Politics & Policy

Celebrating Pro-Life History During Women’s History Month

Women’s suffrage activist Alice Paul in 1920 (Library of Congress)

It’s Women’s History Month, as you may have heard. And so the first person I thought of was Serrin Foster, whose work at Feminists for Life engages women and challenges them to #ProtectThemBoth, as the hashtag put it during the oral arguments in the big “abortion” case before the Supreme Court yesterday. (I put abortion in quotes because the case is really about women’s health and protection, and this issue could be an opportunity for common ground if we weren’t so wedded to ideology.) She also wants to share some of the underappreciated history of suffragists who supported the pro-life cause.

Foster talks a bit about these women who improved our country and what we can learn from them. – KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Who are the “First Wave Feminists” you want people to get to know better?

Serrin Foster: All of them! I guess that’s the real shock. When I first started at Feminists for Life of America, critics used to say there was maybe one pro-life quote that we bantered about. But when Alice Paul, the suffrage leader and author of the original Equal Rights Amendment, told our co-founder Pat Goltz that Feminists for Life of America was not the first group of pro-life feminist leaders — that the first feminists were pro-life too — our research began!

Without known exception, the suffragists opposed abortion. The same women who fought for the rights of slaves to be free and for women to vote also worked for mothers to be supported and to protect every child — born and unborn.

Last year, we compiled almost all of the pro-life quotes in a magazine titled “First Wave Feminists: Remarkable Pro-Life Women® and Other Suffragists You Should Know.” We sent this to our supporters, but also to women’s-history professors across the country at top campuses. It was a first.

Their response? Deafening silence. But they will never be able to say now that they didn’t know. Our hope is that they will become curious, learn more, start to think about this more deeply, and finally teach the anti-abortion sentiments of the first-wave feminists.

Equally important, I have been presenting “The Feminist Case Against Abortion” on campuses and at pro-life conferences for almost 22 years. As college students grow up, some of them will choose to be professors themselves. We hope that this knowledge will help them present the truth about these remarkable women.

RELATED: The Surprising New Normal in the Abortion Debate

Lopez: What has been your experience presenting on these women?

Foster: People seem fascinated and stunned to learn that the first feminists were pro-life. Many ask, “Why wasn’t I taught this in school?” Well, either the teachers or professors didn’t know, or it didn’t fit their narrative.

Lopez: Do some of these women’s stories resonate more than others?

Foster: People seem to identify with ones whom they can relate to personally and who can be their hero. For instance, mothers love Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the founder of the women’s movement who flaunted maternity — once by raising a flag to announce the birth of her son – and who on another occasion wrote to Susan B. Anthony to celebrate the birth of Anthony’s daughter, encouraged that there would be another suffragist for the cause.

Men are encouraged to hear that Parker Pillsbury edited Susan B. Anthony’s newspaper, the Revolution, along with Stanton and Anthony, and explained their policy of refusing to accept advertisements for thinly disguised abortifacients.

Young activists love to hear about Alice Paul, who successfully led the movement to enact the 19th Amendment. When she was an older woman and saw the second-wave feminists embrace abortion, she asked, “How can one protect and help women by killing them as babies? . . . Abortion is the ultimate in the exploitation of women.”

Some like the radical Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for U.S. president, who was the most outspoken against abortion, and her sister Tennessee Claflin, who said, “Childbearing is not a disease but a beautiful office of nature.”

Others revel in the stories of doctors, such as the brave Charlotte Lozier, who refused to perform an abortion and called the police on the man who demanded the procedure while she simultaneously offered to help the young woman.

Feminists for Life believes that abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women.

My favorites include Eleanor Kirk, who connected the need for suffrage to the protection of the unborn, saying, “God speed the time for the sake of the babies. Little ones will be welcome.” And of course, I identify with Susan B. Anthony, who traveled the country by train organizing the movement — always wearing black!

It is also Susan B. Anthony who inspires Feminists for Life today, because she called on the movement to address the root causes that drive women to abortion. And Mattie Brinkerhoff best encapsulates our motivation in her flowery Victorian language: “When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society — so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged.” Today, Feminists for Life believes that abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women. Our mission is to systematically eliminate the root causes that drive women to abortion — particularly lack of resources and support. Women deserve better.

