News Politics

Historian Unhappy With SBA List’s Claim that Susan B. Anthony Is Pro-Life

Robin Marty

The president and CEO of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House wishes the group would stop claiming that the famous feminist would be a pro-life icon.

Susan B. Anthony List has mostly given up on supporting female candidates, choosing to focus more on tight battleground House and Senate races and the 2012 presidential match up. That many of those campaigns seem to involve male anti-choice candidates trying to beat or unseat female pro-choice legislators is no doubt just an unfortunate coincidence.

But it’s not just the misuse of the famous feminist’s name to push a remarkably anti-women agenda that has historian Deborah Hughes upset. As the President and CEO of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House, Hughes is just as bothered by the group’s claim that Anthony would identify as “pro-life.”


They assert that many of the 19th-century feminists were — to use their phrase “pro-life,” and that they are telling that story. It’s our opinion that it’s inappropriate to assume that Susan B. Anthony was pro-life or pro-choice, because those are phrases from our century that are loaded rhetoric and don’t really acknowledge the tremendous changes and shifts — around medicine, around reproductive justice and even around what people think those terms mean today. We do know that she never advocated for the criminalization of abortion, which was actually was a topic of discussion in the late 19th century.

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[P]eople don’t necessarily realize that the vast majority of abortions now occur before eight or 12 weeks. In Susan B. Anthony’s time, people didn’t even consider themselves pregnant at that point! She lived from 1820 to 1906. People then considered themselves pregnant after quickening, which means after the baby moves — usually the fourth or fifth month. Before that time period, there were lots of euphemisms — a woman would come in because her cycle had been disturbed, and the doctor would do a “procedure” to reinstate her cycle. That wasn’t considered an abortion. Once she had felt the baby move, then she was pregnant, and after that it would be considered an abortion. So when anyone from the 19th century says anything about abortion, they’re talking about what we now consider to be late-term abortions, which are a very tiny percentage of the abortions that happen in this country, and in most cases are related to medical issues.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, once said, “[W]hile the Life cause isn’t the issue that earned Susan B. Anthony her stripes in American history books, historians would be wrong to conclude that Anthony was agnostic on the issue of abortion.” Frankly, I’m siding with the historians on this one.

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Abortion, Susan B. Anthony List

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