Was Susan B. Anthony “Pro-Life?”

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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.

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