The New Feminism at 50:
- Post by: Charmaine Crouse Yoest
- January 23, 2013
Fifty years ago Betty Friedan galvanized a movement by chronicling the angst of married women who felt trapped in middle-class suburban American motherhood and packaging it as The Feminine Mystique. Her genius was in conceptualizing that sense of ennui and alienation as “the problem without a name.”
The “problem” actually had a name as old as time. The problem is a universal one: it is the quest for identity, meaning, and purpose. And far from being the sole moral property of women, misery, alienation, and discontent with one’s role in life are a human condition shared by both men and women. The challenge came not entirely in her diagnosis; it was the prescription that followed that was deeply flawed. After sketching out her assessment of widespread female discontent, Friedan concluded, “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.’ ”1
And thus began the marginalization of the essential female role of motherhood. Feminist boosters would argue that this statement does not necessarily disparage mothering. Nevertheless, the ensuing “women’s rights” movement centered on establishing women as competitors in a professional workplace, with motherhood taking an incidental role. Motherhood increasingly became defined as the barrier to female achievement. Rather than a source of unique power, motherhood was the wellspring of oppression. Feminist philosopher Robin West, Professor of Law at Georgetown University, makes quite clear the direct philosophical line she sees between motherhood and stunted feminine growth:
. . . many women can and do individuate, speak the truth, develop integrity, pursue personal projects, embody freedom, and attain an atomistic liberal individuality. Just as obviously, most women don’t. Most women are indeed forced into motherhood and heterosexuality. . . . the primary reason for the stunted nature of women’s lives is male power.2
If motherhood was the barrier, then the solution needed to focus on reproduction. And in 1973, one short decade after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, the Supreme Court created a right to abortion in order to provide that solution. Abortion became the keystone of feminine power and a mobilizing credo of the new feminist movement. Gloria Steinem once explained the centrality of abortion by saying that the “human right of reproductive freedom . . . attacks the very foundation of patriarchy.”3
Abortion and False Empowerment
This is the central premise of today’s feminism: that abortion, in its guise as “reproductive freedom,” is the irreducible minimum of feminine empowerment. The leaders of the modern feminist movement—Gloria Steinem’s generation—firmly grounded their philosophical edifice on abortion on demand for any reason at any time during pregnancy.
A leader of the “Third Wave” of feminism, Rebecca Walker (the daughter of Alice Walker, who authored The Color Purple) wrote an essay in Harper’s addressed to younger women and outlining the feminist conception of reproductive-rights-as-power:
I hope that the speech I am going to give you will. . . encourage you to see that your abortion can be a rebellious and empowering act. It is an act through which you can assert yourself, one which can enable you to feel more connected to women around the world. It is a surgical operation with a mission.
My hope is that after your abortion, you will commit some part of your life to making sure that others are able to claim their own rights. By doing this, you will use your abortion to connect with women everywhere. You will connect your very special person with the very important political, and you will begin to know your own power.4
Most Americans do not understand that the rationale for abortion rights has subtly but significantly shifted over time. While feminists continue to trumpet “choice” and “privacy,” the real debate is over this very deliberately constructed conception of feminine power.
For decades, the postmodern feminist movement has pursued brilliant, disciplined messaging. They clothe their agenda in language about “equal rights” for women, and they consistently frame the abortion issue in terms of the appealing, unassailable, all-American rhetoric of “choice” and “privacy.” However, in the early ’90s, subtly and effectively, they began deploying a subtext, carefully marketing a new theme into the American collective subconscious. Unrecognized by most people living normal, everyday lives, the fulcrum for abortion rights has shifted to rest on a question of feminine empowerment.
President Barack Obama’s articulation of his support for “choice” during his first presidential campaign—as he was introducing himself to the American voter—provides a quintessentially smooth example of the formulation: “A woman’s ability to decide how many children to have and when, without interference from the government, is one of the most fundamental rights we possess. It is not just an issue of choice, but equality and opportunity for all women.”5
Development of the Reliance Interest
The key point however is that this worldview is deployed on multiple levels; there is far more to it than merely marketing. The messaging on women and power has moved in concert with the underlying legal strategy defending abortion rights, and the legal rationale for “reproductive freedom” has evolved significantly over time. In the 1992 decision Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Court asserted that we must tolerate abortion because of a “reliance interest”—women have come to rely on abortion to maintain their position and advancement in society. Justice Anthony Kennedy, often-noted as the Court’s all-important fifth vote in support of upholding Roe v. Wade, wrote for the majority in Casey that:
[F]or two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives . . .6
This notion that women must have access to abortion has come to permeate feminist thought. In fact, the legal arm of the feminist movement, the Center for Reproductive Rights, states this explicitly in their self-definition. “Reproductive rights, the foundation for women’s selfdetermination over their bodies and sexual lives,” the Center’s website explains, “are critical to women’s equality and to ensuring global progress toward just and democratic societies.”
