All Maggie Louise Higgins knew growing up was cleaning and childcare. Her mother, Anne, already frail from recurring flares of tuberculosis, was always pregnant; out of 18 pregnancies, 11 were live births, though not all of her children made it to adulthood. The house was always filthy, diapers always needed washing, children always needed feeding. The family fretted constantly whether Anne would survive childbirth.
Maggie, whom the world would eventually come to know as Margaret Sanger, always wanted more than a life of drudgery and childbirth. There were few options for girls as the nineteenth century drew to a close, especially poor ones. The older Sanger girls each had dreams of an education, only to have those dreams dashed as the family’s economic realities weighed down on them. The family then lay their hopes on Maggie, outspoken and intelligent, and pooled their meager resources to try to send her to school. At the very least, maybe she could be a teacher one day.
But Maggie didn’t want to be a teacher. She didn’t exactly know what she wanted, but she knew that she didn’t want to be stuck in the narrow confines of what was allowed of women of the era.
J. Albert Mann’s fictionalized account of Sanger’s life, geared towards a young adult audience, focuses on these early formative years. The Sanger people are familiar with — the fight for birth control, challenges to the Comstock laws, etc. — are nowhere to be found in this novel. Instead, readers get to know about the agonies of growing up in poverty, wondering if this pregnancy was the one that would finally kill her mother. Wondering if her father — quite the talker — would ever do more with his charisma and actually help the family move forward. Wondering if she really would get stuck being married and always pregnant, or become a teacher and still be around kids all day. Her early years are tedious and dreary, with few sprinkles of excitement, and the book reflects that.
Some readers might be disappointed in this, considering all the rich source material that could have been mined from Sanger’s life. I was kind of on the fence about that. On one hand, I kind of agree: she’s a controversial figurehead in women’s history, and the book doesn’t touch on any of that, save for a short author’s note at the end that lists her accomplishments and touches on one of the bigger controversies of her legacy: her stance on eugenics. If a young person doesn’t know anything about her or about the history of birth control, they won’t pick up any of that history from the book. And if you don’t know anything about her later years, the significance of her early years is kind of lost, and you have a book about one of countless young women struggling with poverty and their place in society.
But ultimately, I enjoyed the book. The pace is slow and measured, but the writing flows beautifully. The research is woven in seamlessly; you never feel like you’re reading a history book. The book’s strength is situating its readers in a reality that many young girls would now find inconceivable. Those who do have even a passing familiarity with Sanger’s history gain more context on how and why she became the person she did.
What Every Girl Should Know was released in February 2019 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.