In recent years, anti-abortion activists have used this as a basis to claim the suffragists for their side—often with mixed results. Debates over suffragists’ views on abortion have mostly focused narrowly on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the 19th-century architect of the suffrage movement, and Susan B. Anthony, her co-reformer, the namesake of Susan B. Anthony List, the prominent anti-abortion advocacy group. The women ran a newspaper, The Revolution, which published unsigned articles describing abortion as “child murder” and “infanticide.” Anti-abortion activists take this as evidence of Stanton’s and Anthony’s pro-life views, while pro-abortion-rights scholars and activists contend that their male co-editor, Parker Pillsbury, or another contributor wrote those articles.
Beginning in the early 1990s, Feminists for Life—an advocacy group promoting the view that “abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women”—began publishing materials describing Stanton and Anthony, along with other early suffrage activists, as uniformly opposed to abortion. These arguments burrowed their way into political debate: Legislators have named anti-abortion bills in honor of Anthony, for example, and advocacy groups have invoked the suffragists in amicus briefs to the Supreme Court. Scholars who have attempted to disprove these claims have found them resilient: “That’s what concerns me,” says Tracy A. Thomas, a law professor at the University of Akron who has written extensively on this issue. When assertions about suffragists and abortion are entered into legal and legislative records, she told me, “they look like truth, or evidence, or facts.” She argues that Stanton supported “voluntary motherhood,” an idea that shares intellectual roots with the movement for abortion rights.
After facing significant criticism, Feminists for Life eventually acknowledged that “abortion was not an issue to which Anthony devoted much time.” This may be exactly the point: The abortion debate, which so thoroughly circumscribes feminism today, was effectively nonexistent during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when suffrage activists were agitating for access to the polls. Insofar as most suffragists had an opinion on abortion, Williams told me, they likely would have “viewed it as detrimental to women,” which “was a near-universal view in the late 19th century and even in the early 20th century,” he said. “The way people viewed abortion in the late 19th century is not all that different from the way we might view the street trade in heroin”—unsafe, unseemly, and hidden from public view.
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So why are progressives and conservatives alike so preoccupied with claiming suffragists for their side on abortion? “To me, that grounds those progressive ideals in more truth,” said Thomas, who writes from a pro-abortion-rights point of view. Linking the feminists of today to the suffragists of the past suggests that activists’ ideals are rooted in a long-standing, universal notion of justice. “We’ve had almost 150 years of women at different time periods still coming back to these core ideals, these core truths based on their experience,” Thomas said. “These aren’t just uppity women, modern women.” Similarly, Sue Ellen Browder, the author of Subverted, about her time as a writer at Cosmopolitan and how she came to see contemporary feminism as bankrupt, told me the suffragists give “credibility” to the anti-abortion movement, establishing that “they have feminist roots.” “What pro-life feminists are objecting to is the false joining of … feminism with the sexual revolution,” she said. “Abortion is a sex-revolution demand, not a feminist demand.”