Susan B. Anthony, anti-abortion heroine? How activists are claiming her for their own.

Susan B. Anthony, Pro-Life Heroine?

Susan B. Anthony, Pro-Life Heroine?

What women really think.
May 8 2017 5:57 AM

The Battle Over Susan B. Anthony

Behind a quiet house museum are anti-abortion activists with a mission: to claim America’s most famous historical feminist as their own.

Public relations portrait of Susan B. Anthony as used in the History of Woman Suffrage by Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Volume I, published in 1881.
Portrait of Susan B. Anthony circa 1855.

G.E. Perine & Co./Wikipedia

Like every house museum, the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum in Adams, Massachusetts, sets out to tell a story. For the price of a $6 ticket, visitors can admire stacks of old quilts in the sunny room where the great suffragist was born and peruse 19th-century kitchen tools in a room where her father operated a small store. The self-guided tour ends in the “legacy room,” whose walls are lined with displays on Anthony’s later life and work.

Ruth Graham Ruth Graham

Ruth Graham is a regular Slate contributor. She lives in New Hampshire.

Among the glass cabinets of suffrage-era bric-a-brac are exhibits devoted to the activist causes for which Anthony and her peers became icons: suffrage, abolition, temperance. But a casual visitor might not realize how strange it is that one entire wall is devoted to a more obscure and hotly disputed claim: that Susan B. Anthony, feminist heroine, was a committed opponent of abortion rights.

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The primary documentary evidence for Anthony’s “opposition to Restellism,” a 19th-century euphemism for abortion, are a few diary entries; a newspaper editorial; and the fact that her short-lived feminist newspaper, the Revolution, declined advertisements for “quack medicines” including abortifacients. From that thin gruel, the museum makes a feast. Anthony wrote in her diary in 1876 that her sister-in-law, recovering from an abortion (“tampering with herself”) would “rue the day she forces nature,” for example. She was friendly with women who wrote about abortion in much harsher terms. An excerpt from a speech Anthony delivered in 1875 spans the entirety of the wall: “When the office of maternity shall be held sacred … then, and not till then, will this earth see a new order of men and women, prone to good rather evil.”

These quotes are accurate, but their implication is wildly misleading. Historians say there’s almost no evidence that Anthony was pro-life in anything close to the way that term is used today. “I’ve been handling press questions about this for more than 20 years,” said Ann Gordon, an historian who edited the six-volume Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Pro-life activists have “got almost nothing to hang it on.”

That hasn’t stopped them from claiming Anthony as one of their own. Today, even as the modern feminist movement continues to embrace Anthony as its foremost 19th-century avatar, the modern pro-life movement is on a quest to make her the face of opposition to abortion. With an education campaign reinforced through books, articles, campus outreach, and institutions like the birthplace museum, the pro-life movement is making steady progress in rewriting what Anthony means to us. Their success shows just how quickly motivated forces can change the image of a major historical figure—and how tempting it can be to paint an earlier era as a reflection of our own.

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When Carol Crossed heard that the house where Anthony was born was for sale, she was immediately intrigued. It was 2006; the farmhouse, built in 1818, had been vacant for more than a decade and had fallen into disrepair. Crossed, an activist in Anthony’s hometown of Rochester, New York, had restored her own 1826 federal-style home, and she had amassed a large collection of suffrage-related ephemera, including many copies of the Revolution. Buying the house felt like a natural next step. “I thought it would be fun,” she said recently in an interview. “And I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to do something to showcase the suffragists’ pro-life position.”

The notion that the suffragists opposed abortion in a recognizably contemporary way goes back more than two decades. In 1992, a Quaker activist named Rachel MacNair was watching a 60 Minutes segment on EMILY’s List, the PAC devoted to electing pro-choice women to political office. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she recalls thinking at the time, “we need to do something like that but for pro-life women.” That stroke of inspiration led her to found the Susan B. Anthony List, now an influential right-wing PAC.

MacNair chose Anthony for the group’s name in part because of her name recognition and because she had been arrested for attempting to vote. “Of course trying to educate people about the pro-life views of the early suffragists was high on my mind,” she said. “I would be doing college speaking engagements, and people would say to me, ‘How can you be pro-life and feminist?’ And I’d say, ‘Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton managed it.’ ” Of course, naming the group after a feminist heroine also had the benefit of ruffling feathers.

Like Crossed, MacNair is a peace activist whose politics do not neatly map on to those of the Republican Party, which is now virtually synonymous with the anti-abortion cause. MacNair is a vegan whose research as a psychologist focuses on the psychological costs of killing. Crossed has been arrested 19 times for civil disobedience, including in actions against a nuclear test site and for human rights in Central America. In its early years, the Susan B. Anthony List endorsed both Republicans and Democrats, as long as they were women and opposed abortion rights. But by the turn of the millennium, it made a hard-right turn away from bipartisanship and away from the feminist focus on promoting female candidates. MacNair left the group and has since spoken out against its alignment with the Republican Party. The group now endorses male candidates and has campaigned against pro-life Democrats it views as insufficiently orthodox.

