an Ad a Day

A look at the marketing that surrounds us.

Feminists for Life: A Misreading

Posted by Rosepixie on February 23, 2010

This is an ad from Feminists for Life, an anti-abortion group.

The text reads:

Another anti-choice fanatic

“Sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own it has been to me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them.” – Susan B. Anthony

The woman who fought for the right to vote also fought for the right to life.  We proudly continue her legacy.

This is an interesting advocacy ad.  It’s very insidious because it takes a figure we are taught to admire very much, presents a quote taken entirely out of context, and then interprets it exactly as it wants to for us, ignoring what the quote actually says and refers to.  The hope is that we will be so busy thinking “wow, Susan B. Anthony thought this way, why don’t I?” that any misinterpretation of the quote itself will be completely overlooked.

So let’s look at that quote.  It does mention unborn babies, but it doesn’t mention anything even related to abortion.  See, one of Anthony’s big issues was mother’s rights because at the time, children belonged to the father.  This meant that women had no say over what happened to their children if their husbands or lovers didn’t want them to.  It also meant that in the event of a divorce, the father kept the children.  This also meant that if a man got a woman he wasn’t married to pregnant, he could take the child as long as he was willing to admit the indiscretion.  Anthony was working to change the laws that made that so.  Women did the vast majority of the childrearing, so it seemed terribly unjust to her and to other women of the time that their children could be ripped away from them at a moment’s notice because a spouse got tired of them or died and willed the children to a sibling or something.  When Anthony mentioned “unborn little ones”, she wasn’t referring to fetuses, she was referring to the children that women would have in the future.  The future when children couldn’t be taken from their mothers because children belonged to fathers and not mothers.

While abortions absolutely did happen during Susan B. Anthony’s lifetime and it’s entirely conceivable she knew about it, I’d be shocked if she ever mentioned it.  She was rather a prude and tended to avoid even giving a position on anything too controversial.  I’m not sure she’d be too fond of being used as a spokeswoman for any campaign relating to reproductive rights, regardless of the position.

Quotes are great and I love seeing them in ads.  They can ad a lot of credibility to an ad or a cause.  But they need to be used in context.  It’s not fair or right to take a quote and make it mean whatever you want it to mean.  That makes me more suspicious of your campaign, not more likely to agree with you.  If you’re either more concerned about swaying minds than being truthful or too lazy to do real research, you’re not dedicated enough to your cause to get me to agree with you.


3 Responses to “Feminists for Life: A Misreading”

  1. Alice Kate said

    While abortions absolutely did happen during Susan B. Anthony’s lifetime and it’s entirely conceivable she knew about it, I’d be shocked if she ever mentioned it. She was rather a prude and tended to avoid even giving a position on anything too controversial.

    Susan B. Anthony is, of course, most famous for her active participation in one of the most controversial issues of her day: women’s suffrage.

    And it is known for a fact that she mentioned abortion in public speeches: “The prosecutions on our courts for breach of promise, divorce, adultery, bigamy, seduction, rape; the newspaper reports every day of every year of scandals and outrages, of wife murders and paramour shooting, of abortions and infanticides, are perpetual reminders of men’s incapacity to cope successfully with this monster evil of society [intemperance].” (Susan B. Anthony, “Social Purity” 1875)

    I agree that the “Sweeter even” quote is primarily about parental custody rights. But Anthony’s ideas about abortion are not unresearched and undocumented.

    • Rosepixie said

      Thank you so much for the interesting link! I do not dispute that Anthony was one of the leaders of a very controversial movement, but she was a very conservative woman nonetheless.

      As the quote you include in your comment shows (another quote not really about abortion, by the way), she was big in the temperance movement as well, and I’m not altogether shocked that she might have mentioned abortions in that context. But abortion isn’t and wasn’t just a problem relating to drunkenness and men.

      Not to mention that it was a bit of a different problem then than it is now – the issue was more that abortions were nearly always incredibly dangerous. Doctors weren’t trained in how to do them (they were barely trained to recognize female anatomy) and midwives rarely learned how either, so women were left to find someone who either happened to know how or was willing to try based on either rumored instructions or worse. And when something went wrong, there wasn’t much they could do. Those doctors were clueless and in general society treated a woman known to have had an abortion as a pariah. So, assuming you survived one, you kept it a deep, dark secret. And quite possibly couldn’t ever have children again. There were a lot of reasons to oppose it back then.

      As conservative as she was, it’s hard to say where Susan B. Anthony would have fallen on this issue. But it’s important to remember that it was a completely different issue back then. It was not only more a safety issue than a moral one, but it was wrapped up in beliefs about how “those women” got pregnant in the first place and drunkenness and all kinds of other baggage.

      Bringing such a figure forward to now and saying “see! she believed as we do!” is really hard to do when the issue as it stands now essentially didn’t exist when she was alive. Not to mention, it’s manipulative advertising, which was the original point of the post.

  2. Eva said

    During Victorian times there were women who campaigned against abortion under the heading of womens’ rights. This stemmed from the problem that spousal rape was not considered a crime. The idea was that if there were consequences to having sex, a woman’s husband would be more respectful in the bedroom and far less likely to force himself upon her (because you see, he would be the one dealing with supporting the child, not her). If the man could simply pay for an abortion and force his wife to go through it (because she has no rights over her own body that her husband could not override) then he could rape her as many times as he pleased so long as he could afford the abortions.

    There were also groups who campaigned against abortions on the grounds that if they were legal they would encourage exactly the people who should be having children (those with breeding and means) not to do so, because they would be the people who could afford them (medical procedures still cost money, even when they’re legal). In this second case by “groups of people” I mean people who were into eugenics. You didn’t have to be some degenerate fringe group to subscribe to these beliefs because there were way more people with horrible backwards views about those of differing ethnicity and means.

    In general looking back on Victorian views of social issues is not flattering and it gets less so the closer you look. Victorians had wildly differing views about what rights people deserved relative to sex and their own bodies. I don’t mean just women, although they are the most prominent targets in history books, pretty much anyone who fell in a disadvantaged class tended to be forced to accept all sorts of horrible treatment and then be told that they had no legal right to complain.

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