Susan B. Anthony: the Rest of the Story
In their Washington Post article "Sarah Palin is no Susan B. Anthony," Ann Gordon and Lynn Sherr wrote 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." Gordon and Sherr don't tell the whole story.
Without known exception, the early American feminists opposed abortion in the strongest terms. In the 18th and 19th centuries, suffragist writings in publications such as Anthony's own newspaper, The Revolution, regularly refer to abortion as "ante-natal murder," "child murder," "ante-natal infanticide," and "infanticide."
As the owner and business manager of The Revolution, Susan B. Anthony's responsibilities included selling advertising space. But the paper refused to publish advertisements for "patent medicines" even though they were a large source of revenue for publications of the time. When the editors of The Revolution explained the newspaper's policy, they wrote that "Restellism [a period term for abortion] has long found in these broths of Beelzebub, its securest hiding place" and "Quack Medicine venders, however rich, proud, and pretentious, Foeticides and Infanticides, should be classed together and regarded with shuddering horror by the whole human race."
Such principled stands often come at a cost. When The Revolution went bankrupt in 1870, Susan B. Anthony personally assumed the $10,000 debt rather than betray the policy of her paper.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, co-editor of Anthony's newspaper, wrote that "For a quarter of a century sober, thinking women have warned this nation of these thick coming dangers," which included the "murder of children, either before or after birth," and argued that "We believe the cause of all these abuses lies in the degradation of women." Mattie Brinkerhoff agreed, writing, "When a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged."
Paulina Wright Davis, another Revolution editor, commended Dr. Charlotte Lozier for her refusal to perform abortions, which Davis called "the murder of the innocents." "[I]t was fitting that a true woman should protest with all the energy of her soul against this woeful crime," Davis concluded. The newspaper similarly reprinted an article by Dr. Anna Densmore in which the author wrote, "I cannot close without saying a single word more on the crime of abortion, now so frightfully prevalent, and to ask you each and severally to stretch out a helping, saving hand in this direction, that its suppression may to some extent at least be accomplished. It is only through ignorance that it has become such a wide-spread evil."
If every mention of abortion in Anthony's newspaper opposed it, then how can anyone come to the conclusion that Anthony herself was in favor of it? It is true that other early feminists said and wrote more about abortion than Anthony; she published what they wrote.
Gordon and Sherr write that "historians and good journalists rely on evidence." I invite you to read more about what early American feminists actually said and wrote about abortion in Cat Clark's "The Truth About Susan B. Anthony" and "Herstory of the Week" e-tutorial at www.feministsforlife.org and in ProLife Feminism Yesterday and Today: Expanded Second Edition by Mary Krane Derr, Rachel MacNair, and Linda Naranjo-Huebl.
While we at Feminists for Life would be pro-life feminists whether or not Susan B. Anthony and other early American feminists opposed abortion, we are proud to continue their legacy and work to realize their unfulfilled vision for women and for the world.
Because women deserve better,
Serrin M. Foster