The Problem with Pro-Life Feminism. Part 2

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Feminists for Life (FFL) holds up Susan B. Anthony as its main foremother; the intellectual force behind the early feminist movement in the U.S., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, is also corralled into FFL’s revisionist history.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton also spoke about abortion. FFL initially used a statement that was supposedly made by Stanton in a letter written to Julia Ward Howe in 1873 which FFL claimed to have been recorded in Howe’s diary for the entry of October 16th: “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.”

This is hardly a pro-life statement. Stanton, if she is indeed referring to abortion here, is saying that abortion is degrading to women and is a result of women being treated as property. This is a feminist statement, not a pro-life one.

However, as with the Anthony quote from The Revolution mentioned in Part 1, once attribution of this quote was questioned by feminist, pro-abortion historians, FFL admitted they couldn’t locate the source and subsequently refrained from using it in FFL’s promotional materials. Further, in Howe’s actual diary entry for October 16, 1873, Howe wrote, “Sparred with Mrs. Stanton, who excused infanticide on the ground that women did not want to bring moral monsters into the world… I differed with her strongly, asserting… that infanticide was usually a crime of gross selfishness, though under some circumstances, the struggle against it must be agonizing. Nature has a dark horror of the act, I think.” This diary entry shows Stanton to be pro-abortion, or at least sympathetic to it.

A statement FFL uses that can be attributed to Stanton, having appeared in an article written by her in The Revolution in February 1868, regarding “the crimes of Infanticide and Prostitution” is: “For a quarter of a century sober, thinking women have warned this nation of these thick coming dangers, and pointed to the only remedy, the education and enfranchisement of woman… We believe the cause of all these abuses lies in the degradation of woman.”

It is difficult to read the above statement as pro-life for several reasons. First, Stanton lumps in prostitution and abortion together as if they carry the same gravity in terms of morality and sin. Second, her idea about the cause and remedy for abortion is thoroughly misguided, as was discussed in the section on Anthony in Part 1. Stanton does not call for regulation or criminalization of abortion, but for the education and enfranchisement of women as the answer to the problem of abortion (which we know does not make sense). In a related vein, she mistakenly views the cause of abortion as the degradation of women, which again, is untrue.

According to their public statements, early feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were not against abortion per se, but against the exploitation of women, of which abortion was merely a symptom or result. There is evidence that they did view abortion as a moral transgression—but no evidence that they were concerned with the life of the unborn or that they believed in the sanctity of life from conception to death.

FFL is also wont to point to the fact that Stanton had seven children as evidence that she was pro-life or “pro-motherhood.”

We don’t know the reason why Stanton had seven children. However, we do know she did complain about the burdens of motherhood in her autobiography and letters, and once wrote in the preface to a novel by Helen Hamilton Gardner, “Womanhood is the great primal fact of her existence; marriage and maternity, its incidents.” Further, Stanton was proud of the fact that she bore children easily while other women seemed to be weakened by pregnancy and childbirth. One of her biographers, Lori Ginzberg, states that, “Stanton had always been excessively pleased with her physical abilities, and contemptuous of women whose pregnancies slowed them down; with each birth she boasted of her strength and sturdiness.” Stanton was, “Convinced that her childbearing prowess proved her to be a woman who had surmounted the presumed disabilities of her sex.” These remarks point to Stanton’s well-known egoism, not to “pro-motherhood” values.

Stanton biographers and historians of American feminism have noted the racist and nativist strains in Stanton’s and other early feminist’s views. (Nativism in the U.S. was concerned with maintaining the supremacy of northern-European Americans in the face of increasing immigration from other parts of Europe.) While FFL claims that early feminists “believed in the worth of all human lives,” it is well-documented that Stanton and Anthony partnered with the notorious racist George Francis Train in order to further the cause of woman suffrage, and that Stanton made racist and nativist comments in public. Stanton did so not only as an expression of her personal beliefs, but as a tactic to convince the public of the need to enfranchise women (playing on nativist fears of the “foreign menace”). As Aileen Kraditor states in The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement:

In course of time the suffragist rationale came to include two techniques for disposing of the “foreign menace”: the use of statistics and the advocacy of an educational qualification for voting. The former consisted of repeated citation of figures to show that there were more native-born women than foreign-born men and women combined; hence, to give all women the vote was to increase the proportion of native-born to foreign-born voters.

In an 1869 address to the National Woman Suffrage Convention, Stanton stated:

If American women find it hard to bear the oppressions of their own Saxon fathers, the best orders of manhood, what may they not be called to endure when all the lower orders of foreigners now crowding our shores legislate for them and their daughters. Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who can not read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling-book, making laws for Lucretia Mott, Ernestine L. Rose, and Anna E. Dickinson.

 Stanton’s biographer Lori Ginzberg says of Stanton’s racism: “These were not merely figures of speech, thoughtless slips of the tongue and the pen. Rather, when she evoked these images, Stanton was drawing upon a powerful sense of her own class and cultural superiority.”

