Beyond Abortion—A Common Good Feminism for the Twenty-First Century

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation’s rapid reversal on its decision to rescind funding for Planned Parenthood earlier this year and the organization’s subsequent struggles, which led founder Nancy Brinker to send a letter to Congress last Friday in which she apologizes for the incident, have given a profound national testimony of the ability of feminists to mobilize quickly and effectively to generate policy changes and alter the political landscape. Yet such successful mobilization efforts only seem to occur when the movement acts to promote increased access to abortion and to the organizations that provide it.

For those of us who agree with women’s rights hero Alice Paul that “abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women” but also believe so much more can and should be done to promote the dignity and equality of women, we cannot help but be struck by the sentiment of “what if?”

What if the modern feminist agenda went beyond abortion rights?

What if their energy, time and resources supported a broader range of issues?

What if the feminist movement could appeal to persons across the political spectrum?

It can, and it should.

We suspect that many feminists, including those who support abortion rights, share this desire to see a broader feminist agenda, one that addresses the everyday needs of women and unleashes the full potential of women all around the world.

Though some contend that the term feminist should be applied exclusively to women, issues surrounding women’s rights and equality have a profound effect on the lives of all members of society, including men. Men cannot be excused from their responsibilities to promote authentic equality for women merely because these are “women’s issues.” All members of society are called to pursue the common good.

Embracing a reinvigorated sense of what feminism entails is a fitting task for the twenty-first century, as the dominant understanding of women’s rights in modern society has evolved up to this point to reveal a dichotomy of sorts: equal rights for women are viewed as a generally positive end, but activists for the cause are often vilified as extremists.

The polarization that inevitably results from such a harsh depiction of feminists stalls deeper discussions about the meaning of women’s rights, especially within the context of broad-scale human rights. As Millennials, we hope to move past these old divisions by embracing an interpretation of feminism that recovers the roots of the feminist agenda – not in mere narrow political demands, but rather in the broader sense of where and how equal rights for women contribute to promoting the common good.

What are some issues that should take on increased importance for these common good feminists? While there are a myriad of possibilities, we hope to begin the conversation by focusing on just a few: reducing the abortion rate, improving conditions for working mothers, giving girls safe and affirming communities in which to grow up, and promoting human rights and economic development.

The Politics of Abortion

Few issues are as contentious as the issue of abortion. Hard-line activists dominate both the pro-life and pro-choice movements, promoting absolutist positions and a combative approach that leaves little room for compromise. The result is that not nearly enough has been accomplished in one area where there is a large consensus: reducing the abortion rate.

People of good will and sound mind can fall on either side of the abortion issue, but few reasonable people would contest the desirability of reducing the abortion rate. Most pro-choice women concede that abortion is in some sense tragic. This is why they reject the label pro-abortion. And by embracing choice, it is clear that they want women to have real choices, not feel compelled to procure abortions out of economic necessity. For pro-lifers, their activism is either about saving the lives of individual unborn children who each have dignity and worth or it’s a political game that has become divorced from its initial inspiration. Neither ideological extremism nor partisanship should stand in the way of accomplishing this worthy goal.

The time has come to dial down the nasty rhetoric and the perpetual vitriol and work together on a goal everyone can agree on without compromising their deepest values: to create a country whose political and economic structures, whose social and cultural values, make it a place where abortion is no longer needed or desired by pregnant women. The conflict over the legality of abortion will inevitably persist, but feminists on both sides of the issue can and should work together on issues where there is common ground.

Women in the Workplace   

Perhaps no issue impacts more American women than the challenges associated with pursuing professional success while fulfilling the responsibilities of motherhood. Both the government and business community have a responsibility to adjust to the realities of the 21st century, in particular the number of women working outside the home.

The “demands of capitalism” cannot serve as an excuse to deny women basic necessities to their motherhood, including paid maternal leave and flexible work schedules. More attention to these workplace shortcomings is essential, not just for working mothers, but also for working fathers. Pay disparities between men and women must be closed, and women (and men) should no longer be punished for performing their essential duties as parents.

Traditional gender roles, formed during an era when men began to work outside the home while women stayed at home, must give way to a new understanding of marriage and work responsibilities. Stay-at-home dads should not be mocked, but praised, when they choose to take a greater responsibility in the home, while their talented wives do important work outside of the home. The common good requires that as a society, we fully utilize the skills, knowledge, and experience of our nation’s most talented women. Married couples must look at one another as real partners and determine together how they can best contribute to the common good and the well-being of their children without being bound by antiquated norms.

One key issue that impacts millions of American parents is the difficulty of ensuring quality, affordable childcare. This is a major problem not only in homes with two working parents, but also for single-parents.

