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British Association for American Studies


Issue 8, Spring 2006: Article 2


Issue 8, Spring 2006: Article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 8, Spring 2006

‘Something so fundamentally right’: Djuna Barnes’s Uneasy Intersections with Margaret Sanger and the Rhetoric of Reform

Richard Espley
© Richard Espley. All Rights Reserved

In 1938, two years after the publication of her most famous work, Nightwood, Djuna Barnes wrote to her friend Emily Coleman of flawed but fervent reformulations of ‘how to live’. The attempt to prescribe a panacea for society’s ills was a yearning that she seemed to class as peculiarly American, referring to ‘all those hairy, open shirt prophets […] Thoreau, Whitman, […] full of theories and whiskers’. She explained to Coleman that whatever ‘passionate feeling for truth and right’ underlay such prescriptions, one had to accept both ‘the good and the evil of the fanatic’. [1] Barnes’s examples are both men who were dead by the time of her writing, but male and female advocates of such liberating social or political causes were ubiquitous in Greenwich Village, Barnes’s home until her emigration to France in 1920. As Steven Watson suggests, in that environment total reform was the endlessly stated aim, where ‘revolution was the most widely used metaphor for cultural and political upheaval’. [2]

However, as Peter Stallybrass and Allon White emphasise in their masterful The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, transgression of existing codes and laws is not necessarily sufficient to generate ‘politically transformative power’. Indeed, ‘unless one addresses the question of the domain of discourse’, and challenges ‘the hierarchy of the sites of discourse’, then ‘the equation is politically meaningless’. [3] In the light of these arguments, this article will explore the extent to which Djuna Barnes accepted the promised revolutions of her day as carrying redemptive political power. It will suggest that she rather saw those campaigns, so passionately claiming ‘truth and right’, as fatally flawed by the ‘evil of the fanatic’, and ultimately insidiously bolstering fundamental, and oppressive, hierarchies and attitudes.

Ultimately, this piece will focus on an analysis of Barnes’s claimed textual relationship with an iconic reformer, Margaret Sanger. However, to clearly establish Barnes’s general attitude of smiling despair towards the radicals with whom she was surrounded, it is instructive to explore her early journalism. Her opinion of the campaign for women’s suffrage in this period, for example, has so far been only imperfectly analysed. Phillip Herring’s largely excellent biography passes over the issue, stating that ‘Barnes’s attitude seems more bemused than supportive’. [4] However, it is crucial to recognise that this bemusement is not at the cause but at the way in which it is championed. In a 1913 column tellingly entitled ‘Part Victory and Part Defeat at Suffrage Aviation Meet’, Barnes describes with a restrained baleful relish the excuse handed down for the cancellation of a fundraising flight by ‘the only woman suffrage aviator’. Mrs. Mary Simms, the flyer, announces that her plane ‘isn’t well’, that she has been ‘down on my knees to her, but not my hat off to her, for she’s no lady who refused to rise to the occasion’. [5] Childishly anthropomorphising her plane, this woman then merely reiterates and reinforces exactly the stifling social roles of femininity that must, Barnes implies, be overcome to achieve true emancipation. That accusation of not being a ‘lady’ was one that was repeatedly thrown at the suffragists, and their cause demanded its abandonment, not its acceptance. Moreover, the fund-raising endeavours in Barnes’s article were restricted to a cake sale in a parlour where ‘women drooped in chairs like wilting, ungardened China asters’. [6] They do nothing to resist their portrayal as delicate organisms in need not of self-determination but of outside nurture and care, whose only labour can be the domestic production of other consumable confections. This irony is deepened when Mr Laidlaw, his name rather heavily emphasising the entrenched conventions on display, buys up the unwanted cakes and distributes them in an act of gallantry. The women then call upon other men to build them a bonfire, and sit around it, and ‘forgot to reach any farther down into the theories’. [7] Simply claiming the vote without reaching down into the fundamental reasons for its denial means the campaign remains hopelessly inadequate. The event was intended to secure funds for a car, but Barnes suggests that ‘they will have to change their minds and get a go-cart’; they are ineffectually playing at suffrage. [8]

Also in 1913, Barnes visited the New York academy set up by Carrie Chapman Catt to train suffrage orators. Catt had publicly promised ‘a presidency in two weeks’ from amongst her supporters, and Barnes mocks her, claiming trepidation at approaching, fearing that ‘the presidential chair might be thrust upon one’. [9] Whatever the ultimate impact of Carrie Chapman Catt on women’s liberation in America, here Barnes shows her handing down four cardinal truths to her students that fall ludicrously short of genuine politically transformative power. These are never to ‘wear a dress that shows your feet in front’ or ‘strike out at an audience with a fist that has done duty as a biscuit molder. Third, do not dress in spots […] Fourth, don’t wear hat or gloves; the hat shadows your face, and the gloves veil your soul’. [10] Focussing entirely on superficial matters, Catt does not begin to exceed the restricted patriarchal vision of women which deprived them of the vote. She also fails to truly consider her campaign’s objectives; when Barnes asks her if the academy has met expectations, ‘she said, hesitatingly, “We don’t know what to expect”’. Barnes then closes her article with the cruelly open question, ‘So what is the public to expect?’ but the answer is clearly very little. [11]

