The Problem with Pro-Life Feminism. Part 4

Another problem with the Lader-Friedan Hypothesis is the disproportionate influence given to two players in a huge drama taking place in the 1960s and early 70s—the second wave feminist movement, the sexual revolution and the pro-abortion movement—that involved a myriad of individuals and organizations with various ideologies, goals, strategies, viewpoints, etc.

Sue Ellen Browder, in Subverted, however, states: “What happened behind closed doors between Larry Lader and Betty Friedan would misguide my thinking in such a way that it would change my whole life and the lives of millions of other Americans,” and, “That’s right, the 1960s’ women’s movement was hijacked largely due to the tireless efforts of one man [Lader], whose greatest passion was to make abortion legal.”

Betty Friedan was only one leader—albeit an influential one—among others in the second wave of feminism, and Lawrence Lader was only one player—albeit a very active one—among many players, in the campaign to repeal abortion laws in the U.S.

For instance, many women who became feminists in the U.S. in the second wave of feminism were influenced by the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir was pro-abortion and wrote about it at length in The Second Sex, published in 1949. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir agrees with the statement by Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, a follower of Freud, that “prohibition of abortion is an immoral law.” She claims that “nothing is more absurd than the arguments used against legislating abortion.” In some ways Beauvoir was more influential than Friedan in the second wave of feminism as her seminal text, The Second Sex, was much-read by women on campuses across America. This all happened independent of Larry Lader.

Some of the key women involved in the pro-abortion movement that had little or nothing to do with Larry Lader and Betty Friedan were:

  • Dorothy Kenyon—a feminist lawyer and judge who sat on the board of the ACLU and, as early as 1959, tried to get the ACLU to support legalization of abortion on the grounds that “women have a right to choose what shall happen to their bodies.”
  • Pat Maginnis—feminist and abortion rights advocate, who, beginning in 1959, was on the street corners of San Francisco handing out leaflets for her fledgling group, “Society for Humane Abortion.” (In Daniel K. Williams’ recently-published history of the pro-life movement, Defenders of the Unborn, The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe V. Wade (2016), he credits Maginnis as being “the first to link the idea of abortion rights to the emerging second-wave feminist consciousness…”)
  • Sarah Weddington—feminist and lawyer who represented Roe in v. Wade. Weddington said in a 2015 interview with Ms. magazine that at the time of her work on Roe, “we were so furious about the way women were treated.”
  • Shirley Chisholm—first African-American woman elected to Congress who became active in the movement to legalize abortion, who said, “No matter what men think, abortion is a fact of life. Women have always had them; they always have and they always will. Are they going to have good ones or bad ones? Will the good ones be reserved for the rich, while the poor women go to quacks?”
  • Constance Cook—a New York State assemblywoman who was co-author of the law that legalized abortion in New York three years before Roe v. Wade. (Cook later became an advocate for women’s ordination in the Episcopal church.)

Also, many women, such as Pat Maginnis and Sarah Weddington, became involved in the abortion repeal movement because of a personal experience with abortion. This, together with a misplaced sense of social justice (helping women) motivated them. These instances of personal experience forming personal conviction were outside the range of influence of Larry Lader.

Other prominent feminists involved in the pro-abortion movement include: Lucinda Cisler, Ruth Proskauer Smith, Ruth Cusack, Conni Bille Finnerty, Lana Clarke Phelan, Lee Gidding, Kathie Sarachild, Shulamith Firestone, Linda Coffee, Lonny Myers, Carol Gretizer, Abby Soven, Carol Downer, and many others, who were not under the influence off Larry Lader.

Lader himself admits, in his book Abortion II: The Making of a Revolution:

In the evolution of my thinking, perhaps the biggest step was to demand legalization as an inalienable right of women, protected by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. This position, strengthened by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Griswold decision, had never been advanced before (although Patricia Maginnis and Professor Garret Hardin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, came to this conclusion about the same time).

 Lader was a driving force in the radical wing of the pro-abortion movement, but he was one of many driving forces of the whole movement.

