Written by Marcia Riordan, Social Issues Convenor
In recent weeks we have witnessed a debate in the media over who has the right to call herself a feminist.
Feminism began as a movement seeking equality of educational and employment opportunities for women and the right to vote. By the 1970s, however, feminists were not only calling for equal pay and equal access to education and job opportunities, but also for abortion on demand.
Today, many women are reluctant to call themselves feminists, or see feminism as out of touch, counter-productive or irrelevant. If feminism has made the world a better place for women—and in many ways it has—why are women not joining in droves?
If real feminism is about assessing women's problems, and changing the attitudes and structures that prevent women from taking their rightful place in society, then feminism is failing women in several important ways. While feminism has legitimately fought for women to become better educated and pursue careers should they wish, giving them greater options than previous generations, it has failed to recognise that most women want relationships, a family and children. It has failed to view motherhood as a legitimate choice, or to realise that most women have to deal with how to juggle work and families at some point in their lives. It is failing to see that much of women's work in the home and elsewhere as carers of infants, children, the sick and elderly is still demeaned and continues to go largely unrecognised, and badly paid.
Part of the problem seems to be that since the 1970s mainstream feminists have believed that, for women to take their place in the world and compete with men, they have to become just like men. They denied there was any fundamental difference between men and women. They argued that women are just as intelligent, hard working, and resourceful as any man—so far so good—but then they went one step further and sought to deny that women had any special role as far as child-bearing goes. They fought to liberate women not just from 'domestic drudgery and servitude', but also to free women from their traditional roles as wife and mother. Women could be just like men and behave just like men. Abortion advocates persuaded many feminists of the 1960's and 1970's era that women's health, happiness and self-development depended upon access to abortion.
Feminists have not always supported access to abortion. As Professor Mary Anne Glendon, of Harvard Law School, notes, abortion rights became the flagship of
... the peculiar form of feminism that took shape in the 1970s. To earlier feminists who had fought for the vote and for fair treatment in the workplace, it had seemed obvious that the ready availability of abortion would facilitate the sexual exploitation of women. Pioneering feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Elisabeth Stanton regarded free love, abortion, and easy divorce as disastrous for women and children.
Mainstream feminists of the 1960s and 1970s who supported abortion on demand hijacked feminism.
All too often old-guard feminists deny that women experience any negative consequences after abortion. They continue to suppress and intimidate the voices of anyone who questions abortion. This is why we are witnessing such personal attacks on women such as Melinda Tankard Reist, who dare call themselves pro-life and feminist.
Those who are concerned about the sexual exploitation of women owe a great deal of gratitude to people like Melinda Tankard Reist and Joanna Howe (Herald Sun, 30 January 2012), for their ability to attract and empower a whole new generation of women.
Pro-life feminism ties in well with much of the work being done in recent years in the Church. Many women in the Church are working to build a new culture of life and love based on an authentic new feminism. This new pro-life feminism seeks to encourage the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society. We are working to build solidarity with women facing an unplanned pregnancy, to reach out sensitively and compassionately to women who have experienced an abortion and to encourage them to seek help and healing.
Women such as Melinda Tankard Reist and Joanne Howe each in their way are inspiring whole new generations of women, of pro-life feminists, in ways that the older-style feminists may continue to find surprising if not confronting.