Was Susan B. Anthony “Pro-Life?”

  • submit to reddit

Dark money groups tend to have ambiguous names. From Crossroads GPS, which sounds more like a brand of navigation software than Karl Rove’s “social welfare” organization spending tens of millions of untraceable dollars to defeat the president, to Restore Our Future, which, when you think about it, would require some kind of time machine, the names seem designed to obscure true intent.

Perhaps one of the most misleadingly named groups is the Susan B. Anthony List. As everyone knows, Anthony led the fight for women to vote in the late 19th century and is remembered today as one of America’s most prominent activists for women’s civil rights. So it may come as a surprise that the Susan B. Anthony List is dedicated to getting pro-life candidates elected to office — not an agenda most modern-day feminists would get behind.

Deborah Hughes is president and CEO of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House in Rochester, N.Y. She explains why she thinks Anthony wouldn’t be happy about her name being used as a celebrity endorsement.

Lauren Feeney: What is the Susan B. Anthony List?

Deborah Hughes: The Susan B. Anthony List is a 501(c)4 whose purpose is to promote an agenda which they call “pro-life.” They fundraise for “pro-life” candidates and have a “pro-life pledge” which they ask candidates to sign.

Feeney: And who’s behind this organization?

Hughes: It’s hard to know who exactly is behind a political action group. I would encourage people to read about them on their website and the OpenSecrets site.

Feeney: How did you first learn about the Susan B. Anthony List?

Hughes: When I first started here several years ago we were gearing up for the 2008 presidential election and a very, very angry father called me. He left a message on my voicemail at the office calling me things I’d never been called before. It turned out that his six-year-old daughter had answered a robo-call and had the process of late-term abortion described in graphic detail to her. She was pretty traumatized by it. He saw “Susan B. Anthony” on the caller ID, googled it and we popped up first on the search, so he assumed that we were that organization. They’ve actually been around since the early ’90s. That’s just one example of how people sometimes get our museum and history confused with this political action group.

Feeney: Why did they choose to name their organization after Susan B. Anthony, a leader in the women’s rights movement?

Deborah Hughes

Hughes: They assert that many of the 19th-century feminists were — to use their phrase “pro-life,” and that they are telling that story. It’s our opinion that it’s inappropriate to assume that Susan B. Anthony was pro-life or pro-choice, because those are phrases from our century that are loaded rhetoric and don’t really acknowledge the tremendous changes and shifts — around medicine, around reproductive justice and even around what people think those terms mean today. We do know that she never advocated for the criminalization of abortion, which was actually was a topic of discussion in the late 19th century.

There’s a quote people refer to from a magazine that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton published together in the late 1860s and early ‘70s, called The Revolution. One of the most common quotes used is “I deplore the … crime of child murder.” But if you read the quote in its context, it’s talking about a prior editorial that was for the criminalization of abortion, and this article is essentially a rebuttal. It’s actually making the point that we need to look at all the reasons why a woman might choose to have an abortion — economic reasons, health reasons, pressure from family or society, fear about her ability to take care of the child — and says we shouldn’t criminalize the practice of abortion because that is, the article says, “mowing off the top of the noxious weed, while the root remains.”

So first of all, that quote has been taken way out of context. But secondly, that editorial is signed with the initial ‘A,’ and there’s no evidence that Susan B. Anthony ever signed anything that way. She tended to use her whole name. She did publish it; it was in her journal, but we don’t think that it’s necessarily true that Susan B. Anthony wrote that.

There’s another quote that’s used in some of the List materials, which is about how no woman should ever have to worry about her unborn child being willed away from her. In the 19th century, a child was the property of the father, and the father could indenture his children — in effect, sell them to another person, whether they were born or not-yet born. So when Susan B. Anthony is longing for the day when a woman’s unborn children cannot be willed away, it’s not really about the “unborn” part, it’s about the fact that a woman didn’t have any rights or custody over her children in the early part of the 19th century.

Another thing — people don’t necessarily realize that the vast majority of abortions now occur before eight or 12 weeks. In Susan B. Anthony’s time, people didn’t even consider themselves pregnant at that point! She lived from 1820 to 1906. People then considered themselves pregnant after quickening, which means after the baby moves — usually the fourth or fifth month. Before that time period, there were lots of euphemisms — a woman would come in because her cycle had been disturbed, and the doctor would do a “procedure” to reinstate her cycle. That wasn’t considered an abortion. Once she had felt the baby move, then she was pregnant, and after that it would be considered an abortion. So when anyone from the 19th century says anything about abortion, they’re talking about what we now consider to be late-term abortions, which are a very tiny percentage of the abortions that happen in this country, and in most cases are related to medical issues.

Feeney: Susan B. Anthony was famous as both a suffragist and an abolitionist. How would she feel about the current assault on voting rights — the new voter ID laws and roll purges — which target poor and minority voters?

