Bridging the Divide Within Feminism | Opinion

Women live in a world designed primarily for men. We feel it in small things—when office thermostats are calibrated for the comfort of men in suit jackets or when fumbling an oversized iPhone that can't comfortably fit in one hand, let alone a woman's undersized pocket. We feel it in big things, when doctors learn the patterns of male heart attacks as paradigmatic, leaving women to be dismissed and sometimes to die when they come in with symptoms that are viewed as aberrant.

Women are divided over how to respond to a world that treats us as defective men. Do we try to elbow our way in by adjusting our lives to a norm that may not fit us—bringing in a lap blanket, dropping apologies from our speech or freezing our eggs to delay childbirth? Or do we fight to reject or broaden the norm? Both tactics have their place, but the latter is the more powerful. Often, expanding the norm benefits men, too, who may have found themselves chafing under narrow expectations.

Some of the divisions between mainstream feminism and what Ross Douthat describes as the "conservative feminism" symbolized by Amy Coney Barrett come down to how women respond to the Procrustean pressure to fit uncomfortable norms patterned on men, especially as they pertain to fertility and childbirth.

For instance, are women aiming to overcome our biology to achieve the same liberty as men—to only live as a parent through an active, affirmative choice? Are the burdens of pregnancy a design flaw we aim to overcome, whether through gestation in Brave New World-style artificial wombs or through classifying pregnancy as "care work" and hiring other women to do it—following the model that shifted elder care to poorly compensated, overworked women?

In this framework, women achieve equality by remaking themselves to compete on an even footing with men. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw this goal as a plausible basis for a constitutional right to abortion. She found fault with Roe v. Wade's reasoning, which grounded abortion in a nebulous right to privacy rather than the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection. To exist on an equal footing with men, women needed the same ability men had to cut ties with a child.

pro-life activists
Pro-life activists demonstrate in front of the the US Supreme Court during the 47th annual March for Life on January 24, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty

Here, I agree with RBG's descriptive assessment—abortion is the price of admission women are asked to pay to work alongside men. Support for abortion access is labeled "pro-choice," but abortion is often the sole choice available to pregnant women. Black feminists have pushed to shift the language for the "pro-choice" movement to "reproductive justice" instead. Dorothy Roberts, the author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, supports access to abortion but argues that the focus on choice and abortion access narrows the vision of a feminist movement. It focuses activists on keeping clinics open while neglecting the economic and social pressures that constrain women's choices until a baby seems impossible.

Between half and 70 percent of women who seek abortions in the United States are already mothering a child. Nearly a quarter of women seeking abortions say they are doing so because other options are closed to them—they do not feel they can afford a child. At the same time, the gap between the number of children women say they want to have and how many they actually have is at its widest in forty years, and widening.

It isn't plausible for pro-life and pro-choice women to set aside the question of whether a baby is a person before birth. But women divided over this question can work together to fight for reproductive justice for women whose wish to have a child—or more children—pits them against a world hostile to new life and vulnerability.

One of the most natural places to find common ground is working together to dismantle structures that put all women, but particularly Black women, in danger during childbirth. We can fight together against a medical system that treats birthing women as a problem to be kept on a timetable. A laboring mother is her own individual and, more than the doctor, is the active agent of her child's birth.

These alliances have proven uneasy. The first Women's March was marked by division, and pro-life feminist groups were expelled as partners. One pro-life group—the New Wave Feminists—still came and marched as individuals, with one sign reading, "When our liberation costs innocent lives, it's merely oppression redistributed."

What all women know is that we face a world that, through a mixture of misogyny and carelessness, is not built for inclusion. We have been repeatedly offered poisonous compromises as the price of our admission. One hundred years ago, the white suffragists who fought for the 19th Amendment sidelined their Black allies. Today, we still struggle to build an intersectional feminism and agree on who will be included. But the benefit of the doubt should belong to the most vulnerable among us.

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option. She is a member of the Board of Advisors for the American Solidarity Party.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.