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Feminist pioneers valued rights of unborn children

by MARILYN DICKSTEIN KOPP
The Tampa Tribune, August 26, 1997

A hundred fifty years ago, the U.S. feminist movement formally organized in Seneca Falls, N.Y., to demand equal rights for women. While the "Declaration of Women's Sentiments" drafted at that historic gathering set forth many demands, the movement became cohesive and powerful by focusing attention on a single goal: securing the right to vote.

Women's Equality Day today commemorates the achievement of that goal - after a 75-year battle - with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting political enfranchisement to women.

A second wave of the women's movement, ignited 30 years ago by Betty Friedan's landmark book, "The Feminine Mystique," once again galvanized support by rallying behind another legislative mandate: legalized abortion. As we assess the impact that these two legislative campaigns have had on our ongoing fight for equal rights, some important distinctions bear noting.

Most mainstream feminist groups today consider abortion the cornerstone of women's rights. Indeed, modern accounts of the suffrage campaign often draw parallels between anti-suffragists, who thought it "unladylike" for women to have a voice, and contemporary anti-abortion advocates, who want to deny women their "reproductive freedom" and keep them in their place - shackled to babies and the kitchen sink.

Because modern feminism seems to be synonymous with abortion rights, few people are aware that the founders of the American feminist movement were staunchly opposed to abortion and scathingly condemned it as "child murder" (Susan B. Anthony), this "most degrading and disgusting crime" (Elizabeth Cady Stanton), "ante-natal murder" (Sarah Norton) and "the ultimate exploitation of women" (Alice Paul).

Why would such progressive champions of women's equality unanimously oppose such a fundamental "right"? For the same reason that many of the suffragists were also abolitionists: They believed that every individual, regardless of race or gender, was entitled to basic human rights and dignity and that those rights could not be given or taken away by others. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in 1873, "When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading for women to treat their children as property, to be disposed of as they see fit."

But the early feminists' pro-life views went well beyond the anti-abortion rhetoric of their day. They argued that in order to eliminate the "evil" of abortion, we must reach the root cause - society's oppression of women. Victoria Woodhull, free-love advocate and first woman presidential candidate, wrote in 1875, "Every woman knows that if she were free, she would never bear an unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth." The early feminists recognized abortion as a symptom of women's oppression, not a solution to it, and they looked forward to its elimination rather than its wholesale acceptance.

The drive for legal abortion in the 1960s came in response to legitimate social problems that were preventing women from reaching their fullest potential (and which were not drastically different from those a century ago): an unfair burden on women for nurturing children while men were given more opportunities for achievement outside the home, pay inequity, job discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence and a lack of legal and financial rights.

The right to vote was considered by many to be the "red herring of the revolution" because it did not bring about the desired results. Most women ended up voting as their husbands did and in low numbers at the polls (only recently surpassing men), and although some progress has been made in achieving equal representation, we still have a long way to go to reach parity.

But while suffrage didn't achieve all of the goals that its proponents expected, neither did it detract from them. Abortion, on the other hand, directly contradicts the feminist values that drove the movement's fight for equality. Emphasis on abortion has hindered progress in achieving real reforms that would advance our legitimate goals. Rather than liberating women, abortion liberated men from obligations to their partners and children. Child abuse and the feminization of poverty have escalated since the availability of abortion, and instead of achieving shared responsibility, women have had more of the burden of child rearing shifted to them. By giving in to abortion instead of working for social changes that would facilitate combining children and career, we have relieved society of its obligation to accommodate the real needs of women.

In sum, pro-choice women have abandoned core feminist values and adopted the worst patriarchal standards: seeking power through control, condoning violence on the grounds of personal privacy, and using killing to resolve conflict. By insisting on abortion as a necessary component to equality, we have capitulated to a traditional male world view that equates personhood to manhood, in which equality is purchased by denying woman's reproductive capacities. In effect, women must become wombless and unpregnant like men to fit in, and they must resort to violence to do so.

As the feminist movement continues into the next century, let us re-evaluate the causes around which we rally in order to reach our goal of a more inclusive society. As we honor the brave women who paved the way, let us heed their wisdom.

Rather than abortion, which has not brought us closer to our goal, let us support causes that reflect true feminist ideals of justice and nonviolence, causes that will actually bring women the respect they deserve. Then we can declare in full confidence, as Susan B. Anthony did in her last publicly spoken words, that "failure is impossible!" Marilyn Dickstein Kopp is president of Feminists for Life of Ohio.

Copyright 1997 The Tribune Co. Publishes The Tampa Tribune