Abortion and the Legacy of the Suffragettes

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Here is another example of how the study of history influences present debates.

Which side of today’s debate over abortion gets to claim the women’s rights movement?  Writing at The Atlantic, Emma Green tries to figure it out.  Here is a taste of her piece, “The Epic Political Battle Over the Legacy of the Suffragettes”:

A century after suffrage, the women’s movement is still fighting a battle over inheritance. Progressive feminists widely claim the mantle of suffrage activists, drawing on their imagery and channeling their energy in fights against Trump-era policies. But a range of conservative activists, especially in the anti-abortion movement, also identify with the early women’s movement. They see their values and ideas reflected in a version of feminism that predates, and remains separate from, the sexual revolution. In this tug-of-war over the suffragist legacy, both sides airbrush the parts of history that don’t fit their narrative, cramming suffragists into ideological boxes that simply didn’t exist in their time.

The movement for suffrage spanned from the mid-19th century to the early 20th, and was advanced by women with a range of political priorities and viewpoints. They were progressives, in the broadest sense of the word: They believed in pushing for social change and using politics for the betterment of humanity. Yet many of their views might seem shocking today, especially to Americans who identify with the same “progressive” movement of which suffrage activists were a part.

By and large, white American suffragists were racist, arguing that giving the vote to white women would cancel out the influence of newly enfranchised black men. This was as much a matter of political strategy as personal prejudice, says Liette Gidlow, an associate professor at Wayne State University who is working on an upcoming book on this subject. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and so-called grandfather clauses kept many black men away from the polls in the years following the Civil War, even after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment gave them the vote. “Many leading … white suffragists were deeply afraid that … [if] the Susan B. Anthony amendment”—which proposed women’s suffrage—“would lead to the return of African Americans … to the polls, that would damage support for the amendment,” Gidlow told me. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, many states passed laws limiting the voting rights of black Americans, including black women.

Many of the suffragists promoted temperance, or the banning of alcohol in pursuit of virtuous self-restraint—a principle that was enshrined in the Constitution around the same time as suffrage, although it was later reversed.

And many of these activists viewed the world through a gendered lens, believing that their distinctive, womanly insights would be an asset to the political realm. This is where suffragists diverge most sharply from today’s elite progressive feminists, who contest the idea that womanhood is distinctive and essential.

Some of the core causes of the contemporary women’s movement, such as abortion access, may have been puzzling or even unthinkable to women activists a century ago. Views on gender are one of the most electric dividing lines in American culture today, especially among women. Despite their familiarity with debates over women’s roles, if suffragists time-traveled to 2019, they wouldn’t have the language or intellectual framework to understand today’s controversies about the nature of gender.

Read the entire piece here.