Honor for Sanger needs proper context

Margaret Sanger was a racist. Her advocacy of eugenics, the science of eliminating “undesirable” racial and genetic characteristics, was abominable. However, Margaret Sanger was also a leader in women’s rights. She founded Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest organization for providing women with education about reproductive health. Sanger said she wanted to eliminate the class barrier in women’s health care, and to a great extent, she succeeded. The curious dichotomy between these two aspects of Sanger is at the heart of the quarter’s most unexpected campuswide debate.
On Tuesday, the Minnesota Student Association effectively blocked a group of students’ efforts to remove a portrait of Sanger from a wall in Wilson Library. Tom Gromacki, a University student and this fall’s Republican candidate for the Minnesota House of Representatives seat in District 59B, initiated the criticism of Sanger in a letter published in The Minnesota Daily on Oct. 15. There he lambasted Sanger’s involvement in eugenics and called for the removal of Sanger’s portrait and references to her in Boynton Health Service advertising. While it must be noted that Gromacki’s demands came in the midst of his political campaign, he raised valid concerns.
The resulting debate brought to light both the negative and positive aspects of Sanger’s life and beliefs, raising the difficult question: Can we place a public figure in a position of esteem for her honorable accomplishments when she also earned a more dubious notoriety?
Sanger’s portrait hangs innocuously among those of Eleanor Roosevelt, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as part of the “Great minds meet at the Library” exhibit. The portraits, like the figures themselves, represent the boldness to stand for new and different ideas. Margaret Sanger certainly represents all of these qualities in the context of her work in reproductive rights. But Gandhi, King and Roosevelt were never associated with anything quite as nefarious as eugenics.
In understanding historical figures, it is important to know all aspects of their achievements and downfalls. Certainly with our knowledge of eugenics and its horrific use by Nazis during World War II, we do not share Sanger’s view. Acknowledging the darker side of Sanger’s life, like that of Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson, provides us with a more accurate and balanced assessment of her role in American history. It does not, however, negate her positive accomplishments and lasting contributions to society.
The Sanger controversy hinges on the conflict of two important American values: the advocacy of women’s rights and the condemnation of racism. A month ago, very few on this campus were aware of Sanger at all — either as the founder of Planned Parenthood or as a racist eugenicist. The mere presence of her portrait sparked a productive yet complex discussion. Her image should remain in the library and in Boynton advertising because she is remembered primarily for her leadership in women’s rights. But as with all revered historical figures, Sanger should be honored in a specific context; she should not be honored unconditionally.