Hughes: The greatest challenge that I have is to resist the temptation of putting words into Susan B. Anthony’s mouth. But Susan B. Anthony would want us to make sure every citizen had the right to vote and the ability to participate in the democracy. She believed that was why the revolution was fought in the 18th century on our behalf — so that there would be no taxation without representation. She firmly believed that only until women and men were full equal partners in every aspect of society would we be able to be the democracy that we could become.

Susan B. Anthony was one of the greatest reformers. Some have said that she was the icon of one of the world’s greatest nonviolent revolutions, and that revolution still continues today.

  • submit to reddit

BillMoyers.com encourages conversation and debate around issues, events and ideas related to content on Moyers & Company and the BillMoyers.com website.

  • The editorial staff reserves the right to take down comments it deems inappropriate.
  • Profanity, personal attacks, hate speech, off-topic posts, advertisements and spam will not be tolerated.
  • Do not intentionally make false or misleading statements, impersonate someone else, break the law, or condone or encourage unlawful activity.

If your comments consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be, you and your comments will be excluded from it.

We need your help with this. If you feel a post is not in line with the comment policy, please flag it so that we can take a look. Comments and questions about our policy are welcome. Please send an email to feedback@billmoyers.com

Find out more about BillMoyers.com's privacy policy and terms of service.

  • Ivan

    Calling choice “pro-life” is foolhardy because it defines the alternative as “pro-death” even if true ( a fetus exists, no matter how some feminists depict this life). Perhaps “pro-fetus” vs “pro-woman’s life” may be a wiser way to reframe the stakes involved.

  • http://www.facebook.com/van.king.52 Van King

    Susan B. Anthony was a member of our church. She was a Universalist. It is the largest left wing religion in the USA. (Christ was an extreme left wing philospher, but that message has been lost on the preachers and their flocks.)

  • Michael Starks

    If the purpose of this column is to understand the organization called the Susan B. Anthony List, why not interview some from the Susan B. Anthony List. If you wanted to understand the Democratic Party, would you interview Karl Rove?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1191843392 Jenny K. Hernandez

    Feminists say fetus.

  • jan

    I don’t think understanding the Susan B. Anthony List is what this column is about. This is a column reminding people who Susan B. Anthony was and what she supported and it is a column that is pointing out the very obvious deceit being used by the Susan B. Anthony List. You don’t actually need anyone from the Susan B. Anthony List for that but if you want to explore the Susan B. Anthony List, they did include a link to their website.

  • Stephen

    Much as a decent terminology is needed, it’s too late now. Like so many other things recently, the discourse has been determined by a catch-phrase that got traction first. We’re all still working through the outfall.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tirionthegreek John Davis
  • http://www.facebook.com/tirionthegreek John Davis

    yes, yes, and tom jefferson was a christian too… or so the great apologists of the 21st century tell us. if the history doesn’t fit… why we should re-write it to suit the our whims of the moment.

    susan b anthony was one of the greatest americans in our history. twisting and warping her words to fit some bizzare 21st century political agenda is obscene.

    i too am a unitarian universalist. i always find it curious that political christians find it necessary to joyously indulge in a practice that is specifically enjoined by their own religion. that practice being lying by deliberate obfuscation, misrepresentation, deliberate misinterpretation.

    and to michael starks: the interpretation of the name of the prime german political party during ww 2 includes the word socialist. is it then necessary to interview adolf hitler to find out if that party is evil.

    big or small, exposed early, or exposed late, evil is still evil.

  • Steve Wershing

    Lauren,

    Thank you so much for discussing this issue.

    Miss Antony’s message of political access and the importance of civic engagement is so important today, and it is terrible that some try to hijack that for their own political purposes. The Susan B Anthony Museum and House is a small but important institution. I am proud of how many people we positively affect with her message (women coming out of prison, Girl Scouts, school children). But when an organization with the kind of funding the List has decides to appropriate her legacy for their own purposes, it is hard for us to compete.

    Your column has shed some much appreciated light on the topic. I hope everyone reading visits the site!

  • A fan of Susan B.

    Susan B. Anthony believed in equal rights for all people-including the unborn. Of course she was pro-life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1238351530 Zora Renee

    Thank you for this article, I hadn’t heard of the List so I appreciate the information. Then as now I don’t think that Susan B. Anthony would either appreciate or support the “supposedly pro-life” crowd. Then as now she was fighting for the rights of women to have control not only of their lives, but the quality – which included the right to determine how many children that they would bring into the world.

    The know-nothing sheeple that whine about being pro-life are hypocrites because they really are “pro-womb” because after the child is born they care nothing about that same “life”! The policy positions that they support are antithetical to “support for the lives that are here”!