History is not a series of simplistic conspiracies as people like Browder would like us to believe—such conspiracy thinking is not necessary because the roots of social movements and revolutions in modern history are well-documented in both original texts and secondary accounts. We can read all about the evil around us if we take the time. In the case of the pro-abortion movement the eugenist and population control roots of the movement are well known—pro-abortion, feminist historians don’t try to cover up these roots in their articles and books on the movement as this essay is about to demonstrate.

The pro-abortion movement of the 1960s and early 70s leading up to Roe v. Wade was diverse, with different activists and different organizations working independently in different states. There were reformers and repealers and constant strategizing as to what was the clearest path to victory with disagreement over what victory was. Most serious feminist historians are honest about feminists coming late to the campaign to legalize abortion. They are honest about the large role of population control advocates in the early days of the movement. For example, Suzanne Staggenborg, in her history of the “pro-choice” movement says, “A number of individuals who became active in NARAL, were also active, previously or simultaneously, in population organizations like the Association for Voluntary Sterilization (AVS) and Zero Population Growth (ZPG)…While population groups like AVS contributed some activists, others, notably ZPG, became active participants in the repeal campaign.” Staggenborg makes the conclusion, “Thus, grass-roots constituents of the population movement played a critical role in the mobilization of the repeal movement.” Further, these activists included women, such as Lonny Myers and Ruth Proskauer Smith, despite what Brian Fisher would like us to believe—that “it was powerful, rich, white men who were behind the legalization of abortion, not women.” It might surprise pro-life feminists to know that some of the women heavily involved in the campaign to legalize abortion, such as Lonny Myers and Ruth P. Smith, came from eugenist and population control backgrounds, not feminist ones. And of course, some women in the movement were both feminists and population control advocates.

Further, abortion rights became central to both the radical and the liberal wings of second wave feminism. Friedan belonged to the liberal wing and did not control the surge in grassroots activism to repeal abortion laws in the radical feminist wing (although the two wings were in contact). To suggest that all feminists across the U.S.—liberal and radical—were represented by the scenario of Lader influencing Friedan—is a terribly flawed hypothesis.

In Christine Stansell’s history of feminism, The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present (2010), she describes the relationship between feminism and the pro-abortion movement as thus (emphasis is mine):

The campaign to legalize abortion did not begin as a feminist cause, as is often assumed. The movement to legalize abortion actually dates back to the 1950s. It included a range of viewpoints, from left-liberal to conservative—although it was liberals, eventually joined by feminists, who were the mainstays. Until 1967, men dominated the movement, and they continued to play a major part through the Roe victory and beyond….

 …Initially, physicians, psychiatrists, and family planning professionals sustained the campaign….

 …The idea of therapeutic abortion gained force in the early 1960s, winning support from physicians, nurses, liberal Protestants and Jews, lawyers, psychiatrists, social workers, and advocates of zero population growth. Bands of reformers formed across the country, pushing liberalizing measures in state legislatures…

 …Even before feminism took off, an argument emerged that women had a right to determine if and when they bore children. In 1963, the biologist Garret Hardin, leading spokesmen for zero population growth, proposed that abortion was a matter in which a woman, and a woman alone, should make the decision….After 1967, an awareness of the connection to feminism pushed public discussion beyond the exclusive emphasis on abortion as a public health measure to abortion as a necessity for women’s freedom…

 …Women’s liberation entered the abortion battle relatively late. At first radicals left the issue to NOW…

 …But in 1968-69, radical feminists jumped into the fight, accelerating the action and changing the terms of debate. While strong proponents like Garrett Hardin insisted unequivocally that the abortion decision was a woman’s to make, and a woman’s alone, they saw doctors’ and husbands’ consent provisions as politically necessary compromise. The male professionals who led the repeal movement had always framed it as altruistic, coming to the aid of needy women and their families. Radical feminists changed the tenor of popular action from a battle to rescue somebody else (the pregnant woman) to one led by women fighting for themselves.

