USA Society

Women’s March on Washington: What makes someone a feminist?

how others see it

Ahead of Saturday's protest, expected to be the largest inauguration-related demonstration in history, questions arose as to whether people who describe themselves as both feminist and against abortion could be partners.

People gather in front of the US Embassy on Pariser Platz beside Brandenburg Gate in solidarity with Women's March in Washington and many other marches in several countries, in Berlin Saturday
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Juliet Miller has no qualms calling herself both pro-life and a feminist.

Years of soul searching, she says, led her to decide that she could not morally support abortion. Yet her women’s studies degree also guaranteed that she would always be an advocate for women’s rights: “I think that to be feminist is to be invested in issues that affect women and to want women to be able to flourish,” Ms. Miller says.

So when she learned that an anti-abortion rights group had this week been dropped from the list of official partners for the Women’s March on Washington – a solidarity protest set for the day after President Trump’s inauguration – Miller was disappointed.

“I think it’s a little bit unfair to people who are pro-life and maybe have a bit of a different ideology than the typical feminist, to tell them that they don’t get to be feminists, that they don’t count,” says Miller, now studying nursing at Arizona State University in Phoenix. “It sends a really powerful and polarizing message.”

The Women’s March, in its mission, invites people of all beliefs and backgrounds to raise their voices on a range of issues, including civil rights, workers’ rights, and environmental justice.

But the event is also a platform for reproductive freedom. Advocates of choice, fearing a conservative Supreme Court under Mr. Trump, have once more drawn the issue to the fore of the feminist movement. Already, they say, states’ recent efforts to shut down abortion clinics – which often provide key reproductive health services to poor women and women of color – have restricted access to those services, risking women’s lives.

Many feminists say there is no disentangling reproductive rights from other human rights. To advocate against abortion is to both cut off access to basic health care and impose a personal choice on others, they say. Both fly in the face of fundamental feminist principles: that women have the right to equal opportunity and to make their own decisions about their lives and bodies.

“You can’t advocate women’s rights as human rights and also forcibly advocate blocking women from health care,” says Terry O’Neill, executive director of the National Organization for Women, a feminist activist group.

But for those who, like Miller, consider themselves advocates for women’s rights and against abortion, the focus on choice raises questions about inclusivity. It draws attention to elements within the feminist movement that align with the liberal left, they say, and alienates potential allies with alternate political and moral beliefs.

This, at a time when – advocates of all stripes say – solidarity among different groups is more important than ever.

“The assumption is if you’re not part of this march, you’re somehow anti-environment, anti-reproductive rights, anti-everything,” says Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative nonprofit. “It’s frustrating to many, because it suggests that we all have to be lock-step on a certain perspective.”

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Though Miller has always believed abortion was immoral, she didn’t always advocate against it.

In college, she called herself pro-choice because, she says, “I realized that asking a woman who is pregnant and unprepared to have a child to continue that pregnancy is asking a very, very tall order of her.”

“It’s not a place to be punitive,” Miller adds. “A lot of times, people who are pro-life will say, ‘It’s your fault, so deal with it.’ That’s not fair, not compassionate.”

Over time, however, Miller realized she believed that the fetus, at some point in utero, becomes a human being entitled to protections from the government, in the same way that the woman’s right to autonomy deserves protection. After struggling with her conscience, Miller landed on the side of opposing abortion, she says. She believes there should be exceptions in cases when the mother’s life is at stake or when a medical professional says the mother is in danger of severe psychiatric trauma, which could include rape.

Her position often makes her an anomaly among her mostly liberal friends.

“A lot of people, when they find out I’m pro-life, that’s what defines me to them,” says Miller, who refuses to affiliate herself with any political party. “It becomes impossible to convince them that I care about women, and autonomy, and all these things that I really care about.”

Many feminists say they have nothing against people who oppose abortion. The problem, they say, is when those same people work to prevent other women from accessing abortion – and by extension, the comprehensive care that abortion clinics often provide, especially to the poor and marginalized.

“I am happy to recognize and honor that label they put on themselves unless and until they start trying to block women from abortion care,” says Ms. O’Neill. “That’s not pro-life, that’s just forcing your beliefs on people.”

Some say that those who feel excluded from the feminist movement fail to understand its role in the crucial interplay among social justice issues. A woman’s ability to support a family and make independent decisions, for instance, is inextricably linked to the right to a fair wage, which in turn is linked to the economic injustice facing communities of color. That injustice plays out in the quality of the environments in which they live, and their treatment at the hands of authorities.

“Nobody lives single-issue lives,” says Britni de la Cretaz, a Boston-based freelance writer, mother of two, and avowed radical leftist. “The goal of feminism for me is to end this systemic oppression of folks that are marginalized.”

From that perspective, the Women’s March – with its focus on immigrants, those with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, and communities of color – “is incredibly inclusive,” Ms. de la Cretaz says.

It may feel exclusive to groups and individuals who are part of the status quo and used to having society orient around them, she says. But if those people are sincere about their intent to fight for human rights, then they would realize they have a responsibility to reach out to the marginalized, de la Cretaz says.

“For me, as a white woman, it’s been a deliberate attempt to learn and expand my understanding of feminism and the world by actively seeking out conversations from people who have different experiences than I do,” she says.

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Conflicting views on issues and strategies are a natural feature of any crusade. The key to forging ahead, some say, is to recognize that different people and groups will always play different roles.

“We have these tensions in every movement,” says Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president for the social policy and politics program at the centrist think tank Third Way in Washington. “You need a time for people to agree on things and shore each other up and strengthen their message, and you need a time for opening that tent much wider and bringing in people who agree with you on small things.”

“You need people in different places in order to take one step forward and pull the rest of the country behind you,” adds Alice Dranger, an actor, feminist, and abortion-rights supporter who lives in Los Angeles. “I think you need to compromise, but I also think you need someone … on the outside, saying, ‘It’s not enough.’ ”

De la Cretaz in Boston is among those who say the Women’s March organizers did right by taking New Wave Feminists off their partners’ list. But she says it’s unlikely the group would be barred from marching in Washington – which New Wave Feminists founder Destiny Herndon-de la Rosa has said she still plans to do.

“Good for them,” says Ms. Hatalsky. “It’s important for people who are called outsiders in a movement to continue to stick around. Movements aren’t ever going to change unless people continue to identify who are not part of that base.”