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Why feminists focus on abortion

The author was Executive Director of the Toronto Women’s Caucus, one of the first Canadian feminist groups, in 1971-72. In 1973 she was elected as an alternate member of the Central Committee of the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière.

Labor Challenge, November 22, 1971

Why feminists focus on issue of abortion

by Lis Angus

Some feminists feel that focusing on the abortion struggle will divert and possibly destroy the women’s liberation movement. They argue—as Shulamith Firestone does in The Dialectic of Sex, that the early women’s rights movement declined because its energies were channeled into one Issue: suffrage.

Firestone acknowledges that suffrage was the only issue which could unite diverse women’s organizations; but she has only contempt for "conservative feminism, with its-concentration on broad, unitive, single issues like suffrage"—which, though she does not mention it, involved literally millions of women in suffrage organizations across North America and Europe. She goes on to state that "the granting of the vote ... killed the-women’s rights movement."

This distorted view of the suffrage movement is based on opposition to mass action and a disdain for the importance of victories in building a movement. Applied to today’s movement, this view is dangerous and defeatist.

"Single-issue organizing" did not kill the early feminist movement; it was precisely the focus on the suffrage issue which extended the women’s movement into all corners of society, and which kept the movement alive and militant-during times when most otter social struggles had dissipated. A single focus gave the movement cohesion and strength, and demonstrated above all that women can organize as women to fight for and win important concessions.

The right to abortion has emerged today as the issue which is extending the boundaries of the feminist movement into all layers of society. It is precisely through struggle around issues such as these—and winning victories like these—that the feminist movement will grow.

And it is through such struggles that women will come to understand the limitations of this society’s ability to meet their needs; more and more women will come to the conclusion that this whole system must be changed—that the struggle for feminism is the struggle for socialism.

What are the facts about the early feminist movement?

The women’s movement did not exist in a vacuum. It blossomed in the mid-19th century in a period of widespread agitation for democratic rights for oppressed groups. The abolitionist movement in the U.S., the populist movement and the rebellion of 1837 in Canada, the farmers movement on the prairies, the international growth of the labor movement and the socialist movement—these formed the climate for the growth of the early feminist movement.

Although the early feminists agitated around many issues, including educational opportunities and less confining dress standards for women, the struggle for the vote emerged as the key issue before the movement—and correctly so: like denial of abortion, the denial of the vote was a blatant denial of women’s right to control their destiny. If the suffragists had not won the vote, it would be one of the first tasks before today’s movement.

Increasing numbers of women were able to identify with the suffrage struggle. 100,000 signatures appeared on a suffrage petition presented in 1910 to the Ontario legislature. An Alberta petition around the same time had 12,000 signatures. The largest American suffrage organization had two million members in 1916.

It is true that the women’s rights movement had real limitations. Most of the women involved—including the leadership—had illusions that the vote would give them the -power to enact all the further reforms needed by women. But this reflected profound illusions they had about society in general: they did not understand how integral the oppression of women was to capitalist society, nor how limited was this society’s ability to meet women’s needs.

But in spite of these and other shortcomings, women won a real victory in the vote. Why then did the movement not go further than it did?

One of the biggest factors which drove feminism underground was the onset of a period of general reaction and conservatism produced by the economic expansion of the 1920s. The movement’s leadership lacked an understanding of the character of class society; the socialist movement of the time—itself in a period of decline—did not respond to inject this- understanding into the feminist movement.

Feminists turned to personal struggles rather than to organized political ones. The flappers of the 1920s, winning freedom of dress and appearance for women, were products of feminism, as were the women who individually extended the educational and professional rights won by earlier feminists.

Today’s feminist movement surfaced in a period of worldwide radicalization around such issues as Vietnam, civil rights, national liberation. Increased educational opportunities and access to jobs for women make the myriad limitations imposed on their lives all the more blatant. At the same time, technological advances in birth control and abortion methods directly pose the possibility of women controlling what happens to their bodies.

The abortion issue assumes such central importance because it touches all women - even women who are only beginning to be affected by the radical ideas of our time can identify with this issue. Moreover, it strikes at the very root of woman’s oppression. Women’s lack of control of their bodies is used to back the claim that woman’s nature is "subjective," that they are unable to control their minds.

And abortion is a far more profoundly radicalizing issue than the vote was. It leads women to consider other issues, other ways in which their lives are limited—above all, it puts the role of the family into question, by challenging women’s subjection to the childrearing role which is a basic underpinning of the family—a mainstay of capitalist society.

The fact that the suffrage movement existed and won the victories that it did means that today’s movement can start out on a much higher level—we can build on the experiences and gains won by the early feminists through mass struggles.

The lessons of the suffrage movement can be applied to the movement of today: above all the need to organize masses of women around concrete struggles, to plan campaigns around key issues which can involve the greatest numbers of women.

Through their own experiences in such struggles, masses of Canadian women will learn the answers to such questions as: who are our oppressors? to what degree can this system satisfy the needs of women? who can we depend on as allies in our struggle? and how can we eliminate our oppression?

We need have no fear that the movement will be "bought off" with victory in the abortion issue or any other issue. Victory will only be a spur to the movement—it will give a tremendous impetus to building for future struggles. This is how the feminist movement will be built: through organizing around such concrete issues as abortion law repeal repeal—issues which reach the present level of consciousness of masses of Canadian women and bring them into united struggle.

Today’s feminist movement is a vital part of the deepening revolutionary process in this country. Women united in demanding total liberation for their sex will be a powerful force before, during, and after the coming Canadian revolution. And those women will be educated through such struggles as the abortion struggle.

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