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Susan B. Anthony Was Slutshamed, Too!

If you have ever been slutshamed, take heart. You are in excellent company. Name any independent, outspoken woman from history, and you can probably find tales of feverish, perverted, unreality-based fulminations against her sexual character. Even the nineteenth century suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), a seventh generation Quaker and confirmed temperance woman whom no one ever knew to endorse let alone live out any wild partying lifestyle.

Anthony has become such a hallowed icon today that even advocates of “traditional family values” try to claim her. Never mind that she pointedly chose life for herself as a single woman and nonparent. Although she kept her romantic relationships, if any, intensely private, Anthony was in all likelihood was a lesbian. Whatever her own sexual orientation was or wasn’t, she did warmly support the “Boston marriages,” or same-sex domestic partnerships, of other suffragist women.

Anthony did oppose abortion. But not because it supposedly allowed “bad” women to have sex without “consequences.” Rather, she deemed it unjust prenatal lifetaking that resulted directly from wrongs against women, such as the denial of their family planning rights.

In 1853, after she publicly defended women’s right to prevent unsought pregnancies, a newspaper slapped this piece of character assassination on her.

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 mixing it up of birth control with sneering references to improperly obtained carnal knowledge and wronged babies: doesn’t this all sound 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; as one newspaper reported, she “said that when the platform was free there could be no danger from discussion, as truth must prevail.”  But otherwise 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 that on the part of women, who were supposed to have no libido whatsoever.

The rest of her life, Anthony was followed by such charges of “free loveism,” which 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 slutshaming, 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 slutshaming and named it for what it was: a trivializing distraction. In her own words, which persuaded an 1869 meeting of the Equal Rights Association to set aside a resolution repudiating “free loveism”:

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 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 slutshamed, that just goes to show: it can happen to any woman. Especially any woman who dares to challenge the power imbalances 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.