Eliza Bisbee Duffey
In fall 2006, Feminists for Life hosted the first ever e-tutorial of its kind: Pro-Woman Answers to Pro-Choice QuestionsSM.
In celebration of Women's History Month 2007, FFL developed a new e-tutorial about our feminist foremothers. As you get to know these courageous women a bit better, I hope that you will plan on sharing our rich pro-woman, pro-life history by forwarding FFL's "Herstory of the Week" to your family and friends.
Feminists for Life proudly works to realize the unfulfilled vision of Susan B. Anthony, who urged the feminist movement to address the root causes that drive women to abortion. You can help share our message (and your sense of humor!) with our Susan B. Anthony and other feminist foremother mugs.
by Cat Clark
Early feminist Eliza Bisbee Duffey,
writing about abortion in “The Limitation of Offspring” chapter of her 1876
book The Relations of the Sexes:
After a child is, no one has a right
to tamper with its existence…. [When people] talk about children having
a right to be born…. I mean that no one has a right to jeopardize
a life which has already begun ever so brief an existence…. My meaning
shuts at once and forever the door of abortion….
Abortion, intentionally accomplished, is
criminal in the first degree, and should be regarded as murder. Yet
women have been taught to look lightly on this offence, and to consider
it perfectly justifiable up to the period of quickening. “The embryo
has no life before that period,” they will say in justification of the
act. I have even heard a woman, who acknowledged to several successful
abortions, accomplished by her own hands upon herself, say, “Why, there
is no harm in it, any more than in drowning a blind kitten. It is nothing
better than a kitten, before it is born.” I was a young girl myself
when I heard this, and I accepted the statement as a true one. Nor did
I dream of questioning it, until, in later years, I became thoroughly
acquainted with sexual physiology, and comprehended the wonderful economy
of nature in the generation and development of the human germ.
The act of abortion which I had hitherto
regarded as a trivial thing, at once became in my eyes the grossest
misdemeanor—nay, the most aggravated crime. Being guided by this experience,
I judge that this offence is perpetrated by women who are totally ignorant
of the laws of their being. Consequently, the surest preventative against
this crime will be a thorough teaching to women, even before marriage,
of the physiology, hygiene, duties and obligations of maternity….
From the moment of conception, the embryo
is a living thing, leading a distinct, separate existence from the mother,
though closely bound to her…. From almost the earliest stage, the form
of the future being is indicated, and it has separate heart-beats, distinctly
perceptible through the intervening tissues of the mother’s body, which
cover it. It is a human being to all intents and purposes. The period
is a merely fictitious period, which does not indicate the first motion
of the embryo. These first motions are not usually detected… until they
have acquired considerable force.
Nature has put this little creature—this
small man or woman, as yet all undeveloped—in a place of seeming security,
and has placed every guard around it to keep it safely until the hour
shall come when it is fully prepared to make a complete change in its
mode of existence. If by intent or accident it is disturbed before that
period, the whole of nature’s plans are thwarted, and nothing is in
readiness…. Natural parturation2
may have its perils, but unnatural parturation slays its hundreds where
that slays one. Yet young married women consider [induced] miscarriage
a trifling affair!
….It is a sin against nature…. And it is
a crime in the fullest extent of the term, because it is murder ….
But no; I must not be too hard upon all
these unwomanly women. Their ignorance must be held responsible for
their sins. And men must share the responsibility too….
I have already said that knowledge among
women will do much towards decreasing this crime. Do not be content
to tell women it is wrong, and then stop there. Women are impatient
of being treated like children, or like unreasoning beings; nor do they
like to be dictated to. Tell them the how and the why of the whole matter,
and they will discover the wrong themselves, and feel the full
force of it, far more than they ever can by taking it merely on the
say-so of men.
Then the laws which are already upon our
statute books should be strictly enforced…. And husbands and seducers
should be made to share the punishment as accessories to the crime….
Not only every maker, advertiser and seller
of patent medicines, warranted to “remove female obstructions,” should
be subjected to prosecution and punishment, but every publisher who
prints an advertisement of this sort should be held equally guilty.
