The Changing Faces of Feminism

Author: David Reardon

Celebrate Life magazine May-June 1994

THE CHANGING FACES OF FEMINISM by David Reardon, copyright 1994

Many people assume that feminism and the movement to legalize abortion are virtually synonymous. Some equate feminism with a virulent leftist political philosophy that advocates abortion, lesbianism, pornography, witchcraft, and goddess worship. In fact, however, this "neofeminism" is far removed from the ideals and goals of the 19th-century feminists, who were strongly rooted in the Judeo- Christian concepts of morality and justice.

For most early feminists, Christian idealism was the motivating force behind their demands for the reform of attitudes and laws that allowed the suppression of the weak.

Besides pleading the cause of women, they were active in the abolition of slavery, in establishing the rights of Native Americans, in reform homes for prostitutes, in protection of children's rights, and in the temperance movement. The rights they demanded for women and minorities included the right to own property; the right to participate in government; opportunities for advanced education; equal employment opportunities; equitable wages; and, above all, the right of all people to be treated with respect.

These goals were, and are, very much in keeping with the Christian's call to reform the world, and they continue to be a part of the modern feminist movement.


One of the chief goals of the early feminists was reform of sexual abuses. They emphasized two basic Christian concepts: mutual fidelity and mutual respect.

They condemned male promiscuity, and denounced the social injustices that induced their sisters to degrade themselves in lives of prostitution. They demanded that husbands honor their commitments to their wives, and that sons learn to honor the integrity of all women. Equal rights, they believed, could be achieved only by fidelity, mutual sacrifice and commitment. Self-control, not self-indulgence, was their solution to marital unhappiness.

Wives, they insisted, cannot be treated like prostitutes, available on demand without regard to their feelings, desires or health. Love for and from the husband is necessary. Feminists opposed "enforced motherhood," a euphemism for unwanted sexual intercourse. To achieve both practical reform and the elevation of wives' dignity, feminists demanded "voluntary motherhood," the wife's freedom accept or refuse intercourse.

"Voluntary motherhood" was revolutionary. At that time, both religious and civil law emphasized the "conjugal rights" of the husband. The concept of marital rape was scarcely understood. A wife was expected to submit to every sexual advance of her husband no matter how he might treat her.


The twin demands for marital fidelity and marital respect led 19th-century feminists to take a strict view of the means by which procreation could be regulated.

They condemned artificial contraception as "unnatural, injurious, and offensive" to women. They believed that contraceptives in the home would further entrench women in the role of sexual objects for their mates. Contraceptives would deny women their rightful fertility, turning wives into little more than prostitutes, always "safe" for husbands to exploit to satisfy their passions. Contraceptives would also free men from the fear of an untimely pregnancy and so remove the one emotion to which women could appeal when faced with unwanted sexual advances.

Widespread contraceptive use, feminists argued, would encourage promiscuity, undermine chastity, lure their husbands and sons into illicit sexual exploits, and expose more women to seduction, abuse and abandonment.

Feminists also condemned abortion. They insisted it was immoral to kill an unborn child. Susan B. Anthony, Victoria Woodhill, and virtually every other noted feminist leader of the last century described abortion as "infanticide" and "child- murder."

They also asserted that abortion was just another tool by which women were exploited. While they did not exonerate women from the crime, leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Gage charged that abortion was a "degradation of women" and that "most of the responsibility for this crime lies at the door of the male sex," who beg, cajole and even force women to have abortions. Alice Paul, author of the original Equal Rights Amendment (1923), stated that "abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women," the escape route men use to avoid responsibility for their own sexual acts. These visionaries would not have been shocked by the results of a 1984 study that found that 60% of women seeking abortions felt "forced" to do so by others.

The early feminists' complaints about "enforced motherhood" and their demands for "voluntary motherhood" did not imply a right to abort "unwanted" children, or even a right to use contraceptives. They merely wanted respectful, sensitive husbands who could control their desires in accordance with their wives' desires or health needs.


Abortion was the antithesis of feminism's egalitarian principles until the mid-1960's. Then population-control zealot Lawrence Lader persuaded a reluctant Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women, to adopt abortion as a central element of neofeminism. Lader was a founder of NARAL (then the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws), and has repeatedly supported the State's right to force women into unwanted abortions for population control and eugenics reasons.

According to Lader, "It was the surge and fervor of neofeminism that paved the way for the abortion movement. Each was essential to the other." He gave Friedan singular credit for "pushing an abortion plank" into NOW's agenda at its 1967 convention even though "a lot of delegates resigned" because of it.

In return for accepting a leadership role in the stalled abortion movement, "neofeminism" gained the support of population controllers and leaders of the sexual revolution, who in turn provided financial and political muscle to aid the budding feminist movement.

The right of women to "control their own bodies" also provided an essential focus for the movement's ideology. Since that time, young feminists have been taught to see abortion rights as the overarching symbol of bodily and social independence. Without this freedom, they are told, women are enslaved by their biology.


Neofeminists treasure this "right to choose" above all else. Justice, morality and health are less important. Feminists can truly see themselves as pro-choice, not pro- abortion. A woman may choose against abortion for moral or health reasons, but it is her choice; even if all abortions are immoral or dangerous, she must be free to choose.

This is why so many feminists resist talking about the morality or safety of abortion, whether the child is a person, or how abortion affects women.

But not all feminists defend "choice" without examining what it really means, and those who have taken a closer look have found it to be a betrayal of women's rights and of children, and an abandonment of their daughters and sisters to the exploitation of irresponsible men and an unloving society. One such feminist is Pat Goltz, who was called before a tribunal of her state NOW chapter, tried and "excommunicated" for her vocal pro-life views. A Return to Pro-Life Feminism With Cathy Callahan, Pat Goltz founded Feminists for Life of America (FFLA) in 1972. FFLA has grown steadily since then; their newsletter, "SisterLife," contains articulate and logically consistent articles defending the rights of women and children. These are the true heirs of 19th-century feminism, continuing the tradition of respect for all persons. FFLA emphasizes the destruction that abortion inflicts on a child, mother and society as a whole. They argue that abortion rights have negated the gains of feminism by reducing the status of women and covering up the need for authentic help for women in problem pregnancies.

"Abortion, by encouraging society to consider a woman's child as a disposable piece of property, reinforces the image of the woman herself as disposable property and a reusable sex object," states an FFLA membership flyer. If an unborn child can be treated without respect, how can neofeminists hope to secure respect for women? Besides condemning abortion, FFLA has denounced the spread of ineffective and dangerous contraceptives foisted on American women. Instead, they encourage natural family planning as superior, effective and enhancing respect and mutual responsibility.

Pro-life feminists, like all truly Christian reformers, defy categorization as "liberals" or "conservatives." They have remained a voice for the authentic rights and dignity of women, without sinking into amoral sexual ethics and revolutionary theologies. They have maintained a truly feminine vision of their rights and duties as sisters, mothers, and co-workers with God. Their slogan is "We are homemakers-and the world is our home."

While the membership of NOW continues to decline, the membership of FFLA continues to grow. It is a springtime sign. Theirs is the feminism of which Susan B. Anthony and her Christian sisters would be proud.

To join Feminists for Life of America or to receive their newsletter "SisterLife," write to: FFLA, 733 15th St., NW, Suite 1100, Washington, D.C. 20005.

David Reardon is director of the Elliot Institute for Social Sciences Research, and author of Aborted Women-Silent No More.

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