The persistence of pro-life feminism
The picture on the front page of The New York Times from March 3 shows a young woman holding a sign protesting abortion that says “I am a Prolife Feminist.” In the background other signs appear: “Life Counts” and “Protect, Protect.” As a pro-life feminist of many decades I was more than encouraged.
What a contrast with the life stories of two older feminist icons that my alumni book group had just read. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem, both over 80, are justly admired for their committed efforts to obtain equality for women in marriage, education and employment. Both also pursued justice for other vulnerable groups—but not for the unborn. Their lives are “disappeared” in these narratives. Those who hold pro-life views are depicted as enemies of women, dupes of authoritarian male efforts to deny women’s rights to equality or else as backward religious bigots.
For many second-wave feminists of the 1960s, feminism by definition assumed that women should have the private freedom to choose life or death over their offspring. But this interpretation of feminism, despite Roe v. Wade’s victory, is contested by other dedicated feminists. Pro-life feminists see such lethal assertions as regression to patriarchal claims of domination; fathers once wielded life or death choices over newborns, children, women and slaves. Roman males legally made such private choices for the advancement of self, family status or wealth. Infanticide was as accepted as military conquest, slavery or gladiatorial games.
By contrast, pro-life feminists assert the alternative inclusive justice of Western morality: Equal protection and nonviolent support is owed to each and every human life. Protect, protect. The first American feminists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, held such pro-life views as they struggled for women’s suffrage, social equality, child welfare and abolition. These heroic women and pro-life feminist foremothers are often ignored, or strategically forgotten, by abortion activists. It is also unremembered that pro-life advocates before Roe v. Wade were progressive activists fighting for civil rights and racial justice as well as for women and children. (See the new book by Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade.) These broad-based, inclusive pro-life movements have continued to grow and add their influence to forces with other long-term pro-life organizations.
Since 1973 activists groups have adopted and developed Cardinal Joseph Bernadin’s argument for a “seamless garment” approach to life issue. This includes capital punishment, unjust war, abortion, euthanasia and poverty as abuses against justice. Currently, the group Consistent Life has coordinated and taken up these interrelated causes. Consistent Lifers work for nonviolent nonlethal alternatives to abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and war. Pro-life feminists continue their pro-woman, pro-life work in groups such as Feminists for Life and Feminists for NonViolent Choices. They join in the struggle against abortion and abuses of women. Even more recently a new “whole life democrat” group, Democrats for Life of America, has formed to retrieve their party’s championing of the most vulnerable and powerless including women, children and the unborn. Inevitably all of these movements renew conflicts over abortion and are reflected in legal and political struggles. The question then arises, why are these shifts in the cultural winds taking place now?