Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Bookish Thoughts: Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman

Once, on a train going God knows where, to give still another speech, I awakened in the middle of the night nauseated. ~ Opening of Terrible Virtue



Terrible Virture by Ellen Feldman
Harper, 2016
Fiction (Historical); 272 pgs

Terrible Virtue is coming out at a time when it is needed most. Women's health rights are being brought into question--and I do not just mean on the abortion front. Whether you are for or against abortion, or fall somewhere in between, the reality is women have had to fight every step of the way to gain some control over their own lives throughout history, including the use of contraceptives. As I write this review, the California Senate has passed a law allowing birth control to be distributed without a doctor's prescription. The law is not without its opponents, to be sure. But I imagine Margaret Sanger would be smiling from ear to ear, maybe even dancing for joy.

There was a time when the law (the Comstock Laws) limited and prohibited the sale and advertisement of contraceptives. Just to talk about them was not only considered indecent but was illegal as well. Not only was it considered lewd and immoral, but it was also seen as promoting promiscuity (some would say this is true still today). With the changing times came the women's suffragist movement in which women began to ask for the right to vote. They wanted to be heard, and rightfully so. Along with that came women like Margaret Sanger who advocated for women's health issues; her top priority being contraceptives (what she would later come to call birth control).

Terrible Virtue is a novel about Margaret's life, particularly the early years of her activism and fight for women's rights. Ellen Feldman recreates Margaret's life, imagining what it must have been like for Margaret in a time when so many seemed against her as she fought for social change. One of eleven children, Margaret knew hardship of growing up in a home with so many children as her mother and father struggled to care for them all. It isn't surprising that Margaret would take an activist role given her upbringing and her beliefs. She felt very passionately about many things, but especially about educating women about their bodies and about the use of contraceptives.

As a nurse working in the tenements with the working class and the poor, she saw how the women struggled, unable to control the number of children they had, dying in childbirth, and sometimes performing abortions on themselves. Margaret wanted to spare them that. No one should have to use a button hook to perform an abortion. As a result, Margaret fought hard to educate women from all walks of life about their contraceptive options, writing up pamphlets and providing advice that flew in the face of the Comstock Laws. She wanted to save lives and give these women some control over their own lives. She would go on to open the first clinic in 1916 for women's health issues, specializing in providing them with information on birth control and family planning. She is known today as the founder of Planned Parenthood.

Margaret devoted her life to her cause, believing the only way to change the law was to first break it. Her path was not an easy one. She sacrificed much in the end. Including her family. I really felt for her children who longed for the love and attention of their mother. While I do imagine Margaret loved them, she wasn't really there for them. Her cause was her first love. Her children always took a backseat. Her marriage suffered as well. Although, that wasn't as surprising given Margaret's view on traditional marriage. Her many affairs were, for the most part, out in the open. Her husband knew going in what her beliefs about fidelity were--she thought he agreed. As much as I might disagree with her choice in lifestyle, it isn't fair of me to fault Margaret for hers as open and honest as she was about it all, at least not when I really think about it.

Written in memoir style, it was hard to remember this novel is fiction. Author Ellen Feldman paints Margaret Sanger as the human being she likely was, both her admirable qualities and her many flaws. She was charismatic and passionate. She was extremely competitive and determined, at at time when both qualities were viewed as negatives in a woman. Margaret could be ruthless and calculating, but she also could be generous and thoughtful. While I admire Margaret in many ways for the strides she made, I admit to not being a fan of her on a personal level. Whether that's because of the way she was drawn in the novel or based on her real character, is hard to say. That would depend on how realistic the author was in her portrayal of Margaret.

Periodically throughout the novel, Feldman includes viewpoints of others in Margaret's life written in the form of letters to Margaret. The one from her middle child was particular poignant. And another from her sister was quite revealing. All help form a more whole picture of who Margaret was and the impact it had on those around her.

There is some controversy surrounding Margaret Sanger in regards to her involvement with the Eugenics movement, which, while addressed in the book to some degree, is mostly glossed over--something I wish the author had delved into a little more deeply. I could not help but do a little digging of my own after a conversation I had with a coworker on the subject. I can see why Eugenics might have been appealing, especially to someone like Margaret who was in the medical profession. It was a popular theory at the time, and while she did not subscribe to the whole of Eugenics, Margaret did support it in part, at least as far as it played into her ideas surrounding birth control. She felt strongly about any decision regarding family planning being in the hands of the individual. There is a lot of misinformation out there, including quotes attributed to Margaret that weren't actually hers and statements she made taken out of context--this done in an effort to discredit and suppress her. This, at least, Feldman does mention to some extent.

