Pro-Life Feminist: Not a Contradiction in TermsINSIGHT MAGAZINE
I would get angry looking at bumper stickers on people's cars! I would get angry at the way the whole debate was being twisted in the media so that if you were antiabortion you were anti-woman.
Feminists for Life of America was founded in 1972 by women who resisted approval of abortion by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other feminist groups. These rebel feminists believed that women could support feminist goals such as greater employment opportunities without embracing abortion on demand.
Instead, NOW kicked them out.
Reorganized in the mid-1990s, Feminists for Life now has 5,000 members nationwide. Serrin Foster, the group's friendly and outspoken president, likes to compare the impact it delivers despite its small size to that of a SWAT team.
Foster points out that great early American feminists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were deeply anti-abortion, which makes American feminism's relationship with prolife convictions a very long one indeed.
Foster speaks regularly at college campuses across the country. She's spoken at Harvard and Stanford universities, where her audiences have been largely hostile. She's also talked at Cambridge and Oxford universities.
Almost everywhere, though, people are willing to hear her message about why women should try to preserve life. She speaks compassionately on college campuses, focusing on where pregnant women can go to get help and support to keep their children at a time when a lack of funds and a fear of dropping out of school might seem to point to abortion as the only solution.
The following is an interview with her:
Question: How did you happen to join up with Feminists for Life?
Serrin Foster: In 1994, when I was director of development for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, I came across an ad looking for somebody who was prowoman and pro-life. Since the 1970s, when I was in college, young women had been told over and over again that we couldn't be both, that we must choose between women and children.
When I saw that advertisement, my first and immediate reaction was that I had to do this. I took an enormous pay cut because I knew this was where my heart is. I knew this organization was right for me. So on 4/4/94, I moved to Feminists for Life.
Question: What do you mean you knew the group was right for you?
SF: When I was in college, the Equal Rights Amendment [ERA] suddenly was very big. I was so excited: I had been raised with the idea that women could be only certain things: a secretary, a teacher, a nurse, a waitress, a stewardess. Or you could go straight to momhood. But the ERA said you could do anything! It was revolutionary, and it was very appealing!
As everyone was talking about the ERA, the word "abortion" began to appear in the discussions. I was sitting there listening to all the rhetoric about feminism how it was supposed to be based on nondiscrimination, nonviolence and justice for all. But I thought abortion violates each of these basic feminist tenets: It's violent, it's discriminatory and it certainly isn't justice for the unborn child.
More important, I had heard of so many girlfriends having abortions now that it was legal, and I knew how painful it was for them. The revolution was hurting women, and abortion in particular was hurting women. Women started saying, "I can do everything," and men said: "Okay, it's your body, it's your choice. It's your problem."
Oh, there were good things that were coming out of the rise of feminism: the opportunity for women to work in different and nontraditional jobs, for example. But I felt very alone in my pro-life and pro-woman convictions. I knew I was a pro-life feminist, but I absolutely refused to choose between women and children.
Question: You must have felt alone.
SF: I would get angry looking at bumper stickers on people's cars! I would get angry at the way the whole debate was being twisted in the media so that if you were anti-abortion you were anti-woman. I knew that was absolutely not true. I got especially mad watching members of Congress getting bullied by women who were saying, "Oh you don't understand what it's like to be pregnant. You don't understand what it means to be a woman."
And I kept thinking, "We're feminists; we're supposed to be problem-solvers; we're supposed to figure out solutions in which women don't have to be drawn into violence." And nobody was talking about how devastating abortion is to women.
Question: What has Feminists for Life been focusing on under your leadership?
SF: We realized that the women in Feminists for Life are well-educated, and we recognized that we had access to college women, who are at the highest risk for abortion in this society.
A 1997 Gallup poll underlined the importance of reaching college-age women. It showed that the influence higher education had on opinions and attitudes about abortion was extraordinary and revolutionary. When men go to college they don't change their opinion about abortion, although overall they are more for abortion than women. But women, when they graduate from high school, are more against abortion than they are for it. By the time they are graduated from a four-year institution, however, three out of four women support abortion.
It breaks down like this: When they enter college, 37 percent support abortion and 56 percent oppose it. Four years later, 73 percent support abortion. It's that much of an increase.
Question: So college campuses are the logical place for Feminists for Life to focus its attention. What do you say when you make one of your speeches to students?
SF: One of the things you want to convey to women is that pregnancy is not the end of life but the beginning.
A woman gets pregnant while in college and breaks up with her boyfriend. She knows that she doesn't believe in abortion, so she asks herself, "How can I keep this child?" She looks around her college and sees that it's putting up lots of buildings, but none are housing for pregnant women. She looks into day care and sees it costs $6,000 a year too much for her to pay and stay in school. She reads the health-insurance policy provided by student health care and finds there is no maternity coverage.
So we have started working with colleges to seek a supportive environment for pregnant women who do not want an abortion. We say, "Let's talk about the options she has: marriage, single-parenthood, adoption. And let's think about the resources that are available on campus and off campus, too, that would help her and reinforce her choice against abortion."
Question: Have you had some success along these lines?
SF: We started a pilot program at Georgetown University, doing the education and philosophy side of being pro-woman and pro-life, but also looking at the resources available to pregnant women. It was astounding to me. Within only two years they had a day-care center called Hoyas for Kids. The university got someone who had been working part time on violence against women to work full time on that plus pregnancy counseling.
They also have a beeper service and, if a woman is having a crisis in the middle of the night or on a weekend because she has discovered she is pregnant, she can locate somebody to talk to immediately. Georgetown set aside four of its town houses, endowed properties, for pregnant and parenting students.
There was another big change on campus. There now are many kids having kids while they're still in high school, and when they go to college they're hiding their children from their peers. But students on campus have now started saying, "I'm a mom."
Question: You've spoken before students at Harvard and Stanford and other places where radical feminism is rampant. It must be be quite an experience.
SF: At Swarthmore College I walked into one of those big lounges with chairs set up as for a lecture. There were four pro-life students on that campus who had organized the meeting and brought me in to address it. I walked into that room and was met by many very angry faces, as though I were there to ruin their lives.
They must have seen me as if I were a member ofthe KKK [Ku Klux Klan] walking into an NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] meeting. But, except for one person, they all stayed to hear me out. Afterward students came up and said they agreed with about 98 percent of what I had said. But the front page of the student paper the next day blared: "First Pro-Life Speaker in Five Years." Such a situation, especially where life-and-death decisions are being made, is shameful.
Question: Do you think most women will opt to keep their child if they see they can handle the situation and not drop out of school?
SF: Once she is pregnant, we need to address her needs. I still don't know any woman who wants an abortion. There may be women who didn't want to get pregnant in the first place, but who would wish an abortion on even their worst enemy? When a woman knows she's pregnant, she's forever changed; she's forever connected with this kid. An abortion will never undo that child's impact on her life any more than a miscarriage would.
For more information on Feminists for Life, visit http://www.feministsforlife.org.
"Pro-Life Feminist: Not a Contradiction in Terms." Insight Magazine (October 1, 2001).
This article reprinted with permission from Insight Magazine.
© 2003 Insight Magazine
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.