Primaries in 11 states are over. In recent weeks several articles have attacked particular voices and groups unabashedly supporting the “pro-life feminism” of candidates such as California GOP Senate primary winner Carly Fiorina.
Even Ms. magaazine's blog gets in on the action with an entry titled, “Sarah Palin is Not a Feminist.” The articles I've seen are packed with lots of ad feminam shots at Governor Palin and the organization I oversee as president, the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, and then there's some harrumphing over the perceived lack of gratitude shown to the feminist foremothers of the 1960s, and lists, lots of lists.
What's on these lists? Well, there are lists of the things you apparently have to do or say or believe in order to be an honest-to-goodness feminist.
You have to support the authors’ particular wish-list of government programs or budget items for one thing. And, according to one commentator, Jessica Valenti, you simply must spend some quality time engaging in “a structural analysis of patriarchal norms, power dynamics or systemic inequities.”
But when they really get down to brass tacks, each of the articles insists upon one thing: feminism, whatever else it might include, must include a virtually unqualified support for abortion rights.
The success of pro-life women, like Fiorina, in last night’s primaries makes it clear that this is a risky gambit in the year 2010. Those who hazard it are speaking into an American culture in which the majority of the public, including the majority of women, now self-identify as “pro-life.”
Poor women and women of color (in whose name older feminists often presume to speak) are more reluctant to turn to abortion than their wealthier sisters. In our time, opposition to abortion figures so prominently in our society that it nearly brought down the entire health care bill.
Still, abortion rights-feminists are entitled to give their argument a try. But so are pro-life feminists.
Once the idea of feminism escaped the universities and books and reigning newspapers which gave it life, it became the public property of millions of American women. These women are free to decide, over time and through their lived experiences, where their interests really lie. In other words, the business of defining feminism is not a monopoly; it is a competition of ideas.
Pro-life feminists like Carly Fiorina think that women don’t view the right to abort their child as the linchpin of their freedom or their happiness. Rather, they wish to bear the children they conceive, while maintaining the realistic possibility of getting an education and working to help support their families.
Tuesday’s wins in California and Nevada reveal that this message resonates with a majority of women.
It’s surprising, really, that abortion-rights feminists are so unequivocal in their insistence that “pro-life feminism” is an oxymoron. After all, the pro-life feminist argument relies upon feminism’s better angels. It is a communitarian argument for one thing.
The pro-life feminist looks out for the interests of other people affected by her decisions. She refuses to take terrible advantage of another vulnerable group - the unborn - in order to advance her own case. She makes the “both/and” argument: both the woman and the unborn child deserve respect.
Secondly, the pro-life feminist relies upon empirical and scientific datum. She makes a rational argument about when life begins or about the psychological or physical harm some women suffer after abortion; she is not shouting down or pressuring her opponents, or belittling them personally.
Finally, she insists that what women alone are capable of doing – bearing and mothering children–– merits more respect than it presently receives. Abortion rights have unburdened men from the fathering role. His freedom from sexual responsibility is premised on the woman's choice to abort or not.
It is no coincidence, suggests the pro-life feminist, that 37 years after women were granted the “right to abortion,” the number of women and children living without the presence or the support of the father is at an all-time high. She thinks it’s no accident that elite jobs are regularly populated by women who, often with regret, felt pressured, with no support available to them, to avoid parenting in order to advance in their career.
Pro-life feminists should not demonstrate a lack of gratitude for the feminists who went before us with their just demands for equal opportunity, and their analyses of the ways in which public and private institutions and customs devalued women.
But neither should abortion rights feminists be deaf to pro-life feminists’ logic, nor to their observations about women’s lived experience of freedom over these last several decades.
Abortion rights feminists should stop the name-calling and recognize their pro-life sisters’ efforts to move feminism in a more inclusive, responsive, and rational direction.
"Feminism.” Claim the term or don't. But if you do, don't assume you've got proprietary rights to define its meaning. You will be hugely disappointed this November.
Marjorie Dannenfelser is President of the Susan B. Anthony List, a nationwide network of over 280,000 pro-life Americans dedicated to advancing, mobilizing and representing pro-life women in the political process.
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