The inadequacy of this reforming vision is the one constant theme in Barnes’s accounts of such activists, seen again in a piece on street oratory. The idlers who listen to the various demagogues assembled are, Barnes insists, ‘given a real treat’ when an ‘automobile drove up, decorated with yellow bunting; in the machine were three pretty girls waving VOTES FOR WOMEN banners. Immediately there was a stampede. Everyone lost interest in how to secure lower rents’. [12] The women are at best a comic diversion; it is clear that suffrage will prove as ephemeral a concern as rent reform when its pretty advocates drive away. Indeed, their failure to truly embody their cause is clearly marked by the dissonance between their claim on behalf of ‘women’, and Barnes’s description of them as ‘girls’. These appearances become mere public entertainment, seen again when one of Mrs Catt’s speakers fails to materialise at a rally, and another is sent ‘to make up for the disappointment the public felt when there was no one to smile over’. [13] The raising of crowds and smiles is clearly not enough.

These articles were written from amidst the very Greenwich Village which was often claimed as home to activists who sought to radically refashion society, integrating a host of programmes of which universal suffrage was only an example. June Sochen insists that certain briefly prominent figures, such as Henrietta Rodman and Crystal Eastman, believed in a feminism that ‘involved a complete revision of attitudes and customs regarding women and men’. [14] However, Barnes undoubtedly came into contact with these women, as well as Margaret Sanger, at the salon of Mabel Dodge, and her report of this famous gathering again exposes a fundamental lack of reflection, and a concern with the superficial by the reformers. She mocks the posed lifestyles and dress of the participants, asking, ‘Why is it that all similarity of ideas and tastes has the same manner of dress, of speech and mode of living?’ Barnes cannot share these reformers’ belief in themselves, and admits that ‘I felt cold because I wanted so dreadfully to feel warm and hopeful and one with them’. [15] Her disappointment implies a real sense of personal loss and pain at experiencing a similar inadequacy to that which disabled the suffrage campaign. However, here she clearly suspected that, as Sochen suggests, this was as genuinely revolutionary a gathering as Greenwich Village could offer.

This account makes clear that Barnes was not seeking out the ridiculous, but was finding it nonetheless at every fervent gathering. The self belief and radical pose that she finds amongst the acolytes of Mabel Dodge is essentially no different to the more overtly risible campaigns she uncovered, as depicted in her interview with ‘Mrs Ellen O’Grady, Fifth Deputy Police Commissioner’ of New York. This officer had made it her duty to protect any girl who might ‘fall into trouble’ (i.e. become prostitutes), but her analysis of the problem was that girls were working as messengers, and were thus forced ‘to go through the back entries of houses’. She imagined that by writing to their employers and asking ‘that [the girls] be allowed to enter through the front’, the problem would evaporate. [16] O’Grady would clearly prefer to believe that prostitution is forced upon naïve women rather than countenancing the desperate pragmatism that might lead them to choose it in the absence of alternatives.

What all of these articles share is not an authorial lack of sympathy with the fundamental causes or hopes being advanced, but rather a caustic impatience with the disastrously limited means by which they are undertaken. The parading of girls dressed to arouse groups of men, or the avoidance of certain dress fabrics, is no more likely to bring about universal suffrage than the use of front doors will be the miraculous cure for prostitution in the metropolis. Moreover, in all these cases, the advice given and the courses pursued in fact strengthen the attitudes that initially led to the lack of the vote and the commercialisation of female sexuality. Not only are notions of feminine dress and sexual availability not being challenged, they are being ratified.

