When I was a freshman in college, a professor asked our class to define the term “feminist.” We fell silent. I attended a broad-minded liberal arts school, so I assumed our professor was a feminist, but the word carried enough ambiguity and ideological baggage that I was uncertain what to say, and I was not sure if I was one. I am from a fairly conservative background, and my impression of feminism at the time was vague and conflicted.
“A feminist,” she said, “is someone who thinks women have been oppressed and continue to be oppressed, and that that is wrong.”
From that day on, I’ve identified as a feminist. I’ve held on to this definition for decades now. It has the elegance and persuasiveness of simplicity. Unfortunately, the feminist movement in America hasn’t always embraced such a clear and expansive definition. In recent years, I’ve watched in dismay as American feminism has often defined itself by its commitment to legalized abortion on demand, excluding pro-life women like me.
The history of pro-life feminism is long and complex. Pro-life feminists assert that “without known exception,” the feminist foremothers, including Susan B. Anthony, opposed abortion, though critics say this claim is overly speculative. Fissures between pro-life and pro-choice feminists formed shortly after Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. Still, pro-life groups (like Feminists for Life) and pro-choice groups (like the National Organization for Women) banded together to support legislation like the Equal Rights Amendment.
The late 1970s and ’80s brought the decline of pro-life feminism. Both conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Beverly LaHaye and pro-choice organizations like NARAL and Planned Parenthood declared that one could not oppose abortion and be a feminist. The battle lines were drawn. The legal scholar Mary Ziegler wrote in an essay for the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice that as feminism and the pro-choice movement increasingly became synonymous, “Pro-life feminists could no longer find a home in either the anti-abortion movement or in mainstream pro-choice women’s organizations.”
The effects of this division continue to this day. In 2017, the feminist organization New Wave Feminists, which is explicitly pro-life, “from the womb to the tomb,” was granted partnership status with the Women’s March. When participants complained that pro-life women should not be included in the march, its organizers apologized, reaffirmed that they were pro-choice and released a statement saying that “the anti-choice organization in question” is no longer a partner in the event.
Last year, Amy Coney Barrett was denounced as “not a feminist” by other women primarily because she is conservative, a devout Catholic, a mother of seven children and pro-life. “Feminists support upholding Roe v. Wade. Amy Coney Barrett does not,” Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, told HuffPost at the time. She continued, “Opposing a female nominee who is antithetical to feminist principles reflects a commitment to the cause.”
I understand if people disagree with Amy Coney Barrett’s views. I disagree with some of her views myself. Still, a woman — a wife and a mother — being appointed to our nation’s highest court was an impossible dream for much of its history. The accusations that Barrett is merely a tool of the patriarchy are absurd. As humor writer Dave Barry put it, “Critics allege that Barrett belongs to a harmful non-secular cult that subjugates ladies by forcing them to turn into Supreme Court justices.”
We need to broaden the tent of feminism. If, in order to be a feminist, one cannot simply be against the oppression of women but also must affirm abortion or other left-of-center causes, then feminism does not actually exist as a movement. It is merely pro-choice progressivism marketed for ladies.
And that ultimately weakens the cause of feminism because it excludes a lot of women, especially young women. Younger pro-life women often see themselves as committed to both the protection of the unborn and the flourishing of women. In a 2015 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, more than half of millennial women who identified as feminists considered themselves pro-life (18 percent) or both pro-life and pro-choice (37 percent). Overall, a majority of Americans (61 percent) are in favor of limiting abortion in some way.
“The pro-life movement is changing. Many young activists identify as feminists,” wrote Emma Green in The Atlantic in 2017, “and reject a uniform alignment with the Republican Party, unlike their Phyllis Schlafly-style predecessors.” According to recent polls, a large minority (43 percent) of women identify as pro-life. This does not mean that these women reject vital causes of feminism, yet they are often excluded from and alienated by the current feminist movement.
Pro-life women need to be included within the feminist movement precisely because there is still much that needs to be improved for women. The United States is the only wealthy country in the world (and only one of six in total) that does not have some form of national paid leave for new parents. The gender pay gap has not improved in the last 15 years. Globally, women are far more likely to experience poverty and hunger, as well as domestic violence and homicide, and one in three women in the world experience physical or sexual abuse. The vast majority of human trafficking victims are women and girls. Around 140 million girls are “missing” as a result of sex-selective abortion. Women have less access to education than men and make up two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population.
The inequality of women is not an abstract idea. Real women face the fallout of continued sexism day in and day out. This is wrong, and we need to form a broad and diverse coalition to advocate for women. If the feminist movement ousts the millions of American women who oppose abortion, we will fail to address these other grave issues affecting women.
This week, the Supreme Court is hearing a case challenging a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks. Some predict that it will be the end of Roe v. Wade. Should that indeed be the case, those of us who view abortion as the ending of a human life will celebrate the decision as a triumph of justice and a protection for the most vulnerable. Others will see it as an encroachment on the rights of women.
There is no way to avoid the reality that Americans, including American women, will be divided in our response to whatever the court decides. But moving forward, feminists who are pro-life and pro-choice can and must find common cause to improve the lives of women. Pro-life groups need to intentionally support women, not only babies in utero, and push for policies that make it easier to birth and raise children. (There is a growing “whole life” movement to address this need.) Pro-choice feminists need to prioritize the many other important issues affecting women besides abortion.
Women have been oppressed and continue to be oppressed, and it is wrong. My professor’s definition of feminism seems as cogent now as it did when I was in college. Given how much work there is to be done, we need as many allies as we can get. We need to recover the art of building coalitions across deep difference if we are going to ameliorate the complex problems women across the globe face. The needs of women are urgent, and we cannot address them if feminism devolves into a fight about one issue.
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Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”