In Contested Lives, Faye Ginsburg, an anthropologist, offers a sensitive and remarkably balanced study of the abortion conflict as it unfolded, between 1981 and 1986, in the heartland of Middle America. Fargo, North Dakota, the setting for her study, is a conservative, racially homogeneous city that prides itself on having the highest rate of church attendance of any standard metropolitan area in the United States. Like most parts of the country, the Fargo area was initially undisturbed by Roe v. Wade. Local doctors and hospitals simply refused to provide abortions (85 percent of the nation's counties lacked abortion services as of 1987), leaving Fargo women with a 300-mile drive to the nearest abortion service. Then, in 1981, at the instigation of local feminists, a freestanding abortion clinic opened in a quiet, residential neighborhood. The ensuing controversy made Fargo, according to ABC News, "The Community Ripped Apart by Abortion."
Ginsburg's most intriguing findingis that, at least in Fargo, the pro-choice and anti-abortion activists are not as different, in background or in philosophy, as most commentators seem to believe. No huge gap of class or life expenence divides them. Both sides believe they are doing something to advance the cause of women, and to improve the world in general. And on both sides, women cloak their concerns in a rhetoric of "feminine values, particularly the value of nurturance, which they understand to be devalued by a (take your pick) male-dominated or godless society.
In fact, Ginsburg's book implicitly challenges the view that the two movements-pro-choice and anti-abortion, or feminist and anti-feminist-are simply ideological opposites one arising in hostile reaction to the other. It leads us to suspect strongly that, at some level far deeper than the calculations of church or party, the two movements have common roots in anxieties widely shared by wom enin late-20th-century America.
The anti-abortion activists Ginsburg interviewed are not, in any clear-cut way, dupes of male religious and political leaders. One of them, in fact, was responsible for getting her evangelical church to take up the abortion issue in the first place. (I do think, however, that Ginsburg slights the importance of male leadership, of doctors as well as of men of the cloth, in legitimizing the grassroots level of the anti-abortion movement.) Nor are Fargo's female anti-abortion activists the kind of multiissue anti-feminists one might find in Schlafly's or LaHaye's outfits. Some of them express sympathy with other feminist goals, and were surprised, when the issue of abortion arose, to find themselves extruded from Fargo's feminist circles.
If there is a single animating perception among these antiabor tion activists, it is the sense that motherhood is a heroic achievement, carried out almost in defiance of the society's dominant values. They describe difficult pregnancies, painful births, frustrated years at home with small children, Marriage is "a lot of hard work," and nurturance (seen again as a quintessential female trait by both sides) is, to the "pro-lifers," not in-born, but achieved through prayer and personal struggle. To these women, motherhood is a beleaguered role, not only because women today are expected to enter the Labor market, but because nurturance itself is devalued by the larger society. As one of Fargo's anti-abortion activists puts it, ". . . We've accepted abortion because we're a very materialistic society and there is less time for caring." In the anti-abortionists' accounts, abortion is one more assault on the already strenuous business of motherhood, which is, in turn, the last bastion of human tenderness in a cold and uncaring world.
The pro-choice activists in Fargo share many of the same values and perceptions. Most of the ones Ginsburg introduces us to are mothers, some are fulltime homemakers, and all tend to see their pro-choice work as a nurturing activity-directed, in this case, toward other women. Ginsburg characterizes their particular outlook as "Midwestern feminism," but I would say that, outside of the factional hothouses of the big cities and university centers, this is simply what all of American grass-roots feminism looks like; it is neither separatist nor single-mindedly success-oriented, but firmly rooted in what both sides would take to be "feminine values."
The parallel is all the more striking if we return to the branch of the feminist movement that spawned the pro-choice movement in the first place: the women's health movement of the carly 1970s. The movement's goal, "control over our own bodies," was not so much an expression of militant individlialism as of the sense that our bodies, and in particular our reproductive functions, were being menaced and invaded by impersonal, uncaring, outside forces. Some of our most prominent older activists-like Norma Swenson, one of the authors of the original Our Bodies Ourselves-had their start in the movement for "natural" childbirth in the 1950s. Others, including one of Fargo's pro-choice leaders, had been members of La Leche League, which is devoted to promoting breastfeeding. Far from seeing our biological condition, our capacity for motherhood, as a sink of "imminence" from which we had to escape, we saw it as something to take pride in, and to protect.
My own "conversion story" is illustrative. I had been involved in feminist projects earlier, but
I did not become emotionally engaged until my first pregnancy, in 1970. The experience of prenatal care in a hospital clinic, followed by the standard brutality of a hospital birth, "changed my life," as the expression goes. I wasn't angry (as anti-abortionists might imagine) because I resented giving birth. On the contrary, I was angry (as they might well understand) because in the process of giving birth something intrinsically womanly had been violated and insulted. It was this anger, this sense of violation and loss of control, that propelled me into feminism, and-by no means incidentallyinto pro-choice activism.
It is as if feminism has been fighting on two fronts. On the one hand, it has been moving ahead to claim new areas for female power and endeavor; on the other hand, it has been looking back to defend territory that seems to be slipping away. In the 19th century, the new area was the realm of public decision-making, symbolized by suffrage; the old territory included all the productive Labor (spinning, food processing, and so on) that women had once performed in the home. Feminists saw immense promise in the industrial era, and they believed that machinery would eventually level the inequalities that arise &om the male advantage in physical strength. At the same time, however, they shared with anti-suffragist women an anxiety that women would be left somehow functionless, parasitic, or adrift. Just as both sides used a rhetoric of "home values" and female moral superiority to advance their claims, both sides agreed on the need to upgrade and even "professionalize" the domestic functions that remained to them. From the vantage point of the late 20th century, the shared conservatism of the two sides-I mean the shared concern with conserving what had been or might be lost-is often more striking than their differences.
