Skip to main content

My mom sits in her green recliner, paging through one of her old journals. As she flips the pages, something catches her eye. “February 19, 1970,” she reads aloud. “Thursday: Up early to see about job delivering phone books. Waited in line about one and a half hours, but finally got the job.”

When my mom wrote that journal entry, she was in her early twenties. The salutatorian of her Catholic high school, she had just graduated from college with a B.A. in philosophy. Later, she would earn a masters in adult education, graduate from medical school, and become a geriatrician. In the meantime, however, as she applied to and was turned down from more prestigious professional positions, my mom worked a string of part-time jobs as a nursery school teacher, temporary home care aide, receptionist, telephone operator, and waitress.

To be fair, a degree in philosophy isn’t the most marketable credential, and my mother’s university offered little career guidance to women. But there was also a larger issue at play: sex discrimination. At the telephone company where she worked, for example, women were allowed to be operators but not to occupy management positions. My mom and her own mother—a widow—were turned away by landlords who refused to rent an apartment to two single women. After my grandmother suggested that my mom invest in health insurance, my mother questioned the salesman about the coverage and was appalled to find that pregnancy and childbirth costs were covered only for married women. My mom didn’t anticipate becoming pregnant, but she refused to buy a policy that failed to provide care to the women and children who needed it the most.

Because feminism now seems to be the default worldview rather than a revolutionary one, it’s easy for women of my generation to forget the barriers faced by previous generations, and the hard-fought victories they won. Pro-life women, in particular, sometimes view the feminist movement with caution, even suspicion. Many hesitate to embrace the label, associating it not only with abortion but also animus toward men, marriage, and family. We’re not quite sure how to feel about women like the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who smashed through glass ceiling after glass ceiling and paved the way for countless other women to do the same, but who also perpetuated a system built upon the killing of millions of unborn children. Should we admire pro-choice feminists like Ginsburg? Should we form political alliances with them on the issues where we agree? Or should we throw out the whole feminist project and start from scratch?

To answer these questions, we should start by remembering why we needed feminism in the first place. We should be grateful for the rights that the women’s movement has gained for us, even as we reject some deeply flawed and harmful beliefs that have come to dominate it. If we look back, before the National Organization for Women embraced abortion in 1967 and Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in all fifty states in 1973, we will find that the historical and philosophical roots of the feminist cause are not only pro-woman, but pro-motherhood as well.

Sex discrimination in the workplace

By the time my mom was delivering phone books in 1970, the women’s movement had already started scoring significant victories in the workplace. Seven years earlier, Congress had passed the Equal Pay Act, which aimed to eliminate disparities between men and women’s wages. The following year, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order underscoring that government entities could not discriminate against women in their hiring practices.

In spite of these legal victories, however, women still had to fight hard to be treated equally. On March 16, 1970, several dozen female employees at Newsweek magazine filed a lawsuit against the magazine, challenging (and eventually overturning) their policy of only allowing men to be full-time reporters. As one of those women, Lynn Povich, points out in her book The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, on the day that the suit was filed, the magazine’s cover story was “Women in Revolt,” an article about the feminist movement. Because the magazine had no female reporters on staff, it was written by a woman hired on a freelance basis. Apparently self-awareness was not the editors’ strong suit.

Today, it’s rare to find that level of overt discrimination against women in the workplace. Still, the #MeToo scandals reveal that a culture of sexual harassment and the abuse of power still exist in many industries. The wage gap between men and women still exists, too. If you probe a little deeper, the numbers reveal that this gap is not so much a gap between women and men but a gap between women with children and everyone else. Many workplaces still function on the expectation that all employees will conform to the ideal worker model, in which personal and family commitments are secondary to one’s professional obligations. The inconvenient biological realities of pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and childrearing don’t fit well into this scheme.

After fifty years of feminist advances, why hasn’t our culture embraced more options that allow women to integrate motherhood and work? Why are childbearing and caregiving seen as a woman’s inconvenient choice and responsibility rather than an essential and valuable aspect of both our private and communal lives? Why have women ventured out of an exclusively female domestic sphere only to accept the fundamentally male models of success that still dominate the professional world?

