What Susan B. Anthony knew that Gloria Steinem doesn’t.
For me, there’s something slightly embarrassing about Women’s History Month. It’s not because I don’t love and admire women. I spend much of my time interviewing and promoting them in politics; I am big on “Girls’ Night Out”; I like mothers, daughters and sisters (I am all of those things myself). But aren’t we taught from childhood to demur from opportunities for self-aggrandizement? When praised and applauded, aren’t we supposed to point to our partners and inspirations — those around us who serve the cause and share in our glory? We teach our children daily to fight the “it’s all about me” instinct. Why not our gender?
All this month at my grocery store, the Big Brother-like narrative on the PA system is teaching me about which women are the greatest and why. (I guess you’d call that lady announcer Big Sister.) It isn’t necessary, because I’m already convinced that our gender has unique and beautiful strengths — strengths all the more beautiful because they complement the strengths of men. I know that great women have accomplished great things and have cleared trails that seemed unnavigable. So as I select my cereal on aisle nine, methinks the lady doth protest too much.
Of course there are accomplished women who came before and are all around us. Do we have to keep bragging about it? The proof of our accomplishments is in the pudding, and when we succeed, it isn’t solely a “woman’s success,” it’s a human one. Are women so weak and fearful that they need constant reassurance, like a first grader struggling to read? It should be assumed that women have unique talents and are capable of greatness. Why do feminists think we don’t know that?
Sometime after its beginnings in the organized suffrage movement, the American women’s movement lost its way. Somewhere along the path to Roe v. Wade, The Vagina Monologues, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the hierarchy of values inverted: The anatomy of the person serving the cause became more important than the cause itself.
But the good news is that a natural correction is occurring. The successes and failures of women in the political arena provide evidence that “everything old is new again.” Today’s women in politics are more like the suffragists of the early 1900s than the activists of the 1970s. They are closer to Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul than to Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Jane Fonda.
One indication of this shift is abortion politics, as seen in polls that reveal a strong pro-life trend among women, especially younger women. In the early 1990s, there was only one strong pro-life woman in Congress, Rep. Barbara Vucanovich (R., Nev.). Now there are 13. Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, currently expecting her fifth child, is one of the strongest advocates for the pro-life cause in the nation.
Susan B. Anthony was first a humanitarian, passionate about fairness and justice. Her strength and success hinged upon the fact that she fought for transcendent principles. She knew that when those principles were violated, whole classes of citizens suffered. This passion for human rights inspired her outrage over any mistreatment of human beings, which meant that her causes were numerous. She fought for property rights for women, the rights of women to hold authority over their children, and the right of women to vote. Through the temperance movement, she fought alcohol abuse and its painful effects on families. She fought slavery.
And she was categorical about the human-rights violation that abortion entailed: “It will burden her conscience in life. It will burden her soul in the grave.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton agreed: “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women to treat our children as property to be disposed of when she sees fit.”
This kind of thinking among feminist leaders disappeared over time as the abortion issue was allowed to hijack the modern women’s movement. Now, with 1.2 million abortions per year and debates over the humanity of the unborn child, women are in a moral quandary over the issue — and the abortion movement’s leaders are in a quandary over the quandary. Earlier this year Frances Kissling and Kate Michelman lamented in the Los Angeles Times that abortion advocates need to “regain the moral high ground.” The high ground definitely was lost when gender elbowed out human rights. That’s why the movement is becoming passé.
Much of today’s bragging and moralizing about the Elevated Woman may be embarrassing. But more important, it is damaging, because it has distracted us. As generations of human-rights activists have shown, we do best when we serve the just cause rather than making the cause serve us.
— Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports pro-life causes and raises money for pro-life women running for Congress.
This article first appeared in the National Review on March 28, 2008