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Another Voice: The disconnect between suffragists, Women’s March

By Kathy Peters and Carol Crossed

Two pivotal events intersect this month: The opening of the women’s suffrage centennial celebration in New York and last Saturday’s Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and in Seneca Falls.

The first commemorates the rights our foremothers won for us. The other aimed to keep rights gained in these subsequent 100 years. There is a serious disconnect, however. Support for abortion, which is the primary mission of some leading march organizers like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, was a right the suffragists opposed. Seneca Falls, the suffragists’ historical stomping ground, was an inappropriate site to herald abortion rights.

The years of publication of Susan B. Anthony’s newspaper, the Revolution, coincided with the notoriety and public condemnation of abortionist Madame Restell and her numerous arrests. Suffragist articles did not condone the practice, but actually used Anthony’s newspaper as a mouthpiece to universally condemn it. They saw women as victims, but supported the criminalization of doctors who profited.

Revolution editors – Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Paulina Wright Davis and Parker Pillsbury – were explicit in their language; “child murder,” “infanticide” and “foeticide” were used interchangeably with abortion.

In addition, Anthony refused to accept any ads for abortion, a policy that was reiterated and explained repeatedly by her editors, like Stanton. The suffragists were outraged enough to know that thinly disguised ads for “removing obstructions” were the same thing as what they called “revolting outrages” and “a crying evil.”

Abortion was legal prior to “quickening,” the point when it was thought the unborn came to life. To counter this falsity, Anthony’s Revolution ran lectures by physician and professor Anna Densmore French. Her mission, along with providing affordable medicine to poor and single women, was to break the silence of pregnancy and sexual reproduction and educate about the embryo: “… women would rarely dare to destroy the product of conception if they did not fully believe the little one was devoid of life.”

Women demanded jobs and education and independence that the vote would afford. These, they claimed, would honor the value of motherhood. Abortion, they thought, encouraged male license and promiscuity. Abortion facilitated uncontrolled male appetites, often ignited by liquor consumption. In Anthony’s “Social Purity” speech in Chicago in 1875, she blamed alcohol and equated the evils of abortion, paramour shootings and wife murder.

It defies logic. Abortion was safer than childbirth. Women were not independent. Unmarried motherhood was condemned. Yet our foremothers opposed abortion. Did they believe their freedom could not be won at the expense of the lives of their own children?

Anthony would march for affordable child care, education, racial and ethnic tolerance. But do not invoke her name in support for abortion.

Kathy Peters is a board member and Carol Crossed is board president of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum in Adams, Mass.

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