Terrible Virtue

Written by Ellen Feldman
Review by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Ellen Feldman’s sixth novel focuses on the life of birth control crusader Margaret Sanger. The title comes from a Sanger quote: “It is only rebel woman, when she gets out of the habits imposed on her by bourgeois convention, who can do some deed of terrible virtue.” Like the paradox of the phrase “terrible virtue,” the life of Margaret Sanger, as presented by Feldman, is an enigma: a mother who loves, yet virtually abandons her children; a woman who is offended by masturbation but not by the concept of “free love” within a marriage; a woman who claims affinity with the socialist/worker movement, but consorts with the wealthy in order to procure donations and support. Feldman gives us a flesh-and-blood Sanger, complete with inconsistencies, flaws, and dogged determination and courage.

Told in the first person, with other voices interspersed periodically, the story lets readers see the motivations and the good Sanger does, alongside the harm she causes to those closest to her. Sanger’s childhood is the source of her fervor to give women choices regarding pregnancy. Her mother gave birth to fourteen babies, losing two and suffering several miscarriages. She died at 39. Her father, a hard-drinking firebrand who preaches free thinking in every barroom in Corning, NY, is not much help for the family. Luckily for Margaret, her two older sisters pay for her to attend nursing school. Here, she meets her first love, Bill Sanger, who teaches her about the use of French letters, or condoms. She notices wealthy ladies “on the hill” have few children. As a practicing nurse in poor areas, she sees firsthand the atrocities women commit on their own bodies to rid themselves of the 14th or 15th child.

Sensitive and tough, brutally honest and yet filled with grief, this novel will leave the reader still pondering long after the last page has been turned.