It was not a speech about Susan B. Anthony or a speech about abortion. But that’s what stuck.
In May 2010, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin delivered the keynote address at a breakfast hosted by the Susan B. Anthony List, a nonprofit dedicated to electing women who are antiabortion. Six months before the midterms, Palin was there to discuss the importance of supporting female, antiabortion candidates. But halfway through the speech, she turned — for just a few seconds — to America’s most famous suffragist.
“Organizations like the Susan B. Anthony List are returning the women’s movement back to its original roots,” Palin said. “You remind us that the earliest leaders of the women’s rights movements — they were pro-life. Women like your namesake.”
It was perhaps the most visible public statement of support for what remains a hotly contested historical perspective. Advocates and scholars have long debated: Was Anthony antiabortion? After Palin’s statement, leading voices from both sides immediately weighed in, painting opposing portraits of the same woman: one who was fervently antiabortion, and one who was not. In the years since, claims about Anthony’s antiabortion legacy have become far more well known, prominent enough to prompt an antiabortion portrayal of Anthony by Kate McKinnon on “Saturday Night Live” in 2017.
There’s a lot riding on this debate. While antiabortion groups also lay claim to other suffragists, they tend to focus most on Anthony. This makes sense, said Tracy Thomas, a professor at the University of Akron School of Law, who has studied the suffragists’ views on abortion: Of all the women in the suffrage movement, Anthony is “the name everyone knows.” If you were taught about any one women’s rights leader in school, it was probably her.
Today, antiabortion groups often claim to be “pro-woman,” focusing on the physical and emotional risks of abortion and other ways they say the procedure hurts women. If Anthony — preeminent feminist foremother — opposed abortion, it would lend historical credibility to this argument, challenging the idea that support for access to abortion is fundamental to modern-day feminism.
“It’s a really effective political strategy,” Thomas said. “If you say, ‘Our foremothers believed this about abortion,’ that resonates with young women thinking about this today.” Antiabortion groups also invoke this narrative to further their judicial agenda, Thomas said, filing amicus briefs that reference the suffragists’ alleged antiabortion views in the overwhelming majority of abortion-related Supreme Court cases since 1983.
“Abortion has become so synonymous with feminism,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List. “If Anthony is antiabortion, it flips the script on feminism. It puts a question in people’s minds that they might not have had before.”
Groups like the Susan B. Anthony List have been saying that Anthony was antiabortion for decades, said Ann Gordon, a former Rutgers University professor and editor of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s Papers project, a collection of writings by both suffragists. She first heard these claims in the 1980s, she said, when she received a brochure referencing the suffragists from Feminists for Life, an antiabortion nonprofit which, along with the Susan B. Anthony List, has woven this narrative into their founding mission, citing evidence from Anthony’s writing.
Gordon and other prominent women’s history scholars entirely reject this view, claiming that antiabortion groups have “hijacked Anthony’s name and fame to support their own cause.” Their evidence is “completely made up,” said Lynn Sherr, host of the podcast She Votes, who wrote “Failure Is Impossible,” a biography of Anthony.
“At first it hardly seemed worth discussing because it had no basis in fact, and I don’t like to waste time on things I consider so obviously wrong,” Sherr said. “But then it got annoying.”
The debate really began when Feminists for Life started working with writer and eco-activist Mary Krane Derr to analyze articles from the Revolution, a newspaper owned by Anthony and Stanton from 1868 to 1870. In its pages, the newspaper regularly hosted lively discussions on the most prominent political issues of the day, including abortion. It was the subject of heated debate especially in New York, where Anthony lived and where legislators voted to criminalize the procedure in 1872. Abortion has previously been legal before “quickening,” the point in pregnancy when a woman can feel fetal movement, said Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University who studies the history of abortion.
Many articles in the Revolution opposed abortion, including at least one written by an anonymous author, identified only by the letter A, which Krane Derr and others conclude is a pen name for Anthony herself.
There is very little evidence linking Anthony to A, say Sherr, Gordon and Thomas. Even some antiabortion advocates agree.
“I don’t think it’s the best example,” said Serrin Foster, current president of Feminists for Life, referring to the writings by A, attributed to Anthony. While she says one particular antiabortion article written by A is “nearly identical” to an address Anthony delivered around the same time, she was unable to locate that speech. “We can’t attribute certain things to her. We can’t find things. But it’s like, can someone give me a videotape of Adam and Eve?”
Anthony primarily worked on the business side of the paper, Gordon said, but on the few occasions when she did write, she signed “SBA.”
“I have read every speech Anthony ever made,” Sherr said. “I have never seen her sign with the letter A. Period.”
Both sides do mostly agree that Anthony had no interest in making abortion illegal. The struggle is over her personal viewpoint.
The strongest evidence that Anthony was personally opposed to abortion, Foster said, can be found in writings that scholars widely agree were penned (and signed) by Anthony herself. In a speech on “social purity,” delivered in 1895, Anthony includes abortion in a list of societal ills, along with “wife murders” and “infanticides.” She also referenced abortion in an 1876 diary entry about her sister-in-law, who aborted a pregnancy at home and was bedridden for days afterward.
“She will rue the day she forces nature,” Anthony writes.
