How Abortion Killed Feminism

The 50th anniversary of The Pill coincided with Mother’s Day last week—a nice juxtaposition considering the dramatic effect that a reliable and convenient birth control method had on the mothers of the United States.  No longer subject to the whims of happenstance, mothers were able to decide how many children they wanted and when they wanted to have them.  This unprecedented control over their fertility changed everything for women. 


And yet, little changed.


Along with The Pill, and perhaps related to its advent, social forces were dragging the population (much of it kicking and screaming every inch of the way) towards a new reality in which the promises and freedoms and opportunities that had historically been accorded to only some became available to and demanded by the rest.  Gradually over the last 40 years the walls have come tumbling down.  Indeed, the walls, blank, immense, and unmovable, that once stood on all sides of women, boxing them into their houses while their brothers and husbands roamed freely outside, are all but gone. 


And yet, little has changed.


A discussion on OBL’s site led me to read Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  Journalist Judith Warner uses her own experiences as a young mother, first in France and then in the U.S., as a jumping-off point for a treatise about the cultural imperatives that force mothers to make “choices” that aren’t really choices at all since each available option is more dismal than the last.  The boxes are still there, you see, but we’re supposed to feel much better about them now because we’ve “chosen” to climb into them. 


I can’t quite recommend the book.  It is overly long and repetitive and unless you really have never thought about any of the issues surrounding motherhood/marriage/children/work at all, it is full of the obvious.  But Warner does present one point I had not encountered or considered before.


The endless abortion debate killed feminism, and with it, the best chance women had to escape the boxes.


It went like this.  The legalization of abortion offered women a way out of an unintended pregnancy.  Regular readers already know my opinion on this.  The right to a safe, legal abortion is a critically important part of full enfranchisement and self-determination for women.  However, there are moral and ethical considerations that make the issue complex.  Unlike relatively straightforward concepts like equal pay, abortion rights have never achieved mainstream acceptance.


In fact, abortion has been at the center of a firestorm of controversy that has lasted for decades, and the right to choose to have one has been attacked continuously and relentlessly in multiple spheres.  As a result, after Roe v. Wade, the feminist movement became wholly absorbed by the need to constantly defend the hard-won reproductive freedom of women.  So absorbed that everything else on the docket got dropped. 


See, we knocked the walls down, but we didn’t finish the job.  We opened everything up to women.  Every school, every job, every ambition became fair game.  Women could do anything, be anything, go anywhere.  Right?


Except that they couldn’t, really.


We forgot about the children.


While the feminists were busy making sure that women didn’t have to have children they didn’t want, they neglected to consider who was going to raise the children that women wanted, and had. 


The answer, in the absence of a strategy for change or parity: women would raise the children, and perform all the myriad tasks that go with raising children, as women have always done. 


Hence, the non-choice: pursue whatever your ambition might be, full-speed ahead, while simultaneously shouldering most or all of the work of children and household.  Or drop out of the workforce (or curtail your participation in it) to provide the best care for your children and hopefully maintain your sanity. 


Note that the non-choice neatly maintains and perpetuates the patriarchal structure that engendered it, as once it is made the resulting economic power disparity is often impossible to overcome. 


In all the years since the feminists stormed the country, family structures have been altered very little.  The workplace has changed even less.  Sure, big companies offer on-site daycare for sub-school-age children, and that’s nice, but it is available to only a fraction of women and it addresses only a sliver of the problem of working and raising kids at the same time.  So by and large, women raise kids and men work. 


In Perfect Madness, Warner quotes women discussing their lives in the pre-feminist era.  The amazing thing about the quotes is that it is impossible to distinguish them from the stories of modern-day mothers talking about themselves.  Because Pill or no Pill, as soon as you get married, have kids, and quit your job, just like that it’s 1950 again.    





21 thoughts on “How Abortion Killed Feminism

  1. The sad part of all this is when some women are FORCED to have abortions as some disAbled women are emotionally forced to abort because of a disAbility.  I agree that all babies should be wanted babies.  I just disagree with some as to how this should be accomplished as abortion is not on my list of options as to how to make sure that all babies are wanted babies!  Perhaps,..teaching our children about being responsible as to how and when they have sex could be a more merciful option to consider over abortion!!I do agree with the quote that …”as soon as you marry and have kids,’s 1950 again!!”  Having a family is work and responsibility!!  If a woman opts for the family,..she will have to respect the fact that work and responsibility will follow!!Who says tha a woman HAS to quit her job?And what about all of the single moms out in Real Life,..who would love the option of quitting their jobs,…but can’t because they are the sole providers for their families?Question: Wouldn’t there be fewer single moms if young girls were taught about what REALLY happens to their lives if they decide to have irresponsible sex and have babies?Wouldn’t it be better for our kids if we taught them to POSTPONE their pleasures,…sex heading the list,…and work their way up to where they can safely enjoy those pleasures?I really enjoyed reading this post of yours as it truly made me think!!…….Stanelle πŸ˜€

  2. This is a beautifully-written article, tightly compsed  and clear from start to finish, (which is why I’m recommend that my subs read it) On substance, anything I say about my own hard-won understanding and style with regards to gender equality will sound like bragging, ha. Still, the old regieme is persistent in finding ways to creep back into power, around the clock. I’ll check if I left any doors unlocked.

