Friday, May 27, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Margaret Sanger, The Children's Era

Her convictions about the need for birth control resulted in all sorts of efforts to silence Margaret Sanger, from arrest to taking her name off the program. But her speaking, and speaking out, continued over more than a half century. One of 11 children in her own family and trained as a nurse, Margaret Sanger worked with poor families in New York City's East Side slums, where mothers begged her for ways to control unwanted pregnancies. She began a lifelong research effort into methods for birth control--a term she is credited with creating.

Sanger first used a newsletter to spread the word about her findings and views, and was arrested and indicted for sending obscene material via the mail. Her speaking career began after those charges were dismissed, in 1916. By the 1920s, she was traveling to spread the word internationally and opening clinics to record women's medical histories and distribute information about birth control, the precusor of the International Planned Parenthood Federation she later founded.

Her 1925 speech, The Children's Era, addressed the results of overpopulation and a lack of birth control options: Children who were "unwelcome, unwanted, unprepared for, unknown," with poor health, hunger, abandonment and abysmal living conditions. It's a spirited speech. After asking why so little progress had been made in helping children, despite good intentions and philanthropy, she used this analogy to answer:
Before you can cultivate a garden, you must know something about gardening. You have got to give your seeds a proper soil in which to grow. You have got to give them sunlight and fresh air. You have got to give them space and the opportunity (if they are to lift their flowers to the sun), to strike their roots deep into that soil. And always -- do not forget this -- you have got to fight weeds. You cannot have a garden, if you let weeds overrun it. So, if we want to make this world a garden for children, we must first of all learn the lesson of the gardener. So far we have not been gardeners.
Later in the speech, she answers critics of the birth control movement, noting how they use subtle but sexist comments to attempt to sideline her:
When we protest against this immeasurable, meaningless waste of motherhood and child-life; when we protest against the ever-mounting cost to the world of asylums, prisons, homes for the feeble-minded, and such institutions for the unfit, when we protest against the disorder and chaos and tragedy of modern life, when we point out the biological corruption that is destroying the very heart of American life, we are told that we are making merely an "emotional" appeal. 
Just two years after this successful speech, Sanger organized and spoke at the first World Population Conference in Geneva--and ran up against a stunning effort to discourage her work by erasing all public acknowledgement of women's role in the conference:
Despite almost single-handedly putting the conference together, Sanger was asked by Sir Bernard Mallet, president of Britain's Royal Statistical Society and conference chairman, to remove her name and those of her (female) assistants from the official program on the grounds that "the names of the workers should not be included on scientific programs." Despite Sanger's insistence that all of the women involved were as much participants as the scientists on the program, and even a protest strike by the clerical staff, Sanger realized the intensity of the opposition she faced. To salvage the conference, she convinced her assistants to accept the situation and allowed the program to be printed without mention of the women's names (including her own).
Here's what you can learn from Sanger's 1925 speech:
  • Alliteration helps you make a compact, memorable message:  Describing the children as "unwelcome, unwanted, unprepared for, unknown" helped Sanger and her listeners recall those words, and underscored the negative conditions into which they were born.
  • Focusing on the children helped her make the case for the mothers:  Knowing women would be blamed for their conditions and the repeated pregancies they faced, Sanger appealed to her audiences -- audiences she hoped would supply funding and political clout to change anti-birth control laws -- using the stories of children to unite her listeners and forge support for the services for mothers. It's a tactic still in use today.
  • Analogies help persuade and create images in the mind's eye:  From comparing her listeners as poor gardeners, or when describing the chaos of social services as a busy train station, Sanger made analogies a frequent tool in this and other speeches. As a result, she was able to summarize complex policies and social concepts in ways any listener could appreciate, and later repeat.
What do you think of Sanger's speech? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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