Reclaiming the Truth
It’s frightening how little history we know. Comedian Jay Leno would bring down the house with those crazy answers to the most basic questions asked to sidewalk interviewees. It would have been funnier if it weren’t so true. Test scores show that American students are way behind the curve when it comes to civics and history. That’s a danger to the future of our democracy. We repeat what we don’t realize.
We all fall far short in knowing the history of the Catholic Church, and more specifically, its major contributions to Western civilization. In the sciences, the Church was the first to recognize that the universe operates based on fixed laws. Priests were the early physicists, astronomers, meteorologists, and inventors. The Church did the unheard of work of providing institutional care for widows, orphans, sick, and poor. Catholic theologians paved the way for modern economic thought. And equally impressive was the Church’s institution of the university system. The medieval Church chartered more schools than any government. Through collegial yet vigorous debate, the Church provided a way to pursue objective truth. Today, Catholic colleges and universities are charged to do the same.
That pursuit of the truth can get way off track. Recently, St. Norbert College in Wisconsin hosted a dialogue on feminism between teacher-in-residence Bell Hooks and Gloria Steinem. A self-described “early feminist,” Steinem is unabashedly pro-abortion. She believes that an essential, if not the essential, element of feminism is the right of reproductive control — including abortion. Steinem’s views on abortion made her appearance controversial, though she generally kept them under the surface. Yet her brand of feminism has cut itself from the roots of the movement and falls far short of proclaiming truth of authentic feminism.
Feminism supports human rights for all people, not just women. Most people would probably guess that feminism began in the 1970s. Actually, the correct answer is much closer to the 1770s. In 1792, English author Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Within 50 years, women including Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sarah Norton, Susan B. Anthony, and sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin led the fight for women’s rights. They had much to change. Women’s rights to assemble and speak were virtually unrecognized. Women could not vote, own property or a bank account, sit on a jury, or testify on their own behalf. Spousal abuse went uncorrected.
As the early feminists fought these injustices, they linked their fight to the protection of mothers and the unborn. Wollstonecraft condemned those who “either destroy the embryo in the womb or cast it off when born.” Norton slammed the professional “child murderers” and longed for the day when an “unmarried mother will not be despised” and “the right of the unborn to be born will not be denied or interfered with.” In their newspaper, The Revolution, Stanton and Anthony refused to advertise for “foeticides and infanticides.” Stanton, who viewed abortion as a form of infanticide, believed that its root cause lay in “the degradation of women.” Anthony wrote that though women bore guilt for obtaining abortions, the far greater guilt fell on the men who drove them to such desperate straits. Stanton bucked Victorian society by showing off her pregnancy in public. Anthony, though never married, found her joy in building “a better state of things for mothers generally, so their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them.” Starting in the 20th century, these early feminists passed the torch to Alice Paul. Through Paul’s efforts, in 1920 women were granted the Constitutional right to vote. The author of the original equal-rights amendment, Paul called abortion “the ultimate exploitation of women.”
What changed it all? The growing free-love sexual revolution of the ’60s had its consequences. As both married and single women became pregnant, men left for greener pastures. “Love” wasn’t so free after all. Women lost opportunities for freedom, education, career advancement, better pay, and new relationships — the very things available to the men who impregnated them. Women wanted the license to walk away, too. Men eager to change the abortion laws found in women willing allies. By 1973, the Supreme Court opened the floodgates. The feminists of the ’70s viewed abortion as the great liberator and equalizer. People like Steinem believed that it would allow women to be free like men.
Yet it hasn’t worked out that way, nor will it ever. Women, not men, get pregnant. Men still walk away. Opportunities are not available for all women; injustices still occur. But with availability of legal abortion, women have been misguided by ’70s feminism into believing that their lot will improve by taking the lives of their own babies. Sadly, women have come to measure their identity as women by their right to kill. They become both oppressor and oppressed. The become oppressors because they treat their unborn babies as property, ironically, just how they were once treated. They become oppressed because post-abortive women must bear the shame and regret, sometimes lifelong, of knowing that they surrendered their birthright. God chose women, not men, to bear His gift of life. Feminism of the ’70s would trade that calling for a chance to be as free as men unwilling to act as men. It’s a devil’s bargain.
Today’s authentic feminism refuses to let women become mired in wrong thinking. It celebrates all women and the many things they can do — and do as well as men. As did those first feminists, it recognizes that “pregnancy is not a disease, but a beautiful office of nature,” one given by God. Authentic feminism supports women by attacking the root causes of injustice and oppression, all the while knowing that unborn babies did not cause them. It seeks to create opportunities for women without requiring them to sell their souls. And it treats legal abortion for what it is: a 42-year failed experiment with women’s lives.
Authentic feminism is reclaiming the truth. It’s about life, not death.
Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.