Reclaiming the Public Memory of Suffragists and Reproductive Rights

This morning, the blog Nursing Clio published a post on Public Memory and Reproductive Justice in the Trump Era.  The article describes how pro-life groups like Feminists for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List have appropriated the memory of early suffragists by claiming that Anthony and her fellow reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton were pro-life heroines.  This story has been debunked by historians (for example, see this article from the National Susan B. Anthony House and Museum), yet it continues to thrive on pro-life blogs.

Pro-life activists are not the only ones to argue that suffragist leaders were against abortion and birth control.  In a classic article in the journal Feminist Studies, historian Linda Gordon argued that early suffragists opposed both abortion and artificial forms of birth control. Instead, they endorsed voluntary motherhood through periodic abstinence.[1]

I’m writing an article for a special issue on the Suffrage Centennial for the Journal of the History of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era  that aims to correct this narrative. I look at  the writings of Matilda Joselyn Gage, whose work has been minimized in suffrage history until recently.[2]  In 1878, Gage created a framework for birth control activism by stating “woman must first of all be held as having a right to herself.”[3]

The article will then examine women who were involved in both the suffrage and birth control movements, including Crystal Eastman, Katherine Houghton Hepburn, Mary Ware Dennett, and Margaret Sanger’s colleague Katherine Dexter McCormick. I hope to expand our understanding of the suffrage movement by showing how these women’s birth control activism informed their suffrage work and vice versa.

The article is scheduled for publication in 2020 — better get writing!

[1]Linda Gordon, “Voluntary Motherhood: The Beginnings of Feminist Birth Control Ideas in The United States,” Feminist Studies 1 (1973):5-22.

[2]Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

[3]Matilda Joselyn Gage, “Our Book Table,” The National Citizen and Ballot Box, November 1878, 2.



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