The XX Factor

Reaching Out to the Woman in the Yellow Sweater

This morning, anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List hosted a panel discussion at the Yale Club in New York called “A Conversation on Pro-Life Feminism.” The panel included law professor Helen Alvaré, historian Jennifer Popiel, political science professor Catherine Wilson, sociologist Brad Wilcox, and philosophy professor Laura Garcia. A lot of the discussion was familiar to anyone who follows anti-abortion feminists with regularity: There was talk of Susan B. Anthony’s pro-life bona fides (though these have been disputed by Anthony’s biographer, who says the suffragette “spent no time ” on the politics of abortion), and some chatter about how second-wave feminists denigrated motherhood , not to mention press materials decrying “fascist” “faux feminists” on the left.

But there were also more centrist ideas floating around the event. Catherine Wilson stressed that “feminism is not a monolith,” and Brad Wilcox talked about how anti-abortion candidates could do a better job of addressing flexible work policies and the needs of working parents.

During the question and answer period, a 60ish woman in a bright yellow sweater and thick glasses asked about the potential for an anti-abortion female candidate who also supported liberal policies like government health insurance and social welfare. She said she had been working in the anti-abortion movement for decades, and felt that the alliance between pro-lifers and fiscal conservatives, like George W. Bush, was uneasy. “Is there a role for a left wing or liberal female politician who is also pro-life and can win?” the woman in the yellow sweater inquired.

Wilson mentioned that Hispanics, many of whom are anti-abortion, were also more in favor of health care reform than any other group, and said that as the Hispanic population continues to grow there could be potential for such a fiscally liberal, socially conservative candidate to be elected. But Alvaré argued that during the health care reform debate, anti-abortion Democrats were punished for their convictions. Though he wasn’t mentioned during the panel, pro-life democrats like Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey do exist , but it’s unclear whether or not these kinds of centrists will lose ground in the ultra-partisan environment of the 2010 elections. It’s also worth noting that there are no prominent women candidates on the horizon who fit this description.

After I left the panel, I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman in the yellow sweater. She is staunchly anti-abortion, so much so that she is an activist. And yet she is in favor of the social programs that pro-choice feminists like myself believe are so important. How many women out there who define themselves as pro-life are like her? What about the ones who would say they are pro-life, but for whom it is not their biggest issue? Aren’t we alienating those women, who could possibly be persuaded to vote for a pro-choice candidate, when we say that feminism is only for women who are resolutely pro-choice? What do we gain by excluding Ms. Yellow Sweater and her cohort from our conversation? If it is our goal to make work policy and health care better for women and families in this country, we shouldn’t be so quick to tell these women that they can’t join the club.