Claiming Susan B. Anthony’s Mantle

Feminists For Life, a group dedicated to trying to make giving zygotes equal rights seem like a feminist stance, has recently stepped up its visibility by buying Susan B. Anthony’s house. Stacy Schiff writes a delightful op-ed in the New York Times explaining why FFL’s claiming Susan B. Anthony’s mantle is misplaced so that you don’t have to (via Amanda).

The main point is that although FFL quotes Anthony as saying abortion is a bad thing, Anthony lived at a time when abortion was an unsafe procedure. Right now, early-term abortion is safer than giving birth, in contrast. And at any rate, Anthony’s contribution was pushing for female suffrage, which she apparently believed would promote full gender equality. It’s okay to admit that great people can be wrong.

Then, taking a wider angle, Schiff talks about the broader trend,

Anthony is not the first to experience a posthumous identity crisis. As Teddy Roosevelt has discovered, you never know when a self-respecting trustbuster might be resurrected as a laissez-faire Republican. You can go to bed as an apostle of liberty, the author of the Declaration of Independence, to wake up as a slave-owning, mealy-mouthed misogynist. Recently The Wall Street Journal anointed Tom Paine — for two centuries now a progressive rabble-rouser — as “America’s founding neoconservative.”

So long as we have written history we have rewritten it, seasoning it with bias, straining it of context, molding it to our agendas. (The French codified this problem years ago by throwing each camp a bone. For years it was understood that conservative historians got the ancien régime, the communists the Revolution, and the socialists everything thereafter.) But Anthony the pro-lifer hails from a different land, the treacherous province of cutting and pasting, of history plucked from both text and time. Now we are Photoshopping rather than airbrushing; with enough slicing and dicing, an argument can be made for anything. The doctorate in sophistry is optional.

It’s a sad feature of political debate that it’s more about who can line up more past figures and who can talk about what people believe than about who is right. Gender equality isn’t good because Susan B. Anthony or Betty Friedan said it was; it’s good for independent reasons, which Anthony and Friedan understood and argued for. The relevance to modern politics of the alignment of the Founding Fathers, or historical progressive leaders, or George Orwell, is exactly nil.

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