Safe Communities for Girls

The threats facing American girls as they mature into adulthood are astonishing and disturbing. Perhaps none is graver than the threat of sexual violence. Sexual violence affects women of all ages, but girls and young women are the most acutely threatened.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from 2010, one in five women will be raped in their lifetime, a chilling statistic. Around eighty percent of female rape victims were raped before the age of twenty five while almost half were victimized before the age of eighteen.

Rape is an all too common occurrence at our nation’s colleges, as universities have struggled to effectively deal with the issue. Dr. Jennifer Beste, an assistant professor of theology at Xavier University—a Jesuit, Catholic institution in Cincinnati—notes that “the American consciousness must be heightened to the significant threats facing its young women at schools all across the country. This can no longer be ignored in any facet of our society.”

A related problem is the issue of human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking. This problem is global in scope and feminists cannot help but address this form of modern slavery. The global nature of the problem causes many to overlook how frequently it occurs within our own borders. In Ohio—in middle America—1,000 American-born children are forced into the sex trade every year and about 800 immigrants are sexually exploited and pushed into sweatshop-type jobs.

There is no single cause behind this sexual violence epidemic. Rape is committed for a variety of reasons. One contributing factor however is undoubtedly the widespread and largely accepted objectification of women. Women are dehumanized, seen as sexual objects whose bodies are disconnected from their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual natures. This in turn has resulted in the sexualization of girls. Some feminists have tried to embrace their sexualization and use it as a tool of empowerment. On a societal level, this approach has failed. The dignity and worth of women cannot be reconciled with being viewed and treated as an object. Feminists should resist, not attempt to co-opt, men’s most base, primitive mentalities.

The sexualization of girls is only one indication of a culture that is often toxic for teenage and preteen girls. Messages from the media and advertisements are designed to lower their self-worth and play to vicious stereotypes. They are told that they must look and dress a certain way to have friends, popularity, and affection. They are told that girls love shopping, not math or science. They are bombarded with images crafted to make them want to be like photo-shopped and airbrushed models.

Often the responses of parents, teachers, and other authority figures and role-models are entirely inadequate. It is not surprising when studies show significantly higher rates of depression, self-harm (cutting), and eating disorders among girls than among boys. Feminists need to stand up against these corrosive messages. They must also do more to protect girls from what Rachel Simmons has termed “girl bullying,” relational aggression among girls. Helping girls to recognize their worth and dignity will not only bring more emotional stability and contentment to girls, but serve as a building block to unleashing a new generation of talented, confident, and successful women.

A Century for Women

Absolutely nothing could improve the lives of more women than the spread of human rights and economic opportunity around the world. The four freedoms—freedom of speech and religion, from fear and want— continue to guide the way. Countless women and children struggle to survive breathtaking poverty. When famine or other calamities hit, they often bear the brunt of it. More must be done to help lift women out of poverty by empowering them with educational opportunities and access to capital.

Improving access to education and literacy rates among girls and women not only unleashes their potential, but is a key to improving economic and social conditions in entire countries. Meanwhile women in many developing countries have often shown a greater propensity to use funds wisely on necessities and investments that benefit whole families, rather than wasting them on things like alcohol and other nonessentials. Microfinancing should be just one way that more women gain access to capital.

States should be pressured to act more forcefully to reduce sexual and physical violence, as well as human trafficking. Women must have the right to practice their religion, speak their minds, and participate politically. These are basic rights that all people deserve. Promoting them will improve the lives of millions of women.

Coming Together

A broadened feminist agenda is essential for attacking the injustices that degrade women, limit their potential, and stand in the way of social equality. We propose a common good feminism that is rooted in a belief in the innate dignity, equality, and worth of all women and directed toward the creation of a society that allows women to reach their full development as intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual persons.

For Catholics, participation in these efforts is essential. The Church and its leaders, including Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, have fought for policies and programs that promote the dignity of women. Though this agenda is fought for in the political sphere, it must be rooted in the depth of our Catholic tradition and in the person of Jesus—a man who by his actions and words promoted the dignity of women in unprecedented ways. His life can serve serves as a model for those of us who engage in this movement. Jesus was no partisan. As all four Gospels remind us, Jesus was a man who was willing to cross to the other side of the water (cf. Mark 4:35, Matthew 8:18, Luke 8:22 and John 6:1). Let us follow him. Let us cross to the other side and listen empathetically to the experiences of persons with whom we disagree. Let us work together where we can and stay in dialogue on issues where we cannot move forward. As an old saint reminds us: in crucial things, unity; in important things, diversity; and in all things, love.

By Christopher Hale, Executive Director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good; Anne Roan Thomas, PhD Candidate at Catholic University; Sarah Christian, Copy Editor of Millennial; and Robert Christian, PhD Candidate at Catholic University and Editor of Millennial. This article first appeared in CACG’s Common Good Forum.