by Christy Yao
I’ve always thought feminism makes sense. The idea that men and women deserve equal rights and opportunities seems like such a no-brainer. Unfortunately, though, many equate feminism with the pro-choice movement. I remember being in an Intro to Social Work class my freshman year of college, and one of the discussions was on how many women didn’t like to be called “feminists” anymore. I remember wondering if I really was a feminist, especially since I was (and still am) pro-life. Could I associate myself with a movement that was overwhelmingly pro-choice?
Later in college, I would discover that my pro-life beliefs and identification as a feminist could go hand in hand. I became passionate about pro-life issues when I realized how strongly I wanted no woman to ever feel like she had to have an abortion. I read and heard the accounts of post-abortive women and realized just how anti-woman abortion really is.
So how could the feminist movement adopt abortion access as one of its main causes? How did we get to this point, where feminism and the pro-choice movement are so closely connected? Why do people have trouble seeing that one can be both authentically pro-life and an authentic feminist?
A 2017 interview with author Sue Ellen Browder in The American Feminist answered some of my questions. The American Feminist is a wonderful magazine published by Feminists for Life, a national pro-life feminist organization. Browder’s book Subverted describes exactly how and when the feminist movement started to accept abortion. Browder describes how the repeal of abortion laws was added to the Feminist Bill of Rights at the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) second conference. The day was November 18, 1967. Eight points were voted on, of which only two were controversial. The first was ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, which Pauli Murray, the first Black graduate of Yale Law school, lamented was putting women in a separate category rather than having them be equal to men. After this debate came the question of the eighth and last amendment: a repeal of all abortion laws.
Co-moderator Marguerite Rawalt was furious that Betty Friedan didn’t tell her about this vote. Many young radicals had come to make sure abortion was discussed and the motion passed. Some eyewitnesses reported that Betty Friedan combatively pushed through the abortion vote. The motion to add repealing all abortion laws was passed 57-14. As many as one-third of those attending the conference, including some of the founders of NOW, walked out and resigned. Two of the prominent members who walked out, Betty Boyer and Paige Palmer, believed there were pro-choice plants in the meeting, who came in just to discuss and pass the abortion amendment. “This is known as railroading,” Palmer said.
Betty Friedan didn’t start out pushing for legalized abortion. It took Larry Lader, the co-founder of the National Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (now NARAL Pro-Choice America) and biographer of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, to convince Friedan that abortion is neccesary and a woman’s right. In 1967, the abortion movement was mostly run by upper-middle-class white men. Lader said he needed to “recruit the feminists” to get abortion laws replealed. For years Lader tried to get Friedan to push abortion. He and NARAL’s co-founder, Bernard Nathanson, made the argument that abortion was good for women because it wasn’t the responsibility of employers or educators to accommodate pregnant women and mothers. After trying to convince legislators that abortion laws were outdated, Lader and Nathanson convinced feminists that they needed the right to abortion to achieve as much as men, professionally and academically. Sarah Weddington, the attorney that argued in favor of Roe v. Wade, said abortion was the answer to the injustice of women not being able to complete work or school.
Eventually Friedan relented to Lader’s requests, but she was never very passionate about access to abortion. Years later Friedan said, “Motherhood is a value to me, and even today abortion is not...I believed passionately in 1967, as I do today, that women shoud have the right to choose 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.”
The vote to include abortion in the Feminist Bill of Rights was one of the most pivotal moments of the 20th century. It changed feminism from its pro-life origins to being pro-choice. In a press conference two days later, Friedan glossed over the abortion fight, and claimed to speak for all working women. Three days after the conference, The Washington Post ran an article about how NOW wanted to further the sexual revolution, with one way being legalized abortion. The media told this story over and over, causing millions of people to believe that true feminism was pro-choice.
So how can we reclaim feminism? How can we show the world that being pro-life is being pro-woman? At the end of her interview, Browder offered hope by pointing out that only fifty-four women changed feminism from being pro-life to pro-choice. It might not take much more to turn the tide and bring feminism back to the light. We can truly be for all women, born and unborn.
This article was sponsored by a generous patron.