Monday, February 1, 2021
Faye Dudden, Women's Rights Advocates and Abortion Laws, 31 Journal of Women's History 102 (2019)
In this article, historian Faye Dudden carefully and persuasively refutes the claims of modern pro-life activists that pioneering feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony originated the "feminist" demand for anti-abortion laws and thus serve as appropriate figureheads for the modern movement. (For example, in the appropriation of Anthony's name for the "Susan B. Anthony List," a pro-life fundraising and political action organization). Dudden agrees with my own conclusions that 1) the historical evidence attributed to Stanton and Anthony is not theirs, but the work and beliefs of their male co-editor, former minister and abolitionist Parker Pillsbury, and that 2) other early feminists' personal dislike of abortion did not support legal regulation of women's autonomy. See Tracy A. Thomas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law 176-85, 232-36 (NYU Press 2016); Tracy A. Thomas, Misappropriating Women's History in the Law and Politics of Abortion, 36 Seattle L. Rev. 1, 2-68 (2012).
Ever since Roe v. Wade, opponents of legal abortion have invoked women’s history to justify themselves. A group called Feminists for Life (FFL) first came up with the idea that the founders of the women’s rights movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had opposed abortion and “worked to outlaw” it. FFL saw their historical vision widely adopted in the Right-to-Life movement in the early 1990s as it tried to appeal to younger women with pro-woman and “women-protective” arguments. When a political action committee was formed in 1993 to support anti-choice candidates, it doubled down on this historical claim by calling itself the Susan B. Anthony List. But FFL and kindred groups have played fast and loose with the evidence, as the historian Ann D. Gordon and others have already pointed out.
In fact, a number of early feminists expressed decided skepticism about outlawing abortion. They disliked abortion but thought anti-abortion laws did not apply “the proper remedies,” according to one nineteenth-century women’s rights pioneer. Such laws “do not touch the case,” declared another. FFL assumed that it was enough to show that “the original feminists condemned abortion in the strongest terms” to infer that they favored legal sanctions. The sources show, however, that this assumption was wrong; feminists could condemn abortion but remain quite skeptical of its criminalization. This article revisits the sources and context to better understand how early women’s rights advocates thought about both abortion and abortion laws. While discussing disputed evidence in some detail, it goes beyond a verdict of “not proven” on Right-to-Life claims to argue that the early feminists’ insights about the law have lasting power.
h/t Kimberly Hamlin