Community will not be injured in the least by the suppression of these
advertisements; for physicians of every shade of practice will sustain
me in declaring that they do harm and harm only to women…. [T]heir real
intent is for the procurement of abortion, and so everybody knows.
Like Sarah Norton, little is known about
the life of Eliza Bisbee Duffey beyond her writings, which focus on the
education of women.
After Cornell University began admitting
women in 1870, thanks to the efforts of Sarah Norton and Susan B. Anthony,
debates about women in higher education intensified. In 1873, Edward Clarke,
a physician and former faculty member at Harvard University Medical School,
wrote Sex in Education; Or, A Fair Chance for the Girls, arguing
that the higher education pursued by young men would endanger the mental
and physical health of women. Women could be educated separately, he claimed,
to avoid risking such problems as “abnormally active cerebration.” Eliza
Bisbee Duffey was one of the feminists who entered the controversy, publishing
No Sex In Education; Or, An Equal Chance for Both Boys and Girls
the following year. Duffey was not intimidated by Clarke’s medical degree,
but claimed the authoritative advantage of “being a woman… being able
to test my theories by personal experiment.” The book was a lively argument
for “the equal and co-education of the sexes.”
As the excerpts at the beginning of this
article show, Duffey’s concern for women’s education extended beyond the
question of formal schooling. Like other feminists of the time, she believed
women also deserve “a thorough acquaintanceship with the organs and functions
of their own bodies, in order that they may guard against disease and
suffering in themselves and that they may bring forth healthy children.”
Her books What Women Should Know (1873) and The Relations of
the Sexes (1876) were devoted to this purpose.
It is not difficult to recognize in the excerpts
themes common among early American feminists. The Revolution, readers
will recall, was known for its policy that “no quack or immoral advertisements
[for patent medicines] will be admitted,” because “Restellism [abortion]
has long found in these broths of Beelzebub, its securest hiding place.”
Women who wrote to The Revolution
likewise believed that education regarding sexual physiology would help
deter abortion. Upon hearing an educational lecture by Dr. Anna Densmore,
a teacher wrote:
In reading the article [which appeared
in The Revolution] on ‘Child Murder,’ I could not repress the
wish that the whole world could have heard Dr. Densmore’s remarks at
Bunyan Hall upon that theme. Those who had the privilege will never
forget the startling effect of the truths that she revealed relative
to the primitive and ever present vitality of the developing embryo,
as evidenced by the fainting of several self-convicted participators
in the crime of premeditated child destruction before birth…. I am
sure that women would rarely dare to destroy the product of conception
if they did not fully believe that the little being was devoid
of life during all the earlier period of gestation….
Dr. Densmore demonstrated to us fully and
clearly that the fulfillment of life processes were going on from the
very beginning of embryonic development…. And that even before the mother
could assure herself that she was to wear the crown of maternity by
realizing the movements of the child, that the educated ear of the physician
could often distinguish the beating of its heart. These are the facts
that women need to know.
“Eliza Bisbee Duffey makes a feminist case
against abortion and, by encouraging the education of women, lays the
foundation for Feminists for Life’s modern-day College
Outreach Program,” said FFL President
Pregnant women and parents still face tremendous
challenges. In addition to education, pregnant women and parents deserve
practical resources and support. For this reason, Feminists for Life is
dedicated to systematically eliminating the root causes that drive women
to abortion. Women deserve better.
“Herstory: Sarah F. Norton and Eliza Bisbee
Duffey” by Mary Krane Derr
The American Feminist Fall 1999: Back on Campus, pg. 20
Mary Krane Derr, Rachel MacNair, and Linda
Naranjo-Huebl, ProLife Feminism Yesterday & Today: Expanded Second
Edition (Xlibris, 2005)
The Revolution (suffragist newspaper,
New York, 1868)
- In the past, some people
believed that fetal life began when a mother first detected movement.
This moment was called “quickening.”
- “Natural paturation”
refers to giving birth. “Unnatural parturation” refers to abortion.