Why We Must (Re)claim Feminist History

Do you consider yourself a
feminist? Perhaps you’ve done some research on feminism or some feminist
activism. Maybe you even went so far as to get a university degree in
Women’s Studies. I did. I graduated from the University of Toronto
with a major in Women’s Studies in 2008, and yet I do not have a working
knowledge of feminist history. This is wrong. Communication and storytelling
is essential to the development of any community, and the feminist movement
is no exception. 

So who do you find "teaching"
feminist history on a campus like the University of Toronto? 

None other than Feminists for
Life (a part of larger student group Students for Life). This group,
which calls itself "pro-woman and pro-life," appropriates the history
of the late 19th century suffragette movement in order to further its
sexist agenda of criminalizing abortion and contraception. 

In the preface to Rebecca Walker’s
1995 book "To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of
Feminism," Angela Davis expresses disappointment in the third wave
of feminism. She argues that if the third wave feminists had "the
same kind of nuanced vision of the past that they did of the present"
they would come to understand that feminists of the past had indeed
confronted and challenged identity politics. In her 1997 article "Charting
the Currents of the Third Wave," Catherine Orr notes that many third
wave feminist writers indeed engage with ideas that have been explored
before in feminist theory and "end up fighting ghosts that could be
exorcised (or rendered more complex) by looking at history." Why did
we not study these established critiques along with classic and current
third wave feminist literature? We studied and created so many critiques
that when I thought of this one in the later years of my degree, I immediately
dismissed it as irrelevant simply because we had not encountered it.

If it weren’t for the feminists that came before us, we would not
have several important rights: to vote, to work outside the home, and
to choose if and with whom we will have a relationship, among others.
Do all people, regardless of gender in Canada, have those rights in
2009? No. This does NOT mean that we should throw out feminist history.
As today, the feminists of the past were products of their social location,
and their work and views should be considered within that context.

On their website, Feminists for Life argue that Susan B. Anthony would
take an anti-choice position in the debate on abortion today because
in her time she condemned it as harmful to women and families. To unsuspecting
researchers who happen across this article and are unable to place it
into an informed historical context, it presents a reasonably sound
objection to abortion on "feminist" grounds.

However, historians will note that in Susan B. Anthony’s time and location
(late 19th century in the United States), contraceptive methods were
not readily available and so the results of marital indiscretions could
be much more visible and therefore disastrous. Women would not be considered
citizens until 1920, affording them little or no protection when facing
precarious/abusive living arrangements. Abortion was illegal and was
often the only option for women who were pregnant out of wedlock or
whose partners did not or could not acknowledge the relationship publicly.
From the perspective of many married women, the availability of abortion
in a community encouraged pre- and extramarital intercourse. Thus, privileged
women such as Susan B. Anthony and her early feminist colleagues generally
viewed abortion as a threat, denouncing it in their organizing.

Since the late 19th century, there have been many technological and
social movements that have altered the circumstances under which women
can make autonomous choices about the course of their lives. Winning
the vote, the invention of the Pill, the ability to work outside the
home, and the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade are just a few of
the changes that have taken place in North America in the 100+ years
since Susan B. Anthony’s day. So, Feminists for Life’s claim that
abortion is bad for women and families because Susan B. Anthony said
so in 1889 has little or no relevance in 2009. It must be noted that
it is possible to view Susan B. Anthony as feminist within the context
of her time – in a time when families were larger, labor unions had
yet to organize and women could not earn their own discretionary wages,
it was very important for women to ensure that their husbands were not
spending their wages on the costs associated with extramarital affairs.

When viewed in its proper historical context, her condemnation of abortion
may be considered acceptable on feminist grounds. The feminist movement
has also made a few changes since Anthony’s day in terms of recognizing
how it has neglected the needs of women of colour, queer and differently-abled
women as well as recognizing all genders as potential allies. Much work
remains to be done here, particularly in light of the carnage dealt
to women’s/maternal health globally by the Bush Administration.

Feminists for Life pamphlets have been readily available at most anti-choice
events to take place on the University of Toronto campus throughout
the 2000s. This is only one example of how they have perverted one famous
feminist’s history to attack women’s rights. If women’s studies
students are not taught this history and its relevant feminist/structural
critiques, how will we revise and add to our knowledge without a critical,
nuanced perspective from which to draw without repeating mistakes?

