What the First Wave of Feminism Can Teach the First Wave of Common Ground

Mary Krane Derr

Prolifers and prochoicers will differ on how much they can relate to early feminist views on abortion. Yet, both can lay claim to their analysis of the societal problems implicated in unintended pregnancy and abortion, and their solutions.

of the 1960s and 70s were hardly the first to address issues of
problematic pregnancy and abortion. Their nineteenth and early
twentieth century foremothers also took a strong, if–to many
today–unexpected stand. Since at least the late 1980s, prochoicers
and prolifers have disputed the precise content and meaning of early
feminists’ stance on abortion and pregnancy.

dispute most surely flared in 2006, when known prolifer Carol Crossed
purchased Susan B. Anthony’s birthplace in Adams, Massachusetts with
hopes of turning it into a museum. Some prochoicers objected that prolifers were deceiving and pushing their way
onto territory where they decidedly did not belong. Despite the
controversy, the museum is well on its way, with a broad range of

is, I think, as it should be. I conclude this from twenty years of
researching abortion as an early feminist concern.  While I cannot here
do justice to the abundant, many-voiced early feminist literature on
abortion, I can briefly outline a consensus shared by everyone from
anarchist, free-thinking “free lovers” to Women’s Christian Temperance
Union members. 

some who identify as feminists today, early feminists opposed abortion
out of a belief that life began at conception and acquired human rights
at that point. The context of this belief was something parallel to a
present-day consistent life ethic. 

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They did not oppose abortion simply in deference to its illegality. They
nonviolently challenged many quite legal practices, such as the denial
of women’s right to vote, marital rape, and legal bans on open
discussion and provision of family planning. Early feminists were deeply concerned about the danger to women’s lives from unsafe procedures. At the same time, they spoke about any abortion that killed a woman as a taking of two lives, not one.

prolifers and prochoicers will obviously differ in how much they can
relate to early feminist opposition to abortion. However, people on
both "sides" will likely resonate with the early feminist analysis of
the societal problems implicated in unintended pregnancy and abortion,
along with the solutions they offered.

feminists demanded, and even themselves created, greater social supports
for pregnant and parenting women and their children. Single mothers and
their children were ruthlessly denied food, clothing, shelter, and
health care on the grounds that this was aiding and abetting
“immorality.”  Many single mothers could not survive without going into
prostitution. Married mothers, too, struggled in isolation with such
difficulties as domestic violence and economic insecurity. If they
were middle or upper class, they faced enforced economic dependence; if
working class, toxin-riddled, unsafe jobs that failed to pay living
wages or allow for healthy child care practices. As happens today,
pious rhetoric about the sacredness of marriage, home, and family
frequently obscured these difficulties. 

Early feminists squarely held men responsible for any children they conceived, inside or outside marriage. They
called men to responsibility in an even more radical way, starting with
antislavery documentation of sexual and reproductive outrages white men
committed against African American women and children.  As Matilda
Joslyn Gage stated, no “subject lies deeper down into woman’s wrongs”
than “the denial of the right to herself.” 

Although this might seem very strange to today’s prochoicers, when
early feminists spoke of a woman’s right to her own body, for them this
did not include a right to abortion. A woman’s body-right
did encompass other practices they likely endorse–and that many
prolifers likely do, too. 

feminists agreed that at the very least, woman’s right to her own body
meant her right to choose whether, when, and with whom she wished to
have penis-vagina sex and thus face the possibility of conception. It
definitely included a right to thorough sexual/reproductive health

widespread contempt for “old maids” like Susan B. Anthony, early
feminists defended women’s right and ability to choose a generative
singlehood. Some extended woman’s body-right to contraception and even
to “Alphaism,” or sexual practices other than penis-vagina sex. Some,
like Drs. Emily Blackwell and Elizabeth Cushier, openly chose “Boston
marriages,” or committed same-sex domestic partnerships.

“herstory” holds two-at least two–big lessons for today’s common
ground movement. First, many prochoicers and prolifers alike can
validly claim these pioneering feminists as foremothers. Substantial
numbers in both “camps” share a consciousness of women’s and
already-born children’s rights arising from shared historical sources. 

if people from both “sides” share this consciousness, they can together
contemplate the early feminist analysis of causes and solutions for
unintended pregnancy and abortion. They can ask: How does this
analysis fit and no longer fit the present? To what particular
collective as well as individual responsibilities does it invite us? 

if a strong prochoice-prolife coalition demanded a toxin-free
environment, a better child support enforcement system, a living wage,
paid family leave, and universal health care, including prompt access
to quality prenatal care, and drug rehabilitation for those who need
it? What if we redesigned schools, workplaces, places of recreation,
and houses of worship to be truly family-friendly, to all kinds of families?

regard to abortion itself, today’s prolifers and prochoicers obviously
draw the parameters of a woman’s body-right differently.  For many
prolifers, pregnancy interconnects two equally valuable bodies and
lives. For many prochoicers, pregnancy is a matter of one body and life, the woman’s, and/or perhaps a fully realized life
nurturing a potential life inside of herself.  But why can’t both
“sides” at least cooperate on defending a woman’s body-right before conception?

sex education already enjoys a broad base of public support. It can
incorporate strong messages of male responsibility and nonviolence
towards women and children, as well as teaching young women the
assertiveness and self-respect vital to making positive decisions about
their bodies and lives.

