The Lost Legacy of Susan B. Anthony

Author: Anne Morse

Celebrate Life magazine May-June 1994


If she were still alive, Susan Brownell Anthony would be turning 175 next year. But if you were planning to throw her a party, you'd be well advised to cross Patricia Ireland and Gloria Steinem off your guest list and invite Phyllis Schlafly and Beverly LaHaye instead.

America's first feminist would not be accepted by today's leaders, who would likely vilify her as one of those intolerant Religious Right types wanting to force her morality on everyone else.

If she could observe American life almost a century after she died in 1906, Susan B. Anthony would be delighted to see women serving in Congress, owning businesses and blasting into space. Knowing that a woman had run for Vice President as the candidate of a major party would thrill the suffragette who was once arrested for daring to vote in a presidential election.

Were Susan B. Anthony alive today, we'd probably see this staunch abolitionist and temperance advocate working with civil rights groups and organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. Campaigning for laws that would force fathers to support their children would likely be a top priority for her, along with getting the government to devote more money to finding cures for women's diseases.

In her spare time, the woman who once illegally hid a "runaway wife" and the woman's child would probably volunteer at a shelter for battered women. But if you imagine that Susan B. Anthony would be running the National Organization for Women, think again. The mother of modern feminism would be thrown out on her ear by today's feminists for her passionate pro-life views.

"I deplore the horrible crime of child-murder," she wrote in 1869, referring to abortion. "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."

Didn't anyone ever tell her that the human fetus isn't a person?

Early feminists were unanimous in their belief that abortion should be outlawed, variously calling it "desperate savageness," "this most monstrous crime" and "the slaughter of the innocents." In her views on abortion, Susan B. Anthony was hardly an unthinking product of her Victorian environment. This in-your-face feminist who made civil disobedience a way of life and scandalized polite society with her radical views can scarcely be accused of letting 19th-century mores dictate her attitudes.

Susan B. Anthony, who was outraged when the Dred Scott decision was handed down, would have had no difficulty in seeing the parallels between that ruling and Roe v. Wade: both declared that a class of people could be treated as someone else's property, to be disposed of as the owner saw fit. Those who told her to mind her own business concerning temperance and slavery were tartly invited to interview the female victims of alcoholic husbands and of the slave system, as she had done.

Today, Susan B. Anthony might busy herself with setting up crisis pregnancy centers, helping women sue abortionists and offending the public's sensibilities once more by passing out brutal photographs of abortion's tiny victims.

The radical who flouted the Fugitive Slave Law by helping runaway slaves escape might today be organizing rescues of the preborn. Susan B. Anthony's attitude regarding sex and the single girl was even further from the viewpoint of modern liberal feminists than was her position on abortion. She advocated self-control for men and women alike. This former schoolteacher would likely ask, with some asperity, why today's educators persist in rejecting chastity-based programs with a proven track record in favor of "if it feels good do it with a condom" programs that don't work.

What a pity that Susan Brownell Anthony is not here today to shake us up and expose, with her acid wit, the hypocrisy of those who claim to represent the interests of women.

Anne Morse lives in Maryland.

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