Evidence Gone Missing

by Jeff Taylor on June 1, 2010 · 16 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Politics & Power

Susan-B-Anthony

Jacksonville, AL.   Connie Schultz’s recent syndicated column ridicules Sarah Palin and other pro-life feminists associated with the Susan B. Anthony List.  It sounds convincing when she quotes from a Washington Post op-ed: “Anthony spent no time on the politics of abortion.  It was of no interest to her. . . . The 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.”

It’s convincing until you discover it’s not accurate.  The July 8, 1869 issue of The Revolution, published by Anthony, features an editorial deploring abortion as “the horrible crime of child-murder,” arguing that while the married woman who does the deed is guilty, the selfish husband who drives her to it is even more guilty.  Signed “A.,” it was most likely written by Anthony.  If not, it was certainly approved by her.

The previous year, Revolution editor Elizabeth Cady Stanton called abortion “infanticide” and put the blame for “such revolting outrages against the laws of nature and our common humanity” on “forced maternity” within marriage (March 12, 1868).  Every prominent feminist of the nineteenth century opposed abortion as a symptom of patriarchal oppression rather than glorifying it as a fundamental right of women.  See the book Prolife Feminism: Yesterday & Today, edited by MacNair, Derr, and Naranjo-Huebl.  The documentation is there.  For reasons yet to be determined, the evidence is invisible to “historians and good journalists.”

Lynn Sherr of ABC News was one of the op-ed writers who discreetly referred to herself as one of those “historians and good journalists.”  Sherr is a proud recipient of Planned Parenthood awards for her excellent reporting on abortion over the years.  We may have identified one reason for the inability to see inconvenient evidence.

It’s easy to mock Palin but at least we can say Sarah has gotten where she is today on her own merits, without the assistance of an influential husband.  In Connie’s case, she was married first to a law professor and now to a U.S. senator.  Perhaps it’s an unfair slight of Schultz’s talent, but since she brought up the subject of feminist bona fides, it makes me wonder which career trajectory is more feminist.  Hillary Clinton, of “Stand By Your Man” fame, also comes to mind.

I shouldn’t have to say it, but I probably need to: The question of Palin’s fitness for the presidency is a separate issue.  Same with the desirability of feminism and the ethics of abortion.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar x. trapnel June 1, 2010 at 6:08 am

But the original WPost piece *doesn’t* ignore that Revolution editorial: ‘The bits of information circulating on the Web always cite “Marriage and Maternity,” an article in a newspaper owned for several years after the Civil War by Susan B. Anthony. In it, the writer deplores “the horrible crime of child-murder,” and signs it simply, “A.” Although no data exists that Anthony wrote it, or ever used that shorthand for herself, she is imagined to be its author. The anti-abortion forces also ignore the paragraph in which the anonymous author vigorously opposes “demanding a law for its suppression.” In other words, the article opposes the criminalization of abortion and was written by someone other then Anthony.’

I certainly don’t know much about SBA’s life, or the context of 1st-wave feminism or abolitionism. But if, as the WPost authors claim, that editorial and a note in her journals expressing sadness at her sister-in-law’s abortion, are the only things linking such an outspoken and prominent political activist to the issue over an extremely long career, then it seems pretty disingenous to consider her “pro-life” in the contemporary sense, which is *defined by* a political commitment to criminalizing abortion.

This is especially true when one compares the thicker commitments behind the position expressed in that Revolution editorial vs. those of most anti-abortion activists (not necessarily supporters) today. The Revolution piece explicitly ties the pervasiveness and felt necessity of abortion to the unjust roles, rights, & responsibilities assigned to men and women within traditional marriage; my understanding (a generation out of date, perhaps–from Luker’s 1984 ‘Abortion & the Politics of Motherhood’) is that much of post-60s anti-abortion activism flows precisely from concerns that traditional gender/family roles were under assault, & legal abortion represented both a symbolic and practical aspect of that assault.

None of which is to deny that other 1st-wave feminists really did crusade against legal abortion, and may be quite rightfully appropriated by contemporary anti-abortion activists. It just doesn’t seem like SAB is one of them, if that’s all the evidence FFL et al can muster.

avatar x. trapnel June 1, 2010 at 7:02 am

… ok, one last bit:

It’s certainly true that the rhetorical emphasis within the anti-abortion movement of the last decade (or 2?) has shifted towards a “criminalizing abortion *for her own good*” strategy, now enshrined in caselaw with Justice Kennedy’s Gonzales v Carhart opinion, part 4a. A central part of this strategy is to diminish the moral culpability, & downplay the hoped-for criminality, of women who get abortions. But what makes this a part of anti-abortion activism, rather than part of a broader female-empowerment campagin, is that this shift in rhetoric and strategy takes for granted the fundamental legitimacy & overriding importance, of using state criminal & regulatory law to abolish legal abortion.

