During this centennial of woman’s suffrage, conversations about abortion and early feminist foremothers like Susan B. Anthony can shed historical insight on this critical social and cultural question of our time.
Prior to the 19th Amendment, those who both supported and opposed suffrage were aware of the potential threat to motherhood that could come about from the advancement of women’s independence. Nothing was a more blatant abuse than the rise of abortion and its practitioners like Madame Restell.
The Revolution, the newspaper that Susan B. Anthony owned and published, unanimously opposed Restell’s “child murder” (page 146-147) calling it “foeticide” and “ante-natal infanticide.” Abortion was the second most discussed topic of justice in the feminist paper next to suffrage itself. Women leaders refused to tread lightly on a subject of such moral magnitude. Unlike other newspapers of the day, abortion condemnation in editorials, letters and articles were so frequent that Anthony’s paper was a bold virtual mouthpiece, a platform to air suffrage outrage at such a social evil.
But why wouldn’t early women leaders support abortion? Women were scorned for out-of-wedlock motherhood. Rape was legal at an early age, and rape laws were unenforced. Effective contraception was nonexistent. Development of the embryo was not taught or discussed, even in family circles. Why would suffrage leaders oppose a quick-fix method that would solve unplanned motherhood?
One reason may have been the contemporary overlap of the anti-slavery and pro-suffrage movements. Activists often were Christians. Their faith caused them to believe that ownership and abuse of another human being, whether slave or unborn, was immoral. In particular to Quakers like Anthony, abortion violated the “inner light” that was God represented in all human beings. It also was why Quakers believed capital punishment and war were immoral.
Other suffragists, like the editor of The Revolution, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were critical of religion, but still opposed slavery and abortion on more humanist and secular grounds.
Moreover, feminist foremothers blamed evils like abortion, poverty and prostitution not on women’s independence but because of their lack of independence. Giving women the vote would provide education and employment opportunities, change divorce laws and take away the stigma of single motherhood.
Abortion was legal prior to “quickening,” when the mother felt movement and “the unborn little one” was thought to begin life. This appalled lecturers like Dr. Anna Densmore French, promoted in The Revolution, who believed addressing embryology would enlighten consciences and stop “premeditated child destruction before birth.” To that end, The Revolution in 1870 applauded New York restricting abortion medicinals, which the suffragists called “abominations.”
Crossed, a resident of Rochester, is president of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum in Adams, Mass. (www.susan banthonybirthplace.org).