I admit I had only known the bare basics about Margaret Sanger before reading Ellen Feldman's novel Terrible Virtue. Margaret was a fierce supporter of women's rights and pushing for necessary social change. She fought hard and sacrificed much. Feldman reminds us, however, that Margaret was also very human, and at times conflicted, especially where her children were concerned. I imagine there is much more to the woman than Feldman could possibly cover in her novel--or else it would turn into a biography.Overall, I found Terrible Virtue to be a compelling and fascinating book about a significant figure in American history.


To learn more about Ellen Feldman and her work, please visit the author's websiteShe can also be found on Goodreads.


I hope you will check out what others had to say about Terrible Virtue on the TLC Book Tours route!





Many thanks to the TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of this book tour. I received a copy of this book from the publisher for an honest review.


© 2016, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

24 comments:

  1. Fantastic review and perspective, thanks for sharing. This sounds like a really good read and an interesting one too.

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    1. Jillian - I thought Feldman did a great job with it. I look forward to reading more by her.

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  2. I have to say that I had not heard of Margaret Sanger before this review. But this book sounds so fascinating and I love reading about women who fought against conventions. This one is going on my list.

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    1. Athira - I hope you do get a chance to read it! It's such an interesting part of history.

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  3. What an excellent and as you mentioned, timely book review. With reproductive rights at the forefront of our political and health fronts, I can't wait to read this book! I just received my copy, but your review bumped it up the tbr queue. Well done.

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    1. Heather - It does seem timely, doesn't it? I love to see books like this come out. It's important to remember our history as a country and as women. I hope you enjoy this one when you read it.

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  4. Sounds like this would make a good book club book...with lots of "discussable" points. Great review!

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    1. Lark - I think this one would be a good one for a book club, I agree!

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  5. Wonderful review! I had seen this around but knew very little abut Margaret Sanger. This sounds interesting though you have me looking into eugenics more just from this review! I know there are so many false quotes and untruths about her that it would be interesting to get something a bit closer to the real story.

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    1. Katherine - Thank you! I hadn't known too much about her before either, but this book certainly sparked the researcher in me.

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  6. Awesome review! I definitely want to read this now. It actually fits in perfectly with a post I did this week about fact-based novels!

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    1. Lindsay - Thank you! I hope you get a chance to read it.

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  7. Great review, Wendy! I think I came across this book in the library but didn't pick it up. This sounds like an interesting book with several issues to ponder about.

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    1. Melody - Thank you! It definitely is very discussion-worthy.

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  8. Sounds like an interesting read! I learned a bit about her when I recently took some Sociology courses at a local college. She was important in how she changed things for women and we should know more about her.

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    1. Rita - I thought so. Her work for women is very noteworthy.

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  9. Excellent review, Wendy. Interesting to read about what wasn't so good about it; it sounds quite objective in its approach. I'm not sure we'll see it released over here as it's so US-centric, but I wouldn't mind reading it if it is.

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    1. Charlie - Thank you. I felt that the author did a good job of trying to maintain some objectivity. If you do read it, I hope you like it.

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  10. This book seems like a good introduction to Sanger's public and private life, with lots of room to learn more if the reader so desires.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

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    1. Heather - I think it is. It certainly inspired the researcher in me!

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  11. This sounds fascinating! As I was reading your review I kept thinking this was non-fiction. Great review, Wendy. I'm adding this one to my TBR list!

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    1. Iliana - I had to keep reminding myself I was reading a novel and not nonfiction. I hope you do get a chance to read this one.

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  12. This would be an interesting book to read for me, because there is a story in my family of an ancestor of mine losing her life due to a possible botched abortion. The story goes she was to marry a man who turned out to be a French railroad robber, and once he got thrown in jail she was unable to wed him, therefore not wanting the child. It's an odd story, but seeing that menacing button hook made me think of it.
    I think it's great that birth control is available without a prescription in California- that will be helpful to those who can't get into to a doctor, but need the meds. Birth control pills are commonly used for PCOS, which can be very painful if left untreated.
    ~Litha Nelle

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    1. Litha Nelle - I am sorry for your ancestor. Women resorted to such desperate measures back then.

      I was rather surprised the California government took such a big step regarding birth control, but I am glad they did. I imagine there will be some push back from more conservative corners, but I hope the law stands.

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