Recently, I had a letter to the editor published in The Washington Post: A pro-life feminist? There’s no such thing. In this letter I argue that “Feminism is an action agenda to secure the social, legal and political equality of women. Supporting policies and practices that help that agenda is what makes a person a feminist. The concept of a pro-life feminist is untenable because restrictions upon abortion deny women their agency as moral decision-makers and dignity as human beings.”
In response to this letter I received an email from someone who does consider herself a pro-life feminist. I would like to respond to her message seriously, and so I’m quoting her letter in full:
Dear Ms. Matson,
In your letter to the editor in the Washington Post today you stated that it is impossible for a person to be both pro-life and a feminist. Since I am both please allow me to explain my thinking. I believe that the unborn are human beings and therefore should not be deprived of life. (I don’t believe I need to make the case that slightly less than half of all unborn babies are female to support my self-labeled feminism.) I would ask that you not deny me my ‘agency as a moral decision maker’ and accept my definition of myself as a pro-life feminist. I contribute to organizations and schools which provide education for historically poorly served populations of girls and young women so that some day they may achieve financial security, be able to afford reliable family planning and enjoy motherhood free of fears about supporting their children. I consider it a feminist action to support the education of these young women and girls.
Thank you for this opportunity to express my thoughts.
I am grateful for this letter. While it does not disprove my argument, it does represent another point of view and I’d like to use it as an opportunity to dig deeper.
Before addressing this letter directly I feel it’s critical to raise the broader context in which this discussion is taking place. We live in an age when a primary form of outright opposition to feminism is a systemic and contradictory strategy to redefine feminism.
The first common iteration of an argument to support this strategy says feminism is worthless because equality has already been achieved and any woman who says otherwise is a weak and self-victimizing whiner.
The second argument keeps the basic idea that equality has been achieved but serves to support the status quo by, paradoxically, declaring feminism a good thing and then co-opting that definition to turn it into an identity for individuals, frequently ‘strong conservative women,’ who work against equality and justice for women as a class through support of things like corporate deregulation, assault weapons on demand, and religious fundamentalism masquerading as ‘institutional conscience’ (as opposed to the whining women who are working for laws, policies, and culture shifts that will empower women, such as raising the minimum wage, ratifying an Equal Rights Amendment, and ensuring access to health care — including reproductive health care — as a basic human right).
Briefly, these two claims are untrue and rest on wildly faulty premises. Equality has not been achieved. Feminism is a movement and not an identity. Opponents of equality and justice have a strong investment in painting feminism as an individual characteristic; it’s much easier to demonize feminists as man-hating harridans than it is to praise white male supremacy.
Yet a third common iteration of this strategy to undermine and redefine feminism accepts that equality has been achieved, or is at least theoretically achievable immediately, if only women would make smarter choices and stop being their own worst enemies. This is an area where in particular the anti-sexuality fundamentalists love to flutter their batons. Of course women are equal, they argue. They just can’t have sex unless they are prepared to have a baby or pay for their own contraception, because that’s the way the world just works. It’s about personal responsibility!
We live in an age where pregnancy is viewed as a consequence of something you did to yourself. While this personal responsibility frame may appear gender neutral, it is women as a class who are disadvantaged. Men are free to have their health care needs recognized as health care needs rather than something “extra.” Women, on the other hand, have the specific health care needs related to their sexuality and reproductive health consigned to questions of “morality,” or “difficult social issues,” or even the supernatural — mystifying the basic truths that pregnancy is produced by heterosexual sex and a baby is produced by a woman giving birth.
These attitudes feed into discrimination against the accessibility and coverage of reproductive health care that must be available to women as a necessary precondition of their social and legal equality. Let’s repeat that again, because it’s important: Women cannot be equal without access to and coverage of all forms of reproductive health care, whether or not they use them.
This view that pregnancy is something you did to yourself also feeds into a bunch of seemingly unrelated bullshit social narratives – that women as a class make less money or occupy fewer positions of power because they are individually “deciding” to have children, that women as a class are more subject to dependence on public assistance that must be made less available by government because otherwise women are too individually “licentious” or “slutty” and won’t keep their legs shut, and overwhelmingly that women as a class can rise above a world largely run by white men and white male dominance in their capacity as individual women by being good girls and making bomb-ass choices.
We can’t gloss too quickly over the fact that men are largely free to engage in heterosexual sex without these consequences. We should carefully pause on arguments that the unique reproductive capabilities of the female body come with unique responsibilities that must be borne by women, rather than accommodated by society as routine human needs in the form of health care.
In essence, the freedom of men to have sex without being consigned to a second class social, legal, and economic status, coupled with the freedom of men to have their bodies accepted as bodies and part of medicine rather than vessels of sin and consequences is the screaming, blinking reason why there is no such thing as a pro-life feminist. You can’t mystify a woman’s body and disrespect her decisions and be a feminist. Even if you are a woman yourself.
Back to the letter-writer, though. I want to be sure to respond to her distinct points:
I do respect her ability to self-define and especially make her own decisions, and, as I said in the original letter she was responding to, it is possible to never have an abortion yourself (or even swear you would never have an abortion yourself) and still be a feminist; the issue lies in your approach to other women.
Self-definition is not rooted in the control of others. Furthermore, feminism is not rooted in the control of women; coercion around the issue of pregnancy is pure and naked control of women. Ultimately, however, this is not an issue of self-definition.
Whether or not the letter-writer agrees, she is appropriating the label of feminism so long as she continues to believe that individual women should not be respected in their decisions around sexuality and pregnancy.
I am grateful the letter writer donates to education for women and girls, and retain hope that she may someday open her heart, mind, and even wallet to the inherent dignity and humanity of other women — even if they are sexual, and even if they may not make the same decisions she does.