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Abstract

The diversity of experience and perspective within the feminist movement create a divide

that fractures the movement, ultimately rendering it less effective for achieving equal rights for

women. Particularly in regards to the Pro-life versus Pro-choice movements. Instead of uniting

for common goals, the emotional arguments and extremist stereotypes, blind either side to the

other’s contributions. This paper seeks to a) identify the historical influence on both sides b)

examine added intersectionality and black feminism c) examine how today’s culture enforces

these perceptions and d) apply sociological theory to explain the development of this movement

and its current divides.


The women’s movement has made historical achievements in fighting for gender equality

since its formation in the 19th century. While these achievements have meant improvement in

their overall condition in society, there is much to be addressed and corrected before true equality

can be claimed. A number of the inequalities still impacting the lives of women today include,

job discrimination, unequal pay, poverty, reproductive and healthcare rights, sexual

discrimination, objectification, and conflicting behavioral and beauty standards. The issue within

the movement, is that the large amount of diversity in social class, location, culture, and race

contribute to differences in personal experiences. These differences in experiences create varying

opinions on what constitutes inequality and the extent that it impacts women. This impacts the

ability of the women’s movement to create a united front. Making it more difficult to address

even the more agreed upon structural inequalities that are oppressing women.

One of the largest disagreements within the women’s movement is on the issue of

Reproductive Rights, or Abortion. On one side, the Pro-life supporters believe in the criminality

of abortion and base their platform on protecting the rights of the unborn infants. On the other

hand, the Pro-Choice movement argues that it should be a woman’s personal choice to decide

what she does with her body, and that includes the ability to choose abortion if that be the

necessary choice for her. The media influences each side’s perception of the other, in particular,

by highlighting extremists on either side. This further divides the movement by pushing

commonalities out of the conversation. Instead, their differences control the narrative and

prevent rational discussion. The Pro-Life supporters are seen as callus in their apparent disregard

for rape victims, and the lives of mothers in dangerous pregnancies. They are portrayed as Bible-

hugging hypocrites and ignorant housewives. The Pro-Choice supporters are often portrayed as

man-haters, or Nazi-feminists, with contempt for feminine qualities, and an agenda to promote
promiscuity. These are narrow images that capture a distorted reality of what either side stands

for.

The women’s movement historically was comprised of white, middle class women

fighting for their own rights. They have focused primarily on issues that affect their personal

lives. While many also contributed to humanitarian and abolitionist movements, their

understanding of these complexities of inequality and their prioritization of them, has been

limited. The added element of intersectionality seeks to extend the goals of feminism to reach

minority women, who have been historically excluded from the conversation, and by association,

the rights awarded. Feminism, in its first two waves in particular, largely ignored the perspective

of minority women, how their lives were doubly impacted by oppression, and the unique

experiences that shape their impression of society. Intersectionality provides insight into how

other influences like race and social class add further complexity to the issues that are already

specific to women as a minority group (Luna, 2009).

As a Sociologist, it is difficult for me to address this issue. My perspective is entrenched

in religious values from my upbringing, and the need to reconcile morals with practiced reality,

poses conflict when I try and form a clear position. While my own experiences have encouraged

the value of unborn life, and the trials and miracles I’ve seen within my immediate community

encourage these sentiments, I can no longer claim ignorance to the trials that those outside of my

community face and how my position contributes to their continued oppression.

The Pro-Life movement argues that there is a moral obligation to protect unborn infants.

They believe that, regardless of scientific input, a fetus is unarguably a human life. That

regardless of circumstance, it unjust to end a life for the preservation of another. They believe

that current sex education and access to birth control proves that regardless of such tools, people
will still choose abortion, and that increasing access to birth control will only promote future

abortions when and if it fails. They believe that the dangers of illegal abortions are not as

prevalent as the Pro-Choice movement argues, and that legalizing abortion only encouraged an

increase in number (European, 2012).

The Pro-Choice movement argues that the Pro-Life movement seeks to limit the rights of

women. They believe that there are circumstances, like rape, incest, or the risk of losing the

mother, that justify performing an abortion. They believe that the current sex education and

access to birth control is far more limited and ineffective than perceived by society. They believe

that illegalizing abortions will force women to endanger themselves, or by not being able to

make necessary choices, lead to a lower quality of life for infant and mother. (European, 2012)

There will not be a solution that leaves either side satisfied. Compromises must be made

in order to unite and continue to fight for equality. Perhaps making abortion illegal will reduce

the number of abortions, which is favored by the Pro-Life. However, one misconception of the

Pro-Choice movement is that they are in favor of abortions. The level of debate that surrounds

this argument shows the gravity of the action. It seems unlikely that people would be in favor of

ending a potential life simply for the convenience. More likely, is that real circumstances put

people in positions where they have to make difficult and uncomfortable decisions. There is a

necessity to remove a level of personal emotion, and consider what leads people to the point

where they feel there is a choice that must be made (Luna, 2009). There is certainly validity in

the Pro-Life argument, in that nothing can change the fact that a life is growing inside a woman.

The very engagement of arguing the matter is an admission of that fact. There is certain validity

in the need for personal responsibility across the board in regards to situations of engaging in

voluntary sexual intercourse, using protection, and being aware of involved risks. However, what
must also be recognized is the added oppression if nothing else is done to alleviate the growing

problems in communities (European, 2012).

The Pro-Life arguers must recognize their own biases that influence their position. The

reality is that many involved in the Pro-Life movement use religion as a basis of their argument.

Generally, those who share these beliefs also share a similar socio-economic and racial status.

