How Abortion Activists Hijacked The Women’s Movement

How Abortion Activists Hijacked The Women’s Movement

Why can’t the elite media see that the fierce abortion debate dividing our nation represents not a war against women but a war between women?
Sue Ellen Browder
By

As feminists descend by the hundreds of thousands upon Washington this week—one crowd for the Women’s March last Saturday to protest President Trump’s election and another for the March for Life on Friday to protest the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision—Americans need to step back from the fray and ask three serious questions.

Why can’t the elite media see that the fierce abortion debate dividing our nation represents not a war against women but a war between women? When, where, how and why did this catfight between feminists begin? And is there any hope for unity and peace?

As an investigative reporter and author of the book “Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement,” I spent more than four years seeking answers to these questions. A former Cosmopolitan writer who long defended abortion as a woman’s “right,” I am now so fervently anti-abortion that I was a keynote speaker at last year’s March for Life.

Why did I switch sides? For two reasons. First, I had an abortion and as a result suffered from nameless anxiety alternating with depression for decades. Second, I learned how the abortion “right” was inserted into the feminist movement, and I didn’t like what I saw.

Feminism Versus the Sexual Revolution

While working at Cosmopolitan magazine in 1971, I witnessed what seemed to me then to be a small, insignificant fact but which in hindsight has assumed monumental importance. In those days, the feminist movement and the sexual revolution were two distinctly separate cultural phenomena.

Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown would have loved for her sex-revolution magazine to be part of the feminist movement, but Betty Friedan, who had launched the modern feminist movement with her 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique,” called Cosmo “quite obscene and quite horrible.”

Feminists were fighting to achieve equal opportunity for women in education and the workplace. As mother of the women’s movement, Friedan declared that any view of sexual “liberation” that turns a woman into a sex object (as we were doing at Cosmo) is a false freedom that denies a woman’s personhood. Personhood was what Betty said the women’s movement was all about.

So how did the sexual revolution’s intensely polarizing demand for abortion get inserted into the feminist movement? Let’s relive the moment together.

Visit the Chinese Room of the Mayflower

It was November 18, 1967, in the Chinese Room of the Mayflower Hotel. Proclaimed by Harry Truman to be Washington DC’s “second best address” (after the White House), the Mayflower when it opened in 1925 was said to have “more gold leaf than any other U.S. building except the Library of Congress.”

In this opulent setting, 105 persons gathered for the National Organization for Women’s second national conference. By midnight that night, this small group of the “intelligent few” had voted on and adopted a “Bill of Rights” that set the political agenda of NOW and the mainstream women’s movement for decades to come.

The two powerful women seated side by side at the head table as the meeting was called to order at 9 a.m. were both founding members of NOW, but they could not be more different. Known for her flamboyant, combative style and domineering bursts of energy, 46-year-old NOW President Betty Friedan was a force to be reckoned with. One journalist described her eyes as “deep, dark, charged, and violent as her language.” Another wrote, “It is, perhaps, a reflection of her mercurial personality that she never looks the same twice. At a lectern she is sometimes earth mother, sometimes bitch, sometimes child. People who admire her find her attractive. To her enemies, she is all the witches from Macbeth.”

In dramatic contrast, the tall, dignified, lavender-blue-eyed retired IRS attorney seated next to Betty had a deep aversion to hostility and confrontation. At age 72, Marguerite Rawalt was a veteran Washington insider, a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and suffragist Alice Paul , and one of the few independent activists President John F. Kennedy had appointed in 1961 to his Commission on the Status of Women.

Betty grew up as a precocious, lonely Jewish girl in Peoria, Illinois. Marguerite crossed the plains in a covered wagon as a child, grew up on a Texas farm, and never forgot the lessons she learned from her dependable dad. When she went duck hunting at age 70 with her brother, Marguerite shot six ducks, bringing down two with one shot.

So how did these two disparate souls wind up sitting side by side, jointly presiding over such a historic meeting? Their differences brought them together. Betty couldn’t run an orderly meeting if her celebrity depended on it. Marguerite was an expert on parliamentary procedure and volunteered to act as Betty’s parliamentarian.

NOW’s ‘Bill of Rights’

Eight rights were up for vote at the meeting. Six were adopted unanimously. Everyone in the Chinese Room agreed that it’s a woman’s “right” not to be fired when she gets pregnant and to have paid maternity leave. (In 1969, I was fired from my newspaper job for being pregnant; that was a common business practice in those days.)

Another “right” called for working parents to be able to deduct home and child-care expenses on their tax returns. Still another called for a woman’s “right” to be educated to her full potential. Law and medical schools were often still closed to women then, and in some states women weren’t even allowed to serve on a jury.

Only two “rights” on the table in the Chinese Room stirred controversy. The first was a demand for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Congress passed ERA in 1972 but it fell three states short of the 38 needed for ratification by a June 30, 1982 deadline, so that intensely debated “right” is now history. The second “right” that created an absolute uproar among the feminists in the Chinese Room was a demand to repeal all abortion laws.

Friedan saved the vote on the abortion “right” for last. Suddenly, without warning, she shocked many delegates, including Marguerite, by belligerently pressing for full repeal of all abortion laws. Marguerite was furious. She deeply opposed the “radical and irresponsible” turn the meeting took, and feared abortion would upstage the genuine legal battles for equality women were fighting. Why was she not told ahead of time that abortion would be on the table? Who’s calling the shots?

The angry debate over the abortion “right” waged for hours. One feminist claimed the stand on abortion “is not especially controversial.” Another feminist declared “I’m against murder.” The battle went on and on.

When the dust finally settled, the vote was 57-14 in favor of a resolution calling to repeal all abortion laws. Yes, you read that correctly. The abortion “right” that has created so much turmoil in our nation was inserted into the feminist movement’s list of political demands by a mere 57 people.

At that very hour, shortly before midnight on November 18, 1967, the once-united women’s movement split into two warring factions: feminists who favored legal abortion on demand versus feminists who opposed it. Love and truth unite. And what does evil do? Evil divides. That divisive plank number eight is the only “right” in NOW’s 1967 political platform that Americans are still angrily fighting over today.

Pro-Life Feminists Walk Out

Calling a new life “a sacred trust,” Cleveland attorney Betty Boyer was heartsick over the abortion vote. She later resigned from NOW after what she described as “a shouting match” and went back to Ohio, where she founded the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL). Boyer’s legal team (which included Marguerite) fought successfully to abolish “help wanted (female)” and “help wanted (male)” classified ads in newspapers, opened academia to women, fought for a married woman’s right to get credit in her own name, and worked for the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which made it illegal to fire a woman just because she was pregnant.

One-third of the feminists at that meeting were so angry they walked out and later resigned from NOW over the abortion vote.

Another ardent feminist who resigned from NOW over the abortion vote was television broadcaster Paige Palmer. In a scathing resignation letter to Friedan, Palmer said she had looked forward to the conference and set aside other plans to attend, but departed “wishing I had never heard of N.O.W.”

Palmer and Boyer both believed the Chinese Room meeting had been intentionally stacked with radicals to ram through the abortion vote. Noting that “there was a group who came [to the meeting] only to see to it that the abortion question was discussed and passed,” Palmer added, “This is known as railroading.” One-third of the feminists at that meeting were so angry they walked out and later resigned from NOW over the abortion vote.

Feeding the Press a Packaged Storyline

At a press conference the following Monday morning, the hullabaloo in the Chinese Room was completely glossed over. Friedan stood before reporters and announced via a press release that through its new Bill of Rights, NOW was speaking for the New Woman power bloc, a massive force alleged to include “28 million American working women, the millions of women emerging from our colleges each year who are intent on full participation in the mainstream of our society, and mothers who are emerging from their homes to go back to school or work.”

As reporters repeatedly hammered home the message that abortion was a “right” every liberated woman wanted and needed, the public began to polarize around the issue.

Basically, Betty claimed to be speaking for every working woman in America when, in fact, at least as far as the abortion vote was concerned, she was speaking only for herself and 57 people in the Chinese Room. And that’s how propaganda works, my friends.

On Tuesday, Marguerite Rawalt’s worst fears were realized: the Washington Post headlined the abortion vote and reported: “NOW supports the furthering of the sexual revolution of our century by pressing for widespread sex education and provision of birth control information and contraceptives, and by urging that all laws penalizing abortion be repealed.” The press had been hoodwinked, and the sexual revolution and the women’s movement—once radically separate movements—were on the road to becoming united in the eyes of the world.

Over time, as reporters repeatedly hammered home the message that abortion was a “right” every liberated woman wanted and needed, the public began to polarize around the issue. The abortion “right,” which attacks all human rights at their very root, launched a hostile culture war.

Women Need to Think Outside Today’s Feminism

Even Friedan wrote in 2001: “Ideologically, I was never for abortion. Motherhood is a value to me, and even today abortion is not…I believed passionately in 1967, as I do today, that women should have the right of chosen motherhood. For me, the matter of choice has never been primarily the choice of abortion, but that you can choose to be a mother. That is as important as any right written into the Constitution.”

We saw angry sex idols like Madonna stand up and imply that they, and only they, speak for all feminists everywhere.

As you’ll recall, Betty said a view of sexual “liberation” that turns a woman into a sex object is a false freedom that denies a woman’s personhood. Yet last Saturday, we saw angry sex idols like Madonna stand up and imply that they, and only they, speak for all feminists everywhere.

To see today’s March for Life as a legitimate branch of feminism will require many people (journalists included) to open their minds. But that’s exactly what Americans need to be willing to do if we’re to stop vilifying each other, end the polarizing abortion wars, and heal our abortion-wounded nation.

Sue Ellen Browder is former writer for Cosmopolitan magazine and author of "Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women's Movement."

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