Susan B. Anthony recently made a surprise appearance in a Saturday Night Live skit, shocking the admiring young women touring her Rochester, N.Y., home by blurting out, “Abortion is murder!”
Saturday Night Live tried to make a joke about this feminist icon’s pro-life views, but the joke is really on them: Susan B. Anthony, like many of our great feminist foremothers, really was against abortion. Early feminists opposed abortion because it took human life, because women were pressured by economics and by male partners to do something they didn’t want to do, and because they believed the vital right to control one’s own body could not include the right to destroy someone else’s.
Susan B. Anthony campaigned, above all, for women’s right to equal economic and political opportunity. But the newspaper she owned and ran with Elizabeth Cady Stanton refused to carry ads for abortifacients, and published numerous articles from feminist leaders denouncing abortion as an evil. Anthony said in her famous, oft-repeated temperance speech, that “the newspaper reports every day of every year of scandals and outrages, of wife murders and paramour shooting, of abortions and infanticides, are perpetual reminders of men’s incapacity to cope successfully with this monster evil of society.”
Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and perhaps the very first feminist philosopher, wrote disapprovingly about women who, owing to their powerless position, “have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection, that ennobles instinct, either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born.”
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the very first woman to become a medical doctor in the United States and is memorialized across the country, from a monument in Asheville, N.C., to a street on the campus of SUNY’s upstate medical school. The National Women’s History Museum honors Dr. Blackwell as our first woman physician, while editing out of her history one of her major passions: opposing the cruelty of abortion. She wrote in her diary: “The gross perversion and destruction of motherhood by the abortionist filled me with indignation.” This sentiment motivated her lifelong efforts, as it did those of other early feminist physicians, including Dr. Charlotte Lozier.
Sarah F. Norton, who, with Susan B. Anthony, successfully persuaded Cornell University to admit women in 1870, wrote that “perhaps there will come a time when an unmarried mother will not be despised because of her motherhood . . . and when the right of the unborn to be born will not be denied or interfered with.”
Some scholars have attempted to say that those who point out these facts are engaging in “revisionist history,” but how many pioneering 19th-century women have had their opposition to abortion shamefully edited out of their biographies and Wikipedia entries because too many modern-day feminists are embarrassed by the suffragists’ pro-life views?
It is a selective reading of history that makes pro-abortion feminists embrace early women pioneers while at the same time denying a profound truth espoused by Anthony and these other early women’s-rights activists: A commitment to the equal dignity of women is not consistent with insisting on a “right” to destroy life.
The organizers of the Women’s March in Washington are engaging in a similar act of revisionism when they refuse to let a pro-life women’s group march with them — excluding from their concern not only this group, but the millions of American women, young and old, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democratic, who reject the cruelty inherent in the idea that women’s rights include the right to kill our developing children.
The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice. Women, including young women, increasingly refuse to stay silent before the injustice of abortion; we are reclaiming our own history, and our movement’s rightful place among the women leaders and reformers past and present who have worked tirelessly to make equal rights and equal human dignity a reality for all.
– Marjorie Dannenfelser is the president of the Susan B. Anthony List.