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Crossed bought the Anthony birthplace at auction for $164,000 and set to work restoring it. After considering several options, including turning it into a home for pregnant teenagers, she started assembling a board of directors to open a museum. The board was drawn from local pro-life circles and also includes several Anthony family descendants. Several months before the opening, Crossed abruptly replaced the historian who served as the museum’s full-time director with a former vice president of the anti-abortion activist group Feminists for Life whose most recent job experience was at a Montana center for teen parents. (Crossed says the original director developed the exhibits but that her replacement “better fit our budgetary requirements” and plays a more administrative role.)

Susan B. Anthony house museum
The Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum in Adams, Massachusetts.

Ruth Graham

The museum’s first mission statement described Anthony as “a noteworthy figure in the abolitionist, pro-life and temperance movements of the 19th century.” (It has since changed references to the term pro-life to anti-Restellist, a period euphemism named for the notorious New York abortionist Madame Restell.) It held a grand opening in 2010. “Through historical facts, the truth was going to be told in the museum,” Crossed said at the grand opening, “whether it was politically correct or not.” Outside, a small group of protesters handed out leaflets pointing out the museum's connections to Feminists for Life.

One of the attendees at the museum’s opening was Mary Krane Derr, a Chicago-based activist who had arguably contributed more than anyone to the notion of the pro-life suffragist. “It only made sense that Anthony opposed abortion,” she wrote in her 1995 book Pro-Life Feminism: Yesterday and Today. Derr, who described herself as an “eco-feminist” and animal rights activist, implied that Anthony’s newspaper rejected advertisements for “patent medicine” because some of them were abortifacients. And she reprinted and attributed to Anthony an anonymous Revolution essay that referred to abortion as “the horrible crime of child-murder.” (Derr died in 2013.)

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Today, the rebranding efforts launched by activists in the 1990s are paying off, as the public increasingly associates Anthony with the pro-life movement. In a Saturday Night Live sketch that aired in January, a group of young women touring Susan B. Anthony’s home in Rochester are ecstatic to be greeted by the ghost of the great suffragist, played by Kate McKinnon. They thank her effusively for giving them hope, and she encourages them to speak their minds. But the women grow annoyed when Anthony pesters them with questions about cellphones and forces them to fawn over her writing desk. McKinnon delivers the punchline as the women hustle for the door: “Abortion is murder!” The sketch delighted pro-life activists; a report on the anti-abortion news site Life News called it a “surprisingly accurate” confirmation of “something that abortion activists would rather the public forget: The early feminists were pro-life.”

This infuriates many historians and others invested in Anthony’s legacy. Rochester, where Anthony lived for more than four decades, is home to a separate Anthony house museum, the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House. Its president, Deborah Hughes, has made a point over the years to try to disentangle Anthony from the contemporary abortion debate. When a 2008 robocall by the Susan B. Anthony List described late-term abortion in graphic detail, she said, an irate father whose 6-year-old had picked up the phone saw “Susan B. Anthony” on the caller ID and called Hughes’ museum to complain. Hughes was irked by the recent late-night comedy sketch. “When you have Saturday Night Live putting words in Susan B. Anthony’s mouth,” she said, “people think that’s correct.”

The truth is that the contours of the 21st-century abortion debate would have been unrecognizable to the suffragists. Until the early 19th century, there was widespread moral and legal latitude for abortion before the quickening, the moment a pregnant woman feels her child moving in the womb. But as medical science advanced, doctors argued that biological life began earlier than the quickening, and by the late 19th century, most states banned abortion except to save a mother’s life. The illegal abortions that persisted were seen by most as both morally unfortunate and risky to women.

The birthing room inside the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum.
The birthing room inside the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum in Massachusetts.

Ruth Graham

In its unregulated state, abortion was dangerous, induced by unapproved pills or powders or performed surgically and in secret. Significant calls for legalized abortion essentially did not exist until the 1930s, according to historian Daniel K. Williams’ book Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, published last year by Oxford University Press. And when those calls came, many reformers were motivated by the desire to reduce women’s risk in the dangerous underground economy, while still seeing abortion as the taking of a human life.

One way to read this history is to view everyone before the mid-20th century as pro-life. But accepting an era’s conventional wisdom does not make one an activist on that wisdom’s behalf. And there is further reason to doubt Anthony’s status as a pro-life poster child. The “child murder” essay that Derr attributes to Anthony was in fact signed only by the letter “A.,” which Anthony is not known to have used. (She used “S.B.A.”) Anyway, the essay’s main point was to argue against criminalizing abortion, on the grounds that a law would “be only mowing off the top of the noxious weed, while the root remains,” she wrote. “We want prevention, not merely punishment.” (Gordon, the historian, has collected more evidence against such claims in essays for such outlets as Time.)

“Was Susan B. Anthony pro-life or pro-choice?” Hughes asked with a sigh. “The answer is easy: neither. Those are 20th-century movements, and she was a 19th-century person.”

Yet the pro-life movement’s education campaign means that the conflict over Anthony’s legacy has no end in sight. Days before the massive Women’s March on Washington in January, Crossed and one of her board members (an Anthony family descendent) published a critical op-ed in the Washington Post, arguing that the suffragist was an “anti-abortion feminist” who “would never have joined a march in favor of abortion access.” Hughes said the Post declined to publish her response. “We will always have to struggle with who gets to own her,” Hughes said, “and what stories do we tell.”