When Feminism Was Pro-Life
A Saturday Night Live skit on Susan B. Anthony has opened the debate about the history of feminism.
Serrin Foster has been talking about Susan B. Anthony probably for as long as she can remember. She’s president of Feminists for Life, and a Saturday Night Live skit recently gave her even more opportunities.
A skit on that comedy show ended with Anthony telling a group of modern women that “abortion is murder,” providing an unlikely gift to Foster’s group, which aims to educate women about nonviolent alternatives to abortion.
As it happens, Foster was already fielding press calls because of a billboard that Feminists for Life put up in Rochester, New York, where Anthony lived and spent her activist years. “Peace Begins in the Womb,” it says, which was essentially the message that Mother Teresa told Bill and Hillary Clinton and the rest of us when she spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994.
The billboard didn’t invoke Anthony, but it provoked a debate about her record on abortion. Foster makes the points that Anthony and other “feminist foremothers … without known exception, spoke out against abortion during the first wave.” The suffragettes were unmistakably pro-life, as Foster explains, using words and phrases like “crime against humanity,” “feticide” and “child murder.” “They used infanticide and abortion interchangeably,” Foster says.
“Feminist foremothers … without known exception, spoke out against abortion during the first wave.”
What an opportunity for reflection — about the history that Foster and Carol Crossed, the president of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum, have dedicated years to exploring and communicating and about what we have been doing to ourselves — to human lives, to our culture and law.
“Sometimes SNL gets it right,” Grazie Christie, a doctor in Miami and senior fellow with the Catholic Association, tells me. She saw in the sketch the “superficial banality of modern feminism is in full display.” About Anthony she said: “The suffragist struggled to change a society where women could not divorce a drunk and abusive husband, vote, speak in public, own separate property when married or be joint guardians of their children. The millennials, affluent and liberated heirs to the fruits of her labor, argue about taxi fare and whether to eat on the train or grab takeout.”
Foster sees it as “an opportunity to instruct both sides about our rich, pro-life feminist history. It begins with the women who fought for the rights of slaves to be free and for women to vote, and who also argued to protect women and children from abortion. Women deserve better than abortion — and so do all children. We seek to fulfill the unrealized vision of the first wave feminists. May peace begin in the womb.”
Anthony, who did not have children of her own, was once complimented on what a good mother she would have been. Foster points to her response: “Sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been for me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so that their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them.”
Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Foundation, which every January sponsors a large annual gathering celebrating life and protesting the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, says, “Given the many conflicting messages these days about what it means to be a woman, to be a feminist, I appreciated the skit and its humorous poke at a sound-bite culture that is lacking a deeper understanding of the inherent dignity and vocation of woman. I appreciated that the skit depicted Susan B. Anthony’s stance on respecting and protecting life from conception.”
I take some solace in the fact that the first major female presidential candidate, who was an extremist on abortion, wasn’t elected. Unlikely as it may be, an SNL skit could be a gateway to liberation from our cultural assumption that women’s politics and health are wedded to legal abortion. It’s not so. It hasn’t been so. It doesn’t need to be so. We can’t live like this forever. And we don’t have to. See the opening now — it’s even showing up on SNL.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.