Saturday, October 14, 2006

Susan B. Anthony Would've Been Fine with Modern Abortions

Many of you have probably been clued into the right wing tactic of appropriating the early suffragettes in their anti-abortion zeal. This quite maddening and successful rhetorical move has been adopted by folks like the Susan B. Anthony List, a pac devoted to Pro-life issues, Kate O'Beirne, and Feminists for Life. The appropriation of Susan B. Anthony is a perversion of history; it is stripping away a woman's message from the context in which she wrote. Certainly Anthony would have found little in common with the pro-life women's organizations that so malign her by pimping her image and words. She was, however, a rather ruthless strategist, forming alliances with conservative religious women if it would further her goals.

Ann Bartow just alerted me to this NYT op-ed, written by Susan Schiff, called "Desperately Seeking Susan." And here is a delightful and delectable excerpt:

So long as we have written history we have rewritten it, seasoning it with bias, straining it of context, molding it to our agendas. (The French codified this problem years ago by throwing each camp a bone. For years it was understood that conservative historians got the ancien régime, the communists the Revolution, and the socialists everything thereafter.) But Anthony the pro-lifer hails from a different land, the treacherous province of cutting and pasting, of history plucked from both text and time. Now we are Photoshopping rather than airbrushing; with enough slicing and dicing, an argument can be made for anything. The doctorate in sophistry is optional.

Ms. Crossed has argued that abortion rights are a violation of those for which Anthony fought. To her mind, the right to vote does not bring with it the right to destroy our offspring. This may be true. And then again it may not be. “We demand that woman shall be given the means to assert herself, regardless of whether she ever uses it or not,” pretty much qualified as Anthony’s theme song.

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.

Amanda takes this issue up as well.