated can have shelter for his family; how he can provide food and clothing. He is an industrial peon. His home is scant and pinched beyond the power of language to tell. He sees his wife and children on the ragged edge of hunger from week to week and month to month. If sickness comes, he faces suicide or crime. He cannot educate his children; he cannot fit them for citizenship; he cannot even fit them as soldiers to die for their country.

"It is the tragedy of our whole national life—how these people live in such times as these. We have not yet gathered the fruits of such an industrial condition in this country. We have been saved thus far by reason of the newness of our national life, our vast public lands now almost exhausted, our great natural resources now fast being seized and held, but the hour of reckoning will come."

Senator Borah was thinking, doubtless, of open revolution, of bloodshed and the destruction of property. In a far more terrible sense, the reckoning which he has referred to is already upon us. The ills we suffer as the result of the conditions now prevailing in the United States are appalling in their sum….

A few scattered statistics lack the power to reflect the broken lives of overworked fathers, the ceaseless, increasing pain of overburdened mothers and the agony of childhood fighting its way against the handicaps of ill health, insufficient food, inadequate training and stifling toil.

Can we expect to remedy this situation by dismissing the problem of the submerged native elements with legislative palliatives or treating it with careless scorn? Do we better it by driving out of the immigrant's heart the dream of liberty that brought him to our shores? Do we solve the problem by giving him, instead of an opportunity to develop his own culture, low wages, a home in the slums and those pseudo-patriotic preachments which constitute our machine-made "Americanization?"

Every detail of this sordid situation means a problem that must be solved before we can even clear the way for a greater race in America. Nor is there any hope of solving any of these problems if we continue to attack them in the usual way.

Men have sentimentalized about them and legislated upon them. They have denounced them and they have applied reforms. But it has all been ridiculously, cruelly futile.

This is the condition of things for which those stand who demand more and more children. Each child born under such conditions but makes them worse—each child in its own person suffers the consequence of the intensified evils.

If we are to develop in America a new race with a racial soul, we must keep the birth rate within the scope of our ability to understand as well as to educate. We must not encourage reproduction beyond our capacity to assimilate our numbers so as to make the coming generation into such physically fit, mentally capable, socially alert individuals as are the ideal of a democracy.

The intelligence of a people is of slow evolutional development—it lags far behind the reproductive ability. It is far too slow to cope with conditions created by an increasing population, unless that increase is carefully regulated.

We must, therefore, not permit an increase in population that we are not prepared to care for to the best advantage—that we are not prepared to do justice to, educationally and economically. We must popularize birth control thinking. We must not leave it haphazardly to be the privilege of the already privileged. We must put this means of freedom and growth into the hands of the masses.

We must set motherhood free. We must give the foreign and submerged mother knowledge that will enable her to prevent bringing to birth children she does not want. We know that in each of these submerged and semi-submerged elements of the population there are rich factors of racial culture. Motherhood is the channel through which these cultures flow. Motherhood, when free to choose the father, free to choose the time and the number of children who shall result from the union, automatically works in wondrous ways. It refuses to bring forth weaklings; refuses to bring forth slaves; refuses to bear children who must live under the conditions described. It withholds the unfit, brings forth the fit; brings few children into homes where there is not sufficient to provide for them. Instinctively it avoids all those things which multiply racial handicaps. Under such circumstances we can hope that the "melting pot" will refine. We shall see that it will save the precious metals of racial culture, fused into an amalgam of physical perfection, mental strength and spiritual progress. Such an American race, containing the best of all racial elements, could give to the world a vision and a leadership beyond our present imagination.


Sanger's attitude toward the new immigrants—largely from southern and eastern Europe and mainly Jewish—reflected the beliefs of many Progressive Era reformers of her time. Americans regarded the new immigrants—who were mostly poor and uneducated, fleeing anti-Jewish pogroms and prejudice—as the cause of the squalor in the slums of the inner city.

Progressive Era reformers, however, viewed immigrants as ignorant, but educable. Through programs at settlement houses where immigrants could learn English, American customs, and basic home economics and household skills, progressive era reformers believed that these new immigrants could assimilate into American culture, changing the shape of society. Sanger found that whether a family was "native" or "immigrant" meant little if they were poor; the lack of birth control options coupled with the need for many poor mothers to work sixty to eighty hours a week in factories with poor working conditions led to the premature death of the mother, children with health problems, and the ongoing cycle forcing older children into the factories without benefit of ever receiving an education. Birth control, Sanger asserted, would give men and women control over their bodies, their families, and their personal circumstances.

The "new race" Sanger envisions incorporates the best of native and immigrant traits. Some modern critics have accused Sanger of espousing eugenics as a positive force in society; Sanger did promote voluntary sterilization, immigration restrictions against diseased or "enfeebled" immigrants, and strict controls on criminals, drug addicts, and some people with mental challenges. At the same time, her work in making birth control available to all women focused on universal access, to help families to accomplish the peace and progress that they, and progressive reformers, sought in society.



Chambers, John Whiteclay. The Tyranny of Change: America in the Progressive Era, 1890–1920. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Friedman-Kasaba, Kathie. Memories of Migration: Gender, Ethnicity, and Work in the Lives of Jewish and Italian Women in New York, 1870–1924. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Sanger, Margaret. The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004.

――――――. The Selected papers of Margaret Sanger. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Wald, Lillian. The House on Henry Street. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915.

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The Materials of the New Race

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