When Gordon discovered the diary entry in Anthony’s papers in the early 2000s, she said, the antiabortion groups “seized on it,” immediately citing the entry as proof that Anthony opposed abortion. Gordon doesn’t see it that way. It’s unclear exactly what Anthony is reacting to in the entry, she said.
“Does she think her sister-in-law shouldn’t have aborted the child? Or is she expressing regret that she got sick from trying to?” Gordon said. Either way, she said, “She certainly says nothing about making a law about abortion.”
The more important point, Sherr said, is that Anthony virtually never spoke about abortion. Sherr never mentions the word “abortion” in her biography of Anthony, she said, because it wasn’t relevant to Anthony’s life. The absence of the subject in her writings is significant, Sherr said. When Anthony cared about something, she wasn’t shy about sharing her opinion. Over the years, Sherr said, she lobbied hard for a variety of different issues.
Abortion just wasn’t one of them.
There are two museums dedicated to the life and legacy of Anthony: one at her adult home in Rochester, N.Y., and one at the house she was born in, in Adams, Mass. If you take a tour at the Adams house, you’ll hear all about Anthony’s alleged antiabortion beliefs. In Rochester, abortion is never mentioned, unless a visitor asks.
The Rochester house is the official Anthony museum, founded in 1945, and registered as a national historic landmark. The Adams house opened in 2010, when Feminists for Life member Carol Crossed bought the property. Crossed, who lives in Rochester, had been going to the official museum for years, attending monthly luncheons. She was always frustrated, she said, by the museum’s failure to highlight what she sees as a key piece of Anthony’s legacy.
“You might say the house in Rochester doesn’t tell the full story,” Crossed said.
She wanted to correct the historical record, she said.
“I think that current academia to a large extent is supportive of abortion rights,” Crossed said. “It’s not like they don’t know [about Anthony’s antiabortion positions]. Of course they know.”
Among many other aspects of Anthony’s life, Crossed said, the Birthplace Museum highlights what Crossed says are Anthony’s writings on “restellism,” a period term for abortion. Crossed displays many of the antiabortion articles from the Revolution in the museum, and docents are instructed to cover the issue.
“It’s the antiabortion museum,” Gordon said. (Crossed disputes this characterization. It’s a “museum that tells the full story,” she said.)
Over the years, Crossed has tried to partner with the Rochester house, proposing panels where they could discuss Anthony’s views on abortion. Deborah Hughes, the president and chief executive at the Rochester museum, always turns her down.
“There aren’t two sides of the story, so how do you tell a side that isn’t there?” Hughes said.
Some visitors end up at the wrong house, Hughes said, arriving in Rochester, eager to hear about Anthony’s antiabortion legacy. Many more come with questions on the issue, Hughes said, wondering whether Anthony was “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”
She’s never quite sure what to tell them.
“It’s like asking, ‘Did George Washington drive a Maserati?’” she said. “She didn’t have [a stance]. Which makes this really hard to talk about.”
Hughes herself supports abortion rights. Sometimes she wishes that she could use her platform to further that cause, she said, especially when she sees people like Crossed using Anthony’s history to support the antiabortion movement. But Anthony was not in favor of abortion, Hughes said, any more than she was against it.
“I wish I could use my platform, but that would not be appropriate,” Hughes said. “Because it’s not what Susan said.”
Abortion is not the only part of Anthony’s legacy under close examination. As the 100th anniversary of suffrage nears, while protests after the death of George Floyd continue across the country, many are calling out Anthony for failing to prioritize women of color. She famously withdrew her support for the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote in 1870, fearing it might delay the vote for White women.
“I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman,” Anthony said at a meeting with Fredrick Douglass in 1866.
The ramifications of Anthony’s beliefs on abortion extend beyond her personal legacy. Told or received a certain way, her narrative has the potential to shape one of the most contentious political issues of the day, as many antiabortion organizations fight to be recognized as feminist.
Unsurprisingly, Anthony’s name came up repeatedly in January 2017, when New Wave Feminists, an organization opposed to abortion, tried to join ranks with the Women’s March. Although New Wave was initially approved as an official partner, it was eventually removed from the partner list after backlash from several prominent feminists.
“Intersectional feminism does not include a pro-life agenda. That’s not how it works! The right to choose is a fundamental part of feminism,” writer Roxane Gay tweeted at the time.
Crossed, who identifies as a “pro-life feminist,” disagrees: If abortion was so central to the Women’s March that no antiabortion group could lend its leadership, she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, then Anthony “would never have joined.”
The modern-day feminist movement completely ignores “pro-life feminists,” said Foster, the president of Feminists for Life: Many on the left say that label is a contradiction in terms. But support for abortion rights was not always a prerequisite for feminism, she said. Abortion became foundational in the 1970s, she said, when Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women mobilized on the issue.
“You were either a feminist who supported abortion or you weren’t a feminist,” Foster said. “I felt homeless.”
Anthony was not a fervent antiabortion advocate. But she was not a fervent abortion supporter, either. She felt she was capable of fighting for women’s rights without making the issue a priority.
Maybe Anthony quietly wished that women wouldn’t have abortions, Gordon said. Maybe not. It’s impossible to know for sure. Even if she personally opposed the procedure, Gordon said, she’s not sure it would matter. Her legacy as a women’s rights champion would remain fully intact, she said.
“It wouldn’t have anything to do with anything.”