What Antiabortion Advocates Get Wrong About The Women Who Secured The Right to VoteRoundup
tags: Roe v. Wade, womens history, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, abortion rights, first-wave feminism
Reva Siegel is Nicholas deB. Katzenbach professor at Yale Law School, and the author of "The Nineteenth Amendment and the Democratization of the Family," (2020) and coeditor of "Reproductive Rights and Justice Stories" (2019).
Stacie Taranto is an associate professor of history at Ramapo College of New Jersey and author of, "Kitchen Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in New York" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). She is co-editor of the forthcoming "Suffrage at 100: Women in American Politics Since 1920" (Johns Hopkins Press, August 2020).
On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, before viability.
Today, this frequently exercised right — a recent Guttmacher Institute study found “nearly one in four U.S. women will have an abortion in her lifetime” — has support from the vast majority of Americans. Seventy-one percent of people in a 2018 WSJ/NBC poll opposed overturning Roe.
Yet, it has also proved deeply controversial. Every year since Roe, a March for Life is held in Washington to protest the ruling. This year, it is scheduled for Friday.
March organizers have selected the theme “Life Empowers: Pro-Life Is Pro-Woman,” and tied the event to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting sex-based restrictions on the right to vote.
Serrin Foster, head of Feminists for Life, explained the link in organizers’ minds: “What most people don’t understand is that the first-wave feminists were, without known exception, all pro-life. They believed in the rights of slaves to be free, the right of women to vote, and they believed in the right of women and children to be protected from abortion.”
As scholars, including the editor of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s archival papers have shown, many of these claims are based on repeated factual errors. The claims often mislead in another way as well: by omitting essential features of the suffragists’ beliefs about gender, justice and the law.
Antiabortion claims linked to Anthony — whose name headlines an antiabortion political action committee and is mentioned in a two-minute promotional video for this year’s March for Life — are commonly tied to an article that appeared in the Revolution, a women’s rights newspaper that she and Stanton, her political partner, published for two years.
The 1869 article denounced “child murder” and labeled abortion “a most monstrous crime.” But there is a major problem with attributing these sentiments to Anthony. Scores of writers published content in the Revolution. This column was signed “A.,” while when Anthony wrote in the newspaper, she used her initials, “S.B.A.” For this reason the editors of Anthony’s archival papers maintain that she did not write the article. Yet, the problem runs deeper than misattribution.
However little “A.” approved of abortion, the author wrote the article to oppose an effort to criminalize abortion that had been recently proposed by the influential New York Medical Gazette — reasoning that women should not be held legally accountable for the decision to end a pregnancy, given the injustice of the marriage laws that gave men control over the conditions in which women conceived and bore children. “A.” argued that the problem of abortion could only be resolved by changing the law of marriage to make it an equal partnership in which women could decide when to become a mother.
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