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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman

Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman
Published by Harper ISBN 978-0-06-240755-9
Hardcover, $25.99, 272 pages

There has been a recent trend of historical novels featuring women many of us don't know much about. Paula McLain's The Paris Wife about Hadley Hemingway, Ernest's first wife, began the trend a few years ago, and some more recent ones include McLain's Circling the Sun (about aviatrix Beryl Markham) and a book I recently loved and reviewed The First Daughter, about Thomas' Jefferson's daughter Patsy. (My review here)

Ellen Feldman's Terrible Virtue tells the story of Margaret Sanger, widely regarded as the woman who helped bring about birth control education for women and the founder of Planned Parenthood. I didn't know much about Sanger, so I was curious to read more about her.

Sanger's mother had thirteen children and her father was an alcoholic who fancied himself a socialist atheist philosopher. Sanger watched her mother give birth year after year and become a shell of a woman, worn out by caring for so many children without any help from her husband.

Margaret was intelligent and thanks to her older sisters who raised enough money, she was able to attend nursing school.  She also became passionate about social justice, as well as men. She had relationships with many men and believed in free love.

Yet she married Bill Sanger and they had three children- two sons and daughter named Peggy. Peggy was diagnosed with polio, a diagnosis Margaret disagreed with, and she refused to let her daughter wear a leg brace.

One day Margaret was asked to speak to some women about health issues, and she began to talk about contraception, which was a forbidden topic at the time. Women were hungry for more information and soon Margaret's talks drew more and more women.

She also drew attention from authorities and Margaret was arrested. Margaret fled the country for Europe, leaving behind her family. When she eventually returned, she devoted so much of her time and energy to the issue of contraception and women's health that her relationship with her husband and children suffered.

The story is told from Margaret's point of view, with some characters- her husband, her son, her sister, her lawyer and others in her life- telling their story in small doses. I think the novel may have been stronger if we heard more of their voices.

It was difficult for me to completely empathize with Margaret. She is, to say the least, a very complicated character. She was a pioneer in women's health, and her determination to help women understand and have access to contraception changed the world for women. So many poor women were trapped, forced year after year to have babies because contraception was not available to them.

But she wasn't a good mother or wife. It's one thing to say that her husband knew what he was getting into with Margaret and her extramarital affairs, but her children didn't deserve to have an absentee mother. They were sent a boarding school that was horrible, and at the end of her life, I wonder how much she regretted not having a better relationship with them.

I recommend Terrible Virtue as it brings to light how difficult life was for women because they didn't have any control over basic health care regarding contraception. The world changed dramatically for women once this happened, and Margaret Sanger was the one who changed it.

Ellen Feldman's website is here.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Ellen Feldman's tour. The rest of Ellen's tour stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, March 22nd: Sara’s Organized Chaos
Wednesday, March 23rd: Doing Dewey
Thursday, March 24th: Bibliotica
Friday, March 25th: Books on the Table
Monday, March 28th: A Literary Vacation
Tuesday, March 29th: Lesa’s Book Critiques
Wednesday, March 30th: bookchickdi
Thursday, March 31st: 5 Minutes For Books
Monday, April 4th: The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Tuesday, April 5th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, April 6th: Ms. Nose in a Book
Thursday, April 7th: Kritters Ramblings
Monday, April 11th: Puddletown Reviews
Tuesday, April 12th: Reading Reality
Wednesday, April 13th: Broken Teepee
Thursday, April 14th: Time 2 Read
Thursday, April 14th: Literary Feline

1 comment:

  1. Margaret seems like a very complicated woman. I'm interested to learn more about her life and work.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.