The Middlebury Campus

The Librarian Is In




Literatures and cultures librarian Katrina Spencer is liaison to the Anderson Freeman Resource Center, the Arabic department, the French department, the Gender Sexuality & Feminist Studies (GSFS Program), the Language Schools, Linguistics and the Spanish & Portuguese departments. These affiliations are reflected in her reading choices. 

“While I am a very slow reader, I’m a very critical reader,” she says.

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, by Peter Bagge, 2013

143 pages

Happy Women’s History Month!

The What

This full-color graphic novel is a work of historical non-fiction that tells the tale of a woman born in the 19th century into a numerous family of Irish Catholics and her tireless efforts in the 20th century to re-define women’s choices in terms of procreation. Margaret Sanger, known today as one of the mothers of Planned Parenthood, struggled against many obstacles so women could make safe choices about shaping their families. Among those obstacles were the patriarchy, a chronic case of tuberculosis and, potently, the law. Despite the many antagonists that provided her resistance, including multiple arrests and jail time, she shared her message throughout the United States, in Japan, China, India and more countries around the world.

The Why

Again, I was bopping around the browsing collection and the cover of this graphic novel caught my eye. In terms of artistic style, it reminded me of My Friend Dahmer, another graphic work of historical non-fiction that centers on one character– a serial killer– and his legacy in the U.S. I found the title, Woman Rebel, broad and generic and therefore not terribly compelling, but the image used on the cover of a gagged woman was. I knew it was a symbol for censorship and, as Sanger underscores repeatedly during her life’s work, censorship only heightens intrigue. Because her message was symbolically cloaked, I wanted to know what it was. Perhaps what impressed me most about author Peter Bagge’s representations of Margaret Sanger’s life had to do with her unconventional views of marriage. She regularly emphasized her sexual interest in men but shied away from the institution of marriage which she clearly deemed stifling in many ways. Though she married twice and birthed three children, she insisted on applying conditions to her marriages, for example, the freedom to work during an era when men were more likely to be sole breadwinners, maintenance of a separate residence from that of her spouse and the intention of pursuing polyamorous unions.  Overall, she was a woman generally uninterested in compromise and compelled by her convictions. Millions have benefited from her self-sacrificing efforts and her legacy lives on. It could be remiss to fail to mention Sanger’s affiliation with the Eugenics movement. Sources state that she agreed that birth control should be used to limit reproduction of the “unfit.” While race was not one of the factors she identified as a marker of “unfitness,” this proclivity had/has the potential to infringe upon the reproductive rights of marginalized people.


5/5 cardigans
Brilliant. I have to say that it’s not so much Bagge’s publication that is remarkable but rather his choice to highlight this historical figure in graphic novel format. He came across rich, raw material, which will help any author to develop a successful narrative. I do like that at the end of book, in a sort of “appendix,” the author describes the motivation for including certain parts of Sanger’s story in the work. He shares some primary sources and details about collecting information. Ultimately, this book is a great way to quickly learn about an important and unorthodox figure from the past.

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