Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

With Obamacare about to land, the executive director of the Arlington Free Clinic held forth last week on…the historic birth-control activist Margaret Sanger.

Nancy Sanger Pallesen, who has shepherded the county’s volunteer-supported health care provider for the needy since its founding 20 years ago, spoke on Sanger because she is her granddaughter.

Her audience of members in the Arlington branch of the American Association of University Women devoured every word on both topics.

To America’s chroniclers, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was the controversial pioneer of contraception, sex education and women’s rights who battled the early-20th-century Catholic Church and enforcers of the New York State Comstock anti-obscenity laws. They jailed her, shut down her clinics and censored her writing. She went on to found the group that became Planned Parenthood.

To Arlington’s Pallesen, Sanger was “Mimi,” the diminutive grandma she grew up next door to in Tucson, Ariz., who loved dinner parties and dressing up to put on plays. “She was a great storyteller,” the granddaughter recalls. “She listened well, and had presence as if you were the only person in the room.”

Pallesen (and her sister, former Arlington School Board member Margaret Lampe) traveled to the Orient under grandma’s auspices to meet world figures from India and Japan. Pallesen recalls watching Sanger solicit a million-dollar donation from philanthropist-biologist Katharine McCormick that eventually led to the birth control pill.

“When I was nine years old, I was at a loss about what birth control meant,” Pallesen said.

She recounted Sanger’s life as the sixth child of 11 born “on the other side of the tracks” to a Corning, N.Y. stone mason and a homemaker. “The only careers for women at the time were domestic service, teaching or prostitution,” Pallesen said. The fact that Sanger’s mother went through 18 pregnancies before dying of tuberculosis led the visionary to believe that women could not prosper without more control over their health.

Unhappy as a housewife, Sanger studied nursing and moved to Greenwich Village where, drawn to socialists and radicals, she began treating tenement women for venereal disease. “She thought everyone should know about sex,” Pallesen said, “but you couldn’t talk about it” without violating the law. Sanger’s writings on syphilis led to her prosecution, and her first clinic was shut down—after 500 patients—in 10 days.

Travels to France and Holland taught Sanger about birth control not available stateside. “She had lots of confidence in herself and she met people easily,” Pallesen said, recalling how Sanger persuaded a French winemaker to ship diaphragms to the United States inside bottles and, later, in crates belonging to her oil-magnate second husband. Sanger insisted on a prenuptial that gave her sexual freedom and financial security.

“She was more about birth control than abortion,” Pallesen said. “I wish I’d listened—I didn’t get good information growing up.”

In the early 1990s, when Pallesen’s job at Aetna insurance left Arlington, she helped raise the initial $4,000 that launched the free clinic “on a shoestring” out of her home.

Today it has a modern green building at Columbia Pike and South 11th Street and provides the full range of services to Arlington’s income-qualifying uninsured.

A few patients will qualify for the Affordable Care Act insurance exchange that opens for enrollment Oct. 1. But for most, Pallesen said, “the clinic will still be here.”