Yesterday, President Obama penned an essay in Glamour magazine, discussing modern feminism and the progress women in the U.S. have made over the past 100 years. Much of what the president writes is fairly accurate, and, though the word “progress” has an unpleasant connection to early-20th-century progressivism, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that American women for the most part are better off today than they were 100 years ago.
But, in one key sense, Obama — like most proponents of modern feminism — misses the mark when he insists that women need “reproductive rights” to guarantee their equality and freedom.
Later, the president promises to “keep working on good policies — from equal pay for equal work to protecting reproductive rights.” And he insists that we need to change “the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality” (presumably a reference to what he takes to be the motivation of the pro-life movement). This extreme emphasis on the supremacy of abortion among women’s rights is a common theme among liberal feminists.
This past spring, failed Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, famous for her state-senate filibuster of a bill restricting abortion rights, delivered a speech at the University of Notre Dame. Her fundamental message was that women must have unlimited access to abortion if they are to have any hope of “succeeding” or “making a difference.”
Davis went on to tell the stories of several women, including herself, whose career success was supposedly made possible by their decision to avail themselves of their “reproductive rights” and have an abortion. Without abortion rights, Davis stated, she and so many women like her would never have had a chance.
At the Democratic National Convention last week, NARAL president Ilyse Hogue made a similar point after proudly proclaiming her own abortion:
My story is not unique. About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have. You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives. If we want families to succeed, we start by empowering women. Give us accurate information and access to health care. Keep politicians out of our business when we are not ready to parent, and support us when we are.
There’s no doubt that motherhood complicates a woman’s career path. It would be a lie to say that life with a child, or children, is the same as life before one becomes a mother. No one should claim that motherhood is easy, or that women don’t have to make extra sacrifices if they have a career and raise a family at the same time.
But the abortion argument offered by these liberals is actually profoundly unfeminist. To suggest that women aren’t “empowered” unless they’re free to kill their own children is intensely anti-woman, not to mention perverted. Saying that a woman’s equality is contingent upon the state of her reproductive system both belittles women’s abilities and scorns the value of motherhood.
Modern feminists discredit women, especially mothers, when they dismiss motherhood as a lesser mode of success. There is a credible argument to be made that mothers can have more of an effect on culture than anyone, because their hard work ideally should develop children into productive and virtuous citizens who in turn contribute positively to the health of the nation.
“That’s what twenty-first century feminism is about: the idea that when everybody is equal, we are all more free,” Obama’s letter concludes. Perhaps, on its face, this statement is true. But if by it the president means that women are only equal when they are free to sterilize themselves and kill their children, that’s not the freedom women need.
— Alexandra DeSanctis is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.