In contemporary debates, you’re just not “pro-life” unless you sign onto that–both the legitimacy & importance planks. Just believing that abortion is a serious sin and/or tragedy doesn’t cut it.

avatar James Matthew Wilson June 1, 2010 at 8:02 am

In brief, the already dubious doctrines of historical feminism may not even have a sense of the sacredness of life to excuse their reductive and individualist account of the human person.

avatar Jeff Taylor June 1, 2010 at 12:52 pm

x., You’re right that the WaPo op-ed doesn’t ignore The Revolution piece. It is dismissed far too breezily, however. Gordon and Sherr simply conclude that the editorial was “written by someone other than Anthony” when, in fact, there is evidence pro and con. Anthony was sometimes referred to as “Miss A.” and Revolution staff frequently signed articles with their initials. The points made are similar to those contained in an Anthony speech entitled “Social Purity,” delivered in Chicago, on March 14, 1875. (http://history1900s.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http://www.pbs.org/stantonanthony/resources/index.html?body=social_purity.html)

It is a reasonable assumption that Anthony wrote the editorial. Even if she did not, it is hard to believe that she did not approve of its viewpoint. The Post op-ed deliberately distances Anthony from her own publication by saying she owned it for a few years. She was the owner and publisher of a weekly journal of opinion–specific opinion. It was not a remote business investment for her.

Read again the blanket statements that come before the breezy dismissal. We are told that the politics of abortion “was of no interest to her.” That’s clearly not true. Her Social Purity speech includes a discussion of infanticide, with “the dead bodies of infants, still-born and murdered,” scattered in parks and vacant lots in Washington DC. Abortion was of enough interest to Anthony that she, at a mimimum, allowed strongly-worded editorials denouncing the same to appear in her magazine.

Gordon and Sherr assert that the Revolution writer “opposes the criminalization of abortion.” In response to an earlier Revolution editorial demanding a law for the suppression of abortion by married women, she writes, “Much as I deplore the horrible crime of child-murder, earnestly as I desire its suppression, I cannot believe . . . that such a law would have the desired effect. . . . We want prevention, not merely punishment. We must reach the root of the evil, and destroy it.” An emphasis on prevention does not exclude punishment (“not merely”). As Anthony said in her 1875 speech, “The work of woman is not to lessen the severity or the certainty of the penalty for the violation of the moral law, but to prevent this violation by the removal of the causes, which lead to it.” It is untrue to say that anti-abortion forces “ignore the paragraph.” The Feminists for Life writers I read acknowledge the paragraph.

Another inaccurate blanket statement is when Gordon and Sherr assert that there is no evidence that “most early feminists were strongly pro-life.” This takes in much more ground than just Anthony and is simply wrong. We can say that the word “pro-life” is ambiguous, but the fundamental contention of pro-life/anti-abortion advocates is that induced abortion is–unnatural and unethical. What we do about that wrongness is secondary to the first argument. So I disagree that criminal law is the central criteria. Does the anti-abortion rhetoric of Stanton and other feminists differ dramatically from that of most anti-abortionists today? Certainly. The rhetoric and the vision are very different, which points to the weakness of the current cast of anti-abortion characters. Religious dogma, especially when it’s coming from men, is not widely convincing, and it leaves out other important aspects of the question.

Schultz’s column doesn’t even bother to deal with any ambiguities. She just cites the most “damning” parts of the Post editorial and leaves it at that, bookending them with smug and not particularly witty comments of her own. For example, “Earlier this month, Sarah Palin gave a speech to the Susan B. Anthony List, a PAC that raises money for female congressional candidates who oppose abortion rights.
Now, you may be thinking: Wait a minute. Susan B. Anthony? Wasn’t she all about women’s rights? Look at you: Insisting on facts.” So we get a false choice from the get go. Abortion rights = Women’s rights. Opposition to Abortion rights = Opposition to Women’s rights. That’s the silly, and ahistorical, thinking to which I’m calling attention.

Forget laws or lack thereof. Here’s the basic question, especially from a women’s rights perspective: Is abortion an empowering right necessary for true equality, or an inhumane tragedy linked to lack of true choice? Most feminists today say the former. Most feminists in Anthony’s day said the latter.

