The second claim on which Feminists for Life (FFL) bases its pro-life feminist position is that in the 1960s, men—one man in particular—convinced feminists—one feminist in particular—to be pro-abortion and join the campaign to repeal abortion laws in the U.S.
In an article written by FFL President Serrin Foster titled, “How Men Convinced Women to Be Pro-Abortion,” published in 1997 in Our Sunday Visitor, Foster writes:
It is important to note that Betty Friedan, credited with reawakening feminism in the 1960s with her landmark book “The Feminine Mystique,” did not even mention abortion in the early edition.
And it was not until 1966 that NOW [the National Organization for Women] included abortion in its list of goals, and even then it was a low priority.
It was a man—abortion rights activist Larry Lader, who remains active today—who credits himself with guiding a reluctant Friedan toward making abortion an issue for NOW. Lader had gone around the country trying to repeal abortion laws, and he wasn’t getting anywhere. State legislators were horrified by his ideas.
Lader then teamed up with a gynecologist named Bernard Nathanson to cofound the National Alliance to Repeal Abortion Laws, the forerunner of today’s National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL).
Lader suggested to NOW’s leadership that all feminist demands, such as equal education, jobs and pay, hinged on a woman’s ability to control her own body and procreation…
…Dr. Nathanson, who later became a prolife activist, states in his book “Aborting America” that he and Lader were able to convince Friedan that abortion was a civil rights issue.
This idea, that “men convinced women to be pro-abortion,” has been taken up by others in the pro-life movement.
Brian Fisher, of the pro-life organization Human Coalition, in his 2014 book Abortion, The Ultimate Exploitation of Women, writes that in the late 1960s “feminists were recruited by men to support abortion.” (Notice how one man becomes “men” and one feminist becomes “feminists.”) Fisher writes:
Lader realized he needed women’s voices. Nathanson sheds light on how Lader recruited women into the effort to legalize abortion. He recounts how Lader remarked, “If we’re going to move abortion out of the books and into the streets, we’re going to have to recruit the feminists.”
Fisher joins this “evidence” of Lader supposedly recruiting women into the campaign to legalize abortion with the fact that many in the pro-abortion movement had roots in eugenics or population control to come to the conclusion that, “In the case of America, it was powerful, rich, white men who were behind the legalization of abortion, not women.”
Fisher also quotes a past-president of FFL, Rosemary Oelrich Bottcher, on the subject. In a section on FFL’s website under the title, Men Launched the Movement to Legalize Abortion, Bottcher writes:
The first edition of Betty Friedan’s seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, did not even mention abortion. Legalizing abortion was not on the newborn NOW’s list of issues. In his 1979 book Aborting America, Dr. Nathanson recalled Lader saying, “If we’re going to move abortion out of the books and into the streets, we’re going to have to recruit the feminists. Friedan has got to put her troops into this thing — while she still has control of them.”
When I met Nathanson at the National Right to Life convention in June of 1986, he told me that they convinced the leaders of NOW that easy access to legal abortion was essential to ameliorating the problems that were thwarting the well-being of women, the problems that Friedan had identified in her book. “We got them to see legal abortion as a civil rights issue, a basic women’s rights issue,” Nathanson explained. In Nathanson’s earlier words, “Lader’s marriage with the feminists was a brilliant tactic.” Abortion has been NOW’s cardinal cause ever since.
In a recent book titled, Subverted, How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement (2015), Sue Ellen Browder, a Catholic convert, reiterates the same ideas that FFL and Fisher promote about Larry Lader and Betty Friedan.
Browder trots out the same Nathanson anecdotes from his book, Aborting America, where he recollects how Lader strategized getting Friedan and the feminists involved in the movement to legalize abortion.
Browder, however, goes further with her interpretation of what transpired between Lader and Friedan, based on what Lader wrote in his book, Abortion II: Making the Revolution (1973) in addition to what Nathanson wrote in Aborting America. For example, Browder writes, “Larry said he tried to persuade her [Friedan] otherwise, that women needed abortion to be free. Yet for many years, Betty remained unconvinced.” And, “To Larry’s frustration, Friedan was almost as reluctant as black women were to accept his idea that women needed to abort their children to be free. To Larry’s disappointment, the first edition of The Feminine Mystique mentioned neither contraception or abortion. His cleverly crafted Abortion book, however, seems to have finally convinced Betty that America’s abortion law needed to be changed.”