This exasperation at the fatally limited terms of the discourse is Barnes’s dominant attitude to the period’s reformers, and yet her textual relation to the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger has been claimed as more complex. Sanger herself never doubted the truly revolutionary potential of her cause. Looking back at her life, she summed it up as one that had ‘touched profoundly millions of other lives’, her work ‘unquestionably proved of value, something so fundamentally right’. [17] However, this assessment still fell short of her claims from 1920, when she had declared that her own particular brand of reform would ensure that ‘child slavery, prostitution, feeblemindedness, physical deterioration, hunger, oppression and war will disappear from the earth’. She had both warned and prophesied that with her help, woman ‘will not stop at patching up the world; she will remake it’. [18]

However, Barnes at least suggests in a 1916 newspaper article that Sanger was indistinguishable from the ostentatious but impotent reformers of Greenwich Village. In the piece, a bourgeois visitor, identified only as ‘Madam Bronx’, stalks a villager, finally asking her whether she is an artist. In response,

[…] a twinkle came into her eye. ‘No,’ she answered, ‘I am a pamphleteer.’
‘What is that?’
‘One of the birth controllers’. [19]

The villager, a ‘red haired woman who had somehow forgotten to cut her hair’, is physically reminiscent of Sanger, who was indeed principally known for her illegal pamphlet, Family Limitation, published in 1914 and continually revised until 1921. It is worth remarking that the term ‘pamphleteer’, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, is ‘often contemptuous’, but to discover the substantial and critical dialogue that Barnes initiated in response to Sanger’s pamphlets, it is necessary to turn to her first novel, Ryder. This text was published while Barnes was a Parisian exile in 1928, but its setting is American, and the central action takes place in the first two decades of the twentieth century. In contrast to the suspicion of reform in her journalism, this novel has been claimed as all but propaganda for Sanger herself. Sheryl Stevenson, in a seminal article in 1993, marked ‘parallels between Ryder and texts of the early birth-control movement – specifically […] Margaret Sanger’s’. [20] Beth Widmaier Capo, in 2004, accepted and amplified Stevenson’s argument, suggesting that ‘the novel contains many of the messages found within birth control arguments’. [21] Undoubtedly, the endless unwanted pregnancies in the text do reduce its women characters to the status that Sanger feared, that of ‘brood animal for the masculine civilization’. [22] The novel’s male protagonist, Wendell Ryder, lives in cramped conditions with his legitimate wife, Amelia, as well as his mistress, Kate Careless, and children are an inevitability that both women loudly lament, for ‘screaming oneself into a mother is no pleasure at all’. [23] Moreover, Wendell extends this siring outside of the home to numerous extramarital encounters, all of which he explicitly pursues in the hope of more children. Nonetheless, it is vital to distinguish between Barnes’s broad agreement with Sanger’s assessment of the problem, and her faith in the offered solution.

It has too often been argued that Ryder presents a world before contraceptive knowledge of any kind, one that aches for the panacea of Sangerian intervention. Stevenson suggests that this is the novel’s power, only admitting the possibility that one character, Wendell’s mother, ‘probably benefited from some birth-control method (if only […] withdrawal)’, and this only before the action of the text. [24] Moreover, Capo insists that ‘Barnes does not explicitly discuss birth control in her novel’. [25] However, such certainty is dubious, and is partially reminiscent of the reactions to the text from those same postal office censors who hounded Sanger. Although Ryder was heavily censored, much of its subversive message and content was left unmarked because of Barnes’s sometimes contorted prose. Similarly, direct if submerged discussion of contraception is not recognised by Stevenson or Capo, despite their interest in the issue. This failure of perception is sometimes surprising, most notably in the account of Amelia’s first, premarital, sexual encounter with Wendell, narrated almost entirely through the series of nicknames by which she refers to him. In the midst of intercourse, she cries ‘“Weigh-Yourself-Short-Pound” and “Wrench-Away-Willie”’, and ‘Much-Beating-No-Music!’ This suggests Amelia’s attempt to secure what may well have been her only feasible contraceptive option as an unprepared, unmarried young woman, coitus interruptus. Less ambiguously, she then says, ‘Babe’s-Beginning-Spill-It-Less-Lightly’. Wendell’s own motivation in this encounter is also illuminated by Amelia’s cry of ‘Can-You-or-Can’t-You?’ suggesting that he becomes impotent when withdrawal is demanded and his chances of impregnation are threatened. [26] It is important to recognise this fairly transparent attempt to practice non-conceptive sexual intercourse, but also to mark Amelia’s eventual actions. Overcome by her own desire, she rapidly abandons her caution, crying ‘Work-and-I’ll-Worry, Tarry-No-Longer’. [27] Once she accepts the ‘worry’ of potential conception, Wendell is pacified, and her pregnancy, and their marriage, follows swiftly. Barnes is careful to depict Amelia’s sexual desire as ultimately sealing this outcome, for Wendell clearly states that because of her demands, ‘I liked her none so well, and would have desisted’. It is only because she ‘seasoned her scorning’ with her abandonment to chance that he perseveres. [28] Thus, Barnes places female sexuality at the heart of the discussion, if leaving it awkwardly complicit with male insistence on conception.

