A story today in the New York Times ponders the question of whether or not a woman can be both a feminist and a supporter of anti-choice public policies. It presents the issue as a question particularly relevant in our modern political climate, made even more pertinent by the upcoming Women’s March on Washington. The Women’s March platform is unapologetically pro-choice, a position the organizers reiterated after The Atlantic reported that New Wave Feminists, a Texas-based anti-choice group, was granted partnership status by the march. Though the organizers of the Women’s March quickly withdrew partnership status for the anti-choice group, citing it as an oversight, it seemed to have revived a relatively old debate about whether or not feminism has room for women who actively support eliminating or eroding abortion rights in the United States.
The Times piece masquerades as an ostensibly neutral entry into the debate, written in that familiar story frame where two sides with little-to-no philosophical middle-ground are presented as equally relevant, both with, in this case, just claims to the label “feminist.” The Times writes:
Across the country, women who oppose abortion — including one in six women who supported Hillary Clinton, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center — are demanding to be officially included in Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington. But those requests have been spurned, creating a bitter rift among women’s organizations, and raising thorny questions about what it means to be a feminist in 2017.
Neither feminist nor feminism are actually defined, treated instead as a kind of “know it when you see it” philosophy, or a catch-all for “any opinion expressed by a woman.” It’s a slipshod approach to frame a political ideology but one that, in fairness to the Times, is increasingly common in the era of lifestyle feminism. Ostensibly, this narrative goes, in order to be a feminist, one only has to be opposed to misogyny, or some kinds of misogyny, or at least the misogyny of a President-Elect who has publicly bragged about sexually assaulting women. Here, feminism is miraculously able to bracket out some of its overarching political goals, including the bodily autonomy of women from the state
Given this frame, the Times explores a narrative tension of its own creation, a back-and-forth between advocates of reproductive rights, and women like Charmaine Yoest, the former president of Americans United for Life and architect of the kinds of TRAP laws that were recently overturned by the Supreme Court. Yoest may oppose abortion, actively work to shut down clinics across America, and believe that IUDs are a form of abortion, but in a narrative free of definitions, she has an equal claim to the label of feminist. Not only does she have that claim, Yoest also has a certain grievance over the Women’s March aligning themselves with Planned Parenthood and NARAL. She told the Times:
“This is what we conservative women live with all the time, this idea that we somehow aren’t really women and we just reflect internalized misogyny [...] I don’t think they represent women. I think they are a wholly owned subsidiary of the abortion movement.”
If quotes like Yoest’s grate, it’s because this narrative structure about women and politics still endures, one which is used as a bludgeon by anti-choice advocates—these poor mothers and unheralded feminists victimized by abortion-loving mean girls. It’s a tired frame, one that treats women and feminism as synonyms, monolithic in both outlook and interest. It also reduces the abortion debate, fundamentally about the state’s right to physically coerce its citizens, as another bump on the path unity instead as two fundamentally incompatible political philosophies.
It would be more intellectually honest to recognize feminists, with all of their varying and conflicting applications rather than to speak strictly of “feminism” as a singular entity (to acknowledge that the conflict between intersectional feminism and liberal feminism isn’t just about women being unable to get along). But if feminism is just a word—just a lifestyle—then tension remains and everything is fair game.
If the Times attempts to tease out any definitions, then it’s the one offered by Maria Lyons, a Catholic law student and self-described feminist “who wants to correct racial wrongs in the criminal justice system.” Lyons is presented as a kind of contradiction, a woman who believes in racial justice but is anti-choice and anti-contraception (she won’t be attending the Women’s March because of their stance on abortion). When asked to define feminism, Lyons responded, “I would define it as the right to live out my womanhood.” It’s unclear who exactly is infringing on Lyons’s ability to “live out” her “womanhood” other than some ghostly pro-choice feminists who make her feel “isolated.”