They are privileged in their ability to care for themselves in spite of increased difficulty. In

remaining steadfast in their argument, they are failing to see how the argument for abortion is

representative of a greater argument. If instead of focusing on banning abortions, they focused on

decreasing structural inequality, would that lead to a decline in the perceived need for abortions?

If there was a consistent and effective sex education, and a true equal access to birth control and

contraceptives, would that lower the number of unplanned pregnancies? If the education system

valued students as individuals, would they recognize a need for reasoning and motivations when

teaching children, instead of simply saying “don’t have sex.” If there was a cohesive curriculum

that promoted abstinence, while educating on the emotional and physical risks of sex, and the

responsibility of engaging in such activities, would there be such a high number of abortions as

there is now?

Examining how feminism, or the women’s movement, became a social phenomenon, the

history of women’s position in society reflects the evolvement of an implicit bias that is actively

impacting their current status. First, from the early stages of American life, women were not

given a voice and essentially considered property of either father or husband. Once married,

white women lost their legal status, forfeited all assets to their husbands, and were socially

conditioned into motherhood and performing duties for the household. In comparison, African

American women were facing the oppression of chattel slavery which defined them as property,
resulting in the dehumanization and exploitation of their race. They lacked any ownership over

their own bodies. Patterns of abuse, specifically rape, experienced under their white masters,

often resulted in pregnancies that further compromised their situations. Their own relationships

and freedoms to reproduce were restricted, and they were often forced to be separated from their

families through the slave trade. They were later conditioned into domesticated jobs that had

them caring for other people’s children in order to provide for their own. For white women, their

historical roles as mothers, influences the current social pressures for them as women to

reproduce at some point in their lives. This conflicts with an increasing desire for equality in the

workforce and many women choosing to put off motherhood or choose against it all together to

pursue careers. White women hold a generally higher socio-economic status that allows them the

freedom to pursue such endeavors. For them, the 20th century influenced their role within the

home through growing consumerism and encouraged homemaking. While these expectations

influenced women across all sections of society, additional societal factors such as eugenics were

experienced specifically by women of color. Medical professionals practiced these racist theories

by performing sterilizations without consent, in attempts to control the growing population of

African Americans (Lynne, 2000).

Today, there are conflicting expectations put on women that influence their decisions.

Growing support for equality is met with societal norms that continue to discriminate between

men and women. First, a general attitude that persecutes women for engaging in sex while

simultaneously applauding men for it. Second, in addition to the conflicting value placed on

motherhood, there is an expected responsibility of women to be caretakers while men are nearly

exempt from responsibility within the home. Third, the standards that ostracize women who
choose not to marry or have children, and yet also blame wives for “trapping” men and keeping

them from their potential.

Karl Marx used his theories to make sense of the lives of white men. However, expanding

on them now, they can be used to explain how women are kept in their roles. The system of

capitalism simultaneously encourages free labor, in this case the labor of motherhood, and at the

same time, finds no value in it, because there is no tangible profit to be made. By encouraging

the expectations of women to reproduce, and contributing to circumstances that make it difficult

for mothers to work, capitalism aids in controlling women by keeping them out of the workforce.

Marx’s theories can also be used to argue that false consciousness works against both women as

a whole, and between women of different socio-economic and racial backgrounds to keep them

from seeing their position in society, and further alienating them from each other. This focus on

differences, often perpetuated through society’s pitting of women against each other, even further

prevents them from uniting. (Allan, 2017).

Jane Chaftez’s theories of gender inequality also explain how women have been kept

subordinate. Through the legitimacy of power in the male role, these expectations of women

have been considered normal as determined by males. Society encourages these roles and women

commit voluntary gender inequality by then continuing to perpetuate these roles. She recognized

the difficulty in uniting diverse groups of women on any commonality because of the depth of

differences and a lack of mutual respect and understanding, particularly from the majority

(white) within the minority (women). (Allan, 2013).

This historical lack of ownership that women had over their own bodies, contributes to

their desire to fight for them now. Patricia Hill Collins’ theory of black feminist epistemology

can be used to examine how individuals within the opposing sides form their opinions. She
believed in a necessity for personal accountability. There is a responsibility that comes from

knowledge and claiming beliefs, and as part of it we must examine every aspect of our lives in

order to understand how our perspective has both been shaped and how it has shaped our beliefs.

She believes when engaged in this kind of thinking, we discover examples of inequality and

discrimination that go against the ideas of a shared experience (Faul, 2018). In addition, Collins

would likely examine how African American women have unique positions based on their

experience with oppression. They are better able to see the circumstances surrounding the

decision of abortion. They are more accustomed to poverty, lack of healthcare, limited to no

community support, and other injustice. They are influenced by an even greater lack of

ownership of their own bodies historically, which influences a greater number of minority

women to support the Pro-Choice movement. White, middle class women who support Pro-Life

may do so, but are also accountable for their position and what it reflects. By refusing to see the

current state of education, and the lack of community resources, they are denying the existence

of such issues (Allan, 2013).

Is the government- as an institution legally separate from religion- not accountable for

the welfare of all its citizens? Yet so much inequality exists. So the challenge becomes- whether

or not the core movement’s objective, is the pro-life argument used to legitimize a forfeit of

responsibility by political leaders, particularly conservatives, who are influenced by these

religious values, to investigate or to be accountable for the policies that are contributing to the

creation of these disparities within American communities. (Kelly, 1999).

In order to move past this divide, there has to be a willingness for accountability. Either

side must examine their own bias and make compromises to re-center the focus towards

addressing common goals for equality.


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