  • http://www.facebook.com/pat.elgee.5 Pat Elgee

    There should be no group contribution, just individuals with a capped limit. The group names are intentionally deceptive.
    About abortion:
    The truth is that nobody is for abortion except in the case. . . . . the “except” is where we differ.
    Nobody approves of abortion, nobody wants it to be a solution, and nobody wants it to be the best alternative. Nobody ever wants to be in a position to choose, and nobody wants others to make the choice for them.

  • Linda Kessel

    My concern is the writer using the words “pro-life,” even if it is in quotation marks, throughout the article. If you are quoting an anti-abortionist, then using “pro-life” would be appropriate within the rest of the quotation. But to use this description for anti-abortionists throughout the story is buying in to the language that they have created to refer to their movement. They use it for dramatic effect. But by their monopolizing the words pro-life, they mean to insult pro-choice activists as if they have no regard for human life. Obviously that is not the case. Pro-choice activists have great regard for the lives of women who are legally entitled to control their own bodies. They have great regard for the lives of women who must face insensitive and invasive impediments when they seek to exercise that legal right to an abortion. They have great regard for the women whose lives are threatened by the prospect of returning to barbaric back-room abortions. Anti-abortionists must not be allowed to take “pro-life” as their own. In the future, please refer to them as the anti-abortionists they are, and get rid of all the quotation marks.

  • BLove

    What is everyone so made about? I am pro life! I am pro life in the death penalty and in the case of abortion. Life is precious. The chose is at the moment of sexual engagement. If my wife and I don’t want to have any more children we abstain from sex when she is ovulating. This is not rocket science, it just takes some self-control, but we are a society that has to have everything right now. I don’t care if Susan B Anthony was pro life or not, although I do believe in those days the medical community and the women’s right to vote people were against abortion. It was not until money could be made that the medical community allowed it. Abortion is big money, And for all you those of African American out there,the founder of Planned Parenthood wanted it to wipe us all out. Think about that some white lady wanting to kill all of the little black babies so white people could be supreme. We were a wast of time.

  • Mary Lane Garmon

    Why is the assumption made that early feminists didn’t mean what they said, and that advocating for unborn children and helping mothers to find better choices is criminalizing women who have abortions? Anyone who actually reads the words out of the mouths of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, not re-stated through the mouth of Bill Moyers sees they believed unborn children should not be sacrificed to the ills of society that pressure women into abortion. Killing the baby hides the real social issues. They were right then, and they are right now. Take a realistic look, Mr. Moyers, at what abortion is doing through Planned Parenthood to the Black community. Is that helping society, or ignoring the problem? By ignoring our early feminists own words and deeds – which ring true in a world of confusion and muddy water – you are doing no more than silencing the voices of true, strong women who advocated for other true strong women.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marian-Hennings/100000826252983 Marian Hennings

    Hitler’s party may have had the word socialist in it but the party’s ideology was anything BUT socialist. Just as the USSR was not really socialist, nor the German Democratic Republic really democratic.

  • Mapy Alvarez

    I am a strong women who has the right to choose… how I deal with my
    spiritual life is also my right and my responsibility! The same way
    that everyone chooses to “use” sex as an alternative to “make love”
    (which obviously you can not make in a bed) the same way anyone can
    choose how to deal with the responsibilities that it comes with it…
    If I choose to have an abortion it is my choice and my responsibility
    that also implies an economic burden that while I am paying taxes I have
    the right to receive medical assistance from the government… after
    all this help is coming from my taxes!. About Plan Parenthood, have you
    ever use their services? I can tell you my experience with them for
    the last six years in two states (NY and MD) without insurance… I can
    have my Pap smear done for $25.00 and I have never witness them pushing
    anyone to have an abortion or taking “drugs” they do not need!…
    this is a true at the ground level… where the media don’t go… About
    the SBA group itself, yesterday I witnessed one of the most
    “strategically engineered” ways to “pull in” groups of “Christians”,
    such as the Native Americans and Black Communities into a huge rally
    “pro-choice” and “pro-Israel” agenda… you cannot ever imagine
    the magnitude on which the name of Jesus / Joshua was used to support
    their agenda… it was outrageous, disgusting, and pathetic… This
    event was done as a “President Inaugural Prayer Breakfast” at the
    Washington Marriott Wardman Park that it was televised on Cable
    (according to the organizers)… and in a very clever way used to
    promote and raised funds for the SBA agenda… they asked “God and
    Jesus” to work with them to “reverse” everything that Obama has support
    to ensure woman’s rights…they also include a piece to reverse the
    Lesbians and Gays rights to get married… well… I guess one thing is
    clear in my mind: they are very well organized and very well $upport and
    the rest of us we are not!… my question to all who read these
    comments is: What is SBA family’s stand on these issues?

