Kathleen Parker’s column in the Post today got me thinking about conservatives who attempt to wear the mantle of feminism. Whatever her virtues, Ms. Parker gets it wrong. Certainly it is possible to be a conservative feminist — I can’t claim feminism as the sole purview of radicals or the Left generally. But conservatives frequently get it wrong, as Parker does. When conservatives speak of feminism it too often sounds hollow, and generally I have little confidence they really have the autonomy and health of women at heart.
Parker takes a nuanced conservative view of abortion, where she uneasily allows it to be legal. This is the correct position for those opposed to abortion to take, and Parker deserves credit for not fully supporting the government’s interference with the intimate details of women’s bodies. So I don’t want to pile on her too heavily, but she gets it so wrong I have to comment.
She says, “It has always seemed to me that the truest form of feminism, as in the earliest days of suffrage, would be to hold abhorrent the state-sanctioned destruction of women’s unique life-bearing gifts. Out of material expedience, we’ve somehow managed to convince ourselves that life is a mistake.”
So legalized abortion is the “destruction of women’s unique life-bearing gifts”? It’s not like the government is sending thugs around to tear out women’s wombs. Yes, child-bearing is an ability men (mostly) lack, but that does not justify the eradication of women’s autonomy and self-determination. This is a problem a lot of conservatives / pro-lifers have, because their underlying mindset is not truly feminist but is conservative / militaristic / totalitarian — ‘We had to lock up the woman to save her ovaries.’ And no-one is saying “life” is a mistake — only that women shouldn’t be forced to bear children against their will.
Conservatives sometimes claim support from some old-school women’s suffragists as an appeal to authority in support of their feminism. While it may be true that Susan B. Anthony and others were opposed to abortion, there’s no need for modern feminists to accept or believe everything our forebears believed; we’ve learned a lot since the 19th century. The leaders of the past should not exert a stranglehold on the future. (Even Barack Obama espouses a position on homosexual marriage that will be widely seen as backward in the not-too-distant future.) ‘If you see the Buddha on the path, kill him.’ Good advice when dealing with spiritual leaders, and absolutely critical when dealing with people who fall short of the Bodhisattva ideal …
Conservatives are too quick to tell us what feminism really is. This is a problem some on the Left have, too, but that’s more on the order of internecine squabbling and (relatively minor) turf wars. Not to put down the importance of some of those debates, but the Right represents a far more dangerous threat to the well-being and freedom of humanity. And their attempts to define the terms of debate to suit them have been very successful — see the plight of the word “liberal”. I don’t think they will be so successful with “feminism,” but against such threats an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of vicious struggle.