Friday, April 13, 2007

"I'm a Feminist": Self-Definition of a Group vs. Group Definition of a Self

Whew, wierd title for a blog entry. Bear with me, though.

Take the word "Feminist." Now, between you, me, and my laptop, I kinda think I am one. After all, people call me a goddess-worshipper and a heretic ("her"etic, get it?!) for my position on women in Church Leadership roles and women in marriage. And when I say I'm a Christian feminist, that often is the end of the discussion and the beginning of less group hugs.

But what about me really being a feminist? That is, what if I were to actually ask those women normally identified as feminists if I were a feminist?

I think they'd give me the left foot of fellowship.

Why? Well, I think the big thing is that I do not support abortion on demand (though would support it being legally a "choice" when a woman is raped). That would get me in trouble with some pro-lifers for sure. But among mainstream feminists, that simply isn't an acceptable position to hold. There is not now, and never can be apparently, a "Pro-life feminist."

I'm not in a strong position to argue here, in case anyone's not yet tumbled to that fact. I'm a white American male, financially poor only because some thirty years ago I chose to join these communal wierdos in Chicago, then forget to leave. Heck, I'm still in the catbird seat. In the right circumstances I could, sure enough, be raped. But I wouldn't end up pregnant. If my wife left me (wait a minute, my first one did!) I wouldn't be left pregnant (though I was left with two children as their sole provider). Nobody ever passed over me because I was not (in their eyes) "strong enough" to do the job, or because I "might get pregnant." And on and on.

So... who is right? Am I a feminist? What would all the post-moderns have to say about this mess?

I do know that the group Feminists for Life, which alone remains as a pro-life and (to their own minds, anyway) feminist group, traces back to the start of the modern feminist movement. They, along with other feminists, fought for the Equal Rights Amendment (while I, in those pre-enlightened days, did not and in fact resisted the ERA). Yet today, they are rejected by the mainstream feminists. And of course, as any sociologist probably would guess, Feminists for Life also seem to have drifted at least slightly toward folk who might be more open to them. Namely, toward the religious and political conservatives who have not been friendly with feminism -- EVER.

I particularly am made nervous by Feminists for Life irresolute position on birth control. At least, that is what it appears to me. They do not ringingly endorse birth control, which in my opinion is fairly stunning for a feminist group to avoid speaking on. But I also find in them hope that there is another way for those of us who want to be feminists yet also pro-life.

But really... am I a feminist in any real way outside the confines of my own self-perceptions? Or am I playing at being enlightened while in reality being a reactionary hypocrite?

I suppose, in the end, the vote up or down is not up to me. But I sure wish some feminists -- from all ports of faith, politics, and opinion -- would comment on this thorny issue of feminism and abortion. Can we separate abortion from the rest of the feminist agenda, or is it really at the heart of feminism's self-defined identity?

Finally, is there even such a thing as a "self-defined" identity? Or, to put it another way, should there be?

Just thinkin'....

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Lainie Petersen said...

Oh Boy, Jon.

You know that you and I disagree on abortion...I suppose there is no use arguing about it.

I'd like to hear more about your position on abortion when a pregnancy is the result of rape. I'd also like to hear more about your feelings about Feminists for Life wishy-washiness towards birth control.

Of course, if you'd rather not get into any of this, I completely undersand. :-)

Jon Trott said...


I don't want to argue about it. But I would very much like a discussion on it. Frankly, you were one of those I was thinking of when I wrote this post. And I am hoping some non-believing but serious about dialogue feminists may also join the conversation, which could range from "Can any man call himself a feminist!?" to "Just what part of 'It's my body, stupid?!' can't you understand."

In short, I promise to have thick skin re responses to this. And should pro-abortion feminists post here, I will monitor the responses to them here in order not to allow shriekers and meanies to have airtime.

Thanks, Lainie.


Lainie Petersen said...

Heh, heh.

I've been reading your writing for years, and even remember a fairly arrogant response (written by yourself) to a woman who was objecting to Operation Rescue tactics. Which is why I have been surprised to see your position "softening" (at least a teensy bit) on this topic. For example, I am curious abou your position that you would support abortion being a legal "choice" if a woman is raped (and, I suppose, in those cases where a woman's life was directly threatened by a pregnancy). I'd like to hear why you have changed your mind in this particular scenario.

I'd consider you a feminist, btw, and I don't think an oposition to abortion automatically kicks someone out of the feminist girls club. I would argue, however, that supporting the criminalization of abortion is not a feminist position.