This at least problematises Stevenson’s and Capo’s accounts of Ryder, for they largely portray the women of the text as being forcefully held in submission by their husband and patriarch. It also clouds Barnes’s claimed implicit support of birth control reform, although it must be admitted that withdrawal was not a method Sanger advocated. Indeed, Sanger’s justification for this decision may seem to be in tune with Ryder, for she insisted upon its ‘evil effect upon the woman’s nervous condition’ had she not ‘completed her desire’. [29] This comment appears to recognise the importance of female sexual fulfilment, as Barnes does through her depiction of Amelia. On examination, though, this statement awkwardly offsets it, casting the libido as a dangerous and uncontrollable force within, focussing instead on pseudo-medical worries over nervous collapse. This is representative of a wider restriction amongst American reformers analysed by Linda Gordon, where, ‘still uneasy with a straightforward hedonist position toward sex, that is, that pleasure was good in itself’, they ‘preferred the notion of sex as an irresistible drive, dangerous to interfere with’. [30]

This article seeks to suggest that this uneasiness with sexual desire was exactly the principal charge which Barnes lays against Sanger. It crippled, to Barnes’s mind, the attempted revolution of both the women of Ryder, and those who were reading Sanger’s pamphlets, as surely as the suffragists’ failure to engage with their position in society did. A reluctance to embrace women’s sexual pleasure in a society without easy access to birth control leads directly to its renunciation as the principal cause of unwanted children. Barnes clearly depicts this self-lacerating process in Amelia’s later assessment of her situation. While she initially rejects Wendell’s penis with some revulsion as ‘Shaft-Pole-of Cod’s-Withers’, she soon hymns it as ‘Sweet-Driller and Dear-Damage’. [31] She realises the ‘damage’ done to her, Wendell’s attempt to hold her in pregnant submission, but cannot resist the pleasure which sexual intercourse brings, and so turns instead upon that desire. She screams, ‘How damned he seems, yet all my hate’s not his. I shall be fond of him again in some way I know naught of’. [32] She cannot accept her fondness, her sexuality, as an intrinsic part of her own identity, but envisages it as an inevitable but unknowable adjunct.

Sanger does sometimes address what she terms the ‘atmosphere of degradation’ that surrounds women’s sexuality, but she insists that birth control is the only solution. [33] However, as Barnes explicitly demonstrates, contraception alone cannot counter such an attitude to the female libido. In Wendell’s assignation with the married Laura Twelvetrees, his determination to father children is again obvious, for as foreplay he announces, ‘I replenish the world. I have the spirit and the works’. Laura, though, openly denies these hopes, counselling him that there is ‘an aristocracy in no outcome’. She adds that ‘to this one should point the instrument, for otherwise it’s a grave price to pay’. [34] Her speech raises Sanger’s standard spectres of unwanted children and maternal illness and death, by punning on ‘grave’, but she mounts another, more concerted, contraceptive attempt, one which has gone critically unnoticed. In a cryptic passage, a ‘child’s hand […] came through the door downward, holding the India red fountain-of-all-ladies’-hope’. [35] What ladies hope for, Laura has already made clear, is an absence of pregnancy, and this item is what Sanger urged every woman to purchase, ‘a good two quart rubber douche bag called fountain syringe’. [36] The term ‘fountain’ was widely in use for this device, made of India rubber, which, while it has no connection to the genuine pigment ‘India red’, was nearly always of that colour. Sanger eventually became aware of the limitations of this contraceptive technique, but in the years preceding 1920, when Barnes was aware of her as a pamphleteer, she championed it as ‘the most important part which every woman should learn in the methods of preventing conception’. [37]

However, Laura does not secure the triumphs and liberation that Sanger held out; this device does not deliver a race ‘spiritually free and strong enough to break the last bonds of intellectual darkness’. [38] Rather, its user is left nervous and distracted; initially seen to go ‘down, crying softly’, the narrator reveals how she then ‘rose to scream and knelt to pray, and found her position in no wise altered’. Her thoughts are morbid, and she sees self-worth only in terms of male approval, asking ‘If I should die tonight […] what man would care?’ [39] The reason for this despair is the characters’ denunciation of their sexuality, regardless of the presence or absence of contraceptive methods. The only acceptable solution passed from mother to daughter has not been contraception, but total sexual abstinence. Amelia cries to her child as she goes into labour, ‘take warning by my size and don’t let a man touch you, for their touching never ends’. [40] Amelia was educated in similar terms by her own mother: ‘Never let a man touch you, never show anything, keep your legs in your own life’. [41] Crucially, this advice is not given because contraception is unknown, but because the only image of female perfection to be countenanced is one of asexuality. It is notable that in these injunctions what is actually forbidden is allowing men sexual access. The notion of desiring sexual contact is not even discussed. In the contraceptive development from withdrawal to technological intervention, what has not changed is this underlying repudiation of the women’s initial motivation, desire. Any method of contraception will still leave these women prostrate if trapped within such beliefs.

