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By Ann Gordon and Lynn Sherr
Last week in Washington, Sarah Palin addressed the Susan B. Anthony List – the political action committee that calls itself the “nerve center of the pro-life movement” – claiming that her opposition to abortion rights was rooted in our “feminist foremothers.” No one asked for sources.
For nearly 30 years, both of us have been immersed in Susan B. Anthony’s words – Ann as the editor of Anthony’s papers, Lynn as the author of a biography. We have read every single word that this very voluble – and endlessly political – woman left behind. Our conclusion: Anthony spent no time on the politics of abortion. It was of no interest to her, despite living in a society (and a family) where women aborted unwanted pregnancies.
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.
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. Untold? Unproven.
The only clear reference to abortion in Susan B. Anthony’s writings, recently discovered by Ann, was quickly fitted into the anti-abortion narrative. After a visit with her brother, Anthony remarks in her diary that her sister-in-law aborted a pregnancy, things did not go well, and the woman was bedridden. Anthony concludes, “She will rue the day she forces nature.” Clearly Anthony did not applaud her sister-in-law’s action, but the notation is ambiguous. Is it the act of abortion that will be regretted? Or is it being bedridden, the risk taken with one’s own life? At most, the quotation amounts to private disapproval within the family, unlikely to be voiced to her beloved relative. But there is no hint that this is a social problem or a political matter. No one could mistake the diary entry for “passionate abhorrence” to abortion, a commitment to “pro-life activism” — as pro-lifers claim.
Naming this lobby for Susan B. Anthony doesn’t change her views any more than clicking your heels three times gets you back to Kansas. But here’s Palin again, in her Friday morning keynote: “Organizations like the Susan B. Anthony list are returning the woman’s movement back to its original roots, back to what it was all about in the beginning. You remind us of the earliest leaders of the woman’s rights movement: They were pro-life.”
Our argument here is not over abortion rights. Rather it is about the erosion of accuracy in history and journalism. If Republicans want to claim Susan B. Anthony, they can certainly boast that she supported the 1872 Republican candidate – Ulysses S. Grant – the one and only time she cast her ballot in a presidential election. It was, of course, against the law and got her convicted as a felon, but that is a story for another time. Still, you have to be careful about your history. In a shout-out to the Tea Party Friday, Sarah Palin said, “That’s enough, federal government, enough of your overreach, and we’re going to do something about it!” This in the name of a leader who, in her lifetime, was one of America’s most consistent advocates of federal power, with its promise of overriding ill-conceived and discriminatory state laws.
Susan B. Anthony, a lifelong Quaker, included Mormons, Catholics, Christians, Jews and atheists in her movement. But she firmly believed that religion had no place in politics. “I dislike those who know so well what God wants them to do,” she said, “because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” On Friday, Sarah Palin called Susan B. Anthony “one of my heroes.” And well she should be – as long as Palin understands who Anthony was. And wasn’t.
Ann Gordon, Research Professor, Department of History, Rutgers University, edited the 5-volume Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Lynn Sherr, award-winning broadcaster and former ABC News correspondent, wrote “Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words” and is writing a play about Anthony.