Gloria Steinem Says Her Medal of Freedom Will Honor 'Work of Margaret Sanger’

Penny Starr | November 18, 2013 | 4:34pm EST
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Gloria Steinem at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. ( Starr)

( – Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Monday, feminist Gloria Steinem said that she hoped that her receiving of the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama would be “honoring the work of Margaret Sanger.”

Sanger was an advocate of both birth control and eugenics.

“I hope this is retroactive in honoring the work of Margaret Sanger,” said Steinem about the woman who founded what would become Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the largest abortion provider in the United States.

“I hope that she would celebrate this recognition that reproductive freedom is a human right at least as crucial as freedom of speech and that no government should dictate whether or when we have children,” Steinem said.

In her remarks Steinem said that “the power of this honor may be even more evident in the withholding than in the giving,” noting that Sanger never got the medal.

“I was reminded by Ellen Chesler, biography of Margaret Sanger, that President Lyndon Johnson, even as he signed the first federal and international family planning act into law, refused to bestow the metal of freedom on Sanger,” Steinem said. “He feared reprisal from the Catholic Church.

“Ellen told me that when she looked at Sanger’s private history papers at Smith College – I’m proud to say the biggest archive of women history – she found a poignant little hand-written note from Sanger, asking that her body be buried here next to her husband but that her heart be removed to Japan – the only country in the world that had every bestowed a public honor on her,” Steinem said.

Sanger advocated birth control in part because she believed it was one way to stop the "unfit" from breeding.

“As an advocate of birth control, I wish to take advantage of the present opportunity to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit,’ admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes,” Sanger wrote in an article entitled "The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda," which appeared in the October 1921 edition of Birth Control Review.

“In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation to the mentally and physically fit though less fertile parents of the educated and well-to-do classes,” she wrote. “On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.

“Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism,” she said.

Steinem is one of 15 people who Obama picked as medal recipients, including President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, former Sen. Richard Lugar and astronaut Sally Ride.

“The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours,” Obama said when he announced the recipients in August. “This year’s honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world.

“It will be my honor to present them with a token of our nation’s gratitude,” Obama said.

When President John F. Kennedy issued the executive order in 1963 establishing the award, it stated that is should be given to people who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

As an activist for the women’s movement, Steinem, who founded Ms. Magazine, has championed abortion on demand, sex education in schools and gay marriage. She also has advocated for equal pay for women and women being paid for all work, including housework.

Steinem praised Obama in her Press Club remarks, saying that no president understands “reproductive freedom” like he does.

“There’s no president in history from whose hand I would be more honored to receive this medal,” Steinem said.

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