Sanger’s unshakeable faith in contraception conceals a certain complicity with the fundamental renunciation of desire that Barnes detects, despite her reputation as enlightened sexual prophet. She insisted in print more than once that ‘continence is the highest ideal’, advocating that same version of femininity that Laura, and every woman, whether or not they had read Family Limitation, would inevitably fail to achieve. [42] Not only did Sanger not embrace female sexuality, but she frequently ignored and sometimes appeared even to deny it. In 1914, in the very first issue of The Woman Rebel, Sanger insisted that because of ‘her emotional nature’, the adolescent girl ‘is often as well satisfied to hold hands or go arm in arm with a girl as in the companionship of a boy’; sexual intercourse is at most only ‘partly desired’. [43] In the advice she wrote directly for such girls, she depicted them as creatures who ‘kiss and fondle a man without any conscious desire for the sexual act […] innocent of any serious consequences’. [44] Indeed, this attitude was consistent throughout Sanger’s career, the only drive that she wholly accepted in women was that which impelled them to motherhood. So central was that impulse to Sanger that she stated of any woman who wished to remain childless while sexually active, that ‘that type of woman should die out biologically, just as did the different species that were caught in the mire and slime’. [45] Sometimes she used the adjectives ‘maternal’ and ‘sexual’ almost interchangeably, as for example when she warned that ‘great maternal powers are being used up in the activities of modern life […] modern Woman turns her sexual impulse into a big directing force’. [46] It was principally this maternal instinct, and not sexuality, that she portrayed as being manipulated by oppressive husbands. Indeed, in a startling article, Sanger insisted that woman has ‘chained herself to her place in society and the family through the maternal functions of her nature’. [47] Sanger is driven to harangue all women, ‘who, while wringing their hands at each fresh horror, submit anew to their task of producing the multitudes who will bring about the next tragedy’. [48] By not recognising active desire, women’s choice to be sexually active is left as at best compulsive mothering, at worst pliant submission.

In stark comparison to Sanger’s rare and qualified acceptance of female sexuality, Barnes consistently accentuates the erotic motivations of her women characters. Wendell’s first sexual encounter with his wife is entirely initiated by Amelia, and he relates how she pulled him down from a wall, having ‘never looked me in the face’ but ‘seeing something in my posterior that tempted her’. [49] This is an action incontrovertibly motivated by libido, and even while identifying constant pregnancy as a primary means of ensuring female suppression, Barnes allows her women characters that desire, and laments its renunciation. While this is an ambiguous gift, for it makes them complicit in their own subjection, it also vitally restores them as beings with self-will.

The revolutionary utopia that Sanger declares is thus portrayed by Barnes as inadequate in its objectives, and there is considerable evidence for the validity of this stance. Sanger’s projected state was not of sexual freedom, but one that relied very clearly on ideas of human sexuality that would have been shared by many campaigners who opposed her. This is true even of statements that appear to be emphasising the value of sexual pleasure. For example, she demanded that women should require ‘the greatest possible expression and fulfilment of their desires on the highest possible plane’. [50] However, the plane which she envisages is not an intensity of pleasure, but a moral and all-but-unreachable plateau. What she pointedly referred to as ‘sex-communion’ was ‘the finest flower of monogamy; and the miracle of undying love is the fruit of such experience’. It was foremost a ‘true union of souls, not merely a physical function for the momentary relief of the sexual organs’. Sex did have that other, physical manifestation, but ‘unless the psychic and spiritual desires are fulfilled, the relationship has been woefully deficient and the participants degraded and dissatisfied’. [51] Those indulging in such limited activity were degraded by the desire which Sanger not only termed ‘the villain’, but, bizarrely, defined as a ‘relentless, inhuman driving power’. [52]

Contemporaneously, and again in contrast, Barnes repeatedly depicts the polymorphously-desiring woman for whom birth control is an important means of securing greater pleasure, and in situations which mock Sanger’s ideals. Amelia’s sexual appetite has already been noted, but in the scenes discussed above, Laura has sex with Wendell while his wife waits on the other side of the door, and her very douche is presented by his child. Similarly, another of Wendell’s mistresses, Molly Dance, ‘got her children where and when it pleased her’. Indeed, Molly does not trouble as to the identity of her lovers, but views those penises that secure her pleasure as disembodied ‘important instruments’. [53] Clearly, Barnes is presenting extreme situations, something probably alien to her own and Sanger’s readers, but what she is restoring is a sexual longing divorced from constricting societal frameworks. What triumphantly emerges is that which Barnes, in a story written in 1919, referred to as ‘lust – not a self-willed lust at all, a matter of heat’. The heroine of this piece is bringing an illegitimate and unannounced child home to her husband after several years’ absence. She insists that ‘one learns to be careful about death, but never, never about…’, where the ellipsis clearly sets out the perceived value of thoughts of contraception in the moment of erotic excitement. [54] Barnes refuses to valorise abstinence or to denounce desire itself, whatever its consequences.

