“I don’t think the leaders of the mainstream current feminist movement would consider anyone who is pro-life to be a feminist,” Emily Reinwald ’16 told The Politic.
In Reinwald’s view, the Women’s March, the most visible expression of the current feminist movement, also excluded pro-life women.
“I don’t think most pro-life women felt comfortable attending,” she said.
The Women’s March was a global feminist protest on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Its broad agenda featured a call for “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people, regardless of income, location or education.” But this explicitly pro-choice language was contested by pro-life advocates who also opposed Trump.
In the days before the March, the organizers clarified in a statement that their “platform is pro-choice” and “has been since day one.”
“We look forward to marching on behalf of individuals who share this view,” the organizers stated.
In keeping with their platform, organizers retracted the partnership status for New Wave Feminists, an anti-abortion organization, two days before the March, calling the initial decision to allow their official partnership “a mistake.”
Linda Sarsour, one of the Women’s March organizers, said the platform is deliberately broad—including sections on disability, and workers and immigrant rights—and the March was open to everyone, even if they don’t agree with every part of its mission.
“We don’t believe a quarter million people will see themselves in every platform,” Sarsour said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We are not a pro-abortion march; we are a pro-women march.”
But more and more women who opposed abortion demanded to be officially included in the Women’s March on Washington. Their pushback raised questions about what exactly makes a “feminist.”
Can—and should—the fight for gender equality accommodate women who don’t support abortion?
According to Margaret Homans, Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale, reproductive justice is a core tenet of 21st-century feminism.
“If you identify as pro-life, I don’t think you can simultaneously identify as a feminist. Intersectional feminism is about finding the connections between different modes of oppression. Being pro-life is a political view, it’s not an oppressive force. So the pro-life stance does not have room in feminism and certainly not today’s wave of feminism,” she said in an interview with The Politic.
To Homans, the issue is not complicated: the Women’s March was right to exclude pro-life women.
But other pro-choice women point to the hypocrisy of a feminist movement that claims inclusivity but has no room for pro-life women.
Sriya Nuguri, a freshman at Babson College, made a conscious choice not to attend the Women’s March.
“I’m an Indian woman. I’m pro-choice. I’m able-bodied, I’m cisgender, I’m receiving a college education. The march was for me, but I don’t know if that is everyone’s experience,” Nuguri said. “Frankly, I don’t know if I have time for a movement that is going to claim to be for everyone and be blatantly hypocritical.”
Feminist scholars note that these issues have historical roots. According to Ziv Eisenberg, who teaches the seminar Reproductive Health, Gender, and Power in the United States at Yale, the movement’s opposition to divergent viewpoints stems from the legacy of the Second Wave Feminism of the 1970s.
“Second-wave feminists saw all women as an oppressed class, and considered themselves the avant-garde that would liberate women from the shackles of their false consciousness. For these activists, being a woman meant being a feminist and a supporter of women’s reproductive rights,” Eisenberg said in an interview with The Politic.
“From their stand, it was difficult to accept that some women did not agree with feminist ideology,” he continued. “This was feminists’ biggest mistake, and one we still live with. Even today, people who believe that it is a woman’s right to choose find it hard to understand how come a woman, any woman, would oppose the legality of a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.”
Tina Whittington, Executive Vice President of Students for Life for America, a national pro-life organization that supports anti-abortion students across the country, argues that a woman’s ability to reproduce is vital to her womanhood.
“I do not want to be equal to a man. I want to have equal rights to a man, but I have different biological abilities than him,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “My friend says, ‘A woman has three superpowers: the abilities to ovulate, gestate, and lactate,’ and I agree. I don’t want to suppress my ability to produce a child, or pretend that it isn’t central to my power as a woman.”
Changing gender norms and destigmatizing abortion, Whittington believes, would only devalue a woman’s reproductive abilities.
Even so, Whittington and other members of Students for Life decided to attend the Women’s March on Washington.
“I identify as a feminist, and I was excited to be part of what seemed like a historical movement,” she said.
The signs they carried at the March asserted that caring for all women’s well-being includes opposing abortions. Abortion, according to Students for Life, condones violence against women and fetuses, causes emotional and physical suffering, and devalues motherhood. They argued that that to oppose abortions is to both challenge and embrace feminism.
After facing derogatory comments and even violence, Whittington and her colleagues said they felt unwelcome at the March.
“People tore up our signs, tried to kick us. Some even spit on us and cursed us out,” Whittington said.
Her aversion to the March also stems from what she called “crude” representations of female reproductive organs.
“I have never seen so many pussies in my life. It was ridiculous to watch women who hated Trump’s vulgar comments about female body parts simultaneously fight that vulgarity with even more vulgarity,” she said. “I hated having my son next to me, seeing this many vaginas and pussies and boobs. I am more than my reproductive organs, and I did not understand why they were being overrepresented.”
Some pro-choice women like Vicki Beizer ‘18, Public Relations Coordinator for the Yale Women’s Center, also expressed qualms about the overwhelming representation of female reproductive organs, but for different reasons.
“Yeah, some women get power from reclaiming these organs, but it is important to realize that not every woman has those parts,” Beizer said in an interview with The Politic. “Womanhood is not about having those parts, and while we can enjoy ‘pussy’ hats all we want, there’s more to the equation that we have to consider.”
Other pro-choice women commented that the March was lacking in certain ways, but still called it an overwhelming success.
“Even while I recognized that trans women could have been excluded and the march could have been even more inclusive, we have made such strides with inclusivity,” said Homans. “This is the most inclusive march I have ever attended, and quite possibly the most inclusive march of all time. I wanted its success so badly, so I hesitate to dismiss the entire march on account of a few problematic features.”
To other staunch supporters of the March, recognizing the movement’s ideological bent is crucial to understanding the values of those who marched.
“I believe that it is more important to understand the millions of people who marched in Washington, as well as other cities across the country, as an ideological group with a partisan bent,” Eisenberg said. “The initial drive for these demonstrations may have come from individual women and ended up under the label ‘Women’s March,’ but ultimately, we are talking about people who voted in the last election for Democrats. These marches were a direct response to the election of Donald Trump, whose behavior the marchers abhor.”
Others believe the disconnect between pro-life and pro-choice feminism centers around the issue of when life begins.
“I’m pretty sure we can all agree that killing a child is wrong. We just don’t agree on when the life of a child begins,” said Reinwald. “Pro-choice people don’t think they are advocating for killing children, since they believe that an unborn child in the early stages of development isn’t yet a child. Obviously, I disagree with that and believe life begins at conception.”
As long as the conflict between pro-life and pro-choice women boils down to one seemingly simple question—when does life begin?—no answer can sufficiently encompass both views. And as the Women’s March demonstrated, modern, mainstream feminism remains divided along the fault lines of abortion.