Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thank you, Nora Ephron. You nailed it with your statement re feminism and abortion rights!

I’m more than a little annoyed when women opposed to abortion rights (like Sarah Palin and her Mama Grizzlies) claim to be feminists. But I get really depressed when women who are themselves pro-choice start buying into this saying things like: “Who are we to police the boundaries of feminism? Let’s be open to all women who want to identify as feminists.” Groups like Feminists for Life have been making these arguments for years. But hearing this from members of the pro-choice community is something new.

On one level, I am happy to hear that so many women want to claim the feminist label, but not at this price. Feminists differ over priorities/strategies. We have our race/class /generational faultlines. But even if abortion rights may not be a feminist’s top priority issue, it’s got to be on the list of non-negotiables! Let’s not buy into the notion that insistence on support for abortion rights makes one a narrow-minded feminist.

The recent series at Slate By DoubleX Staff, “Who Gets To Be a Feminist? That's the Wrong Question brought home to me the extent to which this “big tent feminism” has taken hold.

The comments from avowed conservatives were no surprise:

From Christine Rosen:
Americans have often underestimated the political power of conservative women. (Remember Phyllis Schlafly?) But feminists shouldn't underestimate the appeal of a feminist message that emphasizes equity and opportunity, not gender grievances. After decades of the feminist establishment owning the term, perhaps the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. The feminism of women like Palin isn't the feminism of the past. But it might be the feminism of the future.

From Christina Hoff Sommers:
If conservative women wish to describe themselves as feminists, and if they offer a new model of women's empowerment that large numbers of American women find inspiring, even determined feminist bouncers like Traister and Holmes won't be able to keep them from the party.

Much more disturbing were the comments from pro-choice feminists. From frequent critic of the feminist movement but definitely pro choice, Katie Roiphe:

I think the question of whether or not Sarah Palin should be "allowed" to be a feminist is a bit beside the point. What is interesting is the question behind the question: Who is it that does this "allowing"? What does it mean to be "not allowed"? I don't like Sarah Palin any more than the next registered Democrat, but I think the idea that she should somehow be cast out of feminism is revealing of the narrower vision of the movement and its uglier, more cliquish instincts.

Or this from Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick:
I am not prepared to announce a categorical rule for who gets to be called a feminist. It sounds too much like the rules about who gets to be called a good mother or a real woman, and such rules always obscure more than they clarify. I am also not prepared to rope out whole categories of women who happen to oppose abortion as bad feminists.

Or this from Amy Bloom:
If she[Palin] understands that she is a product of feminism and is prepared to pursue its goals, I can give her a pass on abortion because there are, apparently, honest-to-God feminists who believe that abortion is murder and even though I think that that's not true, I have to respect that (I guess.)

Thank you, Rebecca Traister and Katha Pollitt, for challenging this, and most of all Nora, who cuts right to the chase:

From Nora Ephron:
I know that I'm supposed to write 500 words on this subject, but it seems much simpler: You can't call yourself a feminist if you don't believe in the right to abortion.

For years, I’ve been depressed that we still need to defend abortion rights. When the Roe v. Wade decision came down in 1973, I never thought that I would still be working to defend abortion rights in 2010!

Women have made incredible progress in so many areas; it’s hard to believe that we are still fighting for the right to have control of our own bodies. In our tax phobic society, it’s not surprising that we haven’t achieved some of the feminist goals which would cost real money—-e.g. high quality affordable child care provided by well-paid professionals. But settling the issue of abortion rights is not an issue of economic redistribution but rather of basic human rights. Sadly, so many people who claim to want government off their backs support government intrusion into this most private decision.

It’s bad enough we’re still struggling to secure abortion rights, but to have pro-choice feminists backing away from a definition of feminism which includes abortion rights, well, that is really hard to take.


  1. Heya. I keep hearing a lot of people commenting and saying that you can't be pro-life and a feminist. I'm afraid I don't understand the position. Could you point me in the direction of an in-depth defense of that position? Or, if you're feeling really ambitious, explain it to me? :)

  2. Here’s my short answer: What is more fundamental than control of one's own body?

    I don’t understand how one can advocate for women having equal power in society and over their own lives and then say the government should force a pregnant woman to give birth to a child against her will.

  3. I understood that much, but that argument ignores whether or not a moral issue is involved in abortion. It presupposes that abortion is not murder.

    If a woman had a very unsightly mole on her face and the government forced her to keep it then the obvious move for a feminist would be to fight that rule. But a fetus isn't a mole. A fetus (depending on the stage of development) can be uncomfortably close to a human life. This is not to suggest that a fetus is the same as a baby, implying that getting an abortion is morally the same as murdering a baby. This is only saying that the ethics surrounding abortion are blurry and nuanced enough that it ought not to be considered a given that every feminist accepts unrestricted or lightly-restricted abortion.

