In a recent article for Slate, Ruth Graham argues that Susan B. Anthony, America’s greatest suffragist, was neither pro-life nor pro-choice in the modern sense of the term, and that pro-lifers who have used her name to promote the pro-life cause have greatly exaggerated her opposition to abortion. “The contours of the twenty-first-century abortion debate would have been unrecognizable to the suffragists,” writes Graham. This is a true historical claim, which should serve as an admonition to those in the pro-life movement who value factual accuracy. There may be a better way for pro-lifers to appeal to Anthony’s legacy.
Feminists for Life, the group that originally championed Susan B. Anthony as a pro-life heroine in the late 1980s, has tried recently to nuance its claims regarding Anthony. Through its website, Feminists for Life still insists that, in some sense or to some degree, Anthony opposed abortion: “Her comments relating to abortion are few, but considered in the broader context of early feminist writings, it is reasonable to conclude that Anthony was truly both pro-woman and pro-life.” The organization concedes, however, that “abortion was not an issue to which Anthony devoted much time.”
Pro-lifers’ appropriation of Susan B. Anthony has resulted in a distortion of historical facts. Claiming Anthony for either side in the modern abortion debate is highly anachronistic. As a historian, I think that it’s important to understand the past on its own terms without trying to make figures from the past fit the contours of modern debates. Efforts to try to make Susan B. Anthony fit the mold of a modern pro-lifer are certainly misguided.
At the same time, I think it may be worth citing the late-nineteenth-century feminists in order to question modern pro-choice feminists’ insistence that reproductive rights are an essential, nonnegotiable part of feminism. If Anthony and her late-nineteenth-century feminist colleagues were not pro-life activists, they were not advocates of abortion rights or sexual license, either.
American feminism had existed for well over a century before it became entangled in the politics of the sexual revolution. If pro-lifers have overreached by claiming Anthony as one of their own, they would nevertheless be justified in citing Anthony and many other nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century feminists to demonstrate that a commitment to women’s rights does not require one to endorse the ethic of “reproductive rights” and the sexual revolution.
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.