My main beef with the so-called "pro-life feminism" position is my same problem with the modern anti-contraception argument offered up by Roman Catholics (which is, btw, distinct from the anti-contraception position of the "Quiverfull" Protestants), and, curiously enough, the "anti-adoption" movement. All of these movements/positions essentially portray women as:

1. "Naturally" maternal, selfless, and nurturing. These characteristics considered to be an "essential" aspect of femaleness.

2. Victims, particularly of libidenous males. Women are imaged as sexless, passive creatures, forever dodging men and their preditory erections.

As a radical feminist, I am particularly aware of how male behavior can and does influence the behavior of women. I am also aware, however, that women are human beings with their own feelings, agendas, and desires. I believe that a construction of femaleness which renders the "natural" woman as nurturing, mothering, and selfless is not only false, but is damaging to women.

As such, I don't believe that all women want to be pregnant, mother children, or nurture others. I believe that women can and do sincerely want to engage in sexual behavior without risking pregnancy, and that pregnant women can and do sincerely want to abort pregnancies (or relinquish children for adoption) for reasons that do not involve external pressure.

In short, I believe that not all women want to be mothers, and it isn't big, bad men that are forcing them to feel this way.

All this has little to do with the actual morality of abortion (or the criminalization of abortion), of course. But it does reflect my discomfort with the "feminist spin" that has been put on various "reproductive rights" issues, such as abortion, adoption, and contraception. I don't see this spin as feminist, and I don't see it as benefiting women.

Jon Trott said...


Me?! Fairly arrogant? Why, we all know that just isn't possible (snark, snark, snark). Was it on the web or in the magazine's day? Wondering, because maybe I could find it and paste it into the comments here, complete with hang-dog apology?

To your questions / observations:

1. My belief that abortion in case of rape should be a legal choice is one of nuance... I think. (I live in the land of self-doubt!) Basically, the way I see it, to abort a pregnancy is always the taking of a human life, even where rape is involved. But I feel more sensitive these days (whether I am or not is for others to declare) about the woman's experience, and more importantly feel I cannot decide for that woman (or any woman who is victimized by rape) what she is able to bear regarding the guiltless but rapist-implanted child.

Why not just go one more step, then, eh? Why not just say that if a rapist-induced pregnancy is a woman's own choice, that the whole thing is a woman's choice and I (and the govt.) need to butt out? Ah, that's the rub. I won't unpack it all here right now, unless I'm begged to, at which case it could get really long and probably not helpful...

2. The criminalization of abortion is a very knotty issue. Who would go to jail? If the doctors involved, I would support that. I still remember how utterly creepy the various abortion clinic personnel I've encountered were. Very subjective comment, but true in my book... Criminalizing the women getting abortions is another animal altogether.

Reality may well be that changing abortion-on-demand laws -- or at least repealing them utterly -- is no longer truly on the table, so to speak. The fact that pro-life groups have depended upon the right wing, which has been in power for far too long yet been unable to deliver on its promises re repealing Roe v Wade, is a double defeat. It is a defeat on the face of it all, and a defeat because pro-lifers allowed the right wing to ursurp a cause which should have been a progressive one. That is, in the early days of second-wave feminism, when there was a place for pro-life feminists within the movement (see the Wiki entry on Feminists for Life), I suspect the whole abortion issue could have properly been contextualized in a different way than it ended up being. It could have been about women and children being treated equally to males, and males reconceptualizing their own roles as being every bit as able as women to parent, nurture, relate, and form community.

Sadly, things went another way. Anyway, forgive my little homemade attempt at history...

3. Predatory males... I wish I could agree with you on this one, Lainie. But as far as testosterone goes, I do (at least at present understanding) see men as biologically AND sociologically oriented toward implicit and explicit oppression of women. I hope you are right and I am wrong on that one. Too much Dworkin reading on my part? (Wierdly, I have not read Dworkin on abortion.)

Anyway, that's enough for now. More than enough, likely. Thoughts?

Lainie Petersen said...


Quick reply before further dialogue.

The response was, I believe, in a letters to the editor section of the print C-stone. I want to say that it was in the late eighties (maybe 1988 or 1989, no later than 1990) A woman wrote a letter that tried to express the way a woman entering an OR targeted clinic might experience the protest. You argued with her. :-)

Jon Trott said...

Thanks, I will check the archives for that when I go back over for work. May have to wait til the end of this week, as the early part of it is too busy to breath.

