Culture

Dissing Susan B. Anthony

Kate McKinnon as Susan B. Anthony on Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Saturday Night Live opens a door to wider recognition of pro-life feminism.

Serrin Foster has been talking about Susan B. Anthony probably for as long as she can remember. She’s with Feminists for Life, and a Saturday Night Live skit recently sent her into overdrive. An unlikely gift for a group that aims to educate women about nonviolence in the face of legal abortion, a recent skit on the comedy show ended with Anthony saying to group of modern women at the end of a museum tour of her home, “Abortion is murder.”

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Could she have said anything more uncouth? Such was the reaction, which appeared to be a mix of indignation and bewilderment.

As it happens, Foster was already fielding press calls because of a billboard that Feminists for Life were sponsoring in Rochester, N.Y., where Anthony lived and spent her activist years. “Peace Begins in the Womb,” it says, which was essentially the message Mother Teresa told Bill and Hillary Clinton and the rest of us when she spoke to the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994.

The billboard didn’t invoke Anthony, but it provoked a debate about her record on abortion. Foster makes the points that Anthony and other “feminist foremothers . . . without known exception, spoke out against abortion during the first wave.” The suffragettes were unmistakably pro-life, using terms such as “crime against humanity,” “feticide,” and “child murder.” “They used ‘infanticide’ and ‘abortion’ interchangeably,” Foster says.

In the cultural mirror of an SNL skit, Anthony might be dismissed as someone who just happened to get the women’s-vote idea right though otherwise a bit kooky and backward, but who’s perfect, anyway?

In reality, what an opportunity for reflection — about the history that Foster and Carol Crossed, a veteran of the pro-life movement who lives in Anthony’s house in Rochester, have dedicated years to. About what we have been doing to ourselves — to human lives, to our culture and law.

“Sometimes SNL gets it right,” Grazie Christie, a doctor in Miami and senior fellow with the Catholic Association, tells me. In the sketch “the superficial banality of modern feminism is in full display,” she remarked. About Anthony, she said:

The suffragists struggled to change a society where women could not divorce a drunk and abusive husband, vote, speak in public, own separate property when married, or be joint guardians of their children. The Millennials, affluent and liberated heirs to the fruits of her labor, argue about taxi fare and whether to eat on the train or grab takeout. The only thing that gets their attention is Susan B.’s statement ‘Abortion is murder’! Wonderful. Early feminists tackled grave injustice and real suffering. Today’s feminists only think about sexual liberation and how the government needs to facilitate it with “free” contraception and abortion. Susan knew better.

Foster sees the SNL skit as

an opportunity to instruct both sides about our rich, pro-life feminist history. It begins with the women who fought for the rights of slaves to be free and for women to vote, and who also argued to protect women and children from abortion. Women deserve better than abortion — and so do all children. We seek to fulfill the unrealized vision of the first-wave feminists. May peace begin in the womb.

Anthony, who did not have children of her own, was once complimented on what a good mother she would have been. Foster points to her response: “Sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been for 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.”

“Given the many conflicting messages these days about what it means to be a woman, to be a feminist, I appreciated the skit and its humorous poke at a sound-bite culture that is lacking a deeper understanding of the inherent dignity and vocation of woman,” says Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Foundation, which sponsors the annual gathering celebration of life and protest against the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. “I appreciated that the skit depicted Susan B. Anthony’s stance on respecting and protecting life from conception.”

I take some solace in the fact that the first woman nominated by one of the major parties for president, who was an extremist on abortion, wasn’t elected. Unlikely as it may be, a SNL skit could be a gateway to liberation from our cultural assumption that women’s politics and health are wedded to legal abortion. It’s not so. It hasn’t been so. It doesn’t need to be. We can’t live forever as we have been. See the opening now; it’s showing up even on Saturday Night Live.

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