Where Do Pro-Life Feminists Belong?

By Ellen Duffer | June 27, 2017

(Jim Watons/AFP/Getty)

As the Democratic Party scrambles to redefine itself in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss, a woman’s right to abortion has emerged as a central issue. Though both parties once counted pro-life politicians in their ranks, the Democratic Party has more recently enshrined a pro-choice platform. That stance is in contention, however, as the party considers its demographics and its get-out-the-vote strategies for upcoming elections. By now, it’s widely known that white Christians, including Catholics in once reliably Democratic Rust-Belt states, contributed considerably to Donald Trump’s victory. The party, with newly elected chair Tom Perez at its helm, is now working out how, or if, it should win those voters back.

“To Win Again, Democrats Must Stop Being the Abortion Party,” read a much-discussed New York Times op-ed written by a Catholic theology professor. Christians, especially Catholics and evangelicals, are largely characterized as pro-life, single-issue voters; as Democrats look to widen their electoral advantage, it appears they’re looking to court these voters too. Perez and Bernie Sanders stumped for an anti-abortion Democratic mayoral candidate, to the outrage of many on the left—women’s groups in particular. Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, in response, invoked her Italian Catholic roots in an interview with The Washington Post: “Most of those people—my family, extended family—are not pro-choice,” she said. “You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?”

Meanwhile, women are leading the opposition to the Trump Administration, and the Women’s March—which championed abortion rights—galvanized millions, becoming the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. Can Democrats continue to harness this energy while simultaneously reaching out to pro-life voters? It’s an interesting conundrum, trying to salvage the votes of pro-life constituents who may agree with a lot of the DNC platform while keeping the right to choice safe for those who feel that bodily autonomy should be central to it.

This tension is mirrored directly in the feminist movement itself. Feminism has long been synonymous with abortion rights. But what about pro-life women who identify as feminists? Should these women, many of them Christian, be allowed to use the label? And are they welcome in the Democratic Party?

A Texas-based group of pro-lifers finds its members’ feminist identities central to its mission. The organization, New Wave Feminists, faced backlash and was removed from a list of Women’s March partners soon after The Atlantic reported on its freshly acquired partner status. The group, which is proud to include members from a variety of faith backgrounds and considers itself secular, is “trying to shut down the stereotype of what it even really means to be pro-life,” said its vice president, Cessilye Smith. “There is an overarching stereotype that ‘pro-life’ means you’re just pro-birth. We are pro-baby, we are pro-woman—which means all women,” said Smith, who is a doula. New Wave Feminists is developing an app, HelpAssistHer, to provide resources for women in need—as long as those resources do not lead women to an abortion facility. Smith, who identifies as a non-denominational Christian, is also emblematic of a population of self-identifying feminists who are motivated by their faith to help women within the church and outside it.

Take, for example, Claire Swinarski, founder of the podcast The Catholic Feminist. Raised by a mother who intentionally incorporated feminist history into her child-rearing, she’s identified as a feminist for her whole life. “My mom took me to Seneca Falls to go see where the women’s rights convention was held,” she said. “I agree with a lot of things that most feminists would agree with, like equal pay, like paid maternity leave, ending the poverty cycle.” The difference between her feminism and that of feminists portrayed in national media is her pro-life stance, which she recognizes sets her apart from many others.

But even here, her view is more supportive than the Catholic church at large, and she’s frustrated by the treatment women with unplanned pregnancies receive within the community: “Blaming a woman for getting pregnant,” she said, “is 100 percent the wrong way to handle that situation.”

Christian feminists critiquing church communities are, of course, not new, but while the population of feminists at large is increasing, religious feminists are evolving too. In the 1950s and 1960s, evangelicals began to question the strict definition of biblical inerrancy, according to Pamela Cochran, a professor of theology at Loyola University in Maryland and author of Evangelical Feminism: A History. The change led to questions about biblical interpretation, which, when paired with the larger societal rethinking of homosexuality and gay rights, ultimately “caused that shift in thinking which bled over into people’s recognition of women’s rights,” Cochran says.

Now, according to the 2014 Women in Leadership National Study— which Cochran advised—nearly 94 percent of Christian men and women surveyed believe that “men and women should serve equally in leadership positions in society.” The statistic is tempered by respondents’ answers to follow-up questions: While 84 percent of women believed in equality within the church and 79 percent believed in equality within the family, only 66 percent of men believed in equality within the church and 64 percent within the family.

Frustration with unequal opportunity within the church is a sentiment that evangelical writer and speaker Jory Micah knows intrinsically. After completing her master’s degree in biblical studies, she was at a dead end. Job descriptions for pastor openings would state that they were looking for male applicants—even if those men only had bachelor’s degrees. She was told she could teach or lead a children’s ministry instead. Since then, she’s made it her mission to spread feminist thought to her Christian community. “When I first started writing, I was more egalitarian, but as I’ve progressed I’ve identified more with feminism because I think that women still need a lot of extra empowerment,” she said. “I focus a lot more on lifting women and girls up.”