And, uh, my name has no "H" in it. Jon, not John. Shoulda stuck with Jonathan, my real name, but somewhere back there went for the short version...

Lainie Petersen said...

Duh, don't know why I did that. Sorry!

Lainie Petersen said...


1. (Your reluctant support of the legal abortion when a pregnancy as the result of rape.)

I find your position extremely troubling for several reasons. For one, if you believe that abortion is the "taking of a human life" (I am not sure if you would define it as murder or not.), I fail to understand why a life created via rape is any less valuable than a life created through consentual sex. It seems to me that your position is the result of your concern for rape victims, which is admirable, but it also strikes me as sentimental. If abortion should be criminalized because it destroys human life, exceptions even for nonconsentual sex just don't make any sense.

Also, and I am not accusing you of feeling this way, but I don't like the "rape exemption" mentality because it smacks of the notion of pregnancy being a punishment for sexual behavior. When I have discussed abortion issues with people I often hear people say that abortion is ok in the case of rape but not ok if a woman had consentual sex because a woman who has consented to sex should be forced to "pay the price" (i.e. pregnancy and motherhood). Ironically, however, I have often heard pro-natalist Christians (and others) accuse pro-abortion-rights and pro-contraception people of "devaluing motherhood". But how does one value the work of pregnancy (and it IS work) and motherhood if one also belives it to be a punishment? (Again, I am not accusing you of believing that way, I am just noting how the argument for the rape exemption plays out.)

I understand if you don't want to unpack this, but I do think that your attitude about this is more important than you seem to realize. :-)

2. (Criminalizing abortion and who would go to jail)

My problem with your take on who would go to jail if abortion was re-criminalized is that it is patronizing to women. Would you be so willing to let a woman who, say, allowed her child to be molested and used in child pornography off the hook? If not, why? And if you believe that abortion is the willful taking of a human life, why would you minimize a woman's participation in that heinous act? If women are not to be held responsible for their actions, then why should they be trusted with any sort of important decision (including, I might add, the decision to become a mother)?

And finally, basing your desire to criminalize doctors on the basis that they are "creepy" is just plain silly. I could tell you stories about the "crazy" pro-lifers that I've met: Doesn't mean that I think that they should all be institutionalized. In any case, criminalizing doctors, but not women who willingly seek out their services, is not a feminist position.

As to the issue of anti-abortion activism being a legitimate "progressive" issue, please read my response to your third point.

3. (Men as predators.)

Actually, what I was addressing here was the pseudo-feminist rhetorical shift of those who oppose contraception/abortion (and even adoption, in some cases).This rhetorical technique makes women who use contraception or seek an abortion out to be victims of the men with whom they have sex. It denies female sexual (and moral)agency while it simultainously insists that "real" women want to be pregnant and/or be mothers. A woman who rejects motherhood is seen as fundamentally unnatural, and the easiest explaination is that that big, bad man that she slept with/is sleeping with is using her for sex and pushing her to act against her "natural", maternal instincts.

In addition to infantalizing women, this position also sidesteps the issue of women who, for whatever reason, do not want to be pregnant and who do not want to be mothers. The more misogynistic of the pro-lifers are perfectly willing to breathe fire and brimstone upon such uppity women. While I find their attitudes irritating, I am actually more comfortable with this sort of condemnation than the sliminess of the "Feminists for Life" apologists who insist that women only have abortions as a response to outside pressure.

I don't believe that most men are rapists, even if men often behave in ways that are oppressive. I also think that women are perfectly capable of setting sexual boundries with men and that men are perfectly capable of respecting those boundries. I also believe, however, that women have sex drives and can, and do desire sex without desiring pregnancy and motherhood. Until we are willing to acknowledge this fact, and to acknowledge that healthy, normal, "natural" women can feel this way, I fear that discussions about abortion, feminism, motherhood, and other issues are going to produce some very skewed conclusions.

Lainie Petersen said...

BTW, if it makes you feel any better, I actually suffer some of the "group" vs "self" definition within feminism that you do. Going beyond the specific issue of abortion (which I know was not the main point your original post), I am at odds with most feminists over my championing of marriage and the intact "married" family. Apparently believing that single motherhood is not a good thing for women, children, society (and men!) is enough to get the left army boot of sisterhood these days.

I'm not sure why feminists are so willing to disregard the research which demonstrates the importance of married parents. I feel that there is a theological mystery here, and I am thinking that it is something that is worth examining.