Susan B. Anthony, Pro-Life Feminist

[Focus on the Family, January 2000]

Susan B. Anthony is a hero of the feminist movement, and with good cause; she was a trailblazer in the women’s movement of the late 1800’s. A Quaker who never married, Anthony devoted her energy first to the abolition of slavery, and then to women’s equality at the ballot box. She and other early feminists believed that the power of the vote was the key to fulfilling all other goals.

Willing to go to jail for what she believed, Anthony illegally cast a ballot in the 1872 presidential election and was arrested. Regard for her by modern-day advocates of women’s rights led to the production of the Susan B. Anthony $1 coin in 1979.

There is, however, one thing these advocates don’t know about Anthony, something that might temper their adoration: Susan B. Anthony was pro-life.

How could a feminist be pro-life? Simple: Abortion hurts women. Anthony and her friends knew this, and in fact the feminist movement did not support abortion until the 1970’s.

A hundred years ago Anthony wrote and essay in her publication, The Revolution, about the “horrible crime of child-murder.” She was considering specifically the tragedy of abortion within marriage, wherein a pregnant wife “destroys the little being, she thinks, before it lives.”

Anthony wanted to “eradicate this most monstrous crime” but feared that laws alone would not be sufficient. “We must reach the root of the evil and destroy it.”

Anthony wrote about this evil with passion. “Guilty? Yes, no matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh! Thrice guilty is he who, for selfish gratification, heedless of her prayers, indifferent to her fate, drove her to the desperation which impels her to the crime.”

But surely the era of feminists who oppose abortion is in the past? Not according to Mary Krane Derr, an author who researched the writings of historical feminists for the book “Pro-Life Feminism: Yesterday and Today.” Derr discovered dozens of essays by a wide range of feminists decrying the violence of abortion and its damage to women.

“According to the early feminists, abortion resulted form the denial of the pregnant woman’s humanity as much as from a denial of the unborn child’s,” wrote Derr, who still terms herself a feminist. “Women felt pressured into aborting because they were deprived of truly life-affirming sexual and reproductive options. This is still very much the case. If we don’t want unborn children to be treated as insensate clumps of tissue, we must first of all ensure that their mothers are not treated as insensate clumps of tissue.”

When asked if she still calls herself a feminist, author and psychologist Sidney Callahan says, “Oh, yes, I do. Feminism begins with an analysis of the abuse of power and the impulse to fight inequality. My going on to take a pro-life position was a natural extension of feminism, just making it deeper.”

Often in her speeches Callahan shocks audiences by declaring, “Women will never climb to equality and social empowerment over mounds of dead fetuses.”

She believes that many contemporary feminist themes should point to pro-life conclusions. “Feminists were leaders in the areas of the ecology, peace and non-violence. All these contribute to the pro-life position.”

As a popular bumper sticker produced by the organization Feminists for Life says, “Peace Begins in the Womb.”

That’s a position Susan B. Anthony would understand. When a man sought to compliment her by saying what a fine mother she would have been, she responded, “Sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been to 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.”

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.