This compelling historical novel spans the early and very formative years of feminist and women’s health activist Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, as she struggles to find her way amidst the harsh realities of poverty.
Margaret was determined to get out. She didn’t want to clean the dirty dishes and soiled diapers that piled up day in and day out in her large family’s small home. She didn’t want to disappoint her ailing mother, who cared tirelessly for an ever-growing number of children despite her incessant cough. And Margaret certainly didn’t want to be labeled a girl of “promise,” destined to become either a teacher or a mother—which seemed to be a woman’s only options.
As a feisty and opinionated young woman, Margaret Higgins Sanger witnessed and experienced incredible hardships, which led to her groundbreaking work as an advocate for women’s rights and the founder of Planned Parenthood. This fiery novel of Margaret’s early life paints the portrait of a young woman with the passion and courage to change the world.
What Every Girl Should Know March 1, 1899 I arrive on time for the earliest train with everything I own: a valise carrying two dresses, three pairs of knickers, a nightgown, and my silk gloves—all neatly folded and packed. My coat is buttoned to my chin to keep out the raw cold of early spring. My boots are laced up tightly. My hair is braided. My face is washed. Anyone witnessing my clipped stride as I enter Trenton Station would agree that I look like someone who is prepared to board a train. And I am prepared to board a train . . . I think.
They say my mother is dying—again. I don’t believe it. In truth I suspect I’m being rushed home to save my father from a sink full of dirty dishes. Although I understand his confusion: According to this world, a man confronted with the prospect of washing his own burnt saucepan is considered to be in quite dire circumstances. Either way, I have been summoned.
I admit I don’t regret having to leave my teaching job in New Jersey. It hadn’t turned out as I’d expected. Or rather it turned out exactly as I’d expected, though I’d held out hope for the contrary. I wanted to believe that once inside the classroom, I’d discover the joy in educating children, as so many others had before me. But I didn’t. The four walls of the classroom felt like a trap. The repetition of information, another trap. Unfortunately, what choice did I have but to teach? The same choice I now have to return home to clean the kitchen. Not only are women reduced to marry, maid, or schoolmarm, but men seem to be in control of which one we get to do at any moment.
I make my way toward the platform, dodging fellow passengers while my ears are assaulted by the echo of gate announcements. Leaving is the right thing to do. Going home is the right thing to do. And so I am bound for Corning, New York.
A whistle shrieks. My train appears as a silent flash of light, and I move to pick up my bag, dipping unsteadily since I’d never placed it down. The glint glows brighter and brighter, and is followed by a faint, far-off rumbling like a growing storm. The rumble grows into a roar, until it feels as if the massive engine barreling down on the station will drive straight through my ribs, slicing me in two. I close my eyes, welcoming the dissection . . . imagining half of me flung high up over the tracks and spinning off unfettered into the city’s morning rush, while the other half, flattened and stiff, marches itself aboard the train. They truly only need half of me at home. In fact, they’d all be happier with half, as long as it is the half that cooks and cleans without complaint. But who am I fooling, there isn’t the smallest piece of me able to do these things without complaint. I’m more afraid of that burnt saucepan than my father is.
The platform shakes as my train thunders into the station, and though I plant my boots firmly on the platform, I can’t stop my entire body from shaking with it. Car after car after car hurtles by. At last the metal wheels squeal to a stop, sounding like a giant tea kettle going off, and the deafening hiss of steam that I’d been anticipating, nevertheless sends my heart skidding. The doors rattle and then open with a disappointing thud.
The platform erupts with sound and movement—a flurry of faces, voices, and trunks. People flow from the opened doors of the train like a colorful river, bobbing and cascading toward the staircases. Others pool around the doors waving tickets, clamoring to board.
I should get on.
Almost as suddenly as it started, the commotion slows. Trunks are hauled away. Passengers settle into their seats. The conductor, a heavyset man wearing a too-tight blue uniform, walks the length of three train cars in either direction giving everyone a last chance to disembark or board.
I really should get on.
My eyes fix on the open train door, a portal promising to whisk me away from my recent failure . . . only to drop me directly on the front steps of all my old ones.
I’m the only one left on the platform. The conductor glances my way. I see a spark of recognition in his eyes. He must remember me from yesterday morning. Or possibly the morning before that. But it’s not his business whether or not I get on the train, and the annoyed expression on his face makes this perfectly clear as he grants me one more moment to decide.
Deep inside I hear her. My mother. Margaret Louise, she says. It’s all she says. But it means so many things. Stop fooling around. This is the way it is. Get on the train.
J. Albert Mann is the author of several middle grade and young adult novels, including The Degenerates and What Every Girl Should Know. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. She prefers books with unhappy endings to happy ones. Visit her at JAlbertMann.com.
“This is historical fiction at its best: J. Albert Mann braids evocative language and masterfully curated details in this compelling fictionalized account of the life of the young Margaret Higgins Sanger, who grew up to have a profound impact on the lives of so many."
– Kirby Larson, Newbery Honor winner
“A riveting story about one of humanity’s great heroes, with deep resonance for today’s readers.”
– Martha Brockenbrough, author of Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary
“A moving, authentic portrayal of how the most stubborn and daring woman reformer in American history developed her nerve.”
– Peter C. Engelman, author of A History of the Birth Control Movement in America
“Mann has created a sympathetic character in the rebellious Maggie. . . . An important, readable novel about Sanger, who changed the fate of millions of women through access to contraception.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“Mann's fictional interpretation of the life of Planned Parenthood's founder, Margaret Sanger, offers a thoughtful, topical approach, making the agitator for women's rights an understandable young woman. . . . Mann does well in her portrayal of a family hard-pressed by poverty, and sets up Margaret's struggle with her parents' choices so that it reflects on the concerns she grappled with as an adult. Readers who enjoy historical fiction, and are interested in the women's rights movement's origins, will find this a sympathetic read.”
"It is a tribute to Mann’s narrative approach that a reader who closes the cover without learning why Margaret Sanger is historically important will have seen through Maggie Higgins’ eyes how marriage snuffed out most women’s dreams in families of the working poor, and how even escape took an emotional toll that plucky girl novels too often overlook."
“Mann convincingly depicts Maggie’s fervent emotions as she struggles to be a dutiful daughter and sibling while trying to hold on to her dream of being a doctor, rather than the expected future of becoming a wife, mother, and, possibly, teacher. Mann creates a strong feminist character in her fictional portrayal of Sanger.”
– Publishers Weekly
"Each chapter of this compelling historical novel is poignant and meaningful. . . . Readers will not only be captivated by the storytelling but they will also gain a historical perspective that will shed light on why Margaret Sanger became a champion for women’s and reproductive rights. VERDICT: A fascinating biographical novel about birth control activist and founder of what eventually became Planned Parenthood that belongs on most shelves."