Like many women of my generation, I like to imagine that I would have been a suffragette if I had been living over a hundred years ago, though I might have drawn the line at setting fire to post boxes, destroying valuable artworks and throwing myself in front of a horse. Everyone loves a rebel, though usually not when he is in the process of rebelling. As a child of the 1980s, there were certain things I took for granted. Britain had its first female prime minister in the person of Margaret Thatcher; I accepted that a woman could get more or less where she wanted in life if she worked hard and had a forceful enough personality. My own mother worked full-time alongside my father.
However, coming from an immigrant family with a very different cultural perspective on womanhood, I also learnt very young (and with an increasing sense of frustration) that being a female carried certain restrictions with it that I was expected to accept. I have never forgotten the shocked silence I managed to cause in my early teens when my male cousin clicked his fingers during dinner and demanded I fetch him a glass of water, only to receive the response from me, “Get it yourself ! You have a pair of legs, haven’t you?” It was drummed into us from the earliest moments that there was only one virtue a girl could aspire to and that was obedience in all things; the slightest hint of a strong will in a girl was treated as dangerous and in need of swift discipline.
Every detail of our lives was controlled, down to the way we wore our hair to the way we walked (to this day, I still do not quite understand why the length of my stride can be condemned as unladylike). While other girls were embracing life as they seemed to want to live it, I was trapped in a world that thwarted girls at every step and was stubbornly refusing to reform.
At university and in the years that followed, the guardians of women’s rights vacillated between victimhood and thuggery, with doses of racism and neo-colonialism thrown into the mix. Women who claimed to stand for all of us were quick to assume their cultural superiority without always realising that they were imposing a white, Western, middle-class agenda on an increasingly diverse and international female student body. The young woman who proposed that the Women’s Union disaffiliate from the National Abortion Campaign had her right to express a considered opinion encouraged by a student woman’s officer who scowled, shouted and shook her fist in her face. Abortion, of course, was the untouchable jewel in the crown of women’s liberation.
Feminism, or so it appeared, was as prescriptive and tyrannical as the status quo of the past had ever been. Women were still expected to conform to a narrow set of maxims, and “real” womanhood was still being defined for women with an expectation of conformity at the risk of social opprobrium. To be a proper woman, one had to be single but probably sexually active, antireligion, antimarriage, anti-motherhood, anti-men, pro-abortion and pro-contraception. Any woman who expressed the right to choose their own way was a self-hating antifeminist deviant who needed bullying and shaming back into the fold or silencing altogether. That women still faced struggles, I had no doubt, but if feminism had become so trapped in the battles of the past, so dictatorial, so obsessed with its own victimhood, it was no longer fit for purpose.
As far as I was concerned, a woman caught between two conflicting and unsatisfactory ideologies of womanhood would simply have to fight her corner her way. Not long after I had rather publicly said so, the parcel arrived on my doorstep from a well-wisher, containing a slim volume of essays by women who were feminist but rejected the ideology of abortion: Swimming against the Tide. Pro-life feminism did exist, I was assured. It was simply a case of finding it.
I owe the greatest debt of gratitude, to author, historian and prolific letter writer Ann Farmer, who first suggested to me long ago that pro-life feminism is possible. I still have in my possession the book she sent me in response to a sarcasm-laden denunciation of feminism I penned as an angry student. The book contained no accompanying letter, just a Post-It note on the front cover containing the words “Pro-life Feminism does exist!”
Sometimes, the most life-changing messages are the shortest.
Prayer: Read and meditate upon St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Women”, where he praises women in all stations and proclaims their dignity.
Excerpted from “The Abolition of Women: How Radical Feminism is Betraying Women” by Fiorella Nash.