    I guess it isn't possible (at this time, at least) to classify what exactly it means to be human and to be alive and if a fetus is part of the mother or a separate entity altogether. But the morality or immorality of abortion is largely based on these impossible classifications. If we could definitively say that abortion is ok, then it would be perfectly reasonable to expect all feminists to support sovereignty over their own bodies. If we could definitively say that abortion is not ok, it's like saying to a member of the NAACP that they have to fight for the right for black people to rob liquor stores to be considered a TRUE freedom fighter. Since we can't say either way, why should we expect some people (who might be feminists in every other way) not to be at least a little uneasy with abortion?

    This is as far as my own thought has taken me. I want to know if there is a convincing argument that addresses the problems I saw. Sorry, this is not meant as a challenge. I'm just new to this feminist stuff, and I don't know where to begin looking for an answer on this topic.

  4. "If we could definitively say that abortion is ok, then it would be perfectly reasonable to expect all feminists to support sovereignty over their own bodies." (From Anon.'s commentary)

    Karen, you have more interesting Anon. comments than I; mine just usually behave boorishly and beg to be deleted.

    In my youth, abortion rights were inseparable in the minds of feminists from the ubiquity of rape and coerced intercourse. If we could now definitively say that a woman who is raped can count on medical attention without shame, can make a crime report without being treated as a criminal, can choose to legally abort a rape-conceived fetus without being targeted, and can expect justice without re-victimization, then I imagine there might be fewer women who would object to abortion under those circumstances.

    Since our social response to rape is at best unpredictable and at worst a second rape, the feminists of my generation sought to first protect their victimized and re-victimized sisters. Have we made enough progress as a society to turn those protections over to the society at large or to assume those protections for women?

  5. I can understand how a feminist might have moral qualms about abortion and not make that choice for herself.

    But I can’t understand how someone can want to impose her moral values on all women and then claim she’s a feminist. I guess it comes down to who makes the choice--the pregnant women or the government.

  6. Heya. Same anonymous here. I wouldn't be anonymous, except I don't have any of the accounts listed to sign in from. I use Yahoo. :(

    @ Nance
    Hadn't considered that. I'd agree, too. It seems that if a person wishes to be called a feminist, he/she probably has to support the right to abortion for women coerced or forced into sex (or those not coerced into sex but coerced into pregnancy). But then that still leaves the large group of women (though I'm not prepared to quote any numbers here) who aren't coerced.

    If you don't mind my question, which generation is yours?

    @ Karen
    I can see your point, but I can't really embrace it. Either it presupposes that there is no moral issue with regard to abortion, or it says that the issue of a woman's free choice is more important than other moral concerns.

    To say that we ought not to impose our moral values on others is a dangerous idea and patently absurd if taken to it's logical conclusion. If my neighbor keeps a pet monkey in his house even though local ordinances forbid it, I really ought to be staying out of his business as nobody suffers from him having it. If he beats the monkey, I feel a bit uneasy as most people would agree that (in addition to laws against animal cruelty) the monkey has some right not to suffer. If my neighbor beats his wife, it becomes even more my business. It's not enough for me to say, "Well, that sort of thing doesn't happen in my home, but if he wants to beat his wife then more power to him!" It's my moral obligation to step in somehow.

    I'm not as well versed on the topic as I should be, but I feel like a decent (though oversimplified) definition for feminism is fighting for fairness with regard to women. That is, we need to be on guard to make sure women have all of the rights and protection they ought to have. But I also feel like if there isn't some sort of line drawn as to what sort of behavior is acceptable (for women or for anyone), feminism degenerates into meaning fighting for the rights for women to get free passes on anything they might want to do. I couldn't throw my support behind any person or group who believes a woman's choice always trumps other concerns.

    Of course, 90% of my concerns are dependent on what exactly a fetus is. Right now, I'm of the belief that in the absence of any real sign of "humanity" or capacity for suffering in a young fetus (arbitrarily, I'll say up to 4 months), that we should err on the side of liberty. That is, we should value the very concrete right of a woman's self-determination over the very abstract possibility of ending a human life. But as that possibility becomes less and less abstract I come to feel more and more uneasy. I'm not prepared to say where the line is, but there has to be a point where life trumps choice. The moment of birth is convenient for lawmakers, but probably results in a lot of suffering from fetuses/babies denied life. The moment of conception is also convenient, but probably results in a lot of suffering from women denied sovereignty over their own lives. It seems obvious that the "correct" line would be somewhere in between, but I can't think of any line that isn't arbitrary.

    As I said, I'm new to this whole feminist thing. Does my uneasiness mean I haven't got the balls (so to speak) to be a feminist?

    Sorry for hijacking your discussion. Also, sorry for bringing only questions and concerns to your board. I'm like a bad house-guest.

  7. The comment feature on blogger is hard to use.

    You have to sign in either using one of the accounts on the menu or you can click on



    You can put whatever name you want and the URL of any email program. I managed with and with I did not use the user names known to google or verizon.

    It doesn't have to be your user name or the URL for your email account--it just needs to be a valid URL.

    It doesn't really make sense to me but that's how it works.

    This works not just for my blog, but for any google blog.