Micah identifies as a feminist but she struggles with the label, feeling aligned with a personal definition of feminism rather than one perpetuated by conservative media—that all-pervasive (if false) “man-hater” stereotype. She’s pro-life, but feels very strongly in favor of other parts of the feminist platform. She understands the pro-choice argument, and ultimately voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election—a decision that she said hurt her relationship with her mother, who was against Clinton. Micah said she fought publicly for Clinton “because I thought Donald Trump was so anti-woman. His administration is almost all white men.” After the election, she said, “I cried my eyes out the entire next day.”

Though Micah’s a registered Republican, she now considers herself left-leaning and doesn’t “see the Republicans doing anything to move women or people of color forward.” Her perspective seems like the exact kind of voter the DNC could be and probably should be targeting in future elections.

And the feminist movement should be cultivating these women too, according to Rachel Hewes, a non-denominational Christian and a senior at Pepperdine University, which is affiliated with the Churches of Christ. Hewes said she is a feminist and believes abortion and contraception should be legal (“People are having abortions whether it’s legal or not,” she said—and when it wasn’t, they also did). She thinks that, when it comes to the feminist movement’s opponents, “dividing and conquering is a very good strategy.” She said, “If the feminist movement allows itself to be divided, it’s going to be conquered.” It needs to unite and “allow pro-life people to engage.”

These younger Christian feminists—including those coming from communities that have been intricately linked to the pro-life movement for decades—are eager to have a conversation about abortion (which 57 percent of Americans believe should be legal in most cases), especially if it means becoming closer to the feminist movement overall.

Historically, feminist voices have often been religious, according to Kristin Kobes Du Mez, chair of the history department at Calvin College, and author of A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism. She credits religious women with pushing through the suffrage movement and assisting in the creation of the National Organization for Women. Christian feminism “helped transform” the suffrage movement to a mainstream movement, she said. Cochran agrees, having written at length about the theology of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Both sides of the abortion debate have, in the past, tried to have an open dialogue. Karen Swallow Prior, a writer and English professor at Liberty University in Virginia once worked with the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue, and she helped start a chapter of Feminists for Life.* She was also involved with the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, which tried to bridge the gap between the pro-life and pro-choice movements in the 1990s. The group held formal conversations between pro-choice advocates and ardent pro-lifers until each side came to some sort of understanding. Finding “common ground” was and continues to be a big part of Prior’s perspective on abortion. “Most pro-life people and most pro-choice people care about women and children,” she said, and focusing on what benefits woman and children and families provides the foundation for a conversation.

In practical terms, this emphasis has often meant supporting welfare programs meant to reduce the economic burden of child-rearing for women, increasing access to childcare, and, most controversially for some Christians, advocating for sex education and an array of contraception options. But Prior is uncertain about how attaining policies that appease both sides would go over now. “The political climate today is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It is so fractured and filled with animosity and division.” She added, “Vigorous debate and vigorous disagreement is based on at least an acknowledgement of the other. I don’t even think we have that in common anymore, in culture in general.”

Within the Christian feminist movement, these contentious debates are often made more fraught, since many of the women involved are having to relearn decades of religious and social teachings. Micah, who wrote her master’s thesis on women in leadership roles in the Christian Church, now believes, “The Bible has to be read in proper context.” She said, “We see Jesus do some pretty radical things to empower women in a culture that was extremely patriarchal.”

Smith of New Wave Feminists thinks that both sides of the abortion debate should eliminate false assumptions. She said, “On both ends, we need to remove stereotypes.” Many Christians are still hesitant to support the feminist movement, and many secular feminists are reluctant to embrace members of the Christian community, whom they see as threatening to women’s reproductive rights.

Smith said, “We have villainized everybody and we are just barking at each other, instead of saying, ‘Okay, what about the solution?’” Having been kicked off a list of women supporting one of the biggest protests in national history, she would probably know. Her work, she says, is “about building bridges, not walls”—a line that echoes one of the Hillary Clinton campaign’s popular slogans from last fall. It’s also a goal that may serve the feminist movement as a whole, and the Democratic Party in particular. As the party continues to debate the details of its platform and the breadth of its membership, it’s clear that some pro-life feminists—and some pro-choice feminists too—are interested in having a conversation about how to move forward. Perhaps in bridging their differences, they can achieve goals dear to feminists on all sides.


Ellen Duffer is the managing editor and blog editor of Ploughshares.

*This sentence was updated to correct Prior’s position with Feminists for Life. She served with a local chapter of the organization, but she was not president of the national organization.

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