Misappropriating Women's History in the Law and Politics of Abortion
69 Pages Posted: 19 Dec 2012 Last revised: 14 Feb 2013
Date Written: October 9, 2012
Over the past twenty years, prolife advocates have sought to control the political and legal narrative of abortion by misappropriating women’s history. They claim that '[w]ithout known exception, the early American feminists condemned abortion in the strongest possible terms.' Conservatives, led by the lobbying group Feminists for Life, have used historical feminist icons like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul, to support their anti-abortion advocacy. Federal anti-abortion legislation has been named after these feminist heroines, amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court proffer evidence that these women were outspokenly against abortion, and political forums for college students popularize the notion that feminists historically opposed abortion. The need to create a history of anti-abortion feminists seems important today because abortion has come to be equated with women’s rights. The appeal to historical figures in the abortion debate is powerful because it utilizes the gravitas of feminist heroines to challenge the existing legal and political assumption that abortion is a cornerstone of sex equality.
This political narrative, however, misconstrues the historical evidence. It invents rather than describes history, blatantly ignoring the text, context, and spirit of the work of the women it appropriates. This paper tests the veracity of the claims of a feminist history against abortion by focusing on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 'the brilliant chief philosopher and leader' of the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement. Stanton has quite literally been the poster child for the historical campaign against abortion, appearing on posters, commemorative coffee mugs and federal legislation. This analysis offers a detailed account of Stanton’s views related to abortion based on original historical research into the archives of Stanton’s papers. Like other works of legal history, it is fundamentally concerned with recovering all of the legally relevant facts and placing those facts in appropriate historical and legal context.
The evidence shows that Stanton did not talk about abortion per se. She did not respond to the public campaign for the criminalization of abortion led by the medical profession with attacks on the growing autonomy of women. Instead Stanton reframed this debate as one of women’s rights, framing the question as one of the 'elevation of woman' through equal legal and social rights. Stanton’s theory of 'enlightened motherhood' placed women as the 'sovereign of her own person' with sole responsibility for deciding when and under what circumstances to bear children. She defended women accused of infanticide, exposing the gendered legal system of all-male juries, legislatures, and judges that condemned them. Stanton’s life work labored for radical change to the patriarchy of society seeking liberal legal reforms of equal rights for women. Her ideology was about the 'self-sovereignty' of women and against the regulation of women by men or the law. Stanton thus seems an unlikely spokesperson for the modern anti-abortion movement committed to opposite ends.
Keywords: women's rights, legal history, abortion
JEL Classification: K1
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation