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Saturday, April 24, 2004

The terms of the debate

I couldn't figure exactly what it is about this essay by William Saletan on what feminists need to do to garner sympathy for abortion rights. I mean, I agree with him that the major issues is reminding people that the decision to have an abortion is not made in a vacuum. I agree that radical feminists need to be reminded that they are speaking to middle America and like it or not, they are going to have address the fact that much of middle America sees women as mothers and nothing more. (Get them to appreciate that the state of motherhood should be be empowered and slowly but surely they will understand that mothers are people with their own hopes and dreams is the theory. It's a sloooooow strategy but it's effective. Women didn't get the vote until the suffragists were able to get people to see that women would be voting to improve the condition of children, i.e. they would be voting as mothers not as individuals.)
What's obviously wrong with his argument is that he makes the common mistake of assuming that feminists are guilty of something they are entirely innocent of. He assumes that it was feminists who hyper-focused the debate on the moment of the abortion, that they were the ones who divided women into two groups--mothers and women who got abortions. Or, if they didn't do it, they allowed it. Hardly. Feminists have arguing from the beginning that abortion and contraception need to be legalized because they are already used, that women who obtain abortions are all women, mothers and future mothers, single women and married women, younger and older. They have fought an uphill battle against the conservative stereotype of the woman who gets an abortion--a selfish teenager, usually of color, stupid slutty and mean. In fact, it's unlikely that this stereotype of Hitler as a black teenage mom exists at all.
But all the evidence in the world that women who get abortions will probably one day be good mommies or often are good mommies already (a possibility that this author forgets himself) isn't going to convince the hard-core family values crowd. Now is the time not to be fooled by the code word "family". "Family" doesn't mean actual, living, breathing families. "Family" is code for patriarchy, and if you value patriarchy, you don't get abortions, period. Terminating a pregnancy is a rejection of a woman's fate as baby-bearer and therefore a rejection of the patriarchy, period. Even if a woman already has children or wants to have children is irrelevant. The reality of motherhood, the day-to-day work of it is no matter in "family values". Motherhood is essentially the act of bringing forth what a man has conceived. The actual raising of children is Hallmark card nonsense.
Most Americans are not hard-core patriarchy fans. Women can vote in this country and they do. We do have a certain amount of respect for our history of feminism. That's why there is so much anxiety around abortion. People don't like women rejecting men but they don't like men having total control over women either. Feminists have argued effectively in the past and will continue to do so that by disallowing male control over women does not automatically equal female rejection of men.
I do agree that feminists need to do what they can to show that they embrace motherhood. In fact, they need to constantly point out that they are greater champions of real motherhood than any family values screamer. It's liberals after all who want better daycare, better schools, and better health care, all a great help to actual mothers. Feminists want girl children educated as well as boy children, which appeals to the mother-sense over "family" values. But far better to the feminist cause is to see the reality of this argument, that it is the meat of the history of feminist arguments, instead of see motherhood as something to co-opt from conservatives.
A far better argument than "We like mothers, too!" is to point out how feminists have fought for mothers against conservative resistance from day one. Birth control so that the children you have don't starve because you keep having them. Better health care and legal abortion for women so children don't grow up motherless as often as they used to. Widows' pensions. Day care so that women don't have to decide between watching over their children and feeding them. The vote so that women may vote for that which improves family life as well as just women's lives. Property rights for married women so that whne men die widows can continue to care for their children. No-fault divorce so that children don't have to be dragged through ugly, drawn-out divorce cases where the parents are accusing each other of vile things in public. Feminists spearheaded the campaigns against child abuse and sexual abuse. Anti-domestic violence initiatives in large part so that children don't have to grow up in violent atmospheres. Shall I continue?


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