Who Was the Most Influential Leader of the 20th Century?

[Note to the reader: This is an old text. I wrote this text sometime before 20 December 1999, date on which I took an Air Air Afrique flight to leave the US, ceasing to effectively live there. The text was submitted to a writing contest in which we had to answer to “who was the most influential leader of the 20th century. Apparently the jury liked it enough to declare as one of three winners. I can’t remember what was the actual prize. Reading it now it makes me laugh, becuase it was poorly written. Anyway here it is. I haven’t changed a single word. Please note my email address back then. The text is available on: http://www.studentleader.com/orig4.htm ]

The 20th century has witnessed some great social movements, some better known than others. The birth control movement and ultimately, the women’s movement fall in the “not-so-well known” category. For many of us, the women’s movement started with the 1960’s; for some, the landmark case of Roe vs. Wade marks the advent of this movement, and for some still, it is a different event. Though the political, social and human rights that women enjoy today is the culmination of a century of struggle, one woman stands out as the legendary visionary who gave her time and energy to make sure that women were treated as human beings.

Margaret Sanger, born into a family of 11, is the woman who created and influenced the history of women throughout this century. Until her death in 1966, her life’s purpose was to educate women about the importance and benefits of birth control and empower them as human beings. And in so doing, she achieved social justice and freedom for women.

Sanger’s mother carried 18 pregnancies, and only 11 survived- this rate of survival represented the norms in the early century. The sexual mores of the early century were so stringent that women were reduced to the role of “baby factories”. Worst still, women were dying early and often. Therefore, Margaret Sanger decided to make it a career to empower women, through education, to decide on issues concerning their health and well being. The experience of her family influenced her to become the political and social leader that she became. How would she influence more women? Sanger saw literature as the key to educating women. The first pamphlet she created, What Every Girl Should Know, educated on issues such as menstruation, hygiene of pregnancy, sexual impulse and many others. In 1914, she launched The Woman Rebel, a feminist monthly magazine aimed at women “speaking and acting in defiance of convention”. Following these two pieces, was an ongoing publication of pamphlets and articles aimed at teaching women about their bodies, but most importantly, she was teaching how to make themselves be accepted as human beings. While on the one hand she was pursuing her mission, on the other hand she was becoming a hated rebel by those who wanted to maintain the status quo.

The success of the literature was a source of inspiration and it pushed her to greater accomplishments. In 1916, with the help of her sister, Sanger opened the first US birth control clinic in Brownsville (present day Brooklyn), N.Y. This was a direct defiance of the law, and Sanger subsequently was jailed for opening this clinic. The organization that we all know as Planned Parenthood Federation of American was created in 1921 and was originally called American Birth Control League. Thus, Sanger created Planned Parenthood.

With every new building that she opened, with every piece that she wrote, the law was defied but women were getting liberated. Like Americans, today and back then, Sanger also showed an interest in African-American women’s health issues. With the help of such greats as W.E.B. Dubois and Mary McLeod Bethune, she established birth control clinics in various states in the rural South. On the societal hierarchy, Black women ranked lower than Whites, and Sanger fell that it was her duty to educate them also. By the time she died on September 6, 1966, Sanger had changed the birth control movement by empowering women to decide for themselves: when and how often they would get pregnant. However, most importantly, by her death, she had revolutionized women’s lives and achieved freedom and social justice for women in this male dominated world.

I voted Margaret Sanger as the most influential person of the 20th century because her accomplishments have been neglected. Today, most women do not think of Sanger as having influenced the course of women’s rights. Most of us can think of more than one person who played an integral part in one of the many social movements of the century, but the list is a short one for the birth control movement. Sanger took on a movement that no other woman- nor man- at the time would have taken. Nonetheless Sanger, somehow, saw a vision and decided to act upon it. Like those who stand for a cause, her life was one of personal sacrifices. Sanger spent time in jail; was exiled in Europe, and spent a lot of time in constant confrontation with legal authorities. Yet, all these obstacles never stopped her.

Today we all need to thank Margaret Sanger for she was as influential as the other well-known and publicized leaders. In addition, Women need to thank her. The availability of contraceptives, birth control injections, birth control pills, sponges, and many other medical wonders that women take for granted are all a direct result of Sanger’s determination and vision of a better life for woman. In Sanger, women saw a sister, a mother, a role model who stood for something bigger than birth control. They saw a person who empowered them to be strong and stand for what is theirs: their bodies and health.

Women today are productive, authoritative, professional, educated, responsible, and the list goes on. Sanger did not do all the work but she cast the first stone- the most important stone. As a minority living in today’s world, a world that has not seen a great social leader since the death of Martin Luther King, I am attracted to Sanger. I am attracted to Sanger because she represents hope and good will. She exhibits the characteristics of a true leader: vision, strength, dedication, fearlessness. She demonstrated her humanity and love for the oppressed. Yes it is necessary to “pull ourselves from our own boot straps”, but sometimes we all need help. Sanger represents, to minorities across the world including myself, that beacon of hope, dignity, pride and strength. The true value of a leader lies beyond her immediate impact. We are all still enjoying Sanger’s bravery, vision and dedication.

Yvon Edoumou