And rooted as it is basic civil liberties of speech, association, religion, and privacy, freedom of conscience in pregnancy prevention
is another potentially large area of common ground. This includes the
right to personally choose, or not choose, from among the various
reversible or permanent contraceptiv
e methods, fertility awareness/natural family planning,
abstinence/celibacy, and sexual practices other than penis-vagina sex,
whether in the context of straight or gay relationships. 

I’m not one of them, but I hope people with religious or ethical
objections to any of these practices can agree that it is not
government’s place to decide how any of us do or do not exercise this
right—even if government is responsible for ensuring that everyone can
exercise it freely.

the same time, I would like skeptical prochoicers to consider that
prolifers may already be more supportive of woman’s body-right than
expected. I personally have advocated this right for years, and know other prolifers who have done the same. We are not isolated cases. According to a national public opinion survey by the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, eight in ten respondents who identified as prolife supported women’s access to contraception. In the Christian Science Monitor
, pollster Nate Silver recently noted the “ increasing number of pro-life, pro-gay marriage Americans, particularly among Generation Y’ers.”

prolifers and prochoicers both take up and work steadily on these
shared reproductive justice responsibilities, both at the collective
and individual levels: what will our descendants be talking about and doing in a century or two? What places will unintended pregnancy and abortion have and not have in their society? I for one would love to know!

News Politics

Rep. Steve King: What Have People Of Color Contributed to Civilization?

Ally Boguhn

King came under fire this month after local news station KCAU aired footage showing that the Iowa representative keeps a Confederate flag displayed on his desk.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) on Monday questioned what “contributions” people of color have made to civilization while appearing on an MSNBC panel during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

King’s comments came during a discussion on racial diversity within the Republican Party in which fellow panelist Charles P. Pierce said, “If you’re really optimistic, you can say this was the last time that old white people would command the Republican Party’s attention, its platform, its public face.”

“That [convention] hall is wired by loud, unhappy, dissatisfied white people,” Pierce added.

“This ‘old white people’ business though does get a little tired, Charlie,” King responded. “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

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“Than white people,” Hayes attempted to clarify.

“Than Western civilization itself,” King said. “It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”

Another panelist, reporter April Ryan, countered “What about Asia? What about Africa?” before the panel broke out into disarray. Hayes moved to cut off the group, telling them, “We’re not going to argue the history of civilization.”

“Let me note for the record that if you’re looking at the ledger of Western civilization, for every flourishing democracy you’ve got Hitler and Stalin as well,” Hayes said. “So there’s a lot on both sides.”

Hayes justified abruptly ending the conversation about King’s comments in a series of tweets, saying that he had been “pretty taken aback by” the comments.

“The entire notion of debating which race/civilization/ ‘sub group’ contributed most or is best is as odious as it is preposterous,” Hayes tweeted. “Which is why I said ‘we’re not debating this here.’ But I hear people who think I made the wrong call in the moment. Maybe I did.”

King came under fire this month after local news station KCAU aired footage showing that the Iowa representative keeps a Confederate flag displayed on his desk. King, speaking with Iowa talk radio host Jeff Angelo, defended keeping the flag in his office.

“This is a free country and there’s freedom of speech,” King said, according to Right Wing Watch. “And, by the way, I’d encourage people to go back and read the real history of the Civil War and find out what it was about. A small part of it was about slavery, but there was a big part of it that was about states’ rights, it was about people that defended their homeland and fought next to their neighbors and their family.”

As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump explained in a report on King’s comments, “there have been a great number of non-white contributions to human civilization.”

“Civilization first arose in cities in Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq and Syria. Arabic and Middle Eastern inventors and scientists brought astronomy to the world, which in turn aided innovations in navigation,” Bump wrote. “Critical innovations in mathematics and architecture originated in the same area. The Chinese contributed philosophical precepts and early monetary systems, among other things. The specific inventions that were created outside of the Western world are too many to list: the seismograph, the umbrella, gunpowder, stirrups, the compass.”

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!


If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.