It is ironic that while Barnes critiques birth control rhetoric for its failure to properly accept and embrace female sexuality, it is for exaggerating and succumbing to that force that Sanger is currently most violently attacked. The cultural anxiety over this drive has clearly not expired, for a profusion of anti-abortion websites vilify Sanger with catalogues of corrupted, misleading and baldly invented statements purporting to be quotations from her. For example, a claim endlessly resurfaces that Woman and the New Race contains the stated objective of ‘unlimited sexual gratification without the burden of unwanted children’, while the text contains no sentence even resembling this one. [55] The necessity of its fabrication eloquently illustrates the extent to which such views are anathema to Sanger’s published message, and that in turn rather proves the validity of Barnes’s critique.

To Barnes, Sanger’s reluctance to countenance female sexual desire not only hobbled her campaign but rendered it complicit with the very patriarchal values that had initially outlawed contraceptive instruction. Ryder thus demonstrates not only the estrangement from their own sexuality that women suffer within such a value system, but also the extent to which any attempted resistance is impossible within such constraints. For example, following a difficult birth Amelia dreams of a woman ‘sleeping, with pleasant hands crossed on small pleasant breasts, her fair hair about her thoughtless face’. [56] This vision of an asexual woman, pleasant but calm, with her ‘small pleasant breasts’ makes a pointed comparison to Amelia’s own full-breasted lactation. The woman in the vision has renounced her desire, represented by her finery, ‘slippers of down’, ‘down-enriched robe’ and ‘little litter of women’s things’, abandoning these in favour of the ‘heavy Bible’ pointedly open over them. [57] This is Amelia’s visualisation of the chaste femininity which she fails to achieve: walls decorated with ‘pictures […] of women going nowhere to nothing’, and a narrator who ironically asks ‘who can say that a woman dreams of aught […] surely nothing uncomely’. [58] In comparison Wendell is cast as a ‘great fair ox’, gaining entry to the room but firmly rebuffed with the instruction, ‘Go away and do not try to defile me’. [59] This dream clearly serves as a correlative, allowing Amelia imagined resistance in a reality where she is free from unwanted pregnancy. However, it only transfers her renounced desire onto her husband, and does nothing to question the casting of female sexuality as unfeminine and inappropriate, something to be suppressed through religious and social control. There is an attempt here not to exceed patriarchal suppression but to mount a rebellion from within its values, attempting vainly to find strength in the image of the sexually unmotivated woman which it has created and demands.

This multivalent chapter is at least in part Barnes’s angry response to the toothless campaigns that sought to alleviate women’s subjection without at first examining and rejecting its basic framework. It is in this sense analogous to her newspaper articles on suffrage campaigns. While it is misleading to suggest that this chapter is a parody of Sanger alone, Barnes certainly considers that the campaigner was fatally guilty of some of this myopia. Sanger’s failure in this regard is all the more puzzling in that she wrote perceptively and persuasively on the subject of women’s need to escape established modes of thought. She claimed that:

Women are too much inclined to follow in the footsteps of men, to try to think as men think […] hers is not to preserve a man-made world, but to create a human world by the infusion of the feminine element […] She must not be awed by that which has been built up around her. [60]

However, Sanger’s conception of that ‘feminine element’ was too often a slight reordering of patriarchal visions of woman, and she very rarely wholly abandoned marriage, monogamy and motherhood. As Linda Gordon argues in her politically charged account of American birth control, Sanger’s campaign ‘could hardly be considered radical in that it did nothing to challenge the conventional Victorian structure of sex relations’. [61] Sanger’s biographer, David M. Kennedy, similarly described her as one who ‘seemed merely to dress out in new language nineteenth-century ideas about woman’s sacredness and sexual uniqueness’. [62] Such disguised recycling of a repressive ideology is clearly potentially damaging, but Sanger’s rhetorical power and political success aggravated this effect. Proclaiming such a retrograde assessment of humanity as the key to unchain ‘woman’s nature [and] uplift her to a plane unimagined’ to the thousands of women who appealed directly to her prevented genuine progress that might have been advocated elsewhere. [63] Sanger did more than anyone to bring female suffering to public attention, but what she could not do, as Barnes detected, was to exceed the cultural suppression of active female sexual desire, or deeper stereotypes of femininity. In the terms of Stallybrass and White, Sanger failed spectacularly to challenge the ‘domain of discourse’, and remained perversely and impotently reliant upon it.

