Saturday, March 20, 2010 • 12:00 AM Comments (7)

Why Legacies Deserve Transparency

posted by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Just last month, my son was in the midst of the first grade’s big Great Changer project. Each child worked from a picture book about his or her changer in order to write a poem about the person and create a portrait (their gorgeous creations of poem-plus-artwork hung in Northampton’s APE Gallery for a week). Remy’s changer was Barack Obama.

Obamamania most certainly overtook our household last year. We chanted Gobama at the top of our lungs all the way to school on Election Day morning. Inauguration day felt like a huge holiday in our world, and Remy—then in kindergarten—was duly swept up in the excitement of the pageantry and the history being made, as well as the complete amazement that two little girls so near to his age could be smack dab front and center of the day’s drama.

Not so unlike the jaded adults losing hold of how remarkable a barrier had tumbled, a year makes a huge difference for a child. Remy no longer views the awesome fact of Obama’s election as such a big deal. Quote: “You dream it and you can do it, Mom.” Yes, I absolutely swoon at my seven year-old son’s plucky self-confidence. Beyond that, though, I see how, in a country that now has an African American President, it’s even harder than it was a year ago to make the case for just how huge—sea change, game change—Rosa Parks’ refusal to go the back of the bus or all those people gathering to hear Martin speak of his dream were. Though history is—and rightfully should be—a guide, it’s very difficult to find a lens that allows us to maintain a clear vision of why something important was—and remains—significant when our current landscape seems so very different than one decades or even days ago.


So, with all that in mind, I am particularly intrigued—and, I admit, Why —by a vehemently anti-abortion activist, Carol Crossed, buying Susan B. Anthony’s birthplace in Adams, Massachusetts—now the Susan B. Anthony Museum—and using Anthony’s legacy to further her (Crossed’s) own anti-abortion message.

When questioned about the issue, Crossed insists Anthony’s position on many issues was full of contradictions, that Anthony was a Quaker who wore jewelry, a lover of peace who backed John Brown militancy. Crossed says, “The truth was sometimes complicated, almost always unpopular." Museum director—and former vice-president of New York’s Feminists for Life organization (now renamed Feminists Choosing Life) defends the closeness of a current stance on this issue and promoting Anthony’s legacy as they are: “She was all about resources for women, something that FCLNY is all about. If she were here today, I think she'd be proud of those resources.”

Ann Gordon, research professor and director of the Anthony and Stanton Papers Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says, "There's zero evidence that Susan B. Anthony ever made her position known… She didn't often speak on religious issues, which she would have considered this. We can't say what her stance on abortion would be, but we can say for sure that she'd be against the government regulating a woman's body. She spoke out about that issue quite clearly."


While the privately owned and operated Susan B. Anthony Museum has the right to promote her legacy as its board so chooses, omitting its bias—on a current hot-button issue—does seem willfully misleading, because the agenda is not simply to share history, it is to interpret it in a particular way, for a purpose beyond simple preservation of an historic figure. That said the same could be argued for any number of museums, even the MLK Center in Atlanta. That institution, though, expressly announces its mission as one beyond preserving history, “preparing coming generations of Dr. King’s followers to carry forward his unfinished work into the new millennium.”

Freedom may look different as circumstances change that is for certain. An honest portrayal of one’s motivations, though, is a constant worth striving for, one that great—and complicated—leaders, from Susan B. Anthony to Martin Luther King Jr. to Barack Obama, it could safely be argued, all share. So, too, should those endeavoring to protect and promote their contributions and their legacies with honesty and integrity.

Comments (7)
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hear! hear!

Posted by Jennifer Pitino on 3.21.10 at 3:46

thank you sara for a lovely post that drives home its point and teaches much all at the very same time. well done. a needs-to-be-shared, for sure.

Posted by Galit on 3.22.10 at 0:07

"Sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been to me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them." -Susan B. Anthony

Suggestion: take a look at "ProLife Feminism: Yesterday and Today" by Mary Krane Derr, Rachel MacNair, and Linda Naranjo-Huebl.

Posted by Janet Podell on 3.22.10 at 1:07

it seems that people get confused about the difference between supporting choice and opposing all abortion. SBA may well have wanted there to never have to be another abortion. And she may well have wanted to support women so that their children could stay with them. But all that has nothing to do with the government deciding what women can do with their bodies.

"Bring about a better state of things for mothers generally" -- a strong advocacy for choice, I'd say.

Posted by valle on 3.22.10 at 7:34

This is so frustrating. It's easy for feminists to support life--while being pro-choice. I wouldn't have an abortion myself. But that doesn't mean that I want to restrict the choices of other women. I vote with valle; pro-choice =! pro-abortion.

Posted by susiebook on 3.22.10 at 15:04

The term "Pro Life" drives me batty when used in contexts such as "Pro Life Feminists", when what they actually mean is "anti-choice feminists". ALL Feminists are "pro life"; I don't personally know anyone, feminist or otherwise, who is not pro life. Dick cheney certainly isn't pro-life, but most everyone else is. The hijacking of the word "life" by anti-choice advocates is shameful and completely misleading, and by using it the media is simply allowing the anti-choice forces to warp the English language.

The question of whether one can really be a feminist and be anti-choice is also interesting. Personally, I don't think so. perhaps some self-hating women can be, the same way some self-hating African-Americans can be Republicans, but except for such people who are really in dire need of psychiatric help, i don't see how you can be a Feminist and anti-choice. That's like being a vegetarian beef-eater. Contradiction in terms.

Posted by Forrest Proper on 3.22.10 at 19:17

I don’t understand how you’re finding contradiction, nor how you’re using Ann Gordon to disprove what the museum has on their walls about Anthony’s opposition to abortion (or Restellism). In The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stantion & Susan B. Anthony: Volume III Ann Gordon (the editor) has included the SBA journal entry regarding Daniel's wife (Susan's sister-in-law) "tampering" with herself. Anthony says:

[March 4] Sister Annie in bed — been sick for a month—tampering with herself — and was freed this A.M. what ignorance & lack of self-government the world is filled with.
[March 7] Sister Annie better—but looks very slim—she will rue the day she forces nature—

In it the volume's editor notes (i.e. Ann Gordon’s own interpretation is) that "tampering" is "inducing an abortion." So on one had we have Gordon saying she doesn’t know what Anthony thought of abortion and on the other hand she puts in her book that Anthony thought her sister-in-law would “rue the day she forces nature” by having an abortion. Seems pretty transparent to me.

Or maybe you should re-read Anthony’s speech on “Social Purity” where she includes abortion in a litany of several "evils" perpetrated by men in society:

The prosecutions on our courts for breach of promise, divorce, adultery, bigamy, seduction, rape; the newspaper reports every day of every year of scandals and outrages, of wife murders and paramour shooting, of abortions and infanticides, are perpetual reminders of men’s incapacity to cope successfully with this monster evil of society.

Hello?! Murder, shootings, abortion and infanticide. Hmmm... How in the world is it hard to figure how she thought of abortion? Did she think abortion should be outlawed? Probably not. But if the rhetoric would die down for a minute you will realize THE MUSEUM DOESN’T SAY THAT.

Susan B. Anthony did not support abortion and to say otherwise is putting words in her mouth. Go to the museum when it opens and you will realize that only one side is putting words in her mouth, and it isn’t Crossed & the museum but the opposition. Perhaps its time to look at Lusignan and Ray and get their agenda out of the shadows, shall we?

Posted by Jane Daniels on 3.23.10 at 12:16



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