Search
I'll Come Speak

    I write and speak on all sorts of topics: ancient Christian spirituality and the Eastern Orthodox faith, the Jesus Prayer, marriage and family, the pro-life cause, cultural issues, and more. You can contact Cynthia Damaskos of the Orthodox Speakers Bureau if you’d like to bring me to an event. This Calendar will let you know when I’m in your neighborhood.

 

Powered by Squarespace
« Post-Roe Feminism: Recharged or Discharged? | Main | Abortion: Women's Rights and Wrongs »
Sunday
Mar291992

Suffragists at the Abortion March

[Sisterlife, Spring 1992] 

On April 5, 1992 , the National Organization of Women sponsored an event in defense of abortion; delegations from women’s groups marched through the streets of Washington , DC , united by the slogan "We Won’t Go Back." But the march organizers intended the day to be a time of, at least, looking back: "We want to tie our current challenge to the historic fight for women’s rights waged by our foremothers," they wrote in a letter to women’s groups. Each delegation at the march was to be heralded by banners of tri-colored panels, similar to those carried by the suffragists when they marched for the right to vote.

The irony of this appeal to history is that the suffragists were unanimous in opposing abortion. They did not hold this position primarily because of its physical dangers: they believed that abortion caused the death of a baby. Susan B. Anthony voiced the common opinion when she called it "child-murder".

But the suffragists went beyond the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement of their day, and insisted that abortion was a sign of women’s oppression as well. They reasoned that women’s powerlessness in sexual relationships, particularly their vulnerability to spousal rape, led to unwanted pregnancies. Despairing women might then seek abortion, which did nothing to rectify the injustice; it only invited her to solve the problem by disrupting her body, at the cost of her own child’s life. In her newspaper, The Revolution, Anthony wrote: "I deplore the horrible crime of child-murder…We want prevention, not merely punishment. We must reach the root of the evil, and destroy it…[It] is practised by those whose inmost souls revolt from the dreadful deed." Anthony found the woman who takes the life of "the unborn innocent" to be "awfully guilty…but oh! thrice guilty is he who…drove her to the desperation which impels her to the crime." [The Revolution, July 8, 1869 ]

Anthony’s colleague, Matilda Gage, likewise found that women’s powerlessness in sexual relations leads to "enforced motherhood" which wrongs both mother and child. This subject "lies deeper down into women’s wrongs than any other…I hesitate not to assert that most of this crime of ‘child murder’, ‘abortion’, ‘infanticide’ lies at the door of the male sex." [The Revolution, April 9, 1968 ] The colorful Victoria Woodhull, stockbroker, presidential candidate, and free-love advocate, agreed that women’s freedom depended on the power to choose those occasions when she would risk pregnancy: "Every woman knows that if she were free, she would never bear an unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth." [The Wheeling WV Evening Star, November 17, 1875 ]

Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued from another angle, that none are free till all are free: "When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit." [Letter to Julia Ward Howe, October 16, 1873 ] Mattie Brinkerhoff found in abortion, not freedom, but despair: "When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society—so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that…she has been greatly wronged." [The Revolution, September 2, 1869 ]

Feminist opposition to abortion transcends the suffragist era. As early as 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft cited abortion and infanticide as evidence of women’s oppression. The prevailing society so coddled and trivialized women that they "have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother" and instead "either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born." [A Vindication of the Rights of Woman] In our own century, Alice Paul, the suffragist founder of the National Women’s Party and author of the original Equal Rights Amendment [1923] , objected to combining abortion arguments with the fight for the ERA; a colleague recalls that Paul termed abortion "the ultimate exploitation of women." Clare Booth Luce resigned from the Board of Sponsors of the Women’s Lobby to show her conviction that abortion was wrong and incompatible with women’s rights. [Letter, cited in Congressional Record, March 7, 1978] Even Margaret Sanger said that "abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking a life" [An Autobiography, 1938] and termed "the killing of babies—infanticide—abortion" the "most barbaric method" of birth control. [My Fight for Birth Control, 1931]

On April 5, women carried the banner of the suffragists to celebrate access to abortion, but with little awareness of these women’s words on the subject. The suffragists would cut across the deadlocked debate of woman vs. fetus, and call for a feminism of broader vision, one that links rejection of abortion with rejection of sexual exploitation, and support for women in preventing or continuing unplanned pregnancies.

