Feminism and Abortion

Pro-choice arguments, the author says, reflect the ambitions, hypocrisies, and contradictions of contemporary feminism
From Equality to Superiority

These efforts at first had an unassailable logic. Objecting that the apocalyptic visions of the radicals dehumanized women as passive victims, scholars in the field of women's studies began upgrading the image of traditional womanhood in history, literature, and the social sciences. The political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain describes the process this way:

"Another strain of feminist thought, best called 'difference feminism,' questioned the move towards full assimilation of female identity with public male identity and argued that to see women's traditional roles and activities as wholly oppressive was itself oppressive to women, denying them historic subjectivity and moral agency."

For some feminists, this upgrading led to a new acceptance of domesticity. For others, it led to a new and more subtle radicalism, as they persuaded first themselves and then the university that the differences between the sexes extended to modes of thinking—not just in women's studies but in every other subject, from aardvarks to zymology. And lest this new difference be confused with the old one that relegated women to mental inferiority, a number of scholars were on hand to suggest that the female mode was superior.

One influential book was the psychologist Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice (1982). Gilligan concluded, from a study of moral reasoning in both sexes, that men reason from public-oriented ideas of individual rights and fair play, while women reason from private-oriented ideas of responsibility and caring for others. When the book was published, some of Gilligan's Harvard colleagues observed that this distinction—between justice and mercy, broadly construed—is as old as the Western philosophical tradition. At the same time, other scholars were reminding feminists that an idealized notion of nurturing, peaceloving womanhood was the keystone of both the nineteenth-century bourgeois family and the "moral uplift" movement that spawned helping professions like social work.

But these comparisons were spurned by those academic feminists who preferred to believe that social science had proved the existence of a separate, and morally superior, female mind with a distinctive set of values. Once upon a time university women had argued that scientific reason had no gender, and that aesthetic imagination was androgynous. But no longer. It wasn't in their interest. Instead, they had every incentive, material and otherwise, to join the feminist guild and subscribe to this new strain of feminist thought—best called "superiority feminism." Here feminism took an unfortunate turn, because a sense of superiority is hard to control. It is one thing to upgrade the image of heroines in Victorian novels, and quite another to adjust your opinion of unliberated housewives, Bible-quoting ministers, and conservative Republicans lobbying against the Equal Rights Amendment.

When it comes to politics, feminists still claim today, as Friedan claimed in 1963, that the frustration of the few is shared by the many. Yet even back in 1963 this claim was mistaken, because the peculiarly stifling circumstances described in The Feminine Mystique simply didn't obtain for most women. And today, despite a rise in female employment and a decline in family stability, there are still a great many women who spend their married lives in the same community where they grew up, who don't aspire to college and career, and, perhaps most important, who don't envy their husbands' work experience. The majority of men and women who must earn their living in ways that are not especially stimulating or enriching still embrace the ideal (if not always the reality) of women's providing for their families what Christopher Lasch has called a "haven in a heartless world."

To sum up, in the family and the workplace feminists deny the legitimacy of gender-based divisions of labor. "We are individuals," they intone, "and our role in homemaking and breadwinning must be identical to that of men." In the academy, however, feminists deny the possibility of gender-free research. "We are women," they intone, "and our values and thought processes are different from and better than those of men. " For a long time this inconsistency showed up only when an especially ornery antifeminist—or perhaps the house-husband of a professor of women's studies—compared the two separate spheres. But today it shows up in the heat of political debate, as pro-choice activists switch back and forth between the two kinds of feminism to defend the absolute right to abortion. Few activists take time to ponder the contradiction between a feminism that denies gender and one that institutionalizes it. Like most political actors, they use rhetoric for its persuasiveness, not its logic. But as I hope to show in my discussion of pro-choice reasoning, doublethink is not all that persuasive.

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