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BY Serrin Foster
On April 4, the Feminists for Life President celebrated her sixth year at the helm of the Washington, D.C.-based pro-life advocacy group. She argues that the early American Feminists were unanimous in their opposition to abortion, which they viewed as a tool of male oppression. True feminism, then and now, she says, would never force women to choose between a career and a child. She spoke with Register staff writer Brian McGuire about feminism and her work at Feminists for Life.
McGuire: How did Feminists for Life get off the ground?
Foster: Feminists for Life was started in the ‘70s by two women who were active with the feminist movement and were both very upset that abortion was becoming a part of it. It basically came out of the environmental rights, anti-nuclear, anti-war protests and civil disobedience that grew up beside the women's movement and was held together for the last 10 years before I came on board by a women named Rachel McNair. It wasn't as focused as it could have been. But they wrote some really good philosophical articles, especially by a woman named Frederica Mathewes Green. She doesn't identify herself as a feminist anymore, but during the time that she was at the Feminists for Life she wrote some great articles.
In 1994, Feminists for Life decided that they needed to become politically active — to do something rather than just exist. They were going to move to Washington and make a big difference. They brought me on in 1994 and said “We are going to quit and just join the National Organization of Women or we are going to do something different and become Feminists for Life.” We established a mission statement, identifying areas of interest and prioritizing goals.
What areas did you decide to focus on?
We have five areas of interests. One is a consistent life ethic. That is in and of itself enormous. The other area is women and children and family issues. Number three is violence against women, and the fourth is sexual exploitation of women and children. The fifth would be economic issues that effect women and children, like not having enough social security when your husband dies, that sort of thing.
Your literature suggests that a growing number of women who once favored abortion are beginning to give it a second look. What evidence do you have to support this claim?
There are a couple of things to indicate this. First, anecdotally, a lot of our members were coming from the pro-choice side. Feminists for Life was becoming the bridge path for former pro-choice women. A woman who has had an abortion is sometimes distanced from her church. For her to sit there and go right back into religion sometimes doesn't work. But she could sit there and think about whether or not abortion was right or wrong as a feminist. We had a call from one woman during the fight over partial-birth abortion.
We were out there with a pro-woman voice, saying this hurt women. One woman called and said “I am so glad I found you because all my life I have been a pro-choice feminist and when I heard about partial-birth abortion I just started wondering, at what second would this be a person worthy of life and rights like any other? Because I couldn't figure out any time when I could know for sure that this person didn't have rights, I decided I couldn't be pro-choice any more.” She didn't feel comfortable just joining any other group. She was so thrilled that there was a pro-woman group doing this.
There are also a number of women who come back to the pro-life movement through Feminists for Life who have had abortions; some publicly, some privately.
Thirdly, a study conducted last year by former Planned Parenthood President Faye Waddleton on the attitude of women indicated, to her dismay, that more and more women are rejecting abortion. The same thing is happening with college freshmen. More and more of them go into college pro-life. The problem is, they come out pro-choice. According to another poll, 47% of women are pro-life when they graduate from high school. But by the time a woman goes through two years of college the acceptance for abortion goes to 56%. By the time she graduates from a four-year institution it's 73%. Men — their attitudes don't really change with education.
Why do you think the numbers change so dramatically during the college years?
What happens is that women go into college and they find that they have no resources for themselves or their friends to have a child even though the whole campus is highly sexually charged. Between that and some very hostile women's study programs, you have a culture that is very much in support of abortion. So what we do is go in to schools and talk with students about feminist history — how, for 200 years it really has been pro-life history, starting with Mary Wollestonecraft and going through the early American feminists.
How did feminism go from being pro-child to pro-abortion?
The number one goal of feminism in the ‘70s was to have equal rights with men in the workplace. Initially, Larry Lader and Bernard Nathanson had been going around the country saying that they wanted to repeal outdated anti-abortion laws. I don't even know if they knew that the anti-abortion laws that were enacted in 48 states were the result of work by feminists. The male-dominated medical profession and the media got together in the 1800s to make these consumer protection laws for women, as well as for children, because women were being coerced into abortions. [Also], because they believed in the rights of all human beings, including the unborn, to-be-born. Women were very loud, especially in the 1800s about how abortion was wrong and that this was an evil crime. These two thought that anti-abortion laws should be revoked — Nathanson because he had seen botched abortions and Lader because [of a fear of overpopulation].
I remember my mom told me that there were these two kooks running around saying that women should be able to kill their unborn babies. Because they weren't getting anywhere and were seen as pariahs by the governors, they went back to the drawing board. They went to these women and told them, “If you want rights like a man, you have to pass like a man in the workplace.” They basically sacrificed their children to gain entrance the executive wash-room. When Betty Friedan started hearing that 100,000 women had died from illegal abortion she said, “Oh, then we'd better do it to have it safe.” That number was simply made up by Larry Lader and Bernard Nathanson after they met with resistance from Betty Friedan initially. I mean, we notice when 36 kids die of a car seat that was not installed properly. We would have noticed 100,000 dead people. But nobody questions this stuff.
What makes you a feminist?
I believe in the rights of women — that we can do anything. My philosophy is based on 200 years of feminism that supports the rights of all human beings. It's not the same as womanhood or a matriarchy. Feminism properly defined is about the rights of all human beings, and that genuine equality doesn't come at the expense of anybody else. It was originally about the expansion of rights of people and that included the rights of the unborn, to-be-born. The early feminists talked about abortion in the most scathing terms as a reflection of women's weakness.
Also, abortion violates the tenets of feminism, which are non-violence, nondiscrimination and justice for all. The National Organization for Women replaced a patriarchy, which the early feminists would have chosen to reject, with a matriarchy that said women were more important than men. It wasn't even that men and women were equal for the feminists of the early ‘70s. Women were more important, because if you have life-and-death decision-making over your child, and you don't have to include the father in that decision-making, then you have total control. This is the illusion. In reality we know that women have abortions out of desperation, not because women are in control, but because they are not in control.