When a man sought to compliment Susan B. Anthony by saying what a fine mother she would have been, she responded, "Sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been to me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so that their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them." [Frances Willard, Glimpses of Fifty Years: The Autobiography of an American Woman, 1889] May the present-day champions of Susan B. Anthony, who march under her banner, pay her the ultimate compliment: listen to her.

SUFFRAGIST OPPOSITION TO ABORTION—Selected Quotations

 
Suffragists believed that abortion is wrong because it kills babies, but also that it is evidence of women’s lack of power in sexual relationships and vulnerability to spousal rape. They believed that the resulting unwanted pregnancies cause women to seek abortion, which does not rectify the injustice, but only disrupts her body and destroys the life of her own child.

Susan B. Anthony

"I deplore the horrible crime of child-murder…We want prevention, not merely punishment. We must reach the root of the evil, and destroy it…[It] is practised by those whose inmost souls revolt from the dreadful deed…Guilty? Yes, 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. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh! thrice guilty is he who, for selfish gratification, heedless of her prayers, indifferent to her fate, drove her to the desperation which impels her to the crime." [The Revolution, July 8, 1869]

Matilda Gage

Women’s powerlessness in refusing sexual intercourse is "a subject which lies deeper down into women’s wrongs than any other…Nowhere has the marital union of the sexes been one in which the woman has had control over her own body. Enforced motherhood is a crime against the body of the mother and the soul of the child…But the crime of abortion is not one in which the guilt lies solely or chiefly with the woman…I hesitate not to assert that most of this crime of ‘child murder’, ‘abortion’, ‘infanticide’ lies at the door of the male sex." [The Revolution, April 9, 1868]

Victoria Woodhull

"Men must no longer insult all womanhood by saying that freedom means the degradation of woman. Every woman knows that if she were free, she would never bear an unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth." [The Wheeling WV Evening Star, November 17, 1875]

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

"When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit." [Letter to Julia Ward Howe, October 16, 1873]

Mattie Brinkerhoff

"As law and custom give to the husband the absolute control of the wife’s person, she is forced to…outrage the holiest instincts of her being in order to maintain even a semblance of that freedom which by nature belongs to every human soul. When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society—so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged." [The Revolution, September 2, 1869]

EIGHTEENTH CENTURY (pre-suffragist):

Mary Wollstonecraft

Polite society so coddled and trivialized women that "women becoming, consequently, weaker, in mind and body, than they ought to be…have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born." [A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792]

TWENTIETH CENTURY (post suffrage [1920]):

Alice Paul

The suffragist founder of the National Women’s Party and author of the original Equal Rights Amendment [1923] , objected to combining abortion arguments with the fight for the ERA; a colleague recalls that Paul termed abortion "the ultimate exploitation of women." [letter of Evelyn Judge, May 23, 1991]

Clare Booth Luce

Resigned from the Board of Sponsors of the Women’s Lobby to show her conviction that abortion was wrong and incompatible with women’s rights. [Letter, cited in Congressional Record, March 7, 1978]

Simone de Beauvoir

Favored abortion legalization, yet eloquently described its horror. "Men tend to take abortion lightly; they…fail to realize the values involved. The woman who has recourse to abortion is disowning feminine values, her values…Women learn to believe no longer in what men say…the one thing they are sure of is this rifled and bleeding womb, these shreds of crimson life, this child that is not there." [The Second Sex, 1952]

Margaret Sanger

Despite her eugenic leanings, generally drew the line at abortion. She taught clients at her first clinic "that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking a life" [An Autobiography, 1938] and termed "the killing of babies—infanticide—abortion" the "most barbaric method" of birth control. [My Fight for Birth Control, 1931] She referred to abortionists as "The blood-sucking men with M.D. after their names who perform operations for the price of so-and-so." [The Woman Rebel, March 1914]

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend