Despite the psychological and physical suffering abortion continues to cause for so many women around the world, mainstream feminism stands firm in preaching abortion as the height of women’s liberation. In her recent “salute to abortion,” comedian Michelle Wolf encouraged abortion providers to boast of their services, saying, “You’re doing a good thing!”
Even more troubling, however, than her complete lack of regard for the suffering abortion causes women was her ignorance of the history of the women’s movement. Like so many mainstream feminists, Wolf seems to view abortion as intrinsic to and inseparable from feminism, as though anti-abortion feminists were a silly invention of recent years. She states, “One of the original slogans for the women’s movement was ‘Abortion on demand,’ and that’s exactly what it should be.”
In fact, pro-life feminists have been around long before abortion became associated with the women’s movement. It was an intrusion of the later sexual revolution. Wolf’s monologue quickly becomes a tirade against men, who are supposedly denying women abortion as a way to control them.
Although many take issue with what they perceive as feminism’s tendency to villainize men, the far more troubling fault of the modern hybrid of feminism and sexual liberation is that it encourages women to villainize themselves. In much of mainstream feminism’s preoccupation with sexual and reproductive freedom, the enemy is not men—it’s women.
The Battle of the Body
In an article for The American Conservative, self-identified feminist Natasha Vargas-Cooper described the female experience: “That [menstrual] blood is a symbol of women’s ongoing war with nature. They use hormones, condoms, copper devices, and all manner of contraception to deny nature’s plans for them. When after 28 days they see their period, they know that they won that month. This is a phenomenon that only women experience. Women with vaginas, women who bleed, and women who have had to battle for the right to defy what nature demands of them.”
She goes on to describe these battles as “essential elements” to being a woman, and, in a post- revolution society, she’s not entirely wrong. The message that the sexual revolution has fed women for decades now is that to experience freedom, they must use “hormones, condoms, […] and all manner of contraception” to force their bodies to conform both to their own sexual desires and to the career pathways outlined by and for men.
At the end of her monologue, Wolf exclaims, “And women, don’t forget, you have the power to give life, and men will try to control that. Don’t let them.” Both of these sentiments essentially define women and the female experience by their fertility, an ironic understanding from women who advocate for abortion on the basis that women should be valued for more than their fertility.
A woman’s reproductive system is, quite obviously, essentially useless without that of a man, but even so Wolf seems to sense that women have a special relationship to new life. While anti-abortion feminists seek to safeguard the mother and child by refusing to violate this bond, pro-abortion feminists equivocate “the power to give life” with the power to take life, as though an unborn child were their property.
The outrage at such an unnatural reversal is nothing new. The women’s movement and abortion began as distinct issues with unrelated goals: the women’s movement sought to bring about political and social equality for women, abortion advocates to prevent overpopulation by promoting “abortion on demand.” So how did these movements become so enmeshed that many can hardly tell the difference?
Feminism Versus the Sexual Revolution
Although the two movements have become synonymous, there was a time, recent but long-forgotten, in which feminist leaders viewed the sexual revolution as an enemy, rather than ally.
In her memoir “Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement,” Sue Ellen Browder recounts how the sexual revolution’s parasitic relationship to the women’s movement developed. The pro-abortion movement was spearheaded by co-founder of NARAL Larry Lader, who once said to his co-founder Bernard Nathanson, “If we’re going to move abortion out of the books and into the streets, we’re going to have to recruit the feminists.”
Lader spent years convincing Betty Freidan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” to support abortion as necessary to women’s equality. The original manuscript of her book excluded any support of contraception and abortion. In a 1992 interview, Friedan said, “Women are the people who give birth to children, and that is a necessary value in society. […] Feminism was not opposed to marriage and motherhood.” She went on to say, “Maybe some people still haven’t caught on, but the best sex requires deeper, more profound knowledge of oneself and the other person. In the Bible, sexual love was to know. It suggests something deeper.”
However, after many years of persuasion, Friedan eventually did concede to the tenets of the sexual liberation movement, supporting some in her infamous book. But when NOW voted to include abortion in its manifesto, it was voted in by a minority, and the resulting pro-abortion approval cost the organization one-third of its members. One disillusioned member left to found WEAL (Women’s Equality Action League), an anti-abortion feminist organization that notably helped to abolish sex-specific job advertisements, thus opening opportunities for women to apply for positions previously denied them.
The belief that women cannot be free until they enjoy commitment-free, consequence-free sex is not only deeply patriarchal (by employing artificial methods to make the female body more similar to a male body), but also casts the female body as the primary obstacle to liberation. Our culture has embraced a sexual revolution that has tricked women into villainizing their own bodies and turned feminism in on itself. The pro-woman stance cannot survive by cannibalizing itself.
Pro-life Feminism Has Always Been Here
After the exclusion of pro-life feminist organizations from the Women’s March, writer Jessica Valenti mourned the existence of pro-life feminists, stating that feminist leaders had allowed the word “feminism” to get away from them. Although feminists on all sides are well within their rights to argue for and against positions that may be treacherous to the pro-woman movement, her comments beg the question: Who gets to decide what feminism is?
Historically, the support of abortion and contraception were never part of the women’s movement until men convinced the feminist leaders of the time to include it. This fact alone ought to call for a reconsideration of the intertwining of the sexual revolution within the feminist movement, one that recognizes once again that these movements are not only distinct in definition but incompatible in content.
From the moment abortion was adopted into the women’s movement, pro-life feminists have resisted its inclusion as anti-woman. Even Friedan, who had so decisively ensured the inclusion of abortion and contraception into NOW’s mission statement, later regretted her decision to merge feminism with the sexual revolution.
In a lesser-known work “The Second Stage,” she asked the women’s movement to “set aside its divisive anger, stop overemphasizing abortion rights, and reaffirm the importance of the family.” She told a reporter during this time, “The women’s movement […] has come to a dead end. […] Our failure was our blind spot about the family.”
The Power to Give Life
Power is a strange word. It’s not negative in connotation, but it suggests something significantly more meaningful than mere “ability.” The fact that Wolf seems to understand the weight of a woman’s ability to carry life is encouraging for both the women’s and the pro-life movements, but her insistence on manipulating this power as a way to control others and herself is a violation, not an extension, of this fact.
No woman is defined merely by her fertility, but that does not mean an attack on her fertility is to her benefit. The women’s movement and the sexual revolution have created a hybrid that encourages women to attack their own bodies as the enemies of their freedom. This ongoing revolution will continue to feed on the women’s movement until women say enough is enough.
Far too late in the game, the feminist movement is finally being forced to reckon with its unanswered questions. Those answers will be the redemption or the end of the women’s movement: What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to know the responsibility of womanhood?