Thursday, August 10, 2006

What's a feminist anyway?

On August 5th, a Feminists for Life board member purchased the house where Susan B. Anthony was born handing it over the organization to care for and manage it. Feminists for Life is particularly thrilled with this development because, as some may know, Susan B. Anthony (and for that matter, her compatriot Elizabeth Cady Stanton) was, uh, what we now call "pro-life."

Yes, that's right.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the leaders of the suffragest movement, arguably two of the most important figures in the birth of feminism were pro-life. And Feminists for Life have made the brilliant move to leverage that fact.

But was Susan B. Anthony really pro-life in the way that we define that politically burdened word today? I would argue that, no, she wasn't. And certainly not in the way that Feminists for Life use her position to bolster their cause.

Susan B. Anthony argued against abortion as an option for women in the mid-19th century when abortion was an often unsafe and sometimes deadly medical procedure for women - very true at that time and most certainly a reason to advocate against undergoing an abortion procedure. Ms. Anthony also argued that abortion was not an option for women in a society ruled by men because they did not have the same options available to them in general. Ms. Anthony obviously went on to demand that women's "options" including the right to vote were given to them. She believed that women chose abortion only when they were forced into it. Ultimately, she believed, "When a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is a sign that, by education or circumstances, she has been greatly wronged."

But would her position have changed if she were living today when abortion is one of the safest medical procedures available? When women do have many more opportunities to chose the lives they want to lead?

Now I don't believe that when a woman has an abortion that means she has been necessarily "wronged" by education or circumstances. However, as I wrote in my last post, we see that the number of women in the lower socio-economic strata who are getting abortions is increasing as the number of more affluent women accessing abortion is decreasing. This is a sign, I believe, that lower income women are not getting the access to tools, education and information to take full control over the reproductive lives.

Susan B. Anthony, however, was also a racist. At that time, she fought for a woman's right to vote, based on her belief that the "ignorant" black man or immigrant man was much more poorly suited to vote.

So, was she really a feminist? What is a feminist? Does it matter? Can we really look to these historical figures as symbols of our movement today? If not, how do we learn from them, make sense of their nuanced positions and move forward? Obviously, Susan B. Anthony may not be the best role model for feminism today without looking at the historical context within which she lived.

I can say without question that Feminists for Life does not work to ensure that ALL women have what they need to lead healthy lives. They focus on those laws and policies that primarily affect college-aged women who become pregnant. They lobby for health insurance for young women who are pregnant based solely on the fact that they are pregnant - not taking into account the millions who do not WANT to be pregnant and who need help before they are pregnant.

If they truly want to make sure that young women in college are given the tools to lead healthy and happy lives wouldn't they ensure access to accurate sexuality education? Wouldn't they advocate for access to contraception and contraceptive services for these women? And curiously, why is it primarily the women in college who deserve their attention? Well, one can hazard a guess. Apparently they believe that those women of college-age who do not attend college are not as deserving of these particular governmental policies.

I think we need to either reclaim the word "feminist" or phase it out. Cause I'm starting to feel like it means nothing anymore.

Feminist Peace Network