Susan B. Anthony abortion dispute
American suffragist Susan B. Anthony's position on abortion has been the subject of a modern-day dispute. Since 1989, pro-life feminists promoted the idea that she was anti-abortion and would support the pro-life side of the modern debate over the issue. However, scholars, pro-choice activists, and journalists have said that this narrative is a case of invented historical revisionism.
Anthony is widely known for her dedication to three issues: abolition, temperance and women's suffrage. She was born in 1820 and raised by abolitionist Quaker parents, later attending Unitarian churches and finally becoming agnostic. She fought against the wrongs of slavery from an early age. In her mid-20s, she began to fight against alcohol abuse, and in her late 20s to work toward getting women the right to vote. This last effort became her primary occupation until her death in 1906. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, giving American women the right to vote. This achievement was the final form of the so-called "Anthony Amendment" first submitted to Congress by Anthony in 1878, and resubmitted every year until it finally passed. In 1979 Anthony was honored as the first American woman represented on circulating U.S. currency, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, a memorial of her legacy as the tireless champion of women's suffrage.
Pro-life feminism separated from the mainstream U.S. feminist movement in the early 1970s. The split was based on disagreement about abortion: The majority of second-wave feminists such as Betty Friedan said that open access to elective abortion was part of the political platform of feminism, but some Catholic and other feminists held that a belief in non-violence meant not killing the unborn child. They believed that the availability of abortion contributed to the devaluing of motherhood. Mainstream feminism's insistence on gender equality and abortion rights was seen by the pro-life feminists as having an undesirable masculinizing influence on womanhood, forcing women to be like men in order to succeed in a society dominated by men.
Several pro-life feminist groups such as Feminists for Life (FFL) (founded in the early 1970s), as well as conservative organizations such as Concerned Women for America (founded in 1979) have used Anthony's words and image extensively to promote the pro-life cause, saying that Anthony was pro-life. Catholic theologian Michael Novak wrote in February 1989 that FFL had "unearthed quotations showing that many of the founders of the feminist movement had grave reservations about abortion." Ann Dexter Gordon, a 30-year scholar of Anthony and the leader of the Rutgers University "Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony Papers Project", says she, too, noticed in 1989 that such assertions were being made about Anthony, and disagreed with these assertions. In 1993, the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) was founded; it is a political group with the ultimate goal of ending abortion in the United States by supporting pro-life politicians, especially women. The organization was so named because its founder, Rachel MacNair who was also the president of FFL, believed that Anthony opposed abortion, having once called it "child-murder".
A 2006 article by Allison Stevens for Women's eNews said "a scholarly disagreement ...is growing into a heated skirmish over the famous suffragist's position on reproductive rights." Stevens said pro-choice activists were "outraged over what they say is an unproven claim and concerned that their heroine is being appropriated by a community led by the very people Anthony battled during her lifetime: social conservatives." Nora Bredes, the director of the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership at the University of Rochester in New York and a pro-choice Democratic politician, said that she wished to "reclaim" Anthony's legacy. Author and columnist Stacy Schiff said "there is no question that [Anthony] deplored the practice of abortion, as did every one of her colleagues in the suffrage movement." In the anti-alcohol Temperance speech "Social Purity", which Anthony gave repeatedly in the 1870s, she includes "infanticides and abortions" among the examples of "perpetual reminders of men’s incapacity to cope successfully with this monster evil of society," meaning drunkenness which leads to licentiousness. However, Anthony scholars Lynn Sherr and Ann Gordon contend that Anthony expressed her disapproval of abortion only once, privately in a diary entry which is open to other interpretations, and that she did not publicly or politically work against abortion.
Schiff points out that abortion in the 19th century, unlike today, was a very dangerous and unpredictable procedure. She concludes, "The bottom line is that we cannot possibly know what Anthony would make of today’s debate" over the abortion issue, because "the terms do not translate".
In answer to the position that Anthony was pro-life, Gordon wrote that "she never voiced an opinion about the sanctity of fetal life ... and she never voiced an opinion about using the power of the state to require that pregnancies be brought to term." Gloria Feldt, a former head of Planned Parenthood, said of Anthony that "there's absolutely nothing in anything that she ever said or did that would indicate she was anti-abortion." Gordon said that the issue of abortion was "a political hot potato", one to avoid; it distracted from Anthony's main goal of gaining women the vote. Gordon said the suffrage movement in the 19th century held political and social views—"secularism, the separation of church and state, and women's self-ownership" (women's autonomy)—that do not fit with modern pro-life concerns.