Women associated with the Susan B. Anthony List are correct in using her name as a publisher, if not writer, of anti-abortion pieces . . . provided they share the early feminists’ range of thought and concerns. Abortion was not an isolated atrocity grounded only in theological concerns or rejected because it went against male strictures. Ironically, the early feminists were objecting to the men who often pressured or indirectly caused the abortions. American society has not changed so much since the 1860s. The choice of women today is often for the convenience of men. It doesn’t take women off the hook, in terms of personal culpability, but it acknowledges that such choices are not made in a vacuum. Unfortunately, that type of nuance is lacking among both pro-life and pro-choice partisans.

James, The early feminists did have a sense of the sacredness of life, which makes the “reductive and individualist account of the human person” held by the Sherrs and Schultzs even more disappointing or disgusting. It’s unnecessary. There is an alternate path for feminists. That’s why someone like Lynn Sherr, who admires Anthony and her friends so much, cannot admit to herself or others that they would not be on board today’s “freedom of choice” crusade.

avatar Denise O'brien June 1, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Excuse me, but I really think you slighted Connie Schultz.

Ms. Schultz got where she “is” by talent and hard work.
Divorced ( her first husband’s occupation is irrelevant) and a single mother for a number of years, she was admired by the senator for her intellect, warmth-and talent- brought to his attention by her weekly newspaper column. They began dating after Connie had established herself as an award winning reporter for her articles in The Plain Dealer. Her unforgettable series on a young mother dying of cancer (“Losing Lisa”) and her Pulitzer for her column have certainly enhanced her career, but make no mistake, they are her own.

Palin, before quitting as governor of Alaska, was only made known to most of America after being chosen by John McCain to be his running mate. A master of the cliche’ and the mostly forgettable phrase- if they were not so amusing, she contributes to fueling the ignorant mind by mention of death panels, “gotcha” journalism, and the educated “elite”. I will admit, however, that her ability to earn millions should certainly encourage every child left behind.

avatar Janine June 2, 2010 at 12:33 pm

I posted about that on the Religion in American History blog a few weeks ago:
http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2010/05/channeling-susan-b-anthony.html

avatar Jeff Taylor June 2, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Denise, You may be right, which is why I anticipated your objection. I don’t mean to be unfair to Ms. Schultz. However, I think you’re missing my bigger point and slighting Ms. Palin. Love her or hate her, Governor Palin had a record of personal political accomplishment by the time McCain put her into the national spotlight. She had neither a law professor husband nor a congressman husband to open doors or just to put icing on the cake for her. Regardless of Schultz’s talent or independence, we know that Palin was elected to the city council twice, to the mayor’s office twice, and to the governorship once because of who she was and what she accomplished.

Hillary Clinton is an opposite example of spousal coattails even though she is a strong and intelligent person in her own right. The basic point I’m making in my penultimate paragraph is that feminism is more complex and less knee-jerky than you would suspect reading writers like Schultz. Comparing Palin and Clinton, in terms of career paths, embrace of Anthony/Stanton values, and treatment of individual women, Palin is the better feminist.

avatar nancy June 2, 2010 at 6:52 pm

I suggest that you dig deeper into what you call Palin’s record of accomplishment. Sarah Palin was chosen for one reason–to capture Hilary’s disappointed female supporters– by the McCain campaign, without proper vetting, and I suggest with disastrous results for the Republican Party. She was given a Nieman-Marcus makeover, and she fell in love with her reflection. She is now out and about raising many fistfuls of dollars in the most dubious of pursuits–speaking for a small cadre of angry, voiceless and smitten reactionaries. Her “political” rise on the scene proves that sexism is still quite healthy in this country. Were she a male, her utterances, tweets, and facebook communiques, not to mention unwillingness to answer anything but pre-screened questions, would have rendered her an irrelevance by now. Instead, she’s untouchable–that chivalry impulse she counts on has left her intact. All of the women I know (most of us are moms) are repulsed at her use of her children as props, as she jets from event to event cashing in on her unearned fame. Please, more homework. (And I’m trying to “be nice” as the commenting guidelines suggest, but I find Palin utterly dispiriting. Sorry.) I seriously doubt Palin had ever heard of Susan B. Anthony before her speaking event was booked.

avatar Jeff Taylor June 2, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Kudos to you, Nancy, for reading the commenting guidelines and actually trying to follow them! I appreciate you being nice and I admire your writing ability. Nice turns of the phrase.

