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Early Feminists for Life

To the Editors:

The Other Revolution” by David Brion Davis [NYR, October 5, 2000] did well to point out the importance of primarily nineteenth-century Quaker women in furthering the many steps in the march toward women’s equality in the United States. Among these achievements were the right to keep their own earnings, sign contracts, participate in jury trials, attend schools of higher education, obtain a divorce in the case of spousal abuse, and share custody of their children after the dissolution of a marriage. But Davis’s statements that the unmarried Susan Brownell Anthony was “often hostile to ‘baby-making’” and that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was anguished over her daughter Harriot’s “apparently unplanned and unwanted birth” might mislead the uninformed reader.

Influenced undoubtedly by the Society of Friends’ reverence for human life, both Anthony and Stanton worked with men in the medical profession and political realm to enact anti-abortion laws. In their view, abortion (which they often called “child murder” or “foeticide”) was another form of violence against women. Stanton wrote to Julia Ward Howe in 1873: “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.” In her women’s rights newspaper Revolution Anthony declared: “I deplore the horrible crime of child murder…. We want prevention, not merely punishment.” In subtle, but heartfelt prose, Anthony also remarked: “Sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been to me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them.”

Today’s Feminists For Life advocacy group lays claim to carrying on in these women’s footsteps by publishing their ideas on respect for life. This includes opposition to abortion, domestic violence, capital punishment, and euthanasia. Similarly the Susan B. Anthony List is an organization committed to increasing the number of pro-life women in Congress based on the belief that it is doing in today’s political world what its namesake would do. The Ken Burns film Not For Ourselves Alone (1999) was negligent in not completing his portrait of these two pioneers. But this is not surprising since, as Davis indicated, the film director had never heard of Stanton until shortly before beginning his project. Whether we agree with these ideas of Stanton and Anthony or not, it would be unscholarly to pretend that they did not form part of their world view.

Frederick J. Augustyn Jr.
Greenbelt, Maryland

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