Stacy Schiff: Susan B. Anthony, Poster Child for the Anti-Abortion Movement?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Stacy Schiff is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America.”]

... "[Susan B. Anthony's Adams, MA birthplace home] belongs now to Carol Crossed, the founder of the New York State chapter of Feminists for Life. Ms. Crossed made the acquisition on behalf of the national anti-abortion organization, which will manage and care for the house.

It is not the first time that Anthony has found herself leading the charge on this vexed issue. Since 1992 an anti-abortion political action committee has been named for her. On billboards and elsewhere, Ms. Crossed’s group promises to continue her legacy. “Susan B. Anthony was a forward-thinking woman who would feel comfortable with the positions of Feminists for Life of New York,” asserts the organization. Which does rather raise the question: When exactly did Susan B. Anthony — who fought more tenaciously for women’s rights than anyone else in our history — cast her anti-abortion vote?

There is no question that she deplored the practice of abortion, as did every one of her colleagues in the suffrage movement. Feminists for Life cites an 1869 article in her newspaper denouncing “child murder,” labeling abortion “a most monstrous crime,” and advocating its end. “No matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed,” blares the article. “It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death.”

What is generally not mentioned is that the essay argues against an anti-abortion law; its author did not believe legislation would resolve the issue of unwanted pregnancy. Also not mentioned is the vaporous textual trail. According to the editors of Anthony’s papers, the article is not hers.

In her personal life Anthony was clear in her conviction that women were not preordained to motherhood, that sometimes a woman and her womb might go their separate ways. A devoted aunt, she claimed to appreciate her colleagues’ offspring, some of whom even felt warmly toward her. But she had little patience for maternity. At best she was the ever-helpful friend who asks if you realize what you are in for just as you have vomited your way through your first trimester. At worst she was a ruthless scold....

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