In our ongoing effort not to privilege a feminist critical lens over
others, we sometimes neglect to consider a feminist viewpoint at all.
This causes even more damage in practice than theory: multiple oppressions
and privileges translate very messily into real life interactions with
others. Attempting to sort out one’s varying identities with others
for even a small project can be daunting at best, and damaging at worst.
With so many of the marginalized (which overwhelmingly includes women
and families) suffering during this time, we cannot afford to sell a
seminal feminist figure like Susan B. Anthony to the persistent anti-choice
movement. It is deeply offensive to conflate her hard work with a patriarchal
institution that wishes to subjugate women.

If the misogynistic anti-choice movement can convincingly claim such
figures as Susan B. Anthony as their own, we can re-claim and re-define
them in a historical and critical context that reflects current feminist
and anti-oppressive thought. Each one of us that remains silent while
our history is stolen for an agenda predicated on "traditional"
gender roles is complicit in its abuse.

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  • http://www.eatgoodbread.com invalid-0

    I recommend reading “Motherhood in Bondage” (which is not a german sexsite, but a book by Margaret Sanger). It’s a collection of letters from the early 1900s written by women whose physical and emotional lives are ruined (and I mean Dickens-poor house-cervixes falling out ruined) by lack of access to medical care and birth control.

    “Lack of access” is actually an understatement– women were then, just as they are now, purposefully prevented from controlling their own bodies.

    Reading these stories will help some people understand why choice and privacy are so valuable– maybe a copy should be sent to Bobby Jindal, who last night said “Health care decisions should be made by doctors and patients, not by government bureaucrats.”

    I really wish he and the whole anti-choice/anti-privacy crowd would apply that philosophy to personal decision-making, rather than just how medical bills get paid.

  • invalid-0

    Lisa, I recommend “Five Myths of Socialized Medicine” by John Goodman. I see that you are offended by Jindal’s comment “Health care decisions should be made by doctors and their patients, not by government bureaucrats” and find it “anti choice and anti privacy”. If you really want to know what its like to struggle with choice and privacy in healthcare, consider what’s its like for a Canadian woman to be told that she’ll have to wait anywhere from weeks to months for necessary breast cancer surgery because its only elective. Think it doesn’t happen? All cancer surgery in Canada is considered elective. Usually bypass surgery is too. People who can afford it come to the U.S. for surgery without the wait but it becomes difficult to afford anything when so much of your income is confiscated by the government to support the “universal health care” you’ll wait years to get. I hope anyone who supports this type of system here does some research before lending their enthusiasm.

  • amanda-marcotte

    I don’t get why people can’t see through Feminists For Life’s obvious lies.  They exploit our unwillingness to really define feminism.  Which comes from a good place, but is nonetheless being exploited.  If you don’t accept, at a baseline, that women are full citizens with every right to bodily autonomy, then how are you a feminist?

  • invalid-0

    This is the group Femminist’s for life that Palin is a member of. Explains alot!

  • invalid-0

    cmarie, thanks for your reply, but you misinterpreted my comments about Bobby Jindal. I was actually thrilled when he said “Health care decisions should be made by doctors and patients, not by government bureaucrats” because I want that philosophy to be extended to every aspect of medical care, not only how it’s paid for.

    …and then once we The Bureaucracy have achieved that, people might be relaxed enough to delve into a good feminist history book while in the waiting room before an accessible and fully private consultation with a doc.

  • invalid-0

    It is hideously ironic to hear _this_ statement coming from the mouth of one of the most rabidly anti-choice politicians in the country. The context in which he made this statement is as a supposed rebuttal to a NONEXISTENT alleged component of Obama’s health plan that rightie wack-jobs made up claiming that the plan contains provisions telling doctors what procedures they may and may not use to treat patients.

  • alexm

    Thank you Amanda.  This is why I’m fed up with the identity politics that has bogged down the third wave.  Feminists for Life are not femininists, and the sooner we accept that the sooner we can work on real feminist-informed reproductive rights reform.


    The personal is political.

  • alexm

    Thank you for this suggestion, Lisa.  Margaret Sanger is another early feminist who has been abandoned by what remains of the women’s movement these days.  As Susan B. Anthony’s anti-choice views must be considered within the context of their time, so must Sanger’s racist ideas.  While not all women have access to the full range of contraception and pregnancy options, the advances made worldwide by Planned Parenthood’s efforts move us ever closer to this goal.


    The personal is political.