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Early U.S. feminists opposed abortion

March is Women's History Month, a good time to take a fresh look at the legacy of our foremothers in the American women's rights movement.

Two of the most famous, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were native New Yorkers who turned 19th-century conventions on their heads by demanding equal rights for second-class citizens of the day: slaves and women.

Anthony and Stanton, like many early feminists, were staunch abolitionists and recognized the inherent personhood of those human beings who at the time were being bought and sold as chattel. In taking up the suffrage campaign, they argued that women, too, should be considered autonomous individuals, legally independent of their husbands and fathers.

And there was a third segment of the human race that these feminists felt deserved respect and protection: unborn babies. Very few women's history books make note of the fact that Anthony, Stanton and other early women's rights leaders opposed abortion. But they did so, on the grounds that it destroyed a human life and degraded the mother.

In her newspaper, The Revolution, Anthony condemned the practice of abortion, stating: "I deplore the horrible crime of child-murder. . . . We want prevention, not merely punishment."

Writing in 1873, Stanton argued: "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."

Mattie Brinkerhoff, a contemporary of Stanton and Anthony, wrote: "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."

These are just three examples of suffragists who championed the rights of others and recognized the humanity of all persons, born and unborn. There are other famous feminists who challenged the morality of abortion, including Alice Paul, author early in the 20th century of the Equal Rights Amendment (which was never ratified); Emma Goldman, anarchist and pacifist; and Mary Wollstonecraft, who in 1792 penned the treatise, "A Vindication of the Rights of Women."

Today, growing numbers of women continue to support the principles of gender equity while believing that abortion is contrary to basic human rights.

But isn't "pro-life feminism" a contradiction? There is a common misconception that for a woman to be a feminist she must embrace the notion that the legal ability to have an abortion is a good thing, even a sacred right, which should never be restricted or criticized publicly. But like every other stereotype, this generalization has many exceptions.

It is only in its narrowest sense that feminism is considered the principle that women should have rights equal to those of men. The feminists of yesterday and today have consistently viewed their mission in broader terms, as one that benefits men and boys as well as women and girls. From their earliest efforts to win the vote, America's suffragists described their vision in terms of peace and justice for all humanity. And while some contemporary women have fought for the privilege of serving in the military, nonviolence tends to be a more common hallmark of feminism down through the ages.

Whether they are advocating on their own behalf or for the rights of others, women activists historically tend toward compassion and cooperation rather than aggression and competition. This was so in the 19th-century women's suffrage campaign, which grew out of the abolition crusade, and it was the case in the modern women's movement, which was born in the anti-war activism of the 1960s and '70s. True feminists know that violence against another is easily rationalized when the "enemy" is depersonalized due to skin color, political persuasion or degree of development.

Which brings us to the issue of language — how we define ourselves and our beliefs. In the ongoing abortion debate, the words "freedom of choice" are typically invoked in defense of the procedure. Supporters of legalized abortion demand that a woman must be free to control her body as she chooses. Opponents of abortion counter with the argument of the abolitionists, insisting that the fetus is an individual human being in its own right.

Today's pro-life feminists prefer to take a middle ground, saying they are both pro-woman and pro-child. They promote societal improvements that will benefit pregnant women while protecting unborn children. Like their feminist foremothers, these modern advocates of the disenfranchised are using education and legislation to create a new culture where the choices available to women are safe, nonviolent and life-affirming for everyone involved.

It may seem like a radical idea, but it's one that Anthony and Stanton would surely support.


Jill Murman Payne is the Long Island, N.Y., liaison for Feminists for Life of New York.