Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman: A Review

Two words describe Ellen Feldman’s historical fiction novel about Margaret Sanger: Relevant and controversial. Margaret Sanger fought a fight for the good of downtrodden women, all the while leading a personal life open to question.

It is well known that American women had few rights in 1900. Because of social convention, fears of pregnancy hovered over them like dark clouds. Margaret Sanger, intent on improving her own position in society, and mourning the state of her own mother (who gave birth to thirteen children), eventually devoted herself to the cause of legalizing contraception. Eager to bettering lives of women faced with unwanted pregnancies, abortion, and shame, she played a pivotal role in legalizing birth control for women. Her mission: To give women of all economic levels access to birth control in the United States. This trailblazer was accused of muddying the waters and met opposition by:

  • Imprisonment
  • Court cases
  • Exile to England
  • Journalistic censure

In Sanger’s voice, Feldman addresses the common criticisms leveled against the feminist and mother of the birth control movement. She focuses a lens on Margaret Sanger’s enigmatic personal life. Sanger, one of thirteen siblings, mourned her mother’s premature death. The daughter of an alcoholic father, she married with trepidation. A trained nurse, she suffered from tuberculosis. Frightened of the responsibility, Sanger became a wife and mother. She broke sexual taboos and struggled with family responsibility. She triumphed in the establishment of Planned Parenthood, but sacrificed her family. Her life ended in heartbreak and isolation.

Historically accurate, the book hinges on a first person narrative by Sanger, which downplays the events surrounding the birth control movement in favor of her personal agenda. Pocket narratives by her children and husbands fill in detail. If the reader can move past Sanger’s self-focused aggrandizement, he will cheer, chide and salute the strides made for the female sex. On the cusp of Planned Parenthood’s centennial in October 2016, Miss Feldman successfully navigates the controversy over the pioneer who sacrificed personally for the good of all women.

The title stems from a Margaret Sanger quote from 1914:

“It is only rebel woman, when she gets out of the habits imposed on her by bourgeois convention, who can do some deed of terrible virtue.”

Harper Collins supplied an advance review copy for my unbiased opinion.