Susan B. Anthony, Abortion, and Sarah Palin

Ann Gordon and Lynn Sheer respond to Sarah Palin and the Susan B. Anthony List's fabrication of history:
For nearly 30 years, both of us have been immersed in Susan B. Anthony's words -- Ann as the editor of Anthony's papers, Lynn as the author of a biography. We have read every single word that this very voluble -- and endlessly political -- woman left behind. Our conclusion: Anthony spent no time on the politics of abortion. It was of no interest to her, despite living in a society (and a family) where women aborted unwanted pregnancies.

The [Susan B. Anthony] List's mission statement proclaims, "Although [Anthony] is known for helping women win the right to vote, it is often untold in history that she and most early feminists were strongly pro-life." There's a good reason it's "untold:" historians and good journalists rely on evidence. Of which there is none.
via Ta-Nehisi Coates


  1. I'm glad you pointed this out. I was sure Anthony would have supported abortion rights if it came down to it.

    Wasn't she a supporter of eugenics? I recall that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was.

    I will give Ms. Palin credit for getting me interested in learning more about Anthony et al

  2. There's all sorts of interesting things that can be said about Anthony, some of them not particularly pleasant, but she was an incredibly complex person. Her rift with Frederick Douglass after the 14th & 15th Amendments were passed was not particularly pretty, but she was able to mend this a bit late in her life, and she saw him (or he visited her, I don't remember offhand) days before he died, and his family asked her to speak at his funeral.

    Eugenics and the women's suffrage movement is also complex, tied in with American imperialism, etc. Some of the most provocative writing about it I've seen is in Louise Newman's White Women's Rights, which can be downloaded as a PDF (legally!) from that link.

    Eugenics gets even more interesting and complex with Margaret Sanger, and I'd write more about that, but have to run right now...

  3. It's no surprise that Anthony broke with Douglass when he decided that male black suffrage trumped female suffrage of any color (unlike Sojourner Truth, who sided with Anthony on the issue).

  4. Abortions weren't illegal until the late 19th Century, if I'm remembering correctly.

  5. And for an interesting look at the history of abortion, see Katha Pollitt's "Abortion in American History" from The Atlantic in 1997. [Note that Pollitt, who I'll admit is one of my heroes, is staunchly pro-choice, so folks who are anti-abortion may be skeptical.]

    Here's a useful passage:

    "UNTIL the last third of the nineteenth century, when it was criminalized state by state across the land, abortion was legal before 'quickening' (approximately the fourth month of pregnancy). Colonial home medical guides gave recipes for 'bringing on the menses' with herbs that could be grown in one's garden or easily found in the woods. By the mid eighteenth century commercial preparations were so widely available that they had inspired their own euphemism ('taking the trade'). Unfortunately, these drugs were often fatal. The first statutes regulating abortion, passed in the 1820s and 1830s, were actually poison-control laws: the sale of commercial abortifacients was banned, but abortion per se was not. The laws made little difference. By the 1840s the abortion business -- including the sale of illegal drugs, which were widely advertised in the popular press -- was booming."


    "In one of the many curious twists that mark the history of abortion, the campaign to criminalize it was waged by the same professional group that, a century later, would play an important role in legalization: physicians. The American Medical Association's crusade against abortion was partly a professional move, to establish the supremacy of 'regular' physicians over midwives and homeopaths. More broadly, anti-abortion sentiment was connected to nativism, anti-Catholicism, and, as it is today, anti-feminism. Immigration, especially by Catholics and nonwhites, was increasing, while birth rates among white native-born Protestants were declining. (Unlike the typical abortion patient of today, that of the nineteenth century was a middle- or upper-class white married woman.) Would the West 'be filled by our own children or by those of aliens?' the physician and anti-abortion leader Horatio R. Storer asked in 1868. 'This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.' (It should be mentioned that the nineteenth-century women's movement also opposed abortion, having pinned its hopes on 'voluntary motherhood' -- the right of wives to control the frequency and timing of sex with their husbands.)"

    I think Pollitt overstates things by speaking of the "nineteenth century women's movement" as monolithically anti-abortion, for the partly the same reason I find the SBA List and Palin so annoying -- so much has changed both socially and medically that it's awfully difficult to equate contemporary discourse about abortion with that of the 19th century. Pollitt's statement doesn't bother me nearly as much because it's within an essay (book review, really) that contextualizes so much else, and in fact the information does not support her own beliefs, so even though I find it a simplification, it's a simplification that's doing exactly the opposite of what Palin and the SBA are up to.

  6. I was at a bioethics conference years ago. I remember a lecturer quoted extensively from an essay by Anthony that implied a kind of proto-prolife position.

    Several academics questioned the speaker and his sources. The speaker produced a facsimile of Anthony's journal, Revolution. I still have my notes wand some of the cites from Anthony's own writings were quite telling... You can find these quotes all over the web, granted they are all on religious websites. I could not find a public access version of Revolution and the original article.

    Here are the quotes from my notes...


    “horrible crime of child-murder.”

    “destroys the little being, she thinks, before it lives.”

    “eradicate this most monstrous crime”

    “We must reach the root of the evil and destroy it.”

  7. I'd inadvertently put the wrong link up there (to the Palin speech rather than Gordon & Sheer's response), so you might not have seen that they're writing about exactly that Revolution article, which was bylined as by "A".

    The evidence or lack of evidence for Anthony's views on abortion is interesting to discuss from a historical standpoint, but the way Palin and the SBA List use SBA herself seems to me disingenous at best.

  8. I'm extremely late on this posting, but I have to say as representative of the Brownell Anthony(related on my grandmothers side, if anybody feels the need to test facts I will be more than happy to provide a small portion of our family tree) family, she was only against abortion due to lack of womens education on the subject, the health risks involved, and as horrible as it sounds it just wasn't classy. On the race issue she did not believe in slavery but was a mild racist herself and belived that educated women were more intelligent than ignorant African Americans per SBA.As for Sarah Palin where to start, I won't but I will say this; if Susan were alive today I'm almost positive she would not be an SP supporter, and I base this on the fact that the women in our family detest her.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"Stone Animals" by Kelly Link

"Loot" by Nadine Gordimer

Gardner Dozois (1947-2018)

Compulsory Genres

Writing in Crisis