Channeling Susan B. Anthony

Janine Giordano

Last week, Sarah Palin addressed the “Susan B. Anthony List,” a Christian, Republican, pro-life political action committee in D.C. She was preceded by singing about “the power of a mother’s prayer,” and introduced as a fighter in the “battle for life.” She spoke of her own experience of motherhood—her unexpected pregnancy with a special needs child—and ultimately her hope of a building a new “conservative feminist identity.” The Susan B. Anthony list, she encouraged, was “returning the women’s movement back to its original roots.”

Many feminist historians are, understandably, outraged. Most vocally, Ann Gordon and Lynn Sherr, the editor of Anthony’s papers and the author of her biography, wrote a letter to the Washington Post/Newsweek which fluttered all over Facebook this week. “We have read every single word that this very voluble - and endlessly political - woman left behind,” they declared with gravity. “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.

But Marjorie Dannenfelser, Susan B. Anthony List president, wrote back with a half dozen separate, cited quotes. One editorial of the National Woman Suffrage Association, signed “A” and thereby assumed by Anthony, apparently entreated: “No matter what the motive, love of ease, or 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… drove her to desperation which impelled her to the crime!” She found evidence that Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in a letter to Julia Warde Howe, “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 as we see fit.” To Dannenfelser, the feminism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw abortion as a crime against women, a cruel product of the patriarchal system.

I have to admit, if I were one of those people who hated "cultural elites" for all their authoritative braggadocio, this exchange would feel thrilling. Who has the right to define Susan B. Anthony's intentions: first, second, or third "wave" feminists? Dannenfelser demanded that her movement represents a "shift back to the traditional roots of a Susan B. Anthony feminism that empowers women through their strength to give life even in the most difficult and unexpected circumstances.” Feminist scholars today may know this as the politics of maternalism: women arguing that society needs a particularly feminine influence that is only accomplished through motherhood. However, did Susan B. Anthony really believe in the social and political importance of motherhood? Or was this just strategic language levied in the context of her times? Feminists For Life has a “Herstory Worth Repeating” page with links to magazine articles featuring various century-old feminist leaders and their rallying cry for “motherhood” and unborn children. The group speaks also of abortion as a consequence of a patriarchal system.

Is the real question what Susan B. Anthony said and did in the late nineteenth century, or what she ultimately would have wanted for American women? Among ourselves, social historians usually do not take the liberty to speculate so freely, but it seems we scarcely turn down the opportunity when we have a national audience before us. Gordon and Sherr conclude their letter by suggesting that one thing that definitely divides these new conservative feminists from the First Wave Feminists is their religious authority. They write, "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."

There is definitely a difference between not liking when others are so extremely sure about the voice of God, and believing that religion has no place in politics. Didn't Elizabeth Cady Stanton, out of frustration with the way religion was working in politics, speak back to that world with a counter-narrative of women and religion, the Woman's Bible? Indeed, Stanton and Anthony disagreed on this feminist strategy and the two ought not be conflated, but let us not over-simplify the complex relationship that this women's movement had with religion in our attempts to make easy political points for the present.

Sherr and Gordon put their finger on something real about these new conservative feminist movements when they point to religion, but both the Susan B. Anthony List and the Feminists for Life movement are surprisingly quiet about their religion. They claim to channel Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Francis Willard, white Anglo Saxon Protestants--sure--but they too, like their adopted foremothers, seek partnerships with Mormons, Catholics and Jews. This channeling of late nineteenth century maternal authority may be painful for some of us third wave feminist, social historians to hear. We're not used to sharing the narrative authority of the history of feminism, or interpretation of the historical record, with "conservative feminists." But I say we should be happy--in a way--that social history has finally begun to empower social movements outside of the academy. After all, who needs the authority of God to back you up when you have the power of the historical record?