Recovering the original meaning of feminism

Joseph Esposito

Document Publication: Our Sunday Visitor - Huntington, IN

Publication Date: October 01, 2000

Feminists for Life promotes a pro-life, pro-equality agenda -- like the early women's-rights pioneers

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 full agreement.

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 abortions.

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."


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 parenting students.

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."

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 • Email: