Sarah P. and Susan B.

by Justin

In the wake of Oklahoma’s anti-abortion bills and a resurgence of militant opposition to a pro-choice America, feminism is again a popular buzzword. At least among conservative candidates whose only skill is public manipulation. Insulting the intelligence, competence, and depth of Sarah Palin is well-worn territory and I don’t have much to contribute. Except to say that at any given moment there’s something sort of manic and rabid in her eyes, a cocaine fervor that is simultaneously threatening and vacant.

Author Jessica Valenti, who seems legitimately interested in the welfare of women, wrote a short and biting piece for the Washington Post addressing the ways in which Ms. Palin is dangerous and calculating. I’ve never understood the place of pro-life activists in feminist circles, but I’m also generally incapable of pronounced and willful ignorance. How limiting freedoms could possibly promote liberty remains a mystery. What Ms. Valenti does well is illustrate the insults slung at the trailblazers of the ’60s and the backwards agenda of Palin and the like:

Given that so-called conservative feminists don’t support women’s rights, how can they paint their movement as pro-woman? Why are they not being laughed out of the room?

Easy: They preempt criticism of their lack of bona fides by aligning themselves with a history that most women are proud of — the fight for suffrage. They claim they’re the real feminists, as Palin did in her speech lauding the Susan B. Anthony List for “returning the women’s movement back to its original roots.” (She wasn’t talking about voting rights; she was referring to the debated notion that first-wave feminists were antiabortion.)

It may seem odd to argue that for women to make progress, they should ground their movement in the past — but it’s appropriate, given the beliefs of conservative “feminists.” They don’t want to move forward; instead they knock 1960s-era feminism as hooey while claiming to support equality.

She goes on:

By tying their “feminism” to the suffragists, whose goal was realized nearly 100 years ago, they’re not-so-subtly saying that women in America have achieved equality. In fact, they don’t believe that systemic sexism exists. The conservative writer Christina Hoff Sommers, for example, says that women aren’t oppressed and that “it is no longer reasonable to say that as a group, women are worse off than men.”

If you believe women have made it, you’re not going to fight very hard on their behalf. But it’s difficult to rally women’s support behind a message of inaction, so Palin is doing her best to frame this nonmovement as proactive and, of course, “empowering.”

“More young women agree with these feminist foremothers [on abortion] than ever before,” Palin said in her Susan B. Anthony List speech.

The speech in question, given to an organization that claims to be at the heart of the anti-abortion movement, has come under immediate fire by actual scholars. To give credit where it’s due, I originally learned about this abuse of Susan B.’s legacy over at Michael Tomasky’s exceptional blog a few weeks ago. He referenced this piece from the Washington Post from two historian’s a little miffed about the invention of proof:

The bits of information circulating on the Web always cite “Marriage and Maternity,” an article in a newspaper owned for several years after the Civil War by Susan B. Anthony. In it, the writer deplores “the horrible crime of child-murder,” and signs it simply, “A.” Although no data exists that Anthony wrote it, or ever used that shorthand for herself, she is imagined to be its author. The anti-abortion forces also ignore the paragraph in which the anonymous author vigorously opposes “demanding a law for its suppression.” In other words, the article opposes the criminalization of abortion and was written by someone other then Anthony. Untold? Unproven.

The only clear reference to abortion in Susan B. Anthony’s writings, recently discovered by Ann, was quickly fitted into the anti-abortion narrative. After a visit with her brother, Anthony remarks in her diary that her sister-in-law aborted a pregnancy, things did not go well, and the woman was bedridden. Anthony concludes, “She will rue the day she forces nature.” Clearly Anthony did not applaud her sister-in-law’s action, but the notation is ambiguous. Is it the act of abortion that will be regretted? Or is it being bedridden, the risk taken with one’s own life? At most, the quotation amounts to private disapproval within the family, unlikely to be voiced to her beloved relative. But there is no hint that this is a social problem or a political matter. No one could mistake the diary entry for “passionate abhorrence” to abortion, a commitment to “pro-life activism” — as pro-lifers claim.

This is a flagrant and disgusting manipulation of facts. To pirate a legitimate hero’s work and use her name to curb the freedom of women seems criminal. It reminds me of Nietzsche’s sister editing and circulating his unfinished writings in Will to Power after his death, perverting his every thought and inviting the Nazi’s to ruin his legacy for decades. That was rather more grotesque and heartbreaking than Palin and her posse’s work.

The president of the Susan B. Anthony List, Marjorie Dannenfelser, was able to retaliate on the WaPo website. But Ms. Dannenfelser presents her argument rife with logical fallacies:

Susan B. Anthony was passionate and logical in her arguments against abortion. The Revolution was her brainchild, co-founded with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a weekly women’s rights newspaper that acted as the official voice of the National Woman Suffrage Association and in which appeared many of her writings alongside those of her like-minded colleagues. Most logical people would agree, then, that writings signed by “A” in a paper that Anthony funded and published were a reflection of her own opinions.

First off, as pointed out by Gordon and Sherr in the earlier piece, Susan B. never signed with just ‘A’ – why would it only be on a handful? Secondly, how foolish is the assumption that every contributor to a magazine subscribes to views identical to those of the founder? There’s never been a single definition of feminism, and who’s to say that a visionary like Susan B. Anthony wouldn’t welcome dissenting views to the table? Nearly the entire retaliatory case relies upon the words of contemporaries, not Susan B. herself.

Victoria Woodhull, the first female presidential candidate, told a newspaper of the day that “Every woman knows that if she were free, she would never bear an unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth.”

Even within those words, that neither belonged to Susan B. nor were published in The Revolution, there’s the question of context, what’s meant by the word ‘free’ – free from what or from whom? The more I read it the more ambiguous that quotation becomes. Not that it matters since Victoria Woodhull has nothing to do with the argument. The fallacious logic then goes on to cite things like ‘recent Gallup polling’ and ‘many conservative commentators’ without supplying any examples. It might as well be made up. Man, oh man.

Props to the conservative party for being able to dress ignorance as scholarship and for wielding the legacy of our fore-bearers with such wanton disregard for the truth.