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.

Feminists
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.

The
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
supporters. 

This
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. 

Like
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.

Today’s
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.

Early
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. 

Early
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
education.

Against
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.

This
“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. 

Second,
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? 

What
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?

In
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?

Comprehensive
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.

At
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.”

If
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!

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