In early 2007, Cat Clark, an editor of FFL's quarterly magazine, acknowledged that Anthony spent little time on the subject of abortion, but cited FFL researcher Mary Krane Derr who said Anthony's "stance on abortion" was integral to "her commitment to undo gender oppression".
In May 2010, Sarah Palin addressed the SBA List, saying Anthony was one of her heroes, and that Palin's own opposition to abortion rights was influenced by her "feminist foremothers". She said "Organizations like the Susan B. Anthony List are returning the woman's movement back to its original roots, back to what it was all about in the beginning. You remind us of the earliest leaders of the woman's rights movement: They were pro-life." In response to this, journalist Lynn Sherr, author of Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words, joined with Gordon to write an opinion piece for The Washington Post. They said: "We have read every single word that this very voluble—and endlessly political—woman left behind. Our conclusion: Anthony spent no time on the politics of abortion. It was of no interest to her, despite living in a society (and a family) where women aborted unwanted pregnancies." Sherr and Gordon said that their argument "is not over abortion rights. Rather it is about the erosion of accuracy in history and journalism."
SBA List president Marjorie Dannenfelser published her response to Sherr and Gordon, saying that their conclusion "that abortion was nowhere on [Anthony's] radar" was "unfounded on many levels". She said that in Anthony's day, "abortion wasn't even a hot political issue ...Abortion simply wasn't up for debate at a time when society itself was firmly against the practice." She quoted Anthony's business partner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who referred to both the killing of infants and abortion as "infanticide" and said, "When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit." She said that while the pro-life cause was not "the issue that earned Susan B. Anthony her stripes in American history books, historians would be wrong to conclude that Anthony was agnostic on the issue of abortion."
Anthony wrote very little about abortion. The few existing quotes that are cited by pro-life organizations have been disputed by Anthony scholars and abortion rights activists who say that the quotes are misleading, taken out of context, or misattributed.
Some pro-life groups cite as Anthony's own words an anonymous essay entitled "Marriage and Maternity" published in 1869 in The Revolution, a newspaper owned for two years by Anthony and edited by fellow women's rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Parker Pillsbury. The essay is against abortion and the societal problems which cause it, but the author believes any proposed law prohibiting abortion would fail to "reach the root of the evil, and destroy it." The cited text includes this admonition against abortion:
"Guilty? Yes, no matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh! thrice guilty is he who, for selfish gratification, heedless of her prayers, indifferent to her fate, drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime."
The piece was signed simply "A." Because it was published in The Revolution, Dannenfelser wrote that "most logical people would agree, then, that writings signed by 'A.' in a paper that Anthony funded and published were a reflection of her own opinions." Responding to the equating of Anthony's beliefs with those voiced in The Revolution, Gordon said that people "have a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that The Revolution was a paper of debate—presenting both sides of an issue." Gordon, whose project at Rutgers has examined 14,000 documents related to Stanton and Anthony, wrote that there is no proof that Anthony wrote the cited essay since she was not known to sign "A.". However, Derr says Anthony was known to sign "S.B.A." and was affectionately referred to as "Miss A." by others. Schiff says "what is generally not mentioned [by pro-life organizations] is that the essay argues against an anti-abortion law; its author did not believe legislation would resolve the issue of unwanted pregnancy." Gordon, referring to the article's many scriptural quotes and appeals to God, says that its style does not fit with Anthony's "known beliefs".
Frances Willard, president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, gave a speech on October 4, 1888, in which she described Anthony's reaction to a "leading publicist" who asked her why she, with such a generous heart, had never been a wife or mother. Willard quoted Anthony's response:
"I thank you kind sir, for what I take to be the highest compliment, but sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been to me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so that their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them."