No citations are given for how Browder knows the state of mind of Lader and his “disappointment” and “frustration,” and she gives no evidence for the statement, “Friedan was almost as reluctant as black women were to accept his idea that women needed to abort their children to be free.” Browder writes as if she were a first-hand witness in what was transpiring, which she was not. She gives no direct evidence for Friedan’s supposed change of mind, only the weak assumption that Lader “seems to have finally convinced Betty that America’s abortion law needed to be changed.” In the sources she uses throughout her book such as Nathanson’s Aborting America and Lader’s Abortion II, as well as various sources for Friedan, there is no mention of Lader’s “disappointment” and “frustration” or that Lader’s book Abortion II “finally convinced Betty that America’s abortion law needed to be changed.”
In what is truly ironic in Browder’s attempt to tell the “secret” history of the pro-abortion movement is that at one point in Subverted she calls Lader “a mere magazine writer” who should not pose as a historian. Yet, that is exactly what Browder is, a freelance magazine writer acting as historian.
What FFL et al. are clumsily trying to do is show that second wave feminism started out being pro-life or amenable to the pro-life cause, and only became pro-abortion via Betty Friedan under the direct influence of Larry Lader.
There are many problems with FFL et al.’s hypothesis, which I will call the “Lader-Friedan Hypothesis.”
First, FFL et al. lump personal convictions and movement ideology in with organizational strategy. Lader’s strategizing that the pro-abortion movement had to get Friedan and her “troops” involved doesn’t preclude that feminists were pro-abortion on their own. Nathanson’s statement that the marriage of abortion and feminism by Lader was brilliant doesn’t necessarily mean that he created the relationship, only that he wanted to capitalize upon it. It is similar to Lader saying he wanted to make the Catholic Church hierarchy the villain of the revolution, which Nathanson also recounts in Aborting America. In actual fact the Church was and is the enemy of the pro-abortion movement—Lader just wanted to capitalize on this fact.
None of what these pro-life feminists quote from Nathanson in Aborting America refers to anything other than what Lader was proposing at the strategic level. Nathanson himself never says feminists had to be convinced to be pro-abortion.
On another note, Aborting America is not a scholarly work of history—it is written in a casual tone—with a good dose of cynicism—and is one man’s personal account, full of his own biases, of his time as an abortionist and his change of heart. Just as FFL (see Part 1 and Part 2) spins a few cherry-picked statements made by early feminists to label them pro-life, FFL et al. take Nathanson’s brief statements regarding Lader and Friedan and give them an interpretation we don’t know if Nathanson intended them to have.
In one section of Aborting America in a description of the players involved in the founding of NARAL, Nathanson states, “Our axis also included Betty Friedan, who was dedicated to repeal all abortion laws, too, but could not be depended upon to guide NARAL to a militant position because she was so involved in internecine problems of her National Organization for Women.” This doesn’t sound like he and Lader had brainwashed Friedan. Nathanson also says that, “Larry and I, the radicals, could only be sure of one loyal ally in the fights to come: Conni Billi Finnerty.” Yet, Finnerty isn’t mentioned by FFL et al. Further, Nathanson describes Friedan as someone who “dominated…most gatherings she attended,” which is hardly a vision of someone who can be duped against her better judgment. One of the main problems with FFL et al.’s way of using history is that they take historical moments out of context which can lead to all sorts of interpretations.
It would be beneficial if there was corroborating evidence for FFL’s claim that “men convinced women to be pro-abortion” to back up its interpretation of Nathanson’s words. However, there is no such corroborating evidence. Nathanson’s account, together with statements Lader made in Abortion II, which will be discussed next, are the sole bits of evidence for the pro-life feminist claim that “men convinced women to be pro-abortion.” (In fact, as will be discussed, there is evidence that contradicts the claim.)
