In a recent study of 51 of the major women leaders of the abolition-feminist movement, 48 came from Christian backgrounds. Some of these women included Lucretia Mott, an evangelical Quaker who helped to found the Anti-Slavery Society in 1833; Angelina Grimké, who presented female anti-slavery petitions to the Massachusetts state legislature; as well as Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.1
Popularized by New Awakening evangelicals, the women’s movement gained momentum when people began to realize that there was no biblical support for inequality between the sexes. In Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha, they found proof that Jesus valued women’s roles as disciples. Jesus’ rebuke to Martha clearly showed that women were not to be relegated to works of service toward men.2 In the fifth chapter of Genesis, they found evidence that God had created men and women as equals: “In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them ‘Man’ [Hebrew: adam; literally: ‘a human being’] in the day when they were created.“3
The fight for justice and equality was the direct result of action taken by those with a Christian worldview. Most of these women suffered mistreatment, yet their courageous stance was shaped by a biblical view of sin and righteousness. They were willing to risk their honor to take up the work of both abolition and women’s suffrage. They often pointed to the example of Jesus who died to bring salvation to the world. Their great courage and willingness to sacrifice was expressed in the words of Lucy Stone, writing in a letter to her mother, “Without the shedding of blood, there is not remission for sin.“4
A great irony of history is that not only were these women against slavery and discrimination against women, but they were also unanimously opposed to abortion. They did not hold this position primarily because of the physical dangers: they believed that abortion caused the death of a baby. Susan B. Anthony voiced the common opinion when she called abortion “child-murder.”
“I deplore the horrible crime of child-murder…. We want prevention not merely punishment. We must reach the root of the evil and destroy it…. [It] is practised by those whose inmost souls revolt from the dreadful deed.“5 Anthony judged that women who had abortions were “awfully guilty,” but laid the higher guilt on the head of the abortionist: “but oh! thrice guilty is he who … drove her to the desperation which impels her to the crime.“6
Matilda Gage likewise found that abortion was murder, but spoke of the dilemma of a crisis pregnancy due to rape: “[Abortion] lies deeper down into women’s wrongs than any other…. I hesitate not to assert that most of this crime of ‘child-murder’, ‘abortion’, ‘infanticide’ lies at the door of the male sex.“7 Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that none are free till all are free: “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.“8 Mattie Brinkerhoff found in abortion not freedom of choice, but despair: “When a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that … she has been greatly wronged.“9
Alice Paul, the suffragist founder of the National Woman’s Party and author of the Equal Rights Amendment , objected to combining abortion arguments with the fight for the ERA; Paul termed abortion “the ultimate exploitation of women.” Even Margaret Sanger said, “abortion was the wrong way – no matter how early it was performed it was taking a life“10 and termed “the killing of babies – infanticide – abortion” the “most barbaric method” of birth control.11
The suffragists of the 19th century cut across the deadlocked debate of the woman vs. the fetus, and called for a broader vision – one that linked abortion with the sexual exploitation of women. May the present-day champions of Susan B. Anthony, who march under her banner, pay her the ultimate compliment: listen to her.
1 Blanche Glassman Hersh, The Slavery of Sex: Feminist-Abolitionists in America (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1978), p.138. 2 Luke 10:38-41. 3 Genesis 5:1,2. 4 Hersh, p.84. 5 Susan B. Anthony, The Revolution, 7/8, 1869. 6 Ibid. 7 The Revolution, 4/9, 1968. 8 Letter to Julia Ward Howe, 10/16, 1873. 9 The Revolution, 9/2, 1869. 10 Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography, 1938. 11 Sanger, My fight for Birth Control, 1931.