This quote has been presented by both the SBA List and FFL to indicate Anthony's stance on abortion. Tracy Clark-Flory wrote on Salon.com that the quote was "a statement that can conveniently be taken to mean any number of things." Dannenfelser of SBA List connected the quote to abortion in 2010: "in case there's still lingering doubt about where Susan B. Anthony's convictions lie, her words to Frances Willard in 1889 speak for themselves". However, in the 1990s, pro-life feminist Derr contextualized Anthony's words not to abortion but rather to Anthony's opposition to a law which held that, if a child was unborn at the time of its father's death, custody of the newborn infant could be taken away from the mother if there was a guardian appointed in the father's will. After these findings were published by Derr in a 1995 book and in FFL's own journal in 1998, the quote was used in 2000 by FFL in a promotional poster, one of eight produced for college campuses, alongside an assertion that Anthony was "another anti-choice fanatic", leading the reader to an abortion-related interpretation of the quote.
Derr describes "Social Purity", an anti-alcohol, anti-prostitution and pro-suffrage speech given repeatedly by Anthony in the 1870s, as one that is "more explicit" about abortion. Derr says that "this speech clearly represents abortion as a symptom of the problems faced by women, especially when subjected 'to the tyranny of men's appetites and passions.'"
In her speech, after naming alcohol abuse as a major social evil and estimating that there are 600,000 American men who are drunkards, Anthony describes how liquor traffic extends "deep and wide into the financial structure of the government" and that it must be fought with "one earnest, energetic, persistent force." She continues:
"The prosecutions on our courts for breach of promise, divorce, adultery, bigamy, seduction, rape; the newspaper reports every day of every year of scandals and outrages, of wife murders and paramour shooting, of abortions and infanticides, are perpetual reminders of men's incapacity to cope successfully with this monster evil of society."
Later in the speech, Anthony mentions abortion again:
"The true relation of the sexes never can be attained until woman is free and equal with man. Neither in the making nor executing of the laws regulating these relations has woman ever had the slightest voice. The statutes for marriage and divorce, for adultery, breach of promise, seduction, rape, bigamy, abortion, infanticide—all were made by men."
"She will rue the day"
According to Gordon and Sherr, the only clear reference to abortion in writings known to be Anthony's came in her diary. Anthony wrote in 1876 that she visited her brother and learned that her sister-in-law had had an abortion. "Things did not go well", say Gordon and Sherr, and her sister-in-law was bedridden. Anthony wrote, "She will rue the day she forces nature."
Gordon and Sherr wrote, "Clearly Anthony did not applaud her sister-in-law's action, but the notation is ambiguous. Is it the act of abortion that will be regretted? Or is it being bedridden, the risk taken with one's own life?" Moreover, Gordon writes, there is no indication in the quote that Anthony considered abortion a social or political issue rather than a personal one, that she passionately hated it, or that she was active against it.
Defense of woman accused of infanticide
Anthony's only participation in a public campaign related to reproductive issues was her defense of Hester Vaughn an unmarried young woman who had been found guilty of killing her newborn child in 1868 and sentenced to hang for infanticide. The coroner testified that the newborn baby had suffered severe injuries to the skull. Vaughn was reported to have said that she had been startled by someone coming into her room and had fallen on the baby, killing it. The judge later said infanticide had become so common that "some woman must be made an example of."
The Revolution, the women's rights newspaper that had been established earlier that year by Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, launched a campaign in her defense. Describing Vaughn as a "poor, ignorant, friendless and forlorn girl who had killed her newborn child because she knew not what else to do with it", an editorial in The Revolution said, "If that poor child of sorrow is hung, it will be deliberate, downright murder. Her death will be a far more horrible infanticide than was the killing of her child." As the defense campaign developed, The Revolution changed its approach, implying in later issues that the baby's death was not intentional and saying that Vaughn had not received a fair trial.
Vaughn's defense was organized primarily by the Working Women's Association (WWA), which had been formed in the offices of The Revolution with Anthony's participation. The WWA's campaign focused on the unfairness of the social and legal systems toward women. Anthony opened a mass meeting organized in Vaughn's defense by the WWA in New York City with a statement saying that Vaughn had been "condemned on insufficient evidence and with inadequate defense." According to the New York World, "Miss Anthony wanted it understood that the workingwomen were going to defend the defenceless of their own sex". Anthony was quoted as saying, "As soon as we get Hester Vaughan out of prison we will get somebody else to work for. We intend to keep up the excitement".