In fact, the Center’s connection between “reproductive rights” and democracy illustrates just how foundational abortion has become to the feminist philosophical edifice. This connective tissue is also now woven into feminist jurisprudence. For example, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting from the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ban on partial-birth abortions in Gonzales v. Carhart, wrote that women cannot “enjoy equal citizenship stature” without abortion on demand.7 Abortion as an essential precursor to citizenship? The entire feminist ideological edifice now rests on the right to abortion in a way little recognized by the prolife movement, and even less acknowledged publicly by the feminist movement.
In his classic work of moral philosophy, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that our modern “language of morality” is “in grave disorder.”8 Similarly, the feminist embrace of an abortion empowerment philosophy is morally incoherent and has corrupted real efforts to empower women.
Toxic Choice: What a Feminist Looks Like
Sadly, the freedom feminists seek has proved elusive. Female objectification has worsened even while feminists have pursued professional respect—they have brought about the very thing they claim to oppose. The problem without a name has receded as opportunities for women have proliferated in the ensuing decades. But the cost has been high. In the place of an ephemeral sense of tedium, the conversation has turned to The Second Shift and trying to “have it all.” Along the way, we have lost a cultural narrative for femininity that works.
In their more candid moments, feminist leaders acknowledge the problem. Alison Jaggar, Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, writes that “. . . feminists should continue to struggle for women to receive a fair share of the pie, carcinogenic though it ultimately may be.”9 This seems like a stunningly low ambition, not to mention an unappetizing one.
And carcinogenic it is. Carcinogenic and crass. Instead of Valentine’s Day, feminists have given us “V-day” and The Vagina Monologues. Oddly, while feminists reached for position and power, they lost dignity and achieved commercialization. Sex has always sold. But today it does so with the full collusion of the female establishment. Indeed, the commodification of female sexuality has become mainstream big business. Take for example the business model of Planned Parenthood, the world’s largest abortion provider. Their marketing includes heavy outreach to teenagers and a website entitled “Take Care Down There,” which claims to have the “ins and outs of the ins and outs” for “mature teens.” The site features a menu of “informational” videos, all narrated by a creepy middle-aged man who pops up to give the teens in the video explicit instruction in how to use a condom, complete with a flipchart and crudely drawn illustrations. Other videos have titles like “Hot and Heavy” and “Threesome,” as well as one other which cannot be repeated in polite company. Crassly providing the business angle, a pop-up screen at the conclusion of a discussion of oral sex asks, “Need condoms?” and provides a location search to direct viewers to their local Planned Parenthood.
Meanwhile, the life experience—and relational expectations—of many women has changed dramatically. Women today are living alone at an alarming rate: one recent study revealed that one third of adults aged 45-63 today are unmarried.10 This represents a more than 50% increase since 1980, when just 20% of middle-aged Americans were unmarried.11 Perhaps most significantly, one out of every three was never married.12In ever-increasing numbers, women today are living alone, and even those who do eventually marry are marrying later.
Difference in Equality’s Clothes
The striking feature of these results is that they have occurred under the banner of “Equal Rights.” Gloria Steinem has said that a feminist is “anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” And the centerpiece of the political agenda of the modern feminist movement was the Equal Rights Amendment,13 which read simply that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. . . ”
It would be extremely difficult to find anyone who disagrees with these principles: first, that there is fundamental equality of men and women as human beings under God; and second, that this equality of men and women should be recognized by the law. A full discussion of the ERA as a political vehicle is beyond the scope of this essay. But the underlying question is pertinent: if striving for the noble goal of equality, a foundational American value, is the animating feature of feminism, where is the controversy?
While feminists claim to advocate equality, they are actually promoting something else entirely. They are advocating sameness. True equality means affirming the equal worth and importance to society of each sex, while acknowledging and celebrating the differences between men and women. Recognizing and valuing and accommodating differences within an overarching equality is far more complex and challenging than a simplistic insistence on a rigid notion that the sexes are essentially the same. We might call the professional feminists “difference deniers.”
Rather than a rich equality—by which I mean one that values an intrinsic difference that encompasses men and women as distinct and uniquely created—feminists have looked to the male experience as the model of what a human citizen should be, and sought to make women more like men.14 In particular, feminists have viewed the unique female reproductive capacity as an obstacle to be overcome on the road to “equality.”15 Insisting that men can (and should) be mothers and that mothers should behave professionally like fathers does not serve the interests of men or women.
