Who Were the Early Feminists in the U.S.?

Every March, we in the United States celebrate Women in History Month, but how much do we really know about the early feminists in our country?

Susan B. Anthony, born 1820 in Massachusetts and raised in a family with long activist traditions, developed a sense of justice and moral zeal early in her life. She became active in the movement to make alcohol consumption illegal, but wasn’t allowed to speak at temperance rallies because she was a woman. This injustice led her to join the women’s-rights movement in 1852. She also fought for the abolition of slavery.

Most importantly, she was pro-life. In her view, children were a blessing, even though she never married or had children of her own. In her words: “Sweeter even than to have had the joy of 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.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a suffragette and acquaintance of Susan B. Anthony, also was pro-life. “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit,” she wrote in 1873.

These early feminists fought for women’s rights, but in no way did they consider abortion empowering for women.

Fast forward to the 20th century and Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth-control facility — the forerunner of Planned Parenthood — in 1916 in New York City. She believed women should be free to have sexual relations without fear of becoming pregnant, but she wasn’t an advocate for abortion in the early days.

In 1931, she wrote Birth Control Advances: A Reply to the Pope, a response to Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubi (On Christian Marriage), an encyclical that stressed the sanctity of marriage and prohibited Catholics from using birth control.

“Although abortion may be resorted to in order to save the life of the mother, the practice of it merely for limitation of offspring is dangerous and vicious,” Sanger wrote. “I bring up the subject here only because some ill-informed persons have the notion that when we speak of birth control we include abortion as a method. We certainly do not.”

Less than 40 years later, Planned Parenthood began selling abortion.

In 1973, with the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions, abortion began to sweep across our nation like a grassfire. Freestanding abortion businesses began to sprout up in cities all across America. The grand irony is that these facilities, operating under the premise of providing women’s health, largely serve only to harm women. Hundreds of women have died, thousands have been injured or left infertile, and millions live with a lingering, often debilitating, regret.

Let’s look beyond abortion for a moment. With a better understanding of fertility, women have gained control of their reproductive lives. We delay marriage and childbirth into our 30s and beyond. We have advanced degrees and corner offices. The glass ceiling gets higher. So maybe we do have it all?

Maybe not.

Forty years after abortion was legalized, women have not achieved pay equity in the workplace, and they’re still doing most of the work at home. Relying on contraception and abortion to plot and plan our families and futures has not been empowering for women.

In a way, I suppose you can say we do have it all, because few doors remain closed to women. But the fact can’t be overlooked that we are too tired, too drained, too spent to enjoy any of it very much. And the other fact that can’t be overlooked is that 55 million unwanted, unplanned and "imperfect" children have been killed by abortion in the United States.

As Women in History Month draws to a close, we must not forget that many include the legal right to have an abortion as a major accomplishment in our recent history. But abortion is not progress or reproductive justice or empowerment. It’s murder.