Stanton spoke at the meeting also, demanding the right of women to vote, to hold public office and to serve on juries. Two years earlier, Stanton's and Anthony's "Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States" had said that the lack of such rights resulted in unfair treatment of women by the legal system, specifically mentioning those who were accused of infanticide.
Speakers at the mass meeting were criticized by some newspapers for focusing on women's rights and for voicing concern only for the mother, not the dead infant. According to the New York Evening Telegram, none of the speakers "expressed the slightest sympathy with the thousands of poor little infants who are sacrificed to this puerperal mania or something else every month of the year... Hester Vaughn's murdered child is surely entitled to some pity as well." The Nation said that Vaughn's conviction was "denounced with as much fury as if the woman's story of bigamy, and the rape which the victim refuses to prove, made it in some mysterious way the duty of the Governor to treat the infanticide as really a blameless act".
Vaughn was eventually pardoned and deported to her native England.
Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum
In August 2006, Carol Crossed, a pro-life feminist and advisory board member of the SBA List, purchased the house in Adams, Massachusetts, where Anthony was born. The house was to be managed by Feminists for Life of America. Crossed transformed the house into the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum which opened by appointment in February 2010, with a permanent opening in May. The museum's mission includes "raising public awareness" of Anthony's "wide-ranging legacy" including her being "a pioneering feminist and suffragist as well as a noteworthy figure in the abolitionist, pro-life and temperance movements of the 19th century" (emphasis added.)
A local newspaper said the "she will rue the day" quote is displayed in the museum, though none of the others are. Among the exhibits is one on 19th century activism against Restellism, a euphemism for abortion, in reference to Madame Restell, one of many who sold abortifacients in the 19th century. Anthony refused to publish advertisements for abortifacients in The Revolution. According to the local reporter, the display implies that the rejection of advertisements frames Anthony's personal views about abortion, though she "never specifically states her position."
At its opening, the museum was leafleted by protesters who said the museum's leadership was "inferring upon [Anthony] an unproven historical stance." The protesters said that the directors were using the museum to put forward a pro-life agenda. Answering this assertion, Crossed said, "the pro-life views expressed in Anthony's newspaper, The Revolution, will not be excluded from the exhibition. This vision represented a very small part of Anthony's life, and while it will be presented, it will not be an overwhelming theme of the birthplace. Anthony's own anti-abortion stance is mentioned in just one of the museum's ten exhibits."
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To accomplish our ultimate goal of ending abortion in this country...
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- Abortion was more dangerous than childbirth throughout the 19th century. By 1930, medical procedures had improved for both childbirth and abortion but not equally, and induced abortion in the first trimester had become safer than childbirth. In 1973, Roe vs. Wade acknowledged that abortion in the first trimester was safer than childbirth.
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Blackmun was also swayed by the fact that most abortion prohibitions were enacted in the 19th century when the procedure was more dangerous than now.
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- Her name is also spelled Vaughan by some contemporary and modern sources.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, July 1, 1868, p. 2 under the heading "Legal Intelligence." The conclusion of this trial is reported in the same newspaper on page 3 of the issue for July 2 beneath the same heading. These newspaper digital images are provided by Fultonhistory.com, a digital repository for old newspapers.
- "The Case of Hester Vaughan," The Revolution, December 10, 1868, pp. 357–358.
- "Infanticide", The Revolution, August 6, 1868, p. 74, which is reprinted in Gordon (2000), pp. 158–159. Tracy A. Thomas, who wrote about the Hester Vaughn case in "Misappropriating Women's History in the Law and Politics of Abortion", Seattle Law Review, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2012), p. 40, said Stanton did not "engage in the moral question of abortion but instead utilized the public dialogue to reframe the question into one of women's rights", using infanticide to illustrate her points.
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- "Hester Vaughan", New York Times, December 2, 1868
- "The Termagants and the Slaughter of the Innocents", Rochester Union and Advertiser, December 3, 1868, p. 3. This quote also appears in the New York World, December 2, 1868, according to p. 218 of Sherr, Lynn (1995), Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words, New York: Random House, ISBN 0-8129-2430-4
- Gordon, Ann D., ed. (2003). The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: National Protection for National Citizens, 1873 to 1880, p. 235. Vol. 3 of 6. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-2319-2.
- "The Case of Hester Vaughn", New York Evening Telegram, Dec 2, 1868, p. 2
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