Pro-Life Feminism in the Spotlight

Pro-Life Feminism in the Spotlight January 29, 2017

Infanticide is on the increase to an extent inconceivable…. a recent Medical Convention [in rural Maine] unfolded a fearful condition of society in relation to this subject.  Dr. Oaks made the remark that, according to the best estimate he could make, there were four hundred murders annually produced by abortion in that county alone.  The statement is made in all possible seriousness, before a meeting of ‘regular’ practitioners in the county, and from the statistics which were as freely exposed to one member of the medical fraternity as another.

There must be a remedy even for such a crying evil as this.  But where shall it be found, at least where begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of woman?

–Editorial, The Revolution, March 12, 1868

In the decades following Roe v. Wade, abortion access has become largely synonymous with women’s rights in much of public discourse and the popular imagination. Yet historical evidence shows that this has not always been the case.  19th-century “first-wave” feminism is best known for its primary emphasis on women’s suffrage, and when the suffragists did speak about abortion they universally condemned it, both as a terrible act of violence in itself and as a symptom of other social problems, particularly for women.  In fact, it was men (namely Larry Lader and Bernard Nathanson, the former especially being more concerned with population control than women’s rights) who convinced initially reluctant later feminists to add abortion to their platform.

Nevertheless, a recent kerfuffle over a billboard by Feminists for Life prompted Deborah Hughes, president of the Susan B. Anthony House, to claim that Anthony never took a public position on abortion.  Carol Crossed, who is president of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum, offered the news station in question (which she is local to) evidence to the contrary from The Revolution, the suffragist newspaper Anthony managed with co-editors Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Parker Pillsbury.  The station has apparently not produced any follow-up to the original segment, but relevant scanned pages from The Revolution can be found on the Birthplace Museum’s website.  (And while FFL’s billboard didn’t mention Anthony directly, they have a nuanced historical examination of her views and those of some of her colleagues and contemporaries here.)

Then, independently of all that (though Hughes and Crossed both responded afterward), Saturday Night Live went there.  The sketch in which Anthony appears to a group of modern women, who first greet her warmly but quickly grow indifferent until she offers the jolting parting shot, “Also, abortion is murder!”, could be read a few different ways: as a cursory nod to pro-life feminism, or a commentary on the superficiality of a merely touristy interest in the accomplishments of historical figures like her, or an attempt to contextualize away her pro-life position as a mere product of her time, as antiquated as her high Victorian collar and stone-heated stove.  But however it was intended, it sparked some timely conversation prior to the Women’s March and the March for Life – especially for those concerned with the intersection of the two.

The Consistent Life Network has an ongoing petition to media outlets to broaden coverage of the pro-life movement to include feminists, peace advocates, and others who fall outside the conventional stereotypes.  Ironically, the exclusion of pro-life feminist groups by the organizers of the Women’s March has to some extent made that happen.

When organizers revoked the partnership status of New Wave Feminists following social media backlash over the inclusion of a pro-life organization, the rift between pro-life and pro-choice feminists became public – and many pro-lifers who had originally supported the march became alienated.  As a result, news coverage ended up showing a range of perspectives within both feminism and the pro-life movement as well as significant overlap, both before the march (see here, here and here) and after (here, here and here).  Some pro-life feminists themselves published opinion pieces explaining why they still insisted on going, or why they now wouldn’t go, or simply questioning why they were being pushed out.  One woman, while not describing herself as pro-life, argued that those who do should be allowed to sit at the feminist table for the sake of more widely prioritized concerns such as sexual violence, workplace equity, and broader social justice issues.

The exclusion of pro-life feminists even got them another mention on Saturday Night Live, where Michael Che said in a segment of the Weekend Update on the Women’s March,

It was an amazing show of support for feminism, but some feminist groups were actually asked not to march because of their pro-life views. Which raises the question, what makes a feminist a feminist? . . . A feminist is just someone who believes in equal rights for women. And that’s easy to get behind . . . I just think it’s weird to get a special name for just being a reasonable person, ’cause that’s all it is.

All this is illustrative of one positive outcome of the recent controversy: despite all political narratives to the contrary, the existence of pro-life feminism is now undeniable.  In fact, it has been around as long as feminism itself – and it’s not going anywhere.

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