Believe me, I’ve done as much homework as can be expected of any one person. See http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2010/01/rogue-remnants-sarah-palin-continued/. Many of the women I know, most of whom are moms, admire Sarah Palin. Others detest her. I know Palin is a polarizing person and many think she’s an idiot but that’s not really what this essay is about. Even your response, as well-written and engaging as it is, misses my point. I’m pointing to her record of accomplishment BEFORE she was tapped to be the Republican vice presidential nominee.

We’re all familiar with her gaffes, her abrupt resignation, her large speaking fees. (I wish liberals were equally concerned about Bill Clinton’s cashing in . . . oft times in the company of far more dubious characters than disgruntled average Americans.) Whether one finds Palin appealing or appalling, one might concede that she must have had some record of accomplishment, which she achieved largely on her own (not having the benefit of a wealthy family or powerful husband) or she would not have been picked by McCain.

It wasn’t simply that she was a woman. She was also a conservative and a Christian, which compensated for McCain deficiencies. There are millions of conservative Christian women. Why Sarah Palin? Mainly because she was one of the most popular governors in the country, who had a track record as a successful campaigner. That’s my point.

She made it to the top on her own terms, in a man’s world. Yes, Alaska may be hicksville by urbane, east-coast standards, but it also has a masculine, redneck reputation which might make the state seem un-congenial to a female desiring power. Yet she gained it and wasn’t afraid to butt heads with the old boys network within the state GOP. There ought to be a lesson or two for feminists in that story, even if they don’t like how she talks or what she does with her family.

I don’t think her fame is unearned. When it comes to unearned fame, or widespread ignorance, Palin stacks up favorably compared to the much-honored Lion of the Senate. Edward M. Kennedy was a real dunderhead, and a moral illiterate to boot. Did he have some good qualities? Sure. I just find the outrage, the huffing and puffing, the indignant sneers by liberal women directed at Palin to be disproportionate when they give someone like Ted Kennedy–a male chauvinist pig of the first rank–a pass. No, not a pass, but warm accolades. Something’s amiss.

To their credit, there are feminists like Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, and Suzannah Lessard who have been more consistent in applying the same standards to all, even to liberal icons like Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton. At any rate, I enjoyed your response even though we disagree.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins June 3, 2010 at 7:10 pm

For the record, Sarah Palin is neither a fool, nor an idiot. She is a cool, calculating politician, with a mind like a steel trap. She may appeal to, or cultivate, foolishness, but only with a clear-eyed purpose in mind. I believe, hope, and pray that she has miscalculated just who the “real people” are. We’re not idiots either.

This discussion touches the surface of just how complex an issue abortion really is, and how widely varied the attitudes of various Americans, American social currents, and American political leaders, have been over more than 200 years. For anyone to flatly deny that 19th century feminists could have denounced abortion is plainly foolish. For a late-20th century “pro-life” movement to claim wholesale the mantle of 19th century feminism is equally untenable.

One reason feminists were known to denounce abortion, and to entertain discussion of WHETHER criminal legislation might be appropriate, is that abortion was a widespread practice, and lightly restricted, or not restricted at all, by criminal legislation. My mother, a pro-choice Republican, was a volunteer at Planned Parenthood when it was a volunteer organization, not a quasi-business. Many of her friends and fellow volunteers complained that the large Roman Catholic population in our state was the obstacle to repealing criminal restrictions on abortion. She was fond of pointing out that most abortion laws on the books were adopted by thoroughly Protestant state legislatures, for reasons which had nothing to do with Papal encyclicals.

A good deal of the current abortion debate turns on secondary issues — which is only natural when a minority position attempts to build or maintain majority support by appealing to whatever angles the somewhat indifferent majority might be moved by. For example, Gerard Nadal is really pushing links between abortion and breast cancer. The scientific evidence is not to be lightly dismissed. Does it add up to a case that abortion is murder? Not at all. Anthony and Stanton obviously were aware of many instances where abortion was more or less forced on a woman, by a husband or significant other (those did exist in the 19th century, they just weren’t so quasi-respectable). This has been raised again as a significant issue in the 21st century, and there is reasonable anecdotal evidence that it is still a problem. Is the solution a law prohibiting any woman from having an abortion for any reason? I doubt that.

