Pro-Woman, Or Pro-Life? Addressing Feminism’s False Dichotomy

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On September 20, British actress and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson delivered a speech concerning gender inequality and the need for women as well as men to become engaged in solving the issue. On the whole, she succeeded in eloquently illuminating societal and global problems such as disparities in income and access to education between the sexes. In this way, the purpose and general message of her speech resonated with me, and likely with many people mindful of human rights and equality issues. However, a moment of uneasiness arose as the self-proclaimed feminist rather predictably exclaimed, “I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body.”

In that instant, Ms. Watson received a thoroughly robust applause from the audience members at the U.N.—a sign of unified and enthusiastic agreement. And in that instant, I, an unwavering pro-life woman, immediately felt out of place and oddly alienated from the general cause being promoted.

For years, I have viewed myself as strongly pro-women and as an adamant supporter of gender equality. I have always believed that women and men should be viewed as equally valuable contributors to society. I have always believed that women should feel empowered and be encouraged to pursue their interests and become leaders in their fields. I have always believed that we need more strong women in government. However, I have also always believed in the wrongness of abortion.

Currently, as Watson illustrated, the popularly held view is that being pro-life AND pro-women is impossible—that the two cannot both exist in the same sphere of thought. As it stands, the pro-choice stance has become centrally and deeply ingrained in the feminist movement. Erika Bachiochi of Crisis magazine puts it this way: “If you want to stand for women’s progress, the line goes, then you have to stand for abortion. Indeed, in our current cultural milieu, to oppose abortion is to risk being called anti-woman.”

Throughout her speech, Watson pointed out the fact that men often feel alienated from feminism and recognized the detriment this fact has caused to the movement as a whole. Indeed, she made the observation, “How can we [feminists] effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?”

Still, what she fails to recognize is that, too often, less than that one half feels welcome to join the cause due to, generally speaking, the feminist movement’s intolerance of pro-life thought among women. If the pro-life vision were viewed as at least a tolerable position, certainly more people would feel welcome and be able to work together to “effect change in the world” for general gender equality.

Unfortunately, the terms “pro-women” and “pro-life” are seen as contradictory. However, this has not always been—and certainly should not be—the case.

Pro-Life Feminism: A Historical Reminder
A close look at history reveals that feminists from earlier American history, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, not only worked for voting rights and fairness in the workplace, but also were largely pro-life. Indeed, Alice Paul, who worked for gender equality and wrote the original Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, made clear her position on the issue by saying, “Abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women.” Today, many may scoff at this fact and view these women’s position as outdated and simply influenced by the commonly held, antiquated, and potentially narrow-minded opinions of the day.

Though this isn’t an essentially unreasonable argument, a look at the larger scope of the feminist movement of that era reveals a broad set of values that formed their foundation and courses of action, and that addressed more than the struggles of adult women. Clearly, Anthony, Stanton, and their contemporaries worked tirelessly for women’s suffrage. And, as previously noted, they held firm to their belief in the rights of the unborn. However, these women also devoted a considerable amount of time to the abolitionist movement, a cause not entirely linked with the rights of women in particular.

On May 14, 1863, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the Women’s National Loyal League in order to strengthen the weak and ultimately ineffectual Emancipation Proclamation signed at the beginning of that year. This organization collected thousands of signatures for a petition that sought to convince Congress to pass an amendment that would end slavery and bring the American Civil War to a close.

I mention this example not only to praise the work of these groundbreakers, but also to point out the fact that the goals of the feminist movement of that time far surpassed those that immediately affected women. In working for the freedom of those enslaved, they recognized that in order to ensure true equality, they had to be mindful of inequalities of different groups of people. Indeed, the movement thought and acted with a much wider scope—a sensitivity to human rights in general.

They realized that, in order to advance the cause of women, they had to advance the causes of everyone—born and unborn. To quote Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.” Thus, the rights of the unborn fell under their umbrella of universal rights.

With a wider scope focused on human rights as a whole, the pro-women groups may come to recognize the pro-life vision as not only reasonable, but fitting with the values upon which their movement is largely based.

Modern-Day Feminism: An Inconsistency
While speaking to the United Nations, Emma Watson defined feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” As previously mentioned, that definition manifests itself differently today than it did historically.

In many ways, the modern day feminist movement has made positive gains in the area of equal opportunity for men and women. Growing encouragement of girls to pursue math and science related careers, the perpetually increasing rate of female enrollment in colleges and universities, and numerous other trends are a testament to that.

However, inconsistencies do exist in their interpretation and application of “equal opportunity.” Taking a step back and tracing the progress of this idea brings this fact to light.

Historically, before the numerous gains later made by women, society’s typical arrangement was that men worked while women stayed at home—their designated “sphere.” This social construct existed to aid the ease and convenience by which men lived their lives. With their wives willingly or unwillingly predestined to dwell only within the domestic sphere, men had the time and freedom to live and work without the constraints of tending to various matters at home. Eventually, because women recognized the unfairness of this fixed arrangement, they worked to replace it with one that provided more opportunity—and rightly so.

Now, the arrangement desired by many outspoken members of the feminist movement is that men and women both have the opportunity to choose their own area of work. In order to aid the feasibility of this social construct, in their opinion, a woman must have the ability to make choices about her own body, with abortion as an ever-present option. With the freedom to choose, women can live and work without the constraints of tending to various matters—including children—if they don’t want to.

And therein lies the inconsistency.

In the historical arrangement, the idea of allowing men to pursue careers and success certainly was not a valid excuse for the denial of countless opportunities for women. Yet, the idea of allowing women to pursue careers and success apparently is a valid excuse for the denial of countless opportunities for unborn children. If feminism believes in “equal rights and opportunities” for all, they must address this inconsistency.

One of the highlights of Watson’s speech was her mention of the many “inadvertent feminists” in her life—those that unknowingly empowered her and instilled in her a recognition of the importance of gender equality. Her most notable insight of this kind was her thankfulness that, as a child, “[her] mentors didn’t assume that [she] would go less far because [she] might give birth to a child one day.”

Here, Watson recognized that having children does not destine a woman to a life of any less success than that of a woman with no children. She pinned down the idea that women can achieve their goals, with or without children. All too often, feminists readily accept the restrictive professional status quo—that mothers are unable to reach a level of success equal to that of men. However, one might argue that instead of accepting these societal norms and fixating on the notion of pregnancy and motherhood as insurmountable obstacles, our culture should shift and evolve to be more welcoming and supportive of parents, understanding the equal value they contribute in the workforce. With this belief in mind, why then is abortion absolutely necessary for a woman to achieve at the same level as men?

Addressing the False Dichotomy

At this point, much of the feminist movement is unwilling to accept the pro-life vision as acceptable or even tolerable within its tragically exclusive sphere. One is, in the usual mode of thought, either pro-choice or anti-woman.

However, since being pro-life and pro-women adheres to the definition of feminism (“the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”), pro-life feminism can and does exist and should be recognized as a valuable voice that needs to be heard. Indeed, the pro-life viewpoint maintains the desire—shared by feminists—to guarantee equal rights to everyone. Far too often though, those who believe that the right to choose is fundamental to true gender equality squelch the voices of those who present an alternative to this view.

And in this context, I embrace the spirit of Emma Watson’s address. The endeavor for complete gender equality needs not only the support of those typically associated with feminism, but everyone. As she asserted, “We want to end gender inequality, and to do this, we need everyone involved.”

Pro-lifers included.

Elly Brown in a freshman from LaGrange, Georgia and is majoring in Politics. She can be reached at eabrown@princeton.edu.

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