What do women want? In politics, the answers are as predictable as they are condescending: handsome and/or earth-toned candidates; smaller kindergarten classes; Hillary. As Martha would say, each of these seems “a good thing,” at least in a gauzy, soft-focused sort of way. Yet without more, all lack the capacity to resonate when the focus groups go home.
Of course, common wisdom says that abortion rights are what women want most from politics. Thus, because of his pro-choice bona fides, the earth-toned Al Gore is thought likely to edge out the handsome George W. Bush among the soccer-mom set. For this reason, some Republicans urge their candidate to pick a pro-choice running mate so the party might finally do well among the ladies. If only the GOP would soften its pro-life position, they say, the all-important gender gap would close.
Let us hope that this will be the last election in which we hear this tired argument. The assumption that women are reliably pro-choice hasn’t been updated in 25 years, and Bush might as well try to attract women by donning a leisure suit and doing the hustle. In fact, recently there have been some striking indications that support for abortion rights no longer resonates with American women. First among them was last year’s much-discussed poll conducted by the pro-choice Center for Gender Equality, which found that a majority of American women now oppose abortion in all but the rarest cases. The poll further found that a full 70 percent of American women think abortion should be restricted more than it is now. Think these numbers were a fluke? Think again: a Yankelovich Partners poll also found an increase in pro-life sentiment among Americans. And a National Opinion Research Center poll. And the annual UCLA survey of college freshmen. Needless to say, this all caused much alarm among leading feminists.
Their concern was valid, for this erosion of support for abortion rights is part of a larger story: the demise of the old feminism. The two are inextricably intertwined, for the feminist movement has always seen an unfettered right to abortion as the linchpin of women’s liberty, closing the door on any woman who disagreed. Organized feminism’s cold-blooded support for partial-birth abortion has brought this view into stark relief, with feminist leaders willing to sacrifice an almost-born child in a gruesome procedure rather than place the slightest restriction on a woman’s right to choose. When it became clear that the abortion litmus test also required support for something much like infanticide, many women instinctively recoiled.
Not that feminism had been gaining ground before the partial-birth controversy, mind you: young women have been rejecting the feminist label for some time. The movement has lost much credibility with these women through its refusal to come to terms with its own excesses and failures. Yet instead of soberly recognizing, for instance, that no-fault divorce has left many women much worse off than expected, that marriage and family provide most women with much happiness, or that the promises of the sexual revolution have gone largely unfulfilled, feminist leaders have repeated their self-satisfied party line.
Moreover, in recent years prominent writers, from Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Danielle Crittenden on the right to Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe on the left, have questioned the assumptions underlying fin de siècle American feminism. These critiques still await adequate replies. As a result, even feminism’s core constituency—educated professional women—have begun to see the women’s movement as outdated and irrelevant. Of course, that’s if their career experience hadn’t already cemented that view. And need it be said that historians will see a self- inflicted coup de grace in the feminist establishment’s hypocritical response to the Clinton scandals? When the founder of Ms. magazine proudly defends the nation’s most powerful man against the charge that he asked a young female employee to provide him with anonymous sexual services, the writing is on the wall.
This provides a remarkable opportunity for the Republican Party to stand against the party of anachronistic feminism. Having lost its license to speak for American women, the feminist movement has also lost its lock on the framing of the abortion question. Bush should reject the moribund idea that women desire some show of support for abortion rights. An appeal to the pro-choice position—whether by picking a pro-choice running mate or by soft-pedaling his own pro-life views—will not help him capture women’s votes. Instead, he should boldly articulate a pro-life stance in accord with his compassionate conservatism, one in which he and his party stand with the unborn child and his or her mother. Women will applaud a candidate who focuses the abortion debate on how to help mothers facing unplanned pregnancies, while also focusing on how best to end the era of the nine-month unrestricted abortion license. There is much initial work to be done, from public support for charitable organizations that provide pregnancy services, to the enactment of laws ensuring that women considering abortions are informed of the possible effects on their own health, and are also informed of their alternatives.
Organized feminism is in disarray, and nothing shows this more clearly than its increasing failure to keep women on the pro-choice plantation. By focusing on the needs and concerns of mothers while remaining firm in his commitment to protect the unborn child, Bush can capitalize on this propitious moment and shift the terms of the debate. This will help him secure the support of the majority of American women who are pro-life. Much more importantly, though, Bush will show women facing unplanned pregnancies that he and his party will care for unborn children by caring for their mothers as well.