Monday, December 9, 2019
Theme for March for Life 2020 Relies on Questionable Women's History, Incorrectly Claiming Early Feminist Leaders as Pro-Life
The old claims that feminist suffrage leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul were pro-life, are getting dusted off and used as the basis for pro-life advocacy, seeking a connection to the 2020 centennial of women's suffrage. One problem, however, is that they are not true.
Organizers of the March for Life have chosen "Life Empowers*: Pro-Life Is Pro-Woman" for the 2020 rally and march in Washington.
In embracing the theme, Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education Fund, cited the coming centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and the views of early suffragists, including the best-known figure of the movement, Susan B. Anthony.***
Leaders of the suffrage movement, Mancini said, knew that "mothers and babies were not at odds with each other." Citing Alice Paul, leading strategist of the 19th Amendment, Mancini said Paul "referred to abortion as "the ultimate exploitation of women."
This was reinforced by another panelist, Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, who said early American feminists condemned abortion "in no uncertain terms."
Abortion, Foster said, "was constantly referred to as child murder," and it was a frequently discussed topic in the feminist newspaper edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and to Anthony, the best known feminist leader of her age, was a frequent contributor.
A page on the website of the Susan B. Anthony House and Museum in Rochester, New York, disputes the notion Anthony can be considered a heroine to the pro-life movement, insisting her writings for the paper, called The Revolution, were mostly appeals to support the publication.
Similar claims have been made by the pro-life movement since the mid-1990s, in prior political campaigns, in college recruitment -- and in amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is not merely political rhetoric, but is being used as historical evidence to advocate for legal truth in the courts of law.
I've written extensively to dispute this claim, particularly the claim of pro-life as applied to pioneering feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton. See Tracy A. Thomas, Misappropriating Women's History in the Law and Politics of Abortion, 36 Seattle L. J. 1 (2012); Tracy A. Thomas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law, chp. 5 (NYU Press 2016).
As I explained the general context:
The appeal to historical figures in the abortion debate is powerful because it utilizes the gravitas of feminist heroines to challenge the existing legal and political assumption that abortion is a cornerstone of sex equality. The use of feminist leaders suggests that women themselves, even radical feminist women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, have traditionally opposed abortion. If these feminist leaders indeed opposed abortion, the historical story would seem to bolster the claim that abortion is not in the best interests of women.
The need to create a history of antiabortion feminists seems important today because abortion has come to be equated with women’s rights. Since the second wave of the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s, feminists have identified abortion as a foundational right for women upon which all other economic and educational rights rest. The appeal to feminist history by prolife advocates offers a counter-narrative in which women dedicated to improving the economic and educational rights of women reject abortion as a gender-based right. This story of women leaders opposing abortion is thus aimed at undermining the prevailing feminist and legal view that a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and reproductive choice is a privacy right of constitutional dimension going to the heart of gender equality.
The lack of popular knowledge about the lives and work of women’s rights leaders facilitates the co-opting of the historical feminist narrative by antiabortion activists. Most people, politicians, and policymakers lack a familiarity with these women’s lives or their work, much less the details of their philosophies and speeches. It is therefore easy to make the claim that a feminist leader had a particular belief because few are able to challenge it.
Despite the ease and utility of creating a feminist history against abortion, the narrative is simply not true.
The evidence alleged of Stanton's position is meager, a handful of quotes, only 2 of which can be attributed to Stanton, and the two do not endorse a pro-life stance. The other anonymous articles published in Stanton's newspaper were more likely written by, and selected by, the male managing editor of the paper, Parker Pillsbury, a former minister who was on the record as opposing abortion (although against criminalization of it).
What Stanton did talk about was women's reproductive choice, and voluntary motherhood. Maternity was woman's sole choice, unrestricted by men or government. Stanton also took up the public defense of Hester Vaughn, a young woman convicted of infanticide. Her extensive writings on both these subjects reveal a strong support for women's autonomy and choice in reproduction, a precursor to the modern pro-choice movement.
As to Susan B. Anthony, scholars of her life and work -- eminent historians Ann Gordon, Lynn Sherr, Stacy Schiff, and Christine Stansell, all strongly refuted that Anthony was pro-life, or said much of anything about it at all. These historians concluded that “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.”
- Ann Gordon & Lynn Sherr, Sarah Palin is No Susan B. Anthony, WASH. POST (May 21, 2010)
- Stacy Schiff, Desperately Seeking Susan, NYT (2006)
- Christine Stansell, Meet the Susan B. Anthony List, the Anti-Abortion Group Pushing Presidential Politics to the Extreme Right, New Republic (2011)
As I concluded:
It is simply not the case that nineteenth-century feminist leaders expressed explicit and unanimous support for the criminalization of abortion because of the concern of the morality of prenatal life. . . . [T]he few feminist voices joining the periphery of the abortion debate did not support the regulation of abortion. Instead, these writers defended women against the abortion campaign’s attack and shifted the moral blame to men and to society’s oppression of women. What feminists did unanimously endorse was voluntary motherhood and the right of women to control procreation through abstinence. Stanton expanded on this idea, arguing for a woman’s right to be the “sovereign of her own person,” which meant the right to choose when and under what conditions she would become pregnant. Stanton empathized with women who had unwanted pregnancies and argued against a legal system that imposed punishment upon women for infanticide. This advocate of women’s individual right to control makes an unlikely leader for today’s antiabortion movement.