BY MARY KRANE DERR
Have you ever been slut-shamed -- that is, cast as a sexually disordered, out-of-control woman? Take heart. You are in excellent company. Name any independent, outspoken woman from history, and you can probably find feverish, unreality-based, perverted fulminations against her sexual character. Even the nineteenth-century suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), a seventh-generation Quaker and confirmed temperance advocate whom no one ever knew to endorse, let alone live out, a wild, partying lifestyle, received this treatment.
Photo by Tim Krepp; some rights reserved.
Anthony has become such a hallowed icon today that even advocates of "traditional family values," such as the Rick Santorum-endorsing Susan B. Anthony List, try to claim her. Never mind that she pointedly chose a life for herself as a single woman and non-parent. Although she kept her romantic relationships, if any, intensely private, Anthony probably was a lesbian. Whatever her own sexual orientation might have been, she warmly supported the "Boston marriages," or same-sex domestic partnerships, of other suffragist women.
Anthony did oppose abortion. This was not because abortion supposedly allowed "bad" women to have sex without "consequences," however. Rather, she deemed it unjust prenatal life-taking that resulted directly from wrongs against women, such as the denial of their family planning rights. This was the oft-expressed editorial stance on abortion of the Revolution, the newspaper she ran, with her dear friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from 1868 to 1870. As the paper's business manager, Anthony implemented its "no exceptions" policy -- unusual for journals of that time -- against publishing lucrative abortion advertisements. The New York Times, a paper that profited handsomely from such ads, "lament[ed] the indecency" of the Revolution, that is, its outspokenness on sexual and reproductive matters. The Revolution then editorialized:
In the frontier states we have seen kitchen fires made of wood eight feet long, and shovel and tongs to match. But no tongs were ever long enough to touch many advertisements that smut the columns of the Times, and which only its insatiable greed of gain enables even itself to tolerate.
Anthony was by then already quite accustomed to insults against feminists' sexual characters, including her own. As early in her activist career as 1853, a newspaper published this piece of character assassination after she publicly defended women's right to prevent unsought pregnancies:
With a degree of impiety which was both startling and disgusting, this shrewish maiden counseled the numerous wives and mothers present to separate from their husbands whenever they became intemperate, and particularly not to allow the said husbands to add another child to the family (probably no married advocate of woman's rights would have made this remark). Think of such advice given in public by one who claims to be a maiden lady! . . . What in the name of crying babies does Miss Anthony know about such matters?
The sneering tone; the mixing up of birth control with improperly obtained carnal knowledge and wronged babies: doesn't this sound all too familiar?
As president of the 1858 National Woman's Rights Convention, Anthony permitted two speakers onto the platform to make the case for voluntary motherhood. Not only did she agree that women had this right, but, as one newspaper reported, she "said that when the platform was free there could be no danger from discussion, as truth must prevail." Much of the press went into a frenzy, alleging that Anthony's convention was all about the promotion of "free love," which in the views of its detractors meant utterly self-absorbed, unbridled, destructive lust -- and such lust on the part of women, who were supposed to have no libido whatsoever. In response to the newspaper coverage, mobs threatened the convention hall. For the rest of her life, antifeminists charged Anthony with "free loveism." These accusations sometimes plunged into breathtakingly paranoid conspiracy seeking. For example, in 1871, a Seattle journalist exposed -- or thought he exposed -- what she was really all about:
It is a mistake to call Miss Anthony a reformer . . . she is a revolutionist, aiming at nothing less than the breaking up of the very foundations of society, and the overthrow of every social institution organized for the protection of the sanctity of the altar, the family circle and the legitimacy of our offspring, recognizing no religion but self-worship, no God but human reason, no motive to human action but lust . . . [T]he apparently innocent measure of woman suffrage as a remedy for women's wrongs in over-crowded populations, is but a pretext or entering wedge by which to open Pandora's box and let loose upon society a pestilential brood to destroy all that is pure and beautiful in human nature.
She did not directly and positively broach the licentious social theories which she is known to entertain, because she knew well that they would shock the sensibilities of her audience . . . It is true that Miss Anthony did not openly advocate free love and a disregard of the sanctity of the marriage relation, but she did worse -- under the guise of defending women against manifest wrongs, she attempts to instill into their minds an utter disregard for all that is right and conservative in the present order of society.
How did Susan B. Anthony persist despite all the slut-shaming, despite all the misogynists who just knew far better than she ever could what she was all about and what was really good for her sex? Anthony resolutely refused to divide womankind into the "pure" and the "impure," confident in her knowledge that all women were both human beings of inestimable value and yet potentially at the mercy of exploitative and violent men. She calmly saw through the tactic of slut-shaming and named it for what it was: a trivializing distraction. She persuaded an 1869 meeting of the Equal Rights Association to set aside a resolution repudiating "free loveism" with these words:
This howl comes from the men who know that when women get their rights . . . they [will] be able to live honestly and not be compelled to sell themselves for bread, either in or out of marriage . . . We can not [sic] be frightened from our purpose, the public mind can not long be prejudiced by this free love cry of our enemies.
Unfortunately the public mind remains all too prejudiced by the cry of "free love," despite the heroic work of Anthony and so many other foremothers, as well as more recent feminists. If Susan B. Anthony could be slut-shamed, that just goes to show: it can happen to any woman, especially any woman who dares to challenge the power of men over women. In other words, it can and does happen to the best of us, whatever our own personal sexual histories happen or don't happen to be.
Lillian Faderman, To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 24-30, most strongly makes the case for Anthony’s lesbianism and documents her support of Boston marriages like that between her niece Lucy Anthony and the Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw.
Parker Pillsbury, ”Quack Medicines” (editorial), Revolution, March 26, 1868; Susan B. Anthony to Anna Dickinson, February 13, 1868, Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony [ECS-SBA] Papers, microfilm edition, Reel 12, 831; Susan B. Anthony to William Lloyd Garrison, March 8, 1868, ECS-SBA Papers, microfilm edition, Reel 12, 845; “What the Press Says of Us,” Revolution, February 5, 1868; “The Times Turned Preacher,” Revolution, August 20, 1868.
Editorial, Utica Evening Telegraph, reprinted in Ida Husted Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Volume One (Indianapolis: The Hollenbeck Press, 1898), 84.
Susan B. Anthony, quoted in “Woman‘s Rights Convention,” New York Daily Tribune, May 14, 1858. On the uproar, see Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Volume One, 162-163, and Carol Faulkner, Lucretia Mott’s Heresy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 158.
Beriah Brown, Seattle Territorial Dispatch, reprinted in Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Volume One, 401-402.
Susan B. Anthony, quoted in Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Volume One, 313-314.