Sanger’s attitude towards women is intriguingly reminiscent of her approach to the thousands of letters which she edited into the compilation Motherhood in Bondage. These original missives are quite untraceable, and there is not one date or even general address amongst them. Moreover, even Sanger’s staunchest supporters admit doubts as to the collection’s authenticity, admitting, for example, that it is possible to ‘question whether the men and women who wrote to Sanger could really have been as ignorant of contraceptive methods as these letters suggest’. Moreover, there is sometimes a suspiciously similar vocabulary across the letters, such as the phrase ‘“happy-go-lucky husbands” (a term used both by the letter writers and Sanger herself)’. [64] The exact nature of Sanger’s raw material, her treatment of it and her potential motivations are beyond this discussion, but it seems that her vision required at least extensive editing. In her pamphlets and books she appears to have attempted to analogously re-craft humanity, writing out and concealing those desires that Barnes rather foregrounds. This may have secured Sanger greater support, but, as is seen with the fate of Barnes’s Laura Twelvetrees, a rejection of the libido as inhuman and villainous leaves women helplessly bemired in their subjection, whether or not contraception is possible.

Sanger assaulted only one symptom of a wider and more fundamental oppression and objectification of women, and did even this in limited terms. Attacks on Sanger have recently become both widespread and fervent, but have most commonly accused her of diluting her demands, of associating with eugenicist and racist groups, and above all of hypocrisy. It is certainly true that whatever her publicly stated ideals, she understood and accepted non-monogamous sexual desires; the index to only the first volume of The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger lists eleven named lovers. Madeline Gray remarks from readings of her diaries that ‘when [Sanger] was too tired or disturbed to sleep, only one thing seemed to relax her, and that was sexual intercourse. If [her husband] wanted to stay celibate for a while, let him. She knew what she wanted’. [65] This does demonstrate that at some level, Sanger was quite aware of the distortion she practised, but this behaviour had little or no impact on her public message. It was importantly not her personality but that inadequate message which Barnes attacked.

Barnes’s detection of an inability to truly grasp the contributory discourses amongst the suffrage campaigners and other reformers she interviewed and observed is inescapably subjective, for there is no established record of such meetings. However, Margaret Sanger’s campaign was one largely waged through extant publications, and it is possible to test Barnes’s implied criticism that it accepts and to an extent champions the underlying structures of an inherently oppressive view of women. While Sanger’s campaign undeniably benefited American women ultimately, Barnes perceptively reveals Sanger as grasping, with revolutionary rhetoric, the domains of discourse, but merely lightly rearranging or re-dressing them. Sanger, like Barnes’s portrayal of her contemporary New York reformers, emerges as unable or unwilling to address the fundamental hierarchies that would allow the securing of Stallybrass and White’s ‘politically transformative power’. [66] This is not, crucially, to claim that Barnes opposed the cause of female suffrage, nor to suggest that she did not passionately advocate birth control, if that phrase can be reclaimed from Sanger’s idiosyncratic campaign. She might have believed in both, but she also exposed these particular advocates’ own self-inflicted defeat, as part of a despairingly delivered portrait of a culture for which she delivered a diagnosis, but for which she would not presume to offer, or believe in, any universal cure.

University of Birmingham



[1] Letter to Emily Coleman, 7 August 1938. University of Maryland Special Collections, Djuna Barnes Papers, Series II, Box Three, Folder 12.

[2] Steven Watson, Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991), p. 145.

[3] Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 201.

[4] Phillip Herring, Djuna: The Life and Works of Djuna Barnes (New York: Viking, 1995), p. 80.

[5] Djuna Barnes, ‘Part Victory and Part Defeat at Suffrage Aviation Meet’, in New York, ed. by Alyce Barry (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1989), pp. 54-6 (p. 55).

[6] Ibid., p. 55.

[7] Ibid., p. 56.

[8] Ibid., p. 56.

[9] Djuna Barnes, ‘Seventy Trained Suffragists Turned Loose on the City’, in New York, ed. by Alyce Barry (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1989), pp. 64-68 (p. 65). Hereafter cited as ‘Suffragists’.

[10] Ibid., p. 66.

[11] Ibid., p. 68.

[12] Djuna Barnes, ‘’Round Ben Franklin’s Statue Forum Orators Fret and Fume’, in New York, ed. by Alyce Barry (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1989), pp. 37-42 (p. 41).

[13] ‘Suffragists’, p. 68.

[14] June Sochen, The New Woman: Feminism in Greenwich Village, 1910-1920 (New York: Quadrangle, 1972), p. 4.

