the suffragettes and a woman’s right to choose

My grandmother on the right along with her mom, circa 1910. The woman’s suffrage movement is in full swing but it would be another 10 years before these ladies could cast a vote!

Those who attended the 2009 Treasures retreat were introduced to homeschooling mom, Jane Gestrine, and were greatly moved by the story she shared of welcoming two young high school drop outs into her inner city home when they were kicked out of school. She told us that as the school year progressed, a theme of injustice began to emerge in their readings, culminating in a study of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus and Jane encouraged us to read and learn from this amazing book.

First published in 1818, Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only 18 years of age. Her understanding of the dangers of technology and modern man along with a passion for caring for the unlovely and most burdensome of society produced one of the greatest novels of all time and one that still causes students to ponder the same questions of Shelley’s day. But what many people do not know about Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is that her mother, also named Mary and who died shortly after she was born, was her greatest inspiration for Frankenstein.

Author of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and The Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft was an early advocate for the education of women. She saw young women as valuable in their own right, not merely as being marketable to “suitable young men” and she decried what was passed off as the education of women of that day as teaching “artificial manners, card-playing, theatre-going, and an emphasis on fashion.” She was saddened by the amount of time and energy placed on superficial things that “if saved for charitable purposes, might alleviate the distress of many poor families, and soften the heart of a girl who entered into scenes of woe.” She placed a high value on motherhood and the home and was tenacious in addressing the inequality and abuses of her day, one of the greatest of these being abortion.

Her unfinished novel, Mary and the Wrongs of Woman, tells the story of a young maid who is brutally and sexually assaulted by her master, in part, because she is sentenced to a life of servitude because of her own illegitimate birth. At finding out that she is now pregnant as a result of the rape, the character says “I know not why I felt a mixed sensation of despair and tenderness, excepting that, ever called a bastard, a bastard appeared to me an object of the greatest compassion in creation.” The master, concerned only to avoid his wife’s and the public’s disapproval, gives her an abortifacient. She refuses the “infernal potion,” as she calls it. But when the master’s wife discovers him raping the her again, the woman beats and verbally abuses her, throwing her out into the street. The servant girl finally obeys her master and swallows the potion “with a wish that it might destroy me, at the same time that is stopped the sensations of new-born life, which I felt with indescribable emotion.”

Calling on her own experiences as a young woman who experienced a crisis pregnancy, Wollstonecraft observed that male sexual exploitation renders women of all social classes “weaker in mind and body than they ought to be,” thus women “have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother and “either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born. Nature in everything demands respect.”

Some fifty years later when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony began the women’s suffrage movement, which had been born out of the abolition movement, they called upon the writings of Wollstonecraft for inspiration and echoed her call for an end to abortion.

During that time, women were not allowed to vote or own property or inherit anything if they were married. They could not have their own money, testify on their own behalf in court, sit on a jury, keep their children if they divorced, or to assemble or speak freely. A woman who was visibly pregnant was not even allowed to be seen in public! Stanton and Anthony rightly saw abortion for the evil that it is and the scourge it is upon women, noting “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.”

Examining this great social evil of the day in their newspaper, The Revolution, Stanton and Anthony observed “Guilty? Yes, no matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh, thrice guilty is he who drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime!”

Tomorrow is the 38th anniversary of the US Supreme Court ruling known as Roe v Wade. That one decision set into motion a series of rulings that have culminated in the unbridled “right to choose” that is really abortion on demand during all 9 months of pregnancy for any and every reason and, in many instances, at tax payer expense.

But it has brought with it other costs. Every single one of us today is touched by the life of someone who suffers from the pain of “choice” whether it is a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker, a family member, a classmate, a mother, a father, a husband, or a wife. Abortion kills children and it causes life-long grief and suffering for their mothers.

I would encourage you today to take a few minutes and examine the history of the pro-life movement with your children. It did not begin that fateful day in 1973 when America “celebrated” a new right. Rather, it began with courageous women like Mary Wollstonecraft, Elisabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony who recognized that before we can value unborn children, we first must value their mothers because women deserve better than abortion.

For more inspiration on our foremothers who stood strong in their opposition to abortion, read the history archives at Feminists for Life.

Related articles and podcasts from thatmom:

My Own Adoption Story

On Being a Mother, My Own Crisis Pregnancy Story
Shedding of Innocent Blood

Men and Post Abortion Trauma – Part One
Why is this issue so important?

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Men and Post Abortion Trauma – Part Two
How we can be prepared to bring help and healing to post-abortive men and women.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Men and Post Abortion Trauma – Part Three
How we can be prepared to bring help and healing to post-abortive men and women.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

thatmom is observing ask them what they mean when they say choice blogging day

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  1. says

    Soooooo good, Karen! I had to share this one. 🙂 You were the first person to show me that I didn’t know squat about the women’s rights movement or the amazing women that fought in it. Stupid Christian revisionist history books. 😛 Thank you. 🙂

  2. Mara says

    I had to share it too.

    I agree, Darcy.

    Stupid, stupid, Christian revisionists. Feminism did not come from Communism. That is slander and blantant misgyny spin.

  3. Lois Loar says

    EXCELLENT article Karen! My mom, born 1917, told me that her mother, my grandmother who died before I was born, was a great follower of Margaret Sanger. She told me that her mom, much to her dismay, was in full agreement with Margaret Sanger’s views on eugenics, and “culling out” the “lesser races” as my grandma putit to my mom.

    My mom rejected all this and brought me up to respect life.

    I also have my own crisis pregnancy story in which God showed me Proverbs 1:10-18…..about the shedding of innocent blood…..

    That pregnancy ended 35 years ago today with the birth of my beautiful daughter, Diane, instead of a few months previously…as a MAN, a doctor, tried to push me to have a “therapeutic” abortion….

    Ever since I have believed that the majority of abortions occur because a man doesn’t want to take the responsibility for, pay the price for, or take the social weight for children who are “less than desirable”….

    Ok…I’d better get off my soapbox before this gets really lengthy.

    Thanks again for this article…it will be shared!

  4. Anthea says

    Before getting too cross with our fellow believers, there have been several “waves” of feminism. In the C19th there was a desire to achieve dignity and safety for women. There was a different slant to what went on in the 1970s and 80s, when I was a child. There were writers and activists who actively attacked men, and called housewives prostitutes. I found it all fascinating as a young woman, thinking about where all this anger and rage came from.

    Mary Wollenstonecraft is very different in tone.

  5. says

    I am SO bookmarking this!!! I have had difficulty reconciling the amazing advancements that women have made (I love voting, driving a car, wearing pants occasionally)and that ‘right to choose’ an abortion/killing babies – THANKS

  6. says

    his grace is suficent for me & his power in made perfect in our weakeness…love what yah doing here with this site really cool.

  7. says

    Thanks for bringing out a history that many try to forget. I too found Frankenstein to be a fascinating novel, and Shelley and Wollstonecraft’s history makes it even more so.

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