Further, Stanton was influenced by utopian socialism and eugenics and had incorporated such thinking into her world view. Stanton’s eugenist ideas give her more in common with the pro-abortion movement, well known for its eugenics roots, than with the pro-life movement. For example, while voluntary motherhood (the right of a wife to unilaterally decide when to have sexual intercourse with her husband and therefore when to conceive a child) was based on a woman’s right to control her own body and fertility, “enlightened motherhood,” an extension of the idea of voluntary motherhood, was based purely on eugenics. When Stanton went on the lecture circuit in the 1870s, she held women-only meetings (unusual for the time) where she preached “the gospel of fewer children [and] a healthy, happy maternity.” Enlightened motherhood married feminism with eugenics: women controlling their fertility to have fewer, “better” children. It was believed by Stanton and most feminists of the time that unwanted children would not be healthy children, or, that children born in imperfect conditions—whether material or emotional—would be physically deformed or mentally defective. Enlightened motherhood offered the solution: create the perfect conditions for conceiving and bearing children to produce perfect children. Obviously having children in quick succession or “willy nilly” did not fit the idea of enlightened motherhood.

In the following excerpt from Stanton’s lecture, “On Marriage and Divorce,” given in 1871, the eugenist overtones are unmistakable (emphasis is added):

There is a good deal said rather deploringly about the small families of the American people. When we begin to weigh the momentous consequences of bringing badly organized children into the world, there will be fewer still. To simply propagate our kind is a mere animal function that we share in common with the beasts of the field, but when in self-denial, a pure, chaste, beautiful life, obedient to every law of soul and body, a mother can give the world, one noble, healthy, happy man or woman, a perpetual blessing in the home, the Church and the State, she will do a better work for humanity than in adding numbers alone, with but little regard for quality…It is far easier to create a new order of men and women, than to reform what surrounds us now…The good, the true, the bright, the beautiful, the promising, are offset in nearly all our households, with the deformed, the imbecile, the depraved; and, alas! how one failure here shadows all our lives.

Together we suffer, together let us work for the new civilization now dawning upon us.

The day is breaking! It is something to know that life’s ills are not showered upon us by the Great Father from a kind of Pandora’s box, but are the results of causes that we have the power to control. By a knowledge and observance of law, the road to health and happiness opens before us: a joy and peace that passeth all understanding shall yet be ours and Paradise regained on earth.

The eugenist ideas in the above quotation from Stanton are also expressed in Planned Parenthood’s “family planning” slogans such as, “Every child a wanted child,” and, “Children by choice not by chance.” Again, when one delves into Stanton’s thinking she appears to have more in common with pro-abortion advocates than with pro-life advocates.

The connection between early feminism and eugenics was made clear by Stanton’s daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, also a suffragist and a feminist following closely in her mother’s footsteps, in an address she gave to the National Council of Women in 1891, titled, “Voluntary Motherhood.” In her address, Blatch stated:

Motherhood is sacred, — that is, voluntary motherhood; but the woman who bears unwelcome children is outraging every duty she owes the race…Let women but understand the part unenforced maternity has played in the evolution of animal life, and their reason will guide them to the true path of race development.

 After quoting the eugenics pioneer Francis Galton on the need for the race to be “lifted up,” Blatch asks the question, “how is the species to be raised?” The conditions she gives for “race-improvement” are voluntary maternity (“for the unwelcome child is mentally and physically below the average”) including financial independence for women, broader education for women, and that “women should divide with no other person authority over the child.” This last condition leaves little room for a father’s authority, but then, Blatch also states that some form of matriarchy might be the best system for “human improvement” to “be carried to a high point of perfection.”

In addition to the already-cited problems with characterizing early feminists as pro-life, it is problematic to assign the pro-life label retroactively. To include 19th century feminists in the 20th century pro-life movement is anachronistic. The pro-life movement began in the second half of the 20th century to oppose abortion law reform and repeal efforts; it was started by Catholics in defense of the sanctity of all human life from conception to death. These early feminists were Protestants or at least products of the Protestant milieu of the 19th century (both Stanton and Anthony rejected mainstream Protestantism). Their worldview was decidedly different from a Catholic one, especially when their racist, nativist and eugenist views are taken into account (Nativist sentiment was directed at Catholic immigrants in particular).

Stanton and Anthony’s shortsightedness on the abortion question is also of note: they thought that if women were fully emancipated there would be no more abortion. 100 years later they are proven very wrong. Women now have the political and legal freedom Stanton and Anthony wanted for them—they are “freer” than ever to do as they please—yet abortion is rampant. Stanton and Anthony were blinded by their feminism and failed to see reality. Women didn’t and don’t get abortions because they are sex slaves to men, oppressed at all turns. Women get abortions because they are taught to take control of their lives, including their fertility, and for some women abortion becomes their chosen means of control—regardless of women’s role, status, rights, degree of freedom, etc. The false belief that once women were emancipated they wouldn’t need abortion shows that these early feminists did not deal in reality and truth, but in utopian fantasies of perfect equality between men and women. On the contrary, with more “freedom” (sexual and economic) for women the need for abortion became greater due to pregnancies resulting from promiscuity or the need to abort one’s child to pursue one’s studies or career.

The next part of this essay will be posted next week.