The Face of the Movement

Amanda Marcotte

Anti-choicers, while detached from reality, aren't stupid, of course, and eventually they figured out how bad it looks to have a bunch of men at the front of misogynist organizations trying to put on a smiley face. Hence, the rise in prominence of women in the anti-choice movement.

About a decade or so ago, there was a popular pro-choice advertisement in circulation drawing attention to the fact that the vast majority of "pro-life" leaders were men. The more recent version is to show this picture of President Bush signing the Partial Birth Abortion Act while surrounded completely with fellow middle-aged men. It's a powerful statement from pro-choicers about the reality of the anti-choice movement, and how it's not only about controlling sexuality, but about the patriarchal grasp over women's autonomy.

Anti-choicers, while detached from reality, aren't stupid, of course, and eventually they figured out how bad it looks to have a bunch of men at the front of misogynist organizations trying to put on a smiley face. Which is why I suspect we're seeing more and more female faces as the representatives of anti-choice organizations. It goes hand-in-hand with the jaw-droppingly ridiculous attempts by anti-choice groups to argue that abortion and contraception are actually bad for women, and that these things need to be banned to protect women from the possibility of regret and the predatory male sexuality. Women like Leslee Unruh of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, Judie Brown of the American Life League, and all the female figureheads at Concerned Women for America (who only partially conceal the male leader of the organization) gain their prominence no doubt because it's a tactical advantage. Even some ladies want to give up their rights, so why can't you all just hand them over and quit fighting, the argument goes.

Still, having a bunch of post-menopausal ladies wag their finger at the young sluts these days doesn't provide that much of a tactical advantage. These women are by and large open to the same criticism that anti-choice men are, which is that it's really easy to be against a right you don't need for yourself. You can probably toss in a soupcon of accusations of jealousy if you're so inclined, as well. Which is why my eyebrows shot straight up when I saw that the leader of the organization trying to get an amendment to the Colorado constitution defining fertilized eggs as human beings is 20-year-old Kristi Burton. Now we have someone advocating forced birth who could actually be forced to give birth! That's a new wrinkle in anti-choice advocacy.

True, this isn't exactly new. Putting teenage girls front and center at anti-choice rallies has been a favorite strategy for a long time. One gets the impression that it's as much about giving the male leadership some eye candy as anything else, but it doesn't hurt to imply that you have an army of virgins prepared to sacrifice their own rights for the almighty patriarchy. Of course, "virgin" is the key word there. A lot of young women find that reproductive rights become more understandable when they themselves become sexually active. Still, giving very young women leadership roles seems to be a new twist, though the logical next step in trying to create the illusion of a softer, friendlier, less misogynist anti-choice movement.

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I just so happen to be reading a book by historian Mary Beth Norton called In The Devil's Snare, after reading about it in Susan Faludi's new book The Terror Dream. The book is about the famous Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692, and the ideas Norton puts forth are relevant to this modern day tactic of putting female faces onto patriarchal organizing. Norton points out that most feminist scholarship on the witchcraft crisis dwells on the highly gendered nature of the victims. Men were accused and executed for witchcraft, but most of the accused were women. What Norton finds interesting is how gendered the accusers were, as well, with most and probably all of the accusations of witchcraft coming from women, mostly young, unmarried women, to boot.

Norton points out that the accusers were the bottom of the totem pole in their communities and families. As young women, they existed to serve and not be heard, to attend to the needs of everyone but themselves and never to be attended to themselves. All that changed when the accusers began to act as if they were afflicted by witches. Between the drama of their sufferings and the fact that they were telling powerful men in the community what they wanted to hear–that the community was awash in evil brought in by uppity women and a few suspicious men–the girls went from being near nobodies in their community to the main attraction. Their households were rearranged to suit them. They were sitting in court wielding as much, if not more power over the proceedings than the magistrates. Power corrupts both old men and teenage girls, it turns out.

Three hundred and sixteen years have passed, but for some women living in more conservative communities and families, things haven't changed that much. For many women, a life of servitude is the expectation from birth on. Turning your back on the expectation of an adult identity built around being a wife or a mother to pursue an exciting career in the field of say, politics, is usually discouraged. But you can create an exception for yourself if you perform the modern day equivalent of accusing someone of being a witch, which is of course, telling conservative men what they want to hear about women's rights and sexual freedom.

Of course, the nice thing about being young and anti-choice but not in a leadership position is that you have some wiggle room to change your mind when you grow up and learn the ways of the world a little more. Now if Kristi Burton wises up and realizes she would like that right to control her fertility after all, she has to turn her back not just on previous beliefs, but a handsomely-paid career in activism, too.

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