In Lader’s account in Abortion II, he claims that Friedan avoided the abortion issue at first because of “sexual taboos,” and that he “occasionally suggested that all feminist demands hinged on contraception and abortion and women’s control over her own body and procreation.” Lader quotes another feminist leader, Jean Faust, as saying, “We were all blocked at first by traditional labels. We were afraid of being called ‘loose women’ if we included abortion in our platform.” He then writes that the main reason Friedan hesitated to bring the abortion plank to NOW was “fear of splitting off Catholics and conservative professionals.” Lader never says that Friedan had to be convinced to be pro-abortion, only that she needed some prodding to jump into what would be a controversial and divisive issue for NOW. Thus, it seems that feminists needing prodding to enter the campaign to repeal abortion laws, at least as far as NOW was concerned, was based on strategic concerns, not because support for legalized abortion contradicted their feminist convictions.
In 1967, however, just one year after founding NOW, despite her worries about a split, Friedan pushed through an abortion plank which was added to NOW’s Bill of Rights for Women. Even the opposition from the “professional women,” according to Faust, was not pro-life but again, strategic: “The professional women demanded we concentrate on economic goals—they were scared of harming the organization’s dignity with abortion and sex.”
There is no evidence in any of Friedan’s writings or documented actions that she had to be convinced to be pro-abortion. Betty Friedan and many, not all, of her peers in the liberal wing of the second wave of feminism were pro-abortion and did not need to be convinced of a woman’s right to control her body, including abortion. Nor did the younger generation of 1960s feminists—the radicals—need convincing (FFL et al. ignore the radical faction of second wave feminism in their assertion that “men convinced women to be pro-abortion”). Both the liberal and radical wings of the feminist movement were keenly aware of the need for a strategy for the emerging women’s movement that would allow them to start their revolution. The liberal wing in particular, under the auspices of NOW, founded by Friedan and several other feminists in 1966, was concerned with appearing moderate in order to appeal to a wide audience. Again, despite the controversial nature of the abortion debate, NOW, in 1967, jumped on board the escalating campaign to repeal abortion laws.
Friedan talked about her own strategic vision in terms of feminism and the pro-abortion movement. In It Changed My Life, Writings on the Women’s Movement (1976), Friedan wrote, “I knew we needed the young, even the most revolutionary of the young, for the women’s movement to catch fire. High on their list of priorities—as it was on mine—was the right to abortion.”
According to Friedan’s biographer, Judith Hennessee, “Ti-Grace [Atkinson] had been one of the women who had convinced Betty to put abortion on NOW’s national agenda and had made sure they had the votes.” What of Larry Lader? Hennessee describes the relationship between Lader and Friedan in the pro-abortion movement as one of Lader wanting to tap into the influence of Friedan and the quickly emerging feminist movement (as opposed to a brainwash job):
Long a crusader of abortion rights, Lader had published a book on the subject in 1966 and was trying to parlay the book into a movement as Betty had done. For this he needed Betty. She could pick up the phone and create disturbances around the country.
Hennessee also says it was Friedan whom girls sought out in college when they wanted to know where to go to get an at-that-time-illegal abortion. “When desperate friends needed abortions, Betty was the one they asked for help…Betty went with her friends to hidden rooms in back alleys and waited fearfully, hoping they wouldn’t die; when the operation was finished, she took them home in taxis.” This hardly sounds like someone who needed convincing to be pro-abortion.
Pro-life feminists highlight the fact that NOW did not include an abortion plank the first year of its existence, but in Friedan’s 2000 memoir, Life So Far, she says of the beginnings of NOW, “NOW’s statement of purpose was adopted at that first meeting as I’d drafted it, with one exception. I had wanted to confront the issue of abortion but was advised not to include it because it was too controversial.”
What FFL et al. also fail to recognize, or willfully ignore, is that Friedan was a keen strategist herself with a background in far-left political activism. Further, Friedan wanted to appeal to as many women as possible to make the women’s movement inclusive. In Hennessee’s biography of Friedan she says that Friedan “always treasured Catholic Women for Choice; its existence was a sign that the movement appealed to all kinds of women.”
In Life So Far, Friedan gives an account of the 1967 NOW board meeting where she put abortion on the table. Friedan states abortion in particular was controversial. Despite being advised by friends she respected, such as Carl Degler, not to take on the abortion issue, Friedan writes:
…But I was very aware of that issue, and along with some other board members had decided since that we, as an organization for women, had to confront it.
Though I had never had an abortion, I had intimate knowledge of what the right to legal abortion might mean to women. As president of NOW, I knew we owed it to all women, and especially to young women we wanted to bring into the movement, to take a stand on decriminalizing abortion.