Is feminism at fault?

Some women, particularly those who are more traditionally minded, think that it is actually the ascendency of feminism that has caused many of the problems contemporary women face. At Crisis magazine, for example, Jennifer Bryson has shared her “Advice to a Young Woman: Secrets That Feminists Don’t Want You to Know.” In Bryson’s view, feminism has hurt women by encouraging them to put their careers above all else, even if it means suppressing their fertility and denying their femininity, trying to become like men in order to compete in the workplace.

There’s certainly validity to this critique. Yet I would argue that the problems critics like Bryson point to don’t stem from feminism itself, but from what author Sue Ellen Browder has called the “unholy marriage” between the women’s movement and the sexual revolution. In her book Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement, Browder compellingly weaves together her own story with a carefully researched behind-the-scenes history of how contraception and abortion were smuggled into the feminist agenda.

Today, the sexual revolution and feminism have become so intertwined that we tend to think of them as one and the same. But when I asked Browder to explain the differences between the two, she told me,

When I was working on staff in the articles department of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1971, it was quite clear to me—and to anyone who was there at the time—that the sexual revolution and the women’s movement were two radically different movements. Although Cosmo’s editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown would have loved for her sex-revolution magazine to be part of the feminist movement, Betty Friedan (who had launched second-wave feminism in 1963 with her book The Feminine Mystique) called Cosmo “quite obscene and quite horrible.”

The women’s movement, as Friedan defined it, was fighting for equity for women. . . . The sexual revolution, as Helen Gurley Brown defined it, was for “anything goes” sex—using sex (especially at the office) for one’s own personal pleasure and to acquire power.

Unfortunately, this philosophy of sex—a tool for pleasure and power, severed from love, commitment, and children—eventually infiltrated the women’s movement, cementing the centrality of abortion and contraception. In many ways, this development has undermined the quest for women’s equality. As Browder puts it, “The very thing women in the #MeToo Movement are justifiably complaining about and protesting in the twenty-first century (that men use power at work to obtain sex) is exactly the same behavior we promoted and urged women to embrace at Cosmo in the 1970s and 1980s!”

How abortion fractured the feminist movement

In the early 1960s, many—perhaps most—of the women involved in the fledgling women’s movement would have joined Betty Friedan in detesting the “immature teenage level sexual fantasy” glorified by Cosmo and its ilk. Many also recoiled from the idea that abortion was necessary to achieve women’s equality. In fact, Friedan did not initially want the organization she co-founded, the National Organization for Women (NOW), to support legalizing abortion.

In Subverted, Browder tells the dramatic story of how Larry Lader—biographer of Margaret Sanger and passionate pro-abortion activist—used fabricated statistics, inaccurate biology, and revisionist history to convince Betty Friedan and countless others that women must embrace abortion in order to be free. Inspired by Lader’s propaganda, at the 1967 NOW convention Friedan rammed through a resolution to include “reproductive freedom” in the organization’s “Bill of Rights,” which set their policy agenda for decades to come. After being voted down multiple times and debated late into the night, the resolution was finally adopted. As Browder told me,

Of the 100 or so people present at that meeting, only 57 people—a mere 57 people!—voted to insert the so-called “abortion right” into NOW’s political platform. That was the unseen moment in history when the sexual revolution and the feminist movement joined forces in the eyes of the media and the world. Approximately one-third of the women in that meeting angrily walked out and later resigned from NOW over the abortion vote.

From this moment on, Browder writes in Subverted, “the women’s movement was sharply scissored into two irreconcilable factions: women for legal abortion on demand, and women who opposed it.” That night, “NOW simultaneously became both the national organization for women and the national organization against motherhood, a living contradiction.”

Feminists for life

Before long, the women who walked away that night, and others like them, began to get organized, forming various groups that would fight for the rights of both women and their unborn children. One group that is remarkable for its longevity is Feminists for Life (FFL).