Stansell cites the 1969 Redstockings (a radical feminist group) protest at a New York legislative hearing on abortion as a watershed moment: “The shift from she-who-was-described to she-who-speaks injected fresh evidence of the centrality of bodily integrity to women’s freedom.” What Stansell fails to note though, as she makes an effort to distinguish feminism’s idea of a woman’s right to choose versus the ideas of someone like Garrett Hardin or Larry Lader, is that the latter’s idea that a woman should have the right to legal abortion was tied to their population control ideology. The feminist’s idea of a woman’s right to an abortion was tied to feminist ideology.

Staggenborg also focuses on the impact of the radical, or younger wing of the 1960s women’s movement:

The women’s movement, however, consisted of more than older branch organizations like NOW. If NOW’s constituency was divided over the abortion issue in the late 1960s, that of the younger branch of the women’s movement was not. All over the country, local women’s liberation groups were highly concerned about abortion.

 Staggenborg quotes a woman involved in a Chicago-based women’s liberation group who said, “Even in the beginning, I feel, I have always felt, that one of the major issues was abortion, one of the reasons why women got together.” Staggenborg concludes that, “from the start abortion was of paramount concern to the constituents of the younger branch of the women’s movement.”

In Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court Ruling, by Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel, the editors write:

Women versus Connecticut, as the group came to be called, presented a new model of abortion activism. Abortion reform during the 1960s initially sought to protect women; Women versus Connecticut sought to empower them. Once the group decided to mount a challenge to Connecticut’s law, only women, and as many as possible, were to be the plaintiffs, lawyers, organizers, and experts.

An excerpt from the foreword of a pamphlet put out by Women versus Connecticut shows how the abortion issue came up with younger feminists, again, hardly under the influence of Larry Lader or any other man:

About fifteen women came together in February, 1970 because we wanted to do something about abortion. Most of us were also in Women’s Liberation; about half had had abortions; most of us had been contacted by women desperate to obtain abortions. As we talked, we began to discover that “the abortion issue” is inseparable from many other dimensions of our lives as women—we just think of it as separate because society has isolated it by making it a crime. In our meetings we began to understand that it was important for us to figure out how abortion connected to the rest of our lives and couch our action in those terms.

At the end of eight months of discussion of our experiences, and research we did on abortion and health care, we decided to try to reach all the women in Connecticut who wanted to work with us to abolish Connecticut’s law against abortion. We decided that bringing a lawsuit against Connecticut’s anti-abortion law was an important first step toward a decent health care system and women’s control over their bodies.

In Before Roe v. Wade, Greenhouse and Siegel describe the initial interaction of feminism with the abortion movement, beginning in 1969, thusly:

Feminist protest in the Washington Square speak-out and in the Strike for Equality, coupled with the Abramowicz litigation, helped disseminate the feminist argument for repeal, which converged with public health, social justice, and population control arguments for the decriminalization of abortion.

 Greenhouse and Siegel point to an interplay between a litigation effort (based on the idea of legalizing abortion “to ensure that women will have the right to control their own lives and bodies” as in the Abramowicz case) and feminist protests (from both the radical and liberal wings of the women’s movement) in bringing feminism and a women’s right to control her own body to the forefront of the abortion debate. This interplay of events was not orchestrated by Larry Lader and Betty Friedan, but involved many different men and women.

 What FFL et al. ignore is that feminists coming late to the movement in no way precludes the idea of a woman’s right to legal abortion being a perfect fit for feminism with its ideology of women having autonomy and control over their own person. Although the terminology was new, “reproductive rights” has a tradition in feminism going back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “enlightened motherhood” (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this essay).

 In Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s famous “The Solitude of Self” speech in 1892, which is said to be one of the best expressions of liberal feminist ideology, we find the germ of the idea of a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body (emphasis is mine):

The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear, is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life.The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives; in the religion she is asked to believe; equality in social life, where she is the chief factor; a place in the trades and professions, where she may earn her bread, is because of her birthright to self-sovereignty.

 Whether or not early feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony would be horrified by the position feminists now take on abortion we can never know. However, as the title of that favourite book of the modern Conservative movement in the U.S. states, “ideas have consequences.” One of the consequences of the feminist ideas unleashed by early feminists like Stanton, as expressed in her “The Solitude of Self” speech, is a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

The next part of this essay will be posted next week.

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