Interestingly, in Subverted, Browder does make a reference to Friedan’s past in the far-left political sphere and even says that Friedan took a course at college where she was introduced to the idea of using propaganda to further ones goals. Browder writes that, “Betty took careful notes,” yet Browder fails to explore the ramifications of such training. Instead, Browder reduces Friedan to a dupe easily brainwashed by a man.
Pro-life feminists use the fact that early editions of The Feminine Mystique did not include a reference to abortion as evidence that Friedan was only reluctantly convinced to become pro-abortion and to bring the feminist movement into the campaign to repeal abortion laws. Abortion not being included in early editions of The Feminine Mystique means little. As I’ve stated already, Friedan was a keen strategist, and feminists from the suffrage era on employed the tactic of staying away from controversial subjects in order to be taken seriously. Both suffrage and later feminist demands for equality were not mainstream ideas and the leaders of the first wave and second wave of feminism knew this very well. They had to convince the public of the worth of their demands at the risk of being laughed at and harangued. They had enough controversy on their hands without wading into a controversy like abortion. In the 1960s feminism had no serious place in American culture and Friedan was determined to get it a serious place. Why would she discuss legalizing abortion—a radical cause and illegal at the time—in her 1963 book as an un-established writer in a not-even-begun woman’s movement? “I wanted the movement to speak to and for and from the mainstream,” Friedan wrote in Life So Far.
Also, the second wave of the feminist movement was just emerging in the late 1960s and did not gain power until later, so feminists weren’t in any kind of organizational position to aid the pro-abortion movement of the 1960s. As Suzanne Staggenborg writes in her history of the “pro-choice” movement, The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict (1991):
NOW’s participation in the abortion movement was, for several reasons, limited in the early years. The abortion issue was controversial, and not all chapters were willing to tackle it. Moreover, many NOW members and chapters were pre-occupied with economic issues in the 1960s and early 1970s. And perhaps most important, the national organization lacked the kind of structure necessary to promote grass-roots participation on the issue.
(Staggenborg notes that the New York chapter of NOW was highly involved in the repeal cause, however.)
The Lader-Friedan Hypothesis also doesn’t ring true (and has an ironic anti-feminist sentiment) because feminist leaders of the 1960s were educated, savvy political operators—that they were actually against abortion and were duped into being pro-abortion by men is not likely or logical. It is a strange claim for feminists to make since they stress that women are smart, strong and capable—why was this woman, Friedan, so easily duped by a man on such an important issue? Pro-life feminists challenge their own feminist ideology, in this ultimate declaration of women not being able to think for themselves.
Pro-life feminists emphasize the fact that feminists came to the pro-abortion movement later rather than earlier—it was started by doctors and lawyers who wanted reform of the law, and then taken over by the “radicals” from eugenics and population control backgrounds (like Lader) who wanted full repeal. The radicals were willing to use whatever strategy, put whatever face forward, that would win their goal for them. In Mary Zeigler’s history of the abortion debate, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate (2015), she gives a detailed account of NARAL’s change in strategy over what face to put on the campaign, population control or women’s rights. She writes:
For the most part, those seeking to de-emphasize women’s rights claims seemed less concerned about backlash than they were about identifying the fastest path to victory. Within NARAL, for example, Lucinda Cisler recorded the reasons for the organization’s rejection of women’s-rights resolutions. In her notes, Cisler suggested that more pragmatic claims would make the organization seem moderate, practical, and responsible. She also drew attention to the alliances with population control or physicians’ groups that might be available if the organization framed abortion in the right way. To some activists, downplaying women’s-rights claims appeared to maximize the movement’s chances of winning state legislatures, the media, and even in court.
A social movement such as the pro-abortion movement involves a complex dynamic of individuals and groups with overlapping and sometimes competing ideologies. There were many more people involved in steering the course of the pro-abortion movement in the 1960s and early 70s than Larry Lader and Betty Friedan (this will be discussed later in this essay). Further, the way in which the movement proceeded didn’t necessarily represent the emotional or ideological motivations of the people and groups involved—but represented both strategy (what will the public, the government, the judiciary find most convincing—abortion for population control purposes or abortion as a woman’s right?) as well as strategic reactions to their opponent—the pro-life movement.