Why has the pursuit of “equality” become a loss for women? Because equality viewed through a lens of sameness is a fiction. Such equality is simply difference in equality’s clothes. Young women today raised with a feminist ethos are taught to believe they can do anything that men can do. To the extent that this has opened new horizons for today’s women, and challenges young women to high achievement, this ethic can be a good thing. But feminism still struggles with confronting—and embracing—motherhood. Becoming a mother is inalterably a distinctly feminine experience, the challenges of which cannot be changed by a “gender-neutral” philosophy. At their most fundamental, gender differences in society are anchored in the fact that men can walk away from a pregnancy, and women cannot.16 This is the unspoken reality behind feminism’s unshakeable devotion to abortion rights: Abortion is the essential element in perpetuating the illusion of equality.
Conclusion: Are Women Human?
The alternative to pursuing strict legal equality, or “sameness,” is fighting for human rights for human beings. In our confrontation with the feminists’ ideology, the essential value of the feminine is at stake. Margaret Sanger herself tellingly described her sexual ethos as “the ethics of dust.” What is our alternative to “equality”? A century ago, Dorothy Sayers was asked to address the question of what it meant to be pro-woman, and her response was to ask a cheeky question: “Are women human?” You might think the answer is self-evidently affirmative. Of course women are human. But we have lost sight of that simple truth. In pursuit of power as women, the feminist movement capitulated to commodifying women’s sexuality—and surrendered our human dignity. It is a sad irony that a movement that was supposed to elevate women has devolved into vulgarity. Being a feminist in this century has required signing on to defining-down feminine virtue—and endorsing abortion as a sacred rite. Dorothy Sayers argued that we err in asking how women are faring relative to men, but rather we should ask how we all fare, men and women together in the human community. Without a deep reverence for our common humanity, the quest for power is chasing after the wind. In that vacuum, in the place of nothingness, we find a twisted veneration of abortion. They have rooted women’s power, not in creating life, but in its destruction.
Women can do better than feminism. Rather than being too ambitious, the feminist movement has been too small and was corrupted by its merger with the abortion-rights movement. A movement that truly empowers women will embrace the feminine, validate motherhood, and celebrate female achievement in all its forms.
Dr. Yoest is the President and CEO of Americans United for Life.
1 . Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963; repr., New York: Dell, 1984), 32.
2 . Robin West, “Jurisprudence and Gender,” in Feminist Legal Theory: Foundations, ed. D. Kelly Weisberg (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), 96.
3 . Gloria Steinem, “Revving Up for the Next Twenty-Five Years,” in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice: An Anthology on Racism, Sexism, Classism, Anti-Semitism, Heterosexism, and Ableism, ed. Maurianne Adams et al. (New York: Routledge, 2000), 256. Available at http:// academic.evergreen.edu/curricular/genderandmedia/assignments/steinem001.pdf.
4 . Rebecca Walker, “She’s Come for An Abortion. What Do You Say?” Harper’s Magazine, November, 1992, 51.
5 . See Nancy Keenan, “Why NARAL Pro-Choice America Endorsed Barack Obama,” Huffington Post, May 14, 2008, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nancy-keenan/why-naral-pro-choice-amer _b_101708.html.
6 . Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 856 (1992).
7 . Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124, 172 (2007) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
8 . Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 2.
9 . Alison M. Jaggar, “Sexual Difference and Sexual Equality,” in Theoretical Perspectives on Sexual Difference, ed. Deborah L. Rhode (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 253.
10 . I-Fen Lin and Susan L. Brown, “Unmarried Boomers Confront Old Age: A National Portrait,”
Center for Family and Demographic Research (2012), http://papers.ccpr.ucla.edu/papers/PWPBGSU-2012-028/PWP-BGSU-2012-028.pdf.
11 . Ibid.
12 . Ibid.
13 . The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. The Amendment would have needed 38 states to pass and was ratified by only 35. Legislators in Florida are currently trying to spur a movement to get the remaining three states needed to get the Amendment ratified. (See http://wlrn.org/post/why-two-lawmakers-are-still-trying-ratifyequal-rights-amendment-florida-40-years-later.) The legality of this effort is not entirely clear.
However, it is evidence that interest in the ERA is still active.
14 . See Erika Bachiochi, “Embodied Equality: Debunking Equal Protection Arguments for Abortion Rights,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 34, no. 3 (2011). (“In ignoring the biological reality that women’s bodies gestate human beings to whom we owe affirmative duties of care, prochoice feminists once again view the male, wombless body as paradigmatic.”)
15 . See Population Research Institute, “Undercover Reporter Infiltrates World Abortion Biz Conference,” LifeNews.com, October 29, 2012, http://www.lifenews.com/2012/10/29/undercover- reporter-infiltrates-world-abortion-biz-conference. (Quoting British abortion activist Ann
Furedi: “We cannot have equality if we are constantly victims of our own fertility.”)
16 . Bachiochi, “Embodied Equality,” 14.