Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has named two conservative activists, including Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of a leading anti-abortion group that argues that the leaders of the suffrage movement opposed abortion rights, to serve on a commission planning commemorative events for the hundredth anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the U.S.
A bill establishing the bipartisan Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, passed earlier this year. The 14-member commission will include two people appointed by President Trump and two each appointed by each Democratic and Republican leader of the House and the Senate.
While the bill specifies that the commissioners “represent diverse economic, professional, and cultural backgrounds,” McConnell’s picks each come with a notable ideological bent. One of them, Cleta Mitchell, is a conservative attorney who was instrumental in getting the gay Republican group GOProud kicked out of the country’s largest conservative conference—but who was also a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
The other is Dannenfelser, whose group, Susan B. Anthony List, works to elect anti-choice candidates while arguing, citing dubious historical evidence, that Anthony and her fellow suffragists were staunchly opposed to abortion rights.
Several years ago, two Anthony scholars took on Susan B. Anthony List’s arguments in an article for the Washington Post’s On Faith section:
The List’s mission statement proclaims, “Although [Anthony] is known for helping women win the right to vote, it is often untold in history that she and most early feminists were strongly pro-life.” There’s a good reason it’s “untold:” historians and good journalists rely on evidence. Of which there is none.
The bits of information circulating on the Web always cite “Marriage and Maternity,” an article in a newspaper owned for several years after the Civil War by Susan B. Anthony. In it, the writer deplores “the horrible crime of child-murder,” and signs it simply, “A.” Although no data exists that Anthony wrote it, or ever used that shorthand for herself, she is imagined to be its author. The anti-abortion forces also ignore the paragraph in which the anonymous author vigorously opposes “demanding a law for its suppression.” In other words, the article opposes the criminalization of abortion and was written by someone other than Anthony. Untold? Unproven.
In 2014, the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester, New York, spoke out against a Susan B. Anthony list campaign mailer, saying, “The List’s assertions about Susan B. Anthony’s position on abortion are historically inaccurate.”
It’s hardly surprising that Republican leaders would pick an anti-choice woman for the centennial commission. But Dannenfelser’s group exists in part to push the historically unfounded claim that the early suffragists would have been on their side in the current debate on abortion rights. Whether or not her views are reflected in the commission’s activities, her place on the commission will doubtless give her claims about the early suffragists’ views on today’s abortion debate unwarranted credibility.