Did Elizabeth Cady Stanton Say That?

by Cat Clark

“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.”

Earlier generations of pro-life feminists informed us that these words were written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in a letter tucked into Julia Ward Howe’s diary on October 16, 1873.

Howe’s diary entry for that day mentions a conversation with Stanton. She wrote, “Sparred with Mrs. Stanton, who excused infanticide on the ground that women did not want to bring moral monsters into the world… I differed with her strongly, asserting… that infanticide was usually a crime of gross selfishness, though under some circumstances, the struggle against it must be agonizing. Nature has a dark horror of the act, I think.”

Other writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton demonstrate, however, that she did not approve of abortion or infanticide. On February 5, 1868, for example, Stanton wrote in The Revolution newspaper regarding prostitution and the “murder of children, either before or after birth”: “For a quarter of a century sober, thinking women have warned this nation of these thick coming dangers, and pointed to the only remedy, the education and enfranchisement of woman… We believe the cause of all these abuses lies in the degradation of woman.”

From its very beginning, The Revolution, for which Stanton was an editor, had a known policy that “no quack or immoral advertisements [for patent medicines] will be admitted,” (5 February 1868), though these ads were a large source of revenue for periodicals of the time. The women and men who produced the newspaper were not opposed to alternative and self-help medicine, nor advertisements for medical doctors, but refused ads for “quack medicines” because “Restellism has long found in these broths of Beelzebub, its securest hiding place,” (8 April, 1869). “Restellism,” a period term for abortion, was named for Ann Lohman, who became notorious for advertising and selling abortifacient medicines and performing surgical abortions under the name “Madame Restell.”

Parker Pillsbury, co-editor of The Revolution with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, explained the newspaper’s policy in the context of criticizing less principled publishers. In an article titled “Quack Medicines,” he wrote: “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…. Let us learn to read authors between their lines, and to judge of newspapers largely by their advertisements,” (26 March 1868).

It would appear, then, that Stanton did not disagree with Howe regarding whether infanticide was a “dark horror” (Howe’s words) or “crying evil” (Stanton’s words, 12 March 1868), but perhaps whether infanticide was attributable to “gross selfishness.” As Stanton wrote in The Revolution, “We are living to-day under a dynasty of force; the masculine element is everywhere overpowering the feminine, and crushing women and children alike beneath its feet. Let woman assert herself in all her native purity, dignity, and strength, and end this wholesale suffering and murder of helpless children,” (29 January 1868).

If Elizabeth Cady Stanton did write a letter to Julia Howe on October 16, 1873, she may have done so in order to clarify a misunderstanding in their earlier conversation.

Though we have been searching for it and continue to seek it, Feminists for Life has, unfortunately, not been able to locate this letter attributed to Stanton. The letter may never have been written, or it may have been misplaced, relocated, stolen, or destroyed. Until we can verify that Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the words, we will no longer attribute them to her.

Regardless who first penned these words, they are true. In the words of Anna Julia Cooper, “Hers is every interest that has lacked an interpreter and defender. Her cause is linked with… the cause of every man or woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong,” (“Woman Versus the Indian,” 1892).

“While we would be pro-life feminists whether or not Susan B. Anthony and the other early American feminists opposed abortion, we are proud to continue their legacy. By giving birth to new solutions, Feminists for Life builds on the foundation they created,” says FFL President Serrin M. Foster. “We are working to realize their unfulfilled vision for the world.”

The author is grateful for the research and assistance provided by Mary Krane Derr, coeditor of ProLife Feminism Yesterday and Today: Expanded Second Edition.