by Stephen Adubato
In Sex and the Catholic Feminist: New Choices for a New Generation, former Cosmopolitan magazine writer Sue Ellen Browder explores the relationship between feminism and the fight to legalize abortion. A follow up to her 2015 Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement, this new book paints a vivid historical picture of how being a feminist became synonymous with being pro-choice. Browder contends that this change of course was a divergence from the original ideals of the Women’s Movement. True feminism is not just about obtaining power, she claims, but is about achieving full recognition of the personhood of women — that is, their inherent dignity and capacity to give of themselves to others. Browder asserts that pro-lifers should reclaim the “F-word” and should not shy away from fighting for women’s rights just because mainstream feminists include abortion within this category.
The suffragettes within feminism’s First Wave unanimously opposed abortion, Browder recounts. Things changed during the Second Wave, which was led in America by Betty Friedan. Browder commends Friedan’s ardent advocacy for women’s choice to work outside the home, equality in the workplace, and equal pay. Browder is critical, however, of Friedan’s acclaimed 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, in which she introduces the ubiquitous “problem that has no name.”
Middle-class suburban housewives are plagued with a sense of boredom, emptiness, and purposelessness, claimed Friedan. “For Betty, the solution to the nameless problem was work.” As much as Browder agrees that women should not be confined to the home, she argues that Friedan “oversimplified and misnamed the problem and the solution.” Comparing that abysmal emptiness to the Augustinian cor inquietum, Browder asserts that the problem was existential in nature and that the answer lies in a relationship with God rather than further autonomy.
The main “Y junction” of the Women’s Movement began to emerge in Friedan’s encounter with Simone de Beauvoir, who saw marriage and childbirth as the real sources of oppression. Friedan was shocked. Childrearing was, as she described it, “delicious,” and marriage to a man who respects his wife as his equal could be a fulfilling option.
This split was driven apart by several other factors, many of which were furthered by men. In his 1953 study Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, sexologist Alfred Kinsey claimed that his scientific discoveries proved that sexual mores were unnecessary, man-made taboos which most people (by “most people,” Browder points out, he meant white college-educated urbanites) didn’t follow anyway. Thus pre-, extra-marital, and non-procreative sex ought to be normative, and was imperative for women’s happiness and liberation.
This effect was furthered by the content published in “women’s magazines” and pornography, especially in Playboy and Cosmo. Retelling much of what she wrote in Subverted, she explains how Hugh Heffner and Helen Gurley Brown encouraged staff writers to fabricate stories about women finding freedom in breaking sexual taboos, especially women in “less cultured” parts of the country like the South and Midwest. Browder admits to having heeded Gurley Brown’s directions during her time writing for Cosmo in the 70s and 80s. The goal was to push the narrative that unconstrained sexuality is normal, more fulfilling, and necessary to be free. Browder mentions that Friedan condemned this narrative, saying that it “reduced women’s lives to ‘the idea that woman is nothing but a sex object.’”
Browder goes on to explain how Friedan and the National Organization for Women (NOW)’s conversion from anti- to pro-abortion rights was spurred by two upper-class white men. Lawrence Lader, a magazine writer, and Dr. Bernard Nathanson, an OB/GYN, together founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) in the 1960s, and worked to persuade Friedan and the leaders of NOW that “women needed contraception and abortion to achieve full equality in the workforce and the world.” Dr. Nathanson, who has since lamented his “responsiblity for over 75,000 abortions,” admitted that NARAL needed to “recruit the feminists” in order to make abortion legal.
Delegates at the 1967 NOW conference voted on eight points, six of which focused on “reasonable stuff” like defending the rights of pregnant women in the workplace and fighting unjust tax laws. The last two were highly contested: the call for the Equal Rights Amendment and the legalization of abortion. According to Browder, there was an uproar in the room, with one woman shouting “I’m against murder!” The arguing went on almost until midnight, until the eighth point passed with 57 out of 105 votes.
What is the trajectory of the pro-life movement nearly 50 years after Roe v. Wade? Browder sees the movement gaining most traction through grassroots initiatives, “where power really resides,” like crisis pregnancy centers, communities providing alternatives for individual women, and offering support for post-abortive women.
The book’s extensive history of the women’s movement is its most compelling feature — especially her naming of forgotten figures, like pro-life women pushed out of the movement, as well as the men who drove the fight for the legalization of abortion. Her unveiling of the hidden patriarchal hand that played a key role in spurring on the Sexual Revolution, and thus the splitting of the women’s movement, will likely unite both pro-life and pro-choice feminists in righteous anger.
Browder’s insistence on interweaving her historical narrative with theological thoughts and superfluous quotes by random saints and theologians will surely make the book less compelling to non-religious readers. Additionally, I found her kitschy, journalistic quips (“because...well, you know”; “WEAL. Ever hear of it? No.”) to be quite distracting.
She also writes little about the other more pragmatic factors that lead women to get abortions, reducing much of the issue to one’s moral or ideological position. Nor does she focus much on the systemic changes that would need to be made to make abortion not just illegal, but “unthinkable,” as the founder of the New Wave Feminists Destiny Herndon De La Rosa once put it.
Browder often hints at how religious, non-white, working-class, and non-coastal feminists were generally pushed to the margins of the movement because they generally tended not to buy into the mainstream platform. Her book would be more convincing if she further explored the role that racial and economic inequalities play in conversations about abortion and feminism, especially considering how women of color have been notoriously excluded from the Women’s Movement.
Its lacunae aside, Sex and the Catholic Feminist’s attempt the bridge the gap between the feminist and pro-life movements will likely challenge both sides while opening their eyes to points of convergence.