[15] Djuna Barnes, ‘Alfred Stieglitz on Life and Pictures’, in Interviews, ed. by Alyce Barry (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1985), pp. 211-222 (pp. 213-4, 215).

[16] Djuna Barnes, ‘Woman Police Deputy is Writer of Poetry’, in New York, ed. by Alyce Barry (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1989), pp. 305-315 (pp. 305, 306, 307, 307).

[17] Margaret Sanger, Margaret Sanger; An Autobiography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1938), pp. 39, 494. Hereafter cited as Autobiography.

[18] Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (New York: Brentano’s, 1920), pp. 234, 8. Hereafter cited as New Race.

[19] Djuna Barnes, ‘Becoming Intimate with the Bohemians’, in New York, ed. by Alyce Barry (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1989), pp. 233-45 (pp. 238, 240).

[20] Sheryl Stevenson, ‘Ryder as Contraception: Barnes v. the Reproduction of Mothering’, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13 (1993), 97-106 (p. 98).

[21] Beth Widmaier Capo, ‘Can This Woman Be Saved?: Birth Control and Marriage in Modern American Literature’, Modern Language Studies, 34 (2004), 28-41 (p. 33).

[22] New Race, p. 2.

[23] Djuna Barnes, Ryder (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), p. 95. Hereafter cited as Ryder.

[24] Stevenson, p. 100.

[25] Capo, p. 33.

[26] Ryder, p. 126.

[27] Ibid., p. 126.

[28] Ibid., p. 126.

[29] Margaret Sanger, Family Limitation, 2nd ed (London: Bakunin, 1920), p. 6. Hereafter cited as Family.

[30] Linda Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), p. 186.

[31] Ryder, p. 127.

[32] Ibid., p. 96.

[33] New Race, p. 177.

[34] Ryder, p. 160.

[35] Ibid., p. 160.

[36] Family, p. 8.

[37] Cited in Joan M. Jensen, ‘The Evolution of Margaret Sanger’s Family Limitation Pamphlet, 1914-1921’, Signs, 6 (1981), 548-567 (p. 559). There is no extant accessible copy of the original 1914 version of Sanger’s Family Limitations pamphlet. The British Library holds the 1920 UK version of it. However, Jensen reproduces the first edition of the pamphlet in full in her article.

[38] New Race, p. 170.

[39] Ryder, p. 159.

[40] Ibid., p. 95.

[41] Ibid., p. 32.

[42] Autobiography, p. 391.

[43] Margaret Sanger, Woman Rebel, ed. and introd. by Alex Baskin (original document published as The Woman Rebel, March 1914; facsimile repr. New York: Archives of Social History, State University of New York, 1976), p. 1.

[44] Margaret Sanger, ‘What Every Girl Should Know: Sexual Impulses – Part II’, in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003-), I: The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928, ed. by Esther Katz (2003), pp. 41- 46 (p. 43). (First published in New York Call, 29 December 1912). Hereafter cited as ‘Every Girl’.

[45] Autobiography, p. 292.

[46] ‘Every Girl’, p. 43.

[47] Margaret Sanger, ‘Woman’s Error and her Debt’, in The Birth Control Review (Aug. 1921), no page numbers available, in the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, catalogue number MSM S70: 0911-2 <> [accessed 17 December 2005].

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ryder, p. 125.

[50] New Race, p. 117.

[51] Margaret Sanger, Happiness in Marriage (New York: Brentano’s, 1926), pp. 141, 142, 142.

[52] Margaret Sanger, Motherhood in Bondage, foreword by Margaret Marsh (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2000), pp. 265-6. Emphasis mine.

[53] Ryder, p. 191.

[54] Djuna Barnes, ‘Spillway’, in Collected Stories, ed. and introd. by Phillip Herring (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1997), pp. 266-278 (pp. 272, 274).

[55] This entirely spurious remark is reproduced endlessly, but is here taken from the home pages of Eads Home Ministries <> [accessed 30 November 2005].

[56] Ryder, p. 98.

[57] Ibid., pp. 98-99.

[58] Ibid., pp. 99, 98.

[59] Ibid., p. 99.

[60] New Race, pp. 98-9.

[61] Gordon, p. 225.

[62] David M. Kennedy, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), p. 135.

[63] New Race, p. 182.

[64] Margaret Marsh, ‘Foreword’, in Motherhood in Bondage, by Margaret Sanger (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2000), pp. xi-liii (pp. xix, xxvii).

[65] Madeline Gray, Margaret Sanger: A Biography of the Champion of Birth Control (New York: Richard Marek, 1979), p. 71.

[66] Stallybrass and White, p. 201.