Sarah Palin, Susan B. Anthony & the Problem with Partisan Feminism



Susan B. Anthony and Sarah Palin

Ann Gordon, editor of The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and Lynn Sherr, the noted biographer of Susan B. Anthony, have co-penned an article lambasting Sarah Palin for her speech before the Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent pro-life group. The gist of their article is hard to discern, as it really does come across as a disorganized diatribe against Palin for no other reason than that her name appeared in print next to Anthony’s.

Gordon and Sherr do attempt to make a cogent argument about the accuracy of historical scholarship, but they are unable to hold themselves to that same standard. They claim that no one knows if Susan B. Anthony was pro-life and that, at any rate, she didn’t think the subject belonged in politics. They also say there is no evidence from Anthony herself that she was pro-life, and provide contradictory evidence to that claim by citing a letter which clearly suggests Anthony had moral qualms about a terminated pregnancy she knew about. Gordon and Sherr make no mention of the fact that Anthony’s newspaper, The Revolution, clearly articulated anti-abortion or pro-life views on a regular basis. 

But Gordon and Sherr should know that Anthony and Stanton both made the political argument that the existence of abortion was the natural result of what they called “degradation of women.” They believed that sexual victimization of women led to this degradation, and that education was the answer. Educate women, give them opportunities to excel, and abortions and out-of-wedlock births would fall. This was one of many rhetorical arguments used by the early women’s rights movement, many of which would not fit our worldview of what it means to fight for justice for women today.

Most early feminists were indeed pro-life, though not in the way that we understand the term today. Abortion at the time, often referred to as “infanticide” or “child murder,” was not what we think of today either, nor was human sexuality. Above all, religion influenced people differently. Most of the participants in the early women’s rights movement had a tortured relationship with religion, on the one hand attributing much of women’s subjectivity to religious activity, but also being avowed believers (Stanton was so unwilling to give up on God that she created a Woman’s Bible).

Personally I think analogies between the abortion politics of the 19th century and today are unproductive in the same way that letting the issue of abortion divide women today is. These were two very different worlds with two sets of laws and different moral values. They are ultimately incomparable. Early feminists like Anthony would hardly recognize the debate that is being held today.

My biggest issue over the outbreak of this argument, however, is the short-sightedness of women like Gordon and Sherr, who purport to support progress for women, and yet attack one of the biggest symbols of that progress simply because their belief in left-feminism allows them to dictate who can and cannot be a feminist. The breakfast Palin spoke at has been covered by the media ad nauseam, and this new debate only serves to titillate the media pundits who thrive on this kind of thing. This is a function of our fractured politics.

Amidst all of this hoopla, some important questions aren’t being asked. For example, why is the Right creating its own brand of feminism? Is it because left-feminism is so unwelcoming of and paranoid about conservative women? Could the emergence of feminism on the Right eventually lead to a unified effort in the long run? What issues can a unified effort focus on? These are important questions, ones that may lead us in a productive direction. Sadly, however, they aren’t being answered because American society has become so hopelessly partisan. Conservative women are daring for the first time to use that savaged term “feminism,” and left-feminists respond with outrage because the two kind of feminist movements share a common hero. Shouldn’t Susan B. Anthony belong to all Americans and not just to progressive feminists?

The proper response here is not to nitpick over some cherry-picked quotes (something leftist feminists do all the time) used by the group, or to project the blame for that cherry-picking onto the woman who was chosen to speak before that group. The proper response here is simple: Conservative women are calling themselves feminists. What a WIN!

And this is exactly my problem with partisan feminism. Left-feminism is so caught up in preserving itself as a brand for the Democratic Party that it can’t see, or support, progress – not even when it happens right in front of them. This sets the worst example for those newly minted feminists on the Right, who have, perhaps, only started their own partisan version of feminism because they have been shunned and rejected by their short-sighted progressive counterparts. It’s worth noting that Gordon and Sherr have both made significant contributions to the modern women’s rights movement, and that should not be forgotten. But it’s a shame they have allowed partisanship to trump what they know are the righteous goals of equality and opportunity for all women.  And it’s a lost opportunity for us all when we breed partisan division among women and groups who could otherwise work together and achieve progress for all women.

This piece originally appeared on The New Agenda Blog.