As FFL president Serrin Foster told me, “Feminists for Life was co-founded a year before Roe v. Wade by Cathy Callahan and Pat Goltz when they saw abortion advocates hijacking the women’s movement.” Like Browder, Foster and her colleagues see the embrace of abortion as a distortion of feminism, not its fulfilment. Drawing on primary sources from the early suffragists, Feminists for Life convincingly makes the case that, from its earliest days, the fight for women’s rights was made up of women who opposed the injustice of abortion as well as the subjugation of women. According to the “Feminist Foremothers” section of their website,

After Alice Paul, the author of the original Equal Rights Amendment, told FFL co-founder Pat Goltz that the early American feminists were pro-life, FFL historians were the first to research and reveal the truth to the feminist and pro-life movements: Without known exception, our feminist foremothers opposed abortion, and—like Susan B. Anthony—sought to address the root causes that drive women to abortion.

Our feminist foremothers’ conviction, bravery, and—sometimes—sheer bravado made it possible for women to vote, own property, and serve as legal guardians of their own children.

Long before Roe v. Wade, women like Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony were advocating for the equality of the sexes and working to address the root causes that drive women to seek abortion.

Fighting on men’s terms

By embracing abortion, second-wave feminists did not help to create a society in which women’s voices are heard and the rhythms and seasons of a woman’s life—including pregnancy and childrearing—are seen as natural and valuable. Instead of elevating the distinctiveness of womanhood, they fought for power on men’s terms.

In other words, perhaps the problem isn’t that second and third wave feminists went too far. It’s that they didn’t go far enough. They settled for the idea that it was women’s responsibility to turn their bodies into lab experiments and kill the children within their wombs, rather than society’s responsibility to recognize human beings’ fundamental dependence upon each other and support and protect the vulnerable. As Foster puts it,

Abortion advocates told women in the 1970s that “it’s our body; it’s our choice.” But we soon learned what they meant was that having children is “our problem.” The lack of accommodation in schools, in workplaces, in society—and from some unwilling fathers—is telling. The responsibility of having children shifted more to women after Roe.

The consequences go far beyond abortion. To take just one example, many clinical trials to test prescription drugs exclude not only pregnant and breastfeeding women but also any women who are not suppressing ovulation by taking hormonal contraception. In other words, we have no data about how these drugs will function in a normal, healthy woman’s body, in which hormone levels fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle. That also means that dosages are established based on data collected primarily from men, who have higher average bodyweight than women. As a result, women are being “widely overmedicated” and suffering from significant adverse side effects.

Rethinking feminism

As I’ve argued at Newsweek, it’s time to reject the myth of radical autonomy that abortion props up and instead embrace a feminism that recognizes and celebrates the reality of interdependence. This kind of feminism makes room for babies, mothers, and families. It acknowledges the importance of our bodies not as a locus of power and control but as an integral part of who we are and how we experience the world around us. It’s based on a truer vision of what it means to be not only a woman but a human being. And it upholds the legacy of the very first feminists.

Newer organizations like New Wave Feminists and thinkers like Erika Bachiochi and Leah Libresco, among many others, are already articulating their own visions of pro-life feminism in the public square. As more and more women become disillusioned with the consequences of the sexual revolution, it’s important that we offer them a real alternative. This will require fleshing out both the philosophical foundations and the practical policy prescriptions that would support a truly pro-woman and pro-life society.

In the meantime, it is both possible and fruitful to find common ground with pro-choice feminists on issues ranging from combating sexual violence to providing mothers with the practical support that they need to raise their children. According to Foster,

Abortion is the big divide, but we work with people on both sides of the aisle and abortion divide. That is how we move forward incrementally to address the unmet needs of women. We believe in the strength and dignity of women, and the good heart of so many to help others in need. Behind the scenes, that is what I have found on both sides. They may come at a problem with different solutions, but when we go back to that place where we hear people in need, and if we really listen to them, we can make a crucial difference.

Whether one identifies with the term feminist or not, all women can benefit from and be grateful for the gains the feminist movement has made for women in the last century. Our task now is to build a culture that will champion and support the dignity of both women and their children, born and unborn.