Why We Must (Re)claim Feminist History

Alexandra Mandelis

Who do you find "teaching" feminist history on a campus like the University of Toronto? None other than Feminists for Life.

Do you consider yourself a
feminist? Perhaps you’ve done some research on feminism or some feminist
activism. Maybe you even went so far as to get a university degree in
Women’s Studies. I did. I graduated from the University of Toronto
with a major in Women’s Studies in 2008, and yet I do not have a working
knowledge of feminist history. This is wrong. Communication and storytelling
is essential to the development of any community, and the feminist movement
is no exception. 

So who do you find "teaching"
feminist history on a campus like the University of Toronto? 

None other than Feminists for
Life (a part of larger student group Students for Life). This group,
which calls itself "pro-woman and pro-life," appropriates the history
of the late 19th century suffragette movement in order to further its
sexist agenda of criminalizing abortion and contraception. 

In the preface to Rebecca Walker’s
1995 book "To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of
Feminism," Angela Davis expresses disappointment in the third wave
of feminism. She argues that if the third wave feminists had "the
same kind of nuanced vision of the past that they did of the present"
they would come to understand that feminists of the past had indeed
confronted and challenged identity politics. In her 1997 article "Charting
the Currents of the Third Wave," Catherine Orr notes that many third
wave feminist writers indeed engage with ideas that have been explored
before in feminist theory and "end up fighting ghosts that could be
exorcised (or rendered more complex) by looking at history." Why did
we not study these established critiques along with classic and current
third wave feminist literature? We studied and created so many critiques
that when I thought of this one in the later years of my degree, I immediately
dismissed it as irrelevant simply because we had not encountered it.

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If it weren’t for the feminists that came before us, we would not
have several important rights: to vote, to work outside the home, and
to choose if and with whom we will have a relationship, among others.
Do all people, regardless of gender in Canada, have those rights in
2009? No. This does NOT mean that we should throw out feminist history.
As today, the feminists of the past were products of their social location,
and their work and views should be considered within that context.

On their website, Feminists for Life argue that Susan B. Anthony would
take an anti-choice position in the debate on abortion today because
in her time she condemned it as harmful to women and families. To unsuspecting
researchers who happen across this article and are unable to place it
into an informed historical context, it presents a reasonably sound
objection to abortion on "feminist" grounds.

However, historians will note that in Susan B. Anthony’s time and location
(late 19th century in the United States), contraceptive methods were
not readily available and so the results of marital indiscretions could
be much more visible and therefore disastrous. Women would not be considered
citizens until 1920, affording them little or no protection when facing
precarious/abusive living arrangements. Abortion was illegal and was
often the only option for women who were pregnant out of wedlock or
whose partners did not or could not acknowledge the relationship publicly.
From the perspective of many married women, the availability of abortion
in a community encouraged pre- and extramarital intercourse. Thus, privileged
women such as Susan B. Anthony and her early feminist colleagues generally
viewed abortion as a threat, denouncing it in their organizing.

Since the late 19th century, there have been many technological and
social movements that have altered the circumstances under which women
can make autonomous choices about the course of their lives. Winning
the vote, the invention of the Pill, the ability to work outside the
home, and the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade are just a few of
the changes that have taken place in North America in the 100+ years
since Susan B. Anthony’s day. So, Feminists for Life’s claim that
abortion is bad for women and families because Susan B. Anthony said
so in 1889 has little or no relevance in 2009. It must be noted that
it is possible to view Susan B. Anthony as feminist within the context
of her time – in a time when families were larger, labor unions had
yet to organize and women could not earn their own discretionary wages,
it was very important for women to ensure that their husbands were not
spending their wages on the costs associated with extramarital affairs.

When viewed in its proper historical context, her condemnation of abortion
may be considered acceptable on feminist grounds. The feminist movement
has also made a few changes since Anthony’s day in terms of recognizing
how it has neglected the needs of women of colour, queer and differently-abled
women as well as recognizing all genders as potential allies. Much work
remains to be done here, particularly in light of the carnage dealt
to women’s/maternal health globally by the Bush Administration.

Feminists for Life pamphlets have been readily available at most anti-choice
events to take place on the University of Toronto campus throughout
the 2000s. This is only one example of how they have perverted one famous
feminist’s history to attack women’s rights. If women’s studies
students are not taught this history and its relevant feminist/structural
critiques, how will we revise and add to our knowledge without a critical,
nuanced perspective from which to draw without repeating mistakes?

In our ongoing effort not to privilege a feminist critical lens over
others, we sometimes neglect to consider a feminist viewpoint at all.
This causes even more damage in practice than theory: multiple oppressions
and privileges translate very messily into real life interactions with
others. Attempting to sort out one’s varying identities with others
for even a small project can be daunting at best, and damaging at worst.
With so many of the marginalized (which overwhelmingly includes women
and families) suffering during this time, we cannot afford to sell a
seminal feminist figure like Susan B. Anthony to the persistent anti-choice
movement. It is deeply offensive to conflate her hard work with a patriarchal
institution that wishes to subjugate women.

If the misogynistic anti-choice movement can convincingly claim such
figures as Susan B. Anthony as their own, we can re-claim and re-define
them in a historical and critical context that reflects current feminist
and anti-oppressive thought. Each one of us that remains silent while
our history is stolen for an agenda predicated on "traditional"
gender roles is complicit in its abuse.

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