OUR SUNDAY VISITOR
October 1, 2000
Recovering the original meaning of "feminism"
Feminists for Life promotes a pro-life, pro-equality agenda -- like the
early women's-rights pioneers
By Joseph Esposito
To many Americans, "feminists" is a code word for radical women who espouse
an anti-life, anti-family message. And yet, 19th-century women's-rights pioneers
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton - the prototypical feminists - were
something quite different.
In fact, they might readily agree with Pope John Paul II when he calls for a
"new feminism" in Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life"). He
suggests we "affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of
society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation."
Also explicit in his understanding of the term is a commitment to motherhood
and the sanctity of life. While some women's activists find such a view
abhorrent, one nonsectarian group, Feminists for Life of America (FFL), is in
Since 1972, FFL has been promoting a pro-life message combined with a concern
for the challenges that face both pregnant women and mothers raising children.
About 5,000 members, 10 percent of whom are men, support grassroots work that
puts a more selfless face on feminism.
President Serrin Foster, a Catholic, argues that being pro-life means being
faithful to arguments made by early American women's-rights activists. "They
believed that unborn children had the right to be born and that abortion hurt
women," said Foster. "Feminism was, in short, about the equality of all people."
She added: "Abortion violates all the basic tenets of feminism, which are
nonviolence, nondiscrimination and justice for all."
FFL has a broad pro-life mandate. "Our mission," Foster told Our Sunday
Visitor, "is to protect human beings, especially women and children, from
conception through the natural end of life." Thus, they oppose assisted suicide
and capital punishment and work to end child abuse.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests
for Life, said, "I have supported this group for years because they speak a
message which many 'pro-choice' people find surprisingly persuasive. The
positions of Feminists for Life are entirely consistent with Catholic teaching."
FFL refocused its work in 1995 when it moved to Washington, D.C., and began a
program that would become its trademark effort: pro-life outreach to students on
college campuses. This was a largely neglected group, but one highly prone to
A 1996 Gallup poll showed that a remarkable shift in favor of abortion occurs
among women during college years. Pro-choice sentiment increased as their level
of education rose; high-school graduates were only 37 percent pro-choice, but
that increased to 59 percent for those with some college education and 73
percent among college graduates.
Gallup properly called the college experience "a major, even revolutionary,
influence" regarding abortion. Foster recalls asking, "Why are abortion clinics
marketing directly to the student on campus? Because they know their market."
This inspired her and FFL to begin its first Pregnancy Resource Forum at
Georgetown University, believing that if students, faculty and staff knew what
aid was available to pregnant women, perhaps abortions would be greatly reduced.
Equally important, though, the effort identified what services were lacking.
FFL was instrumental in creating the Hoyas for Kids Child Care Center and
endowed housing for pregnant and parenting students. A part-time sexual-assault
specialist began to help identify pregnancy resources.
Today Foster says that Georgetown has made the best strides in the country on
proving such services to pregnant men. A current student there, Elizath Brown of
Georgetown University Right to Life, gives much credit to FFL: "They provide a
real sense of hope in a sticky and unhappy situation."
Among other schools that have held FFL-sponsored Pregnancy Resource Forums
are the University of California-Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of
Kansas, Kent State University, Swarthmore College and Villanova University.
"Feminists for Life," Father Pavone said, "are able to speak on campuses
throughout the nation, and challenge those campuses to meet the true needs of
their students by offering the kind of support and opportunities which remove
pressure and despair that result in abortion."
Sensing a successful program, FFL expanded its college outreach to include
distribution of resource information and pro-life feminist-history kits,
questionnaires, posters and advertisements. They work on about 350 to 450
campuses a year.
In addition, Foster is often invited by American Collegians for Life, the Ivy
League Coalition for Life or local pro-life student groups to speak on campus.
Her talk, "The Feminist Case Against Abortion," has stimulated dialogue and made
converts at some of the nation's most pro-abortion institutions.
FFL prides itself on a willingness to work with pro-choice students and
administrators, seeking to find common ground and ways to explore greater
cooperation "We may disagree on the humanity of the child, but we all agree on
the terror that this woman is experiencing Foster stressed.
One testimonial comes from Melissa Moschella, president of Harvard Right to
Life. Speaking of Foster's visit to campus earlier this year, Moschella said,
"She clearly stood out as the panelist who, without compromising her pro-life
position, was able to speak to those on both sides of the debate, gaining
respect and even approbation from the pro-choicers in the audience."
Foster believes "our work resonates on college campuses because we are
dealing from a women-centered philosophy. We're talking about this in women's
terms, what women really need, what women really want."
NEW AD PROGRAM
Last month, FFL unveiled a series of eight new print ads. They address basic
needs, including alternatives to abortion, paternity establishment, child
support, post-abortion trauma and the lack of campus resources for pregnant and
One ad features Rebecca Wasser Kiessling, who was conceived in rape. Now a
lawyer and new mother, she asks, "Did I deserve the death penalty? My 'crime'
was being conceived through rape. So the next time you hear people talking about
'exceptions' to abortion for rape and incest, think of me."
Another shows a photo of Susan B. Anthony alongside a pro-life quote from
her. The ad then continues: "The woman who fought for the right to vote also
fought for the right to life. We proudly continue her legacy."
Providing these ads on campuses is invaluable. Perhaps Georgetown's Elizabeth
Brown put it best: "It isn't easy to be a pro-life voice in college these days.
Feminists for Life has let us know again and again that they are there to
support us, and again and again, they have done just that."