“Vinegar-visaged virago.” “Stiff.” “Cold.” “Aggressive.” “Constantly howling.” “A dangerous, undermining effect on the characters of the wives and mothers of our land.” “Laboring under strong feelings of hatred towards men.” “What will become of … that healthful and necessary subordination of wife to husband?” “Taking women down from that pedestal where she is today.” “Will man be consigned to nursing the babies, washing the dishes, sweeping the house?”
These charges against feminists could have been made today, but they were made over a century ago against Susan B. Anthony. As Lynn Sherr points out in her wonderfully eye-opening book, Failure Is Impossible, Anthony was actually “selfless, diplomatic, elegant, charming, generous, friendly, determined, polite, curious, open, amusing, self-pos-sessed, and, once again, selfless.” Anthony tirelessly campaigned for suffrage, poor and professional women’s employment rights, the liberation of prostitutes, children’s rights, abolition of slavery and the death penalty, and temperance (this last because substance abuse caused much family violence). She illegally voted, took part in the Underground Railway, and sheltered a domestic-violence victim and her child. Anthony, a Quaker, had a gift for befriending women—and men—of different races, eco-nomic backgrounds, religions, and political affiliations and drawing them into activism.
Though happy with her personal choice not to marry or have biological children, she was told that as a single, childless woman she had no right to speak on matters of family and motherhood. Anthony praised egalitarian marriages, and described sexuality as “the highest and holiest function of the physical organism.” Thus she often decried in plain language the ways in which a male-dominant culture forced women to “sell themselves cheap” in marriage, sex and motherhood. She helped raise the seven children of her beloved friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She doted on her nieces, writing that “a child one loves is a constant benediction to the soul.” She called younger feminists her “nieces” too, and they called her “Aunt Susan.” Anthony supported one “niece’s” choice to adopt a baby while single.
Anthony took on laws that denied mothers’ wishes in custody decisions. During the 19th century, if a child were still unborn at the time of the father’s death, the child could be forcibly taken from the mother at birth and given to a guardian previously appointed by the father – even though this arrangement traumatized both mother and child. Anthony once remarked: “Sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been to me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so that their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them.”
Anthony referred to another violent rupture of the mother/child bond: abortion. The Revolution, the radical women’s paper she published with Stanton, editorialized against abortion, terming it “child murder” and “infanticide” while compassionately addressing its root causes in women’s oppression and advocating family planning. Anthony, the paper’s proprietor, spurned a lucrative revenue source for most periodicals of the era: ads for patent-medicine abortifacients. The lost income eventually forced her paper into bankruptcy.
Her 1875 speech “Social Purity,” reprinted in Ida Husted Harper’s 1898 Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, specifically discussed abortion and postnatal infanticide—along with rape and prostitution—as male wrongs against women. Anthony argued that laws pertaining to these matters, made and enforced exclusively by men, further victimized women while absolving men of all responsibility. Yet she declared: “The work of woman is not to lessen the severity or the certainty of the penalty for violation of the moral law, but to prevent this violation by the removal of the causes which lead to it.”
“Social Purity” is remarkably similar, even identical in places, to an earlier piece focusing specifically on abortion: “Marriage and Maternity” (The Revolution, July 8, 1869). Anthony was almost certainly the author of this piece, which was signed “A.”
Anthony was often called “Miss A.,” and The Revolution staff commonly signed articles with their initial (if they signed at all).
Anthony showed that feminism has never been about destroying the fabric of human relationships. It was and is about empowering women and men—whatever their marital or parental status—to give life to one another and to children, including the unborn. In honor of her birthday, Feb. 15, let us remember and commemorate her work.
By Mary Krane Derr She is co-editor of the anthology Prolife Feminism: Yesterday and Today.