As feminism takes on a more prominent place in pop culture, a lot of people have distilled it down to the basic idea that it means you believe in gender equality. It’s a handy shortcut, but it leaves out a deep debate about what exactly it takes to attain equality in this country. Hillary Clinton stepped into this when she was asked on The View if someone can be both “pro-life” and feminist. She responded:
“I respect the opinions and beliefs of every woman. The reason why being pro-choice is the right way to go is because it is a choice and hopefully a choice that is rooted in the thoughtfulness and the care that women bring to this decision. So, of course you can be a feminist and be pro-life.”
I’m sure she doesn’t actually respect the opinions and beliefs of EVERY woman (Phyllis Schlafly? Sarah Palin?), and there may be more nuance to her position than what appears in this brief answer, especially given that she has been a vocal champion of abortion rights in this campaign. But it points out the dangers in trotting out very broad definitions of what feminism is and what it means to truly advocate for women’s rights.
A major issue here is that many people who may not call themselves pro-choice, and have ambivalent personal feelings about abortion, are in fact pro-choice in that they don’t want the government restricting other women’s right to choose. As Jill Filipovic writes in Cosmopolitan:
When you look at what Americans actually believe, strong majorities of Americans are pro-choice, even if they don’t identify that way. Very few, even most of those who say they are “pro-life,” are not actually aligned with the organized anti-abortion movement’s policies and goals. So in that sense, Clinton was correct that there are women who no doubt self-identify as pro-life, but don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, believe women should have equal rights to men, and understand that in order to do that, abortion and contraception must remain legal and accessible.
But there are also people who align themselves with the anti-choice movement and still want to claim the mantle of feminism, especially as they reach out to younger generations. While it’s great if they want to fight for equal pay or workplace protections or freedom from pregnancy discrimination, they’re leaving out a major barrier to women’s equality.
Pregnancy can take a huge physical and psychological toll on women, especially if the pregnancy is unwanted. It’s much harder to complete an education if you’re having children at a time when you didn’t feel prepared and don’t have an adequate support system. Being forced to parent when you’re not financially stable can have a huge impact on financial security and future economic growth. Being taken out of the workforce, even for a short period of time, can have alter the course of women’s career paths and impact future earning potential. This is simply something that does not impact men, even if they are fathers. As a recent study of a bill in California to provide women with more reliable birth control pointed out, “Avoiding unintended pregnancies also helps women to delay childbearing and pursue additional education, spend additional time in their careers, and have increased earning power over the long term.”
Even if you think about feminism just as leveling the playing field, it is inextricable from reproductive freedom. But beyond that, feminism’s link with reproductive freedom go deeper. It means treating women as human beings rather than baby-making machines. It’s recognition that women have talents and skills to offer the world beyond their ability to procreate. You can want women to do better, but you simply can’t be a feminist if you won’t stand up for reproductive freedom.