Given the current political climate — with a huge abortion access case before Supreme Court, a presidential candidate proposing women be punished for having abortions, and people still in a frenzy over last year’s “sting” videos that were doctored to make Planned Parenthood look as bad as possible — the publication of Ellen Feldman’s Terrible Virtue couldn’t be more timely.
The book is a fictional reimagining of Margaret Sanger’s life. Born into poverty, her father an outspoken atheist and her mother an Irish Catholic, Sanger saw firsthand the toll that constant childbearing had on families. Her own mother died at the age of 49, frail and aged beyond her years after eleven successful pregnancies; she also had several miscarriages. In Feldman’s book, Margaret and two of her sisters vow never to marry or have children. They do not want to end up like their mother.
That didn’t happen — Margaret went on to get married and pregnant — but figuring out a way to empower women by educating them about their bodies always remained her central focus. At a time when women’s suffrage was still a fight to be won, Margaret thought that having total control over whether or not to become pregnant was what would lead to women’s freedom.
Margaret Sanger was a flawed and fascinating woman, and Feldman does a great job of bringing all of her contradictions to life. Most of the book is told from Margaret’s point of view, but other important figures in her life occasionally interject themselves into the narrative to discuss the hurt she caused them.
As a character, Margaret lacked some of the emotional depth I want in fiction; she’s pretty guarded when discussing her daughter, and when she’s not talking about birth control, her recollections feel almost indifferent. My main gripe was Feldman’s handling of Sanger’s support of eugenics. It was added almost as an afterthought towards the end of the book, with Sanger lamenting past missteps. It felt too tidily handled, particularly because that’s one of the first things the anti-Planned Parenthood crowd trots out in their protest of the organization. The reality is not so black and white, and that could have added an interesting layer of complexity to the fairly straightforward narrative.
And yet? I honestly couldn’t put the book down. There’s something irresistible about it, probably because the battle for reproductive rights is far from over, and even though the book is set almost a century ago, its subject matter retains its relevance.
Terrible Virtue was released on March 22, 2016 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book is on tour right now, so be sure to check out what other bloggers are saying about it.