We work to fulfill the unrealized dream of the Susan B. Anthony and other first-wave feminists who also believed that women deserve better and every child deserves life.


Lopez: What has your experience been talking with college students about feminism? Does the word have meaning to any?

Foster: Absolutely. Because of our unique feminist credentials, Feminists for Life is able to reach feminists at highest risk of abortion and young women who have never known a day when they were legally protected from abortion.

It’s important to know who is at risk: 42 percent are college age and young working women, 61 percent of women who have abortions are already mothers, 69 percent are the poor, working poor, and students; half are women having repeat abortions, 75 percent say they can’t afford a child or their school or workplace won’t accommodate them. And women of color are disproportionately at risk, as well as victims of violence.

Feminists for Life has focused our efforts to address the three reasons for the feminization of poverty.

So, Feminists for Life has focused our efforts to address the three reasons for the feminization of poverty: Our flagship program is our College Outreach Program, so that women will complete their education with the help of on-campus resources, and know their pro-woman, pro-life history. We advocate workplace solutions, including for the working poor. We also advocate and educate about paternal support. Men have rights as well as responsibilities.

In addition, students respect consistency. So our work on the original Violence Against Women Act and also testifying for the Unborn Victims of Violence, a.k.a. Laci and Conner’s Law, makes sense to them.

Lopez: Are there really pro-life, pro-woman revolutions happening on campus, as your website announces?

Foster: Absolutely!

Most recently I was invited to argue the motion, “Pro-Life Is Pro-Woman,” hosted by the Yale Political Union. In a heated debate, seven debate societies argued for well over three hours! For the first time that I am aware, the pro-life side won. Why? Because we are also pro-woman. We refuse to choose between women and children! We refuse to choose between sacrificing our children and sacrificing the education that would provide the employment opportunities our families need and deserve! And that’s hard to argue.

I didn’t argue the legal — although important — aspect of the definition of a human being except to say, “It’s a human and a being. Nuff said.” I argued for resources and support that women need and deserve.

And we won. Women and children won!

Who could imagine such a thing even a decade ago? Honestly, FFL did.

When I first came to Feminists for Life, we were leading the renaissance of the pro-life feminist movement.

When I first came to Feminists for Life, we were leading the renaissance of the pro-life feminist movement. Now I realize that FFL’s decades of work to educate the movement about the early pro-life feminists, that legal abortion is lethal to teens and women as well as our children, and that women deserve better resources and support, have inspired the renaissance of the pro-life movement. The signs are all around us.

Earlier, Saint John Paul II called for a “new feminism.” Other groups, such as Students for Life of America, are reprinting our original research documenting the pro-life sentiments and are building on our campus initiative. Democrats embraced the resources and support for pregnant women, parents, and birthparents in their party platform the same year Republicans included our slogan “Women deserve better than abortion” in theirs. Now, we are working to connect the slogan to the meaning. The March for Life theme that “Pro-Life and Pro-Woman Go Hand in Hand” is going to help the movement better articulate our love for both mothers and children. And this summer, Abby Johnson is hosting the Pro-Life Women’s Conference to reclaim the narrative in Dallas. I am happy to help kick off the event as women bring it back to the place where Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued for legal abortion in Roe v. Wade, began the betrayal of women.


Lopez: What are you most grateful for in your work?

Foster: Oh, let me count the ways! I am grateful to live to see momentum, to gain traction, to see results. I am overjoyed to help raise a new generation of pro-woman, pro-life leaders, including young men, and most of all, to see women’s tears of sadness and despair replaced by tears of joy. And I am amazed to see the transformation of campuses since holding the first Pregnancy Resource Forum in the country at Georgetown two decades ago. Mothers came back with their children. They had completed their education and were happy with their little ones! Finally, I am grateful that that we are reclaiming feminism in the tradition of our feminist foremothers in support for mothers and birthmothers, for children, and yes, for fathers, too. Because all people are equal. All choices are not.

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