Saturday, October 14, 2006

Fights over feminist roots

I've been interested in how groups like "Feminists" for Life have coopted the early figures of the American suffrage movement. It's always struck me as strange: these were progressive women, bucking conservative dogma, and proposing radical changes. Compare them to groups like "Feminists" for Life, which try to take away rights that women have fought for (namely, safe and legal abortions and many types of contraception). To me, it's never made much sense. So you can imagine my excitement over this NY Times piece, by a Pulitizer Prize winning historian, Stacy Schiff (it's aptly titled "Desperately Seeking Susan"). I'm excerpting my favorite parts:

There is no question that she deplored the practice of abortion, as did every one of her colleagues in the suffrage movement. Feminists for Life cites an 1869 article in her newspaper denouncing “child murder,” labeling abortion “a most monstrous crime,” and advocating its end. “No matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed,” blares the article. “It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death.”

What is generally not mentioned is that the essay argues against an anti-abortion law; its author did not believe legislation would resolve the issue of unwanted pregnancy. Also not mentioned is the vaporous textual trail. According to the editors of Anthony’s papers, the article is not hers.

In her personal life Anthony was clear in her conviction that women were not preordained to motherhood, that sometimes a woman and her womb might go their separate ways. A devoted aunt, she claimed to appreciate her colleagues’ offspring, some of whom even felt warmly toward her. But she had little patience for maternity. At best she was the ever-helpful friend who asks if you realize what you are in for just as you have vomited your way through your first trimester. At worst she was a ruthless scold...

Above all, the drillmaster of the suffrage movement had no patience when it came to dogma. She won few points for her free thinking but forged ahead all the same: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” She cast her vote always for tolerance, acting from a simple conviction: “For a people is only as great, as free, as lofty, as advanced as its women are free, noble and progressive.”

The bottom line is that we cannot possibly know what Anthony would make of today’s debate. Unwanted pregnancy was for her bundled up with a different set of issues, of which only one truly mattered: rescuing women from “the Dead Sea of disfranchisement.” In the 19th century, abortion often was life-threatening, contraception primitive, and a woman as little in control of her reproductive life as of her political one. The terms do not translate, one reason time travel is a risky proposition. No amount of parsing the founding fathers will reveal what they think of the war in Iraq, just as no modern chorus of mea culpas will explain away their slave-holding. To suggest otherwise is to wind up with history worthy of those classic commercial duos, Fred Astaire and his Dirt Devil, Paula Abdul and Groucho Marx.

For what it’s worth, Anthony has ceded her place on the dollar to another steely and resourceful woman, the face of manifest destiny, who — coincidentally? — appears always with a child strapped to her back, the original rendition of backwards-and-in-heels. Sacagawea may have been a crackerjack scout, but she left no paper trail. Who knows what she thought about white men or westward expansion? She’s up for grabs, an icon without a cause. Feminists for Life may want to hurry, before the logging industry gets there first.

I love the effort to contextualize Anthony's views, especially as I agree that we can't so easily map our own terms onto these figures. I mean, OF COURSE they didn't advocate abortion: at the time it was unsafe, and it would have won them no political allies. When you're fighting for the vote, you can't very well get five steps ahead of yourself.

Next post will be on FFL.

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