  3. It is Biology. If you get the liberation you crave then the current generation will be the last generation and will die without issue.For a modernist, I suppose, that is the ultimate good..

  4. How, where, when and for what reason to have children seems very personal, personal enough to discount any black and white observation over what it means to “have choice”, “equality”, and tolerance (or “mainstream acceptance”). If feminism is dead then feminists killed it or perhaps the (pardon the very Archie Bunker words), the bull dyke double spies, misogynistic ideas, infiltrating the idea killed it. My own outlook? It doesn’t matter that I am a woman in terms of who to choose to parent a child. Men should also choose to have sex with the one good enough to parent his child. Call me old fashioned; it’s either natural selection or perversion. Nature, she is difficult to comprehend, now isn’t she (or capable of changing her mind like a woman? (Don’t you just hate pronouns!?) As if men don’t change their minds. πŸ™‚

  5. For me (my personality) I prefer to stay home and not have people telling me what to do, punching a time-card, or figuring out how to please more people than myself and my awesome hubby (who goes to work every day)…working in town was a nuisance to me, even though I liked the job and the people.  I love my farm and I loved raising my kids myself (nobody could do it better).  Also, I can also volunteer when needed because my schedule is less rigid than a career person.  On the other hand, I have a nephew who (after four years in the Air Force) has stayed home and raised the family while his wife has climbed the ladder of her career. So I think people (all people) have a lot more choices than they realize but they keep looking around to see what everybody else is doing instead of making their own personal choices free of public influence.  ( I know this because I’ve traveled against the flow all my life.)

  6. thank you for articulating what I, drowning in my “choices,” have not been able to say so clearly.  I read Warner a year ago or so, so I’d forgotten about the abortion argument.  I do agree that feminism invested all of its energies in the abortion struggle and that the language of “choice” means that any decision a woman makes becomes HER CHOICE, rather than opportunity to consider the social and economic realities of women’s lives.  Climbing into our own boxes, indeed.   

  7. @Stanelle – I certainly agree that no one should be forced to have an abortion for any reason.  And clearly sex ed is vitally important.  @jsolberg – Oh, go ahead and brag.@cafengocmy – Dads taking equal responsibility for child-rearing will be the End?@POETIC_ISIS – It’s personal, all right.@ordinarybutloud – Yowza, indeed.@MaryVerina – Props to your nephew.  I know a few dads who are the primary caregivers for their children.  That option will seem more realistic to men as they see more and more other guys doing it.

  8. I think you just saved me from cracking the book on my nightstand.  Thanks for writing this — more food for thought on an important (and very personal) topic.  And, yes — @ordinarybutloud – YOWZA on the comments.  I bet they’ll keep coming.  Look out TR!

  9. 1) Not polite to brag in public, so I shan’t, ha2) I was so hoping that Dr.Tiff would read this; she also writes very  powerfully on this subject.3) As with all hot topics, the danger of having one’s comment-space skewed is always there. Perhaps bold or underline what you consider the main points. I myself couldn’t live without italics, not one day. Carry on:)

  10. I agree.  In my company, if you go on maternity leave, you don’t always come back to the same job.  You come back to a job, yes, but it could be a job you hate.  I’ve seen so very few stay at home dads that is it disgusting.  And a lot of immigrated cultures coming here perpetuate the women less-than-worthy than men that used to be, and make them take care of the children while simultaneously massaging hubby’s feet.

  11. Women are the biggest recipriants of the civil rights movement and because feminists were distracted by abortion rights the job hasn’t been completed. I hope both side of the arguments were aware of the underlining motives of the “puppet masters”.Maybe the puppet masters were distracted and failed to realize that true equality benefits a new society, not the old. I think I am too worn out to make a difference and if transvestite rabbit is of the new generation, then there is hope for a change.Maybe a law like the Chinese would shake up America? One Child per parents might be the answer to man’s dooming the world?

  12. Have you ever read Sheri Tepper’s The Gate To Women’s Country?  It’s fantasy, but it’s interesting.  My take home message of all this is that we still need to carry the torch and fight the fight.  And maybe part of that fight is changing societal views of the importance of raising children, of finding a good answer for the question of who raises the children.  The medical school classes I teach are almost 50% female and mostly young women and they have complicated choices ahead of them.  I do have one friend who is a doctor and her husband is home with their kids (he works from home at an outside job, but is the primary day time child care provider for their family).  I think another part of that fight is teaching my children different expectations for their behavior, both my son and my daughters (how weird to say daughters!! This next little girl will be here in days to weeks!!).   Also, living longer should help, right? Childcare only takes about 2 decades total, so there should be time before and after to pursue other things?  SO MANY THINGS TO THINK!  And DO.  Just gotta figure out what.Also, I liked your point about 1/2 the childcare cost being Joel’s, but it makes my argument for more pay less dramatic… (-:

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