What is not clear is whether Stanton or Anthony would have accepted, supported, or denounced Roe v. Wade, whether they would have condemned abortion in all circumstances, or what they would have said about a man demanding that a woman bear “my child” when the woman wanted to terminate the pregnancy. Roe was a product of the mid 20th century. Anthony and Stanton were products of the mid 19th century. In the 19th century, Southern Baptists were the foremost advoates of Biblical sanction for slavery, a position the church now rejects. Stanton herself became somewhat of a racist — arguing that intelligent white women were denied the vote, while illiterate black men had the franchise.

That Anthony hesitated over criminal prohibition of abortion is significant. Although the modern “pro-life” movement hasn’t had to face in practical terms what they would do if Roe were overturned, about all they COULD do, that they can’t do now, is demand legislation of criminal penalties.

avatar Mark Perkins June 5, 2010 at 2:51 pm

My primary reason for interjecting here is to object to the idea that Sarah Palin’s primary “constituency,” if you will, consists of reactionaries. That is anything but true.

Her fans are populists in the worst way, nationalists, and even in some ways progressives (you can’t advocate the drill-baby-drill plundering of the earth without implicitly assuming that unlimited oil consumption is right and good and without serious negative consequences, or at least without consequences that human ingenuity and technology are incapable of correcting).

I’m very tired of seeing consumption portrayed as a “traditional value,” this “America, God’s Chosen Israel” nonsense dressed up as patriotism, and bitter anti-elitism cast as reactionary.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins June 5, 2010 at 7:57 pm

I would submit that Palin is a Ben Tillman populist — one who can pander to the requirements of the bourbon aristocracy, while offering rhetorical sops to a somewhat inchoate people’s movement, before it can get up steam as an independent political force. She is reactionary in the clinical sense that she reacts to events, rather than thinking carefully about what is happening, and developing a rigorous plan to deal with it.

avatar Mark Perkins June 6, 2010 at 8:11 pm

Well now I could accept that clinical label of reactionary, but then that has little connection to the general use of the term. I’m not entirely sure Palin does pander to any bourbon aristocracy–the GOP on the whole seems quite eager to get shut of her since the election. I don’t think she’s a hypocritical populist. I suppose in a twisted way it’s to Palin’s credit that she genuinely hates elitism and despises intellectuals. And it’s at least partly to the credit of the GOP that they are doing their best to distance themselves from her without alienating her fans.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins June 7, 2010 at 11:11 am

Palin’s anti-intellectualism reminds me of a science fiction story about a planet ruled by an oligarchic elite, who among other things sponsored pogroms against “degens” whose minds did not respond to the methods of mind control used on the general populace, but were themselves people with the same trait. Palin’s anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism targets people who share something in common with her, and stand in the way of her own domination. Twisted indeed.

The general use of the term “reactionary,” like “conservative” and “liberal” and even “socialist” makes the term entirely meaningless. Liberals, who have no coherent sense of self, hate reactionaries, who are inchoately opposed to whatever the inchoate voice of liberalism stands for, etc. To put this in perspective, I just picked up a copy of a 1979 book “Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out.” The foreword is by Senator Frank Church of Idaho — a state that has some history of electing what used to be called liberals, but none of electing people who were not firm on the Second Amendment.

avatar Jeff Taylor June 10, 2010 at 11:53 am

Thank you for the link, Janine. The piece is informative and balanced.

Mark, I agree it’s unfortunate that consumption, materialism, and greed pose as conservative values.

Siarlys: Well-reasoned observations, as usual. I like your sense of fairness and intellectual honesty. From my perspective, Frank Church was good in a number of ways. A little bit like a Feingold of the ’70s.

Can you explain what you mean when you write, “Palin’s anti-intellectualism reminds me of a science fiction story about a planet ruled by an oligarchic elite, who among other things sponsored pogroms against “degens” whose minds did not respond to the methods of mind control used on the general populace, but were themselves people with the same trait. Palin’s anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism targets people who share something in common with her, and stand in the way of her own domination. Twisted indeed.” It’s intriguing but I don’t understand its meaning.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins June 10, 2010 at 9:37 pm

I suppose I should be more careful about using obscure works of fiction as an analogy. I think the story was Soviet science fiction at that. My point is that Sarah Palin herself is an intellectual. She is, as I already remarked, not stupid, she has a well developed intellect. She is also a demagogue — not the first one to be intellectually well endowed. She panders to anti-intellectualism, because it is an opportunistic short-cut to political power for herself. She is happy to whip up a semblance of what she believes to be “the masses” by emotive appeals, but she has the very qualities she pillories in others. In doing so, she makes herself into a caricature of “the people” she claims to represent. “The real people” are much more capable of thoughtful introspection than Palin gives them credit for.

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