Second-wave feminism is, by reputation, more monolithically committed to "modernist" goals-to diminishing, rather than upgrading, domestic chores, and to getting out of the house altogether. But second-wave feminism has also been suffused with a sense of loss of function or control, especially in the realm of motherhood and reproduction. In part, I think, this has been a response to the extreme colonization of reproduction-by the medical profession and related enterprises-that was taking place at midcentury. On the eve of the feminist revival, in the 1950s and 1960s, women were supposed to be committed to reproduction as their life's work, but under conditions that could only be regarded as degrading. Childbirth had moved decisively into the hos pital in the 1940s, where it was experienced (if that is the word) under total anesthesia and/or while bound to the delivery table in an ignominious posture. Breast-feeding was discouraged by the medical profession as a faintly disgusting atavism. Hysterectomies were performed as a means of birth control, or to relieve unrelated symptoms like backaches.
Many other factors contributed to the perceived devaluation of motherhood. There was, during the postwar years, a growing current of male cynicism about the entire enterprise, reflected in Phillip Wylie's best-selling attacks on "Momism" and in the early Playboy magazine's contempt for wives as "parasites." Perhaps most important was the decline, beginning roughly in the 1960s, of male willingness-and male ability-to provide the financial support for years of female childbearing and "nurturance." This trend contributed to the rise of female-headed households, the increasing rate of defaults on child support payments, and to the now well-known "feminization of poverty." For manyin recent decades, motherhood has come to seem a valiant and often lonely option, more likely to lead to poverty than respect.
Feminism and anti-feminism represent two different strategies for dealing with these dislocations and the larger atmosphere of disrespect. The antifeminist approach is to try to fortify the institution of marriage-in part through religious and "pro-family" ideologyand to hope that it will once again become a safe haven for full-time mothers and their children. In this endeavor, abortion is indeed a threat. For, if abortion is a "woman's choice," then it is harder to argue that the support of mothers and children is, or should be, a male responsibility.
Feminists would also like to see men become more responsible in such matters as child support, but they are not depending solely on marriage to provide the space and the support for motherhood. They want women to be able to earn enough to support a family, if necessary; and they want government and employers to help out with paid parental leave, flexible hours, child-care facilities, and so forth. In the feminist strategy, the abortion option is indispensable: as the responsibility for children devolves increasingly to women, so must the choice as to when to bear them.
Still, these strategic differences ought to leave some common ground for action-around the reform of medical practices, for example, or the campaign for parental leave. It is this hope that seems to motivate Contested Lives. In Fargo, at least, there was some basis for hope. There, pro-choice and anti-abortion activists are likely to know each other in other contexts, and even to have coffee together after appearing in public debates. In 1985, Ginsburg reports, women from both sides began to meet in a loosely structured group "Pro-Dialogue," which identified a common goal in working "toward reducing, as much as possible, the need for abortion," and "fighting together to solve some of the problems women face."
But regretfully-my own regret is considerably sharpened by Ginsburg's excellent book-I do not see much hope for a more ongoing or widespread rapprochement between the two sides on the abortion issue. For one thing, the anti-abortion movement has become much less a women's movement than it was when Ginsburg broke off her field work in Fargo. The visible leadership of the movement has passed decisively to male evangelicals, like Operation Rescue's Randall Terry, who see their struggle as part of a larger effort to bring about a theocratic social order. The tactics, too, have changed. Although bombings and violence have declined, militant confrontations-aimed at shutting down the clinics and, apparently, at terrorizing their clientele-are now the order of the day. Prayer vigils are one thing, but it is hard to imagine the participants in recent clashes-which are arranged, these days, with military precision and directed by walkie-talkies-having much to say to each other over a cup of coffee.
Besides, even among women, the vague and cozy notion of "feminine values" may afford less common ground than Ginsburg seems, at times, to wish. As she points out, feminists (in Fargo and elsewhere) see nurturance as a principle to be extended beyond the bonds of mother and child, husband and wife, to "members of the community, people in the workplace, and even the nation as the whole." Feminists understand that nurturance is only trivialized by being sequestered in the home or assigned exclusively to women. The goal is to institutionalize and thus to extend the "kinder, gentler" impulse-through an expanded welfare state, for example, and a more accountable private economy. And it is this vision that links the feminist movement to the left or progressive end of things, and sends feminists out, not only to defend women's rights as narrowly construed, but to oppose militarism (seen as the antithesis of nurturing) and to fight for a more just and equal economic order.
Anti-feminists, on the other hand, including Fargo's anti-abortion activists, seem more concernedto shore up nurturance in the private sphere-within the family, or within that most private of all relationships, between a woman and the embryo she carries. And this emphasis on reforming the private and domestic sphere is at least consistent with the New Right's social vision, in which tenderness may flourish within each household (or, more narrowly, within each woman), while militarism and the more reckless forms of capitalism are free to rampage out of doors.
Still, something like Fargo's ProDialogue might be worth a try. Where there is so much rhetoric about nurturance, about the value of each human life, about the dignity of each woman's choices -there ought to be some basis for seeing each other as human beings worth listening to. And if we are just beginning, after a postponement of two decades, a serious, mass, grass-roots, pro-choice movement