Learning from the Suffragists
On June 25, 1919, Massachusetts became the eighth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. After a nearly century-long campaign, women were at last guaranteed the right to vote. Today, women and their male allies can best commemorate the centennial of women’s suffrage by renewing our commitment to use the ballot to secure women’s bodily autonomy, including the right to safe, legal abortion. In so doing, we can learn from the experiences and actions of activists a century ago.
The earliest women’s rights activists recognized that women’s control over their own bodies would be a major battleground. Suffrage leader Lucy Stone of Massachusetts wrote in 1855, “It is very little to me to have the right to vote and to own property if I may not keep my body, and its uses, in my absolute right.” Admitting that the question was untimely in an era when women had no political rights and few alternatives to marriage, which made a wife the legal possession of her husband, she noted the issue “will force itself upon us some day.”
It has. Repeatedly. Each time women have sought to control their own sexual and reproductive lives, whether by seeking access to contraceptives or by lobbying to criminalize marital rape, a stubborn and sizeable segment of the population has resisted. Today’s battleground is abortion. But cloaked in the rhetoric of “fetal personhood” is the same determination to control women and their bodies that has always underlain opposition to women’s rights. The suffragists pursued women’s rights at both the state and national level. Current activists must do the same. We must strive to protect Roe v. Wade at the national level, while supporting proposed state legislation that would enshrine that landmark law’s protection in Massachusetts law.
Like abortion opponents today, those opposed to women’s suffrage weaponized religion and made false scientific claims in an effort to “keep women in their place.” Massachusetts’ religious leaders preached that the New Testament orders women to be submissive, and that a woman who assumed the “place and tone” of a public reformer paved the way for “degeneracy and ruin.” Suffrage opponents likewise argued that women were biologically unsuited for political life: that their smaller head circumferences meant inferior brains, and that their ovaries shriveled in response to intellectual exertion.
It took decades for suffragists to debunk these myths. Today, we must challenge those who abuse religion and science in an effort to control women’s bodies and choices. We must push back hard against those who impose their religious beliefs on others and those who equate abortion with infanticide. We must expose the mendacity of those who claim abortion is unsafe (it is safer than a colonoscopy), and the hypocrisy of those who claim concern for an embryo but lack it once a child is born.
While we can learn a lot from the suffragists’ successes, we must also learn from their shortcomings. Many suffrage leaders made a pact with the devil of white supremacy. Some were overtly racist, while others were simply desperate to win the support of former Confederate states. (This strategy mostly failed, as southern politicians found the cause of white supremacy better served by denying women the ballot.) The unholy alliance between misogyny and white supremacy is at the center of today’s anti-abortion crusade. Women in the South, and particularly women of color, are the first to be denied access to safe, legal abortions. Today’s advocates of equal rights for women must work on behalf of both gender and racial equality.
Achieving women’s suffrage required the persistent efforts of three generations of brave activists. Each step forward provoked resentful backlash. The suffragists persevered, always confident that, eventually, the forces favoring progress would prevail. A fitting way to honor their legacy is to dedicate ourselves to winning the battles we face today, regardless of how long they may last. The suffragists never conceded defeat, and neither must we. As Susan B. Anthony memorably warned during the long suffrage struggle, “Failure is impossible.”
Published in the Newton Tab, GateHouse Media, June 26, 2019, page A6
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