  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.a.tucker1 Richard A. Tucker

    I have to take issue with the notion that anyone can speak for a dead person. All we have are their words and reported actions. The point of the article is to dissuade people from supporting the clearly biased Susan B. Anthony List which is NOT an extension of anything Susan B. Anthony herself advocated. We can argue the details of then vs. now until those cows come in from the pasture but today we have entirely new perspectives on these issues. We’re enabled by science the therefore shifting understanding of what women should be able to do for themselves. It’s smart to point out, for instance, that how we understand abortion is a far cry from how it was understood in the 1800′s. Also, as a man, the issue should not fall on me to judge because I cannot get pregnant.
    Anecdotally I know men who hate the way they were “trapped” into supporting a child they never intended to have with a woman, and men who claim women have aborted their fatherly rights away. To those fatherless men, get over it. If this women didn’t love you enough to keep the zygote/fetus to term they also weren’t going to get married or share a life with you either. It’s not a “family value” to trap a woman in a loveless marriage. When you can get pregnant, go nuts. The latter guys, I feel for you but you trusted to easily in a relationship that was clearly not what you assumed it was. Always, play it safe, unless you’re ready to support the accident as well as get over it.

  • Barb B.

    It’s all about the interpretation of the words they said. Nowhere– nowhere is it obvious that Miss Anthony was either anti-abortion or pro-choice. Any responsible

    ethical historian can tell us that. As for the rampant paranoia around Planned Parenthood & African American babies, just ask the thousands of Af. Amer. young women, adult women, mothers, whose health & very lives have been saved at their clinics.

  • Barb B.

    As Pres. Reagan once said, “There you go again….”. You are making up facts out of wholly unsupported cloth. Please do your unbiased homework.

  • Barb B.

    It needn’t be either way if everyone will just stay out of other women’s lives & let them make their own informed decisions

  • Two snakes coming together

    If you want me to stay out of your womb, (and I am pretty sure I would not want to be in it) why do I have to pay for your health care and specifically your abortion?

  • keith

    is the rich or pro?

  • Aphra Behn

    Susan B Anthony never said anything that should lead you to believe she was anything like a pro-life woman in the 21st century. See? The propaganda of the organization has worked on you even to the point where you will post with assurance that SBA was pro life. Did you read the article?

  • Aphra Behn

    The organization is a lie dedicated to propagating the idea that putting lawmakers between women and their doctors is a feminist cause. It’s not. It’s a paternalist cause and it is dangerous.

  • Eric Anthony

    My relative was assuredly pro-life; you can see it from the common thread that united all the issues she was involved in: temperance, abolition (known as “Restellism” in her time), abortion and women’s suffrage. What united all of those areas of activism was that she spoke for those who did not have a voice. “Failure was impossible” because she served a higher purpose; that purpose is missing in today’s self centered feminism which ignores the humanity and human rights of the unborn which was common sense to her.

  • BooBraun

    Hey Deborah Hughes, looks like your extrapolating a bit much here. While you don’t want others to extrapolate a pro life stance from SBA- it is very clear- you are extrapolating your own agenda for her. Thanks for the history lesson- not.

  • Barb B.

    Clearly Ms. Hughes is not doing that.

  • Barb B.

    Fetuses are not children yet, thus don’t have a ‘voice’.

  • Barb B.

    Most assuredly correct. All women & men who see this as a human rights issue FOR THE WOMAN need to fight back strongly.

  • Barb B.

    No one is saying that early feminists didn’t mean what they said. What’s being said is, they didn’t say what you portray them as having said !
    And by the by, this unscrupulous attempt to say that Planned Parenthood is purposely hurting the Black community is horrible. To the contrary, P.P. has kept an enormous number of Black women & all women healthy, & has provided Black women & all women with an open choice of what to do when faced with pregnancy, whether it be carry it successfully to term as a healthy new baby, prepare for an adoption, or choose an abortion– all based on THE CLIENT’S OWN CHOICE. .

  • Barb B.

    Well said.

  • Barb B.

    Beautifully stated & absolutely right. The ‘pro-life’ term has, as you say, been used as a sneak attack on people standing up for women’s rights. We are ALL in favor of healthy life– of women &, if they so choose, any children they may have. The rest is clearly & dramatically the difference between those who see women as self-empowered individuals able to think & make decisions for themselves– and those who not only DON’T see women that way, but will work hard to prevent women from ever reaching/maintaining that status.

  • Barb B.

    Agree.

  • Barb B.

    This is such an important point. Your comments were written 2 years ago; in the time since, living situations have gotten more difficult for 99% of this country. Women have to have full choice to make their lives what they want.

  • Barb B.

    I repeat what I said above, a year later. There are no”of course” guarantees with dead historic figures.

  • Barb B.

    That isn’t the purpose of this column. The S.B.A. List is well understood, & not liked or agreed with by many.

  • Barb B.

    The point is, it’s only the individual woman’s choice to see it that way or not.