In Ziegler’s account of NARAL in Before Roe, which draws on NARAL meeting minutes for its source material, Ziegler writes that NARAL was split between the radicals (of whom Lader, Nathanson and Friedan belonged) who wanted NARAL to focus on grassroots protests and moderates who wanted NARAL to focus on lobbying. A split then occurred within the radical faction:
Lader’s former ally, Betty Friedan, led a group of NARAL members committed to arguments presenting abortion as a woman’s right. Lader broke with Friedan to lead a second group concerned about tactical disadvantages of women’s-rights arguments. NARAL, in Lader’s view, had to find a way to win.
In particular, Lader and other NARAL pragmatists called for a greater emphasis on population control….
By January 1970, NARAL leaders began to clash about whether to prioritize arguments about women’s rights or population control. Betty Friedan and Carol Greitzer, a feminist city councilor from New York City, encouraged their colleagues to link NARAL’s cause more closely to the women’s movement. Friedan and Greitzer rejected a proposed title for NARAL’s 1970 protest event, “Children by Choice,” because of its population implications.
As an alternative, Friedan and Greitzer promised to identify support among women’s groups for the proposed protest. ZPG leader and NARAL Executive Committee member Richard Bowers responded that “NARAL should see that (abortion) repeal is closely tied in with the growing ecological movement.” Bowers continued his fight through February, at least temporarily convincing Friedan that NARAL should emphasize population-control arguments.
The following September, however, feminists again objected to NARAL’s emphasis on population control. At a meeting of the organization’s board of directors, Friedan proposed a resolution stating, “NARAL should support political groups working toward the basic purpose of the right of a woman to decide whether or not to have children.” At a meeting of the group’s board of directors, the motion died for lack of a second. In response, Lader proposed a resolution stating: “to prevent increasing overpopulation, American parents in general, should adopt as a social and family ideal the principle of the two-child family.” The board of directors voted twenty-six to eighteen to table the motion.
Friedan’s discussion of the ideological and strategic clashes within NARAL also sets her against Lader. In her memoir she gives this account of the organizational meeting for NARAL:
It was at the organization meeting for NARAL in the Drake Hotel in Chicago that it was demonstrated again how women still had to struggle to be taken seriously. While I was sent off to drum up publicity for NARAL on television, Larry and the others wrote the charter and a statement of purpose for the new coalition. When the preamble of the charter was read aloud the next day at NARAL’s first national conference, it had absolutely nothing in it about a woman’s right to control her own body. Instead, it was all about the right of a doctor to perform an abortion without going to jail.
I was horrified….
…There was nothing to do but take the floor mike and propose a new preamble for the NARAL charter with women, not doctors, as its core. The new coalition had to recognize that it was a women’s inalienable human and civil right to control her own body and reproductive process, I told the first national convention of NARAL, and to decide, according to the dictates of her own conscience, where, whether and how many times to bear a child and therefore to have unlimited, safe, legal medical access to all forms of birth control and abortion, if necessary.
Pro-life advocates like to draw out the eugenics and population control aspect of the pro-abortion movement (which does exist) and downplay the civil liberties or feminist contribution to the repeal of abortion laws. While there is nothing wrong with putting the spotlight on the eugenics and population control aspect, it is not historically accurate to slough off the feminist component as a mere pawn of the population control advocates and their strategy.
The reason for this emphasis? Because most pro-life advocates agree with at least some of feminist ideology, such as the vague but high-minded-sounding principle of equality. This emphasis also makes the pro-abortion movement appear as having nothing to do with what are viewed by the mainstream as positive social movements (that is, feminism or the civil rights movement of the 1960s). In the case of pro-life feminists, they desperately want to “save” feminism because they ascribe to feminist ideology.
It does not do justice to the history of how the repeal of abortion law came about and how it became established as a basic right in American culture to ignore and belittle the contribution of feminism, however. While feminists may have come late to the pro-abortion movement, as will be discussed in the next part of this essay, they—women, not men—shaped the pro-abortion movement into what it is today.
It is unfortunate that Catholics in particular, such as Browder, would become involved in pro-life feminism, as feminism with or without an abortion plank is antithetical to Catholicism (see my previous essay: Why Catholics Can’t Be Feminists).
The next part of this essay will be posted next week.