In 2007, the first time Choose Life At Yale applied to be a residence group of the Women’s Center, I was on the Women’s Center’s Board.
At the time, Peter Johnston ’09 was the president of CLAY and quickly becoming influential in the conservative movement at Yale. Intellectually, I had grown to know him well, due to the fact that we both took Directed Studies and were in nearly every section together, a proof that God, if existent, is not without an exquisite sense of irony.
CLAY was founded in 2003, a few years before Johnston took it over. The public relations problem confronting it was typical of those faced by other “pro-life” organizations, though, of course, harder to solve at Yale. Ronald Reagan and David Reardon first realized in the 1980s that the “pro-life” movement was damaged by the growing perception that it did not care about women. This perception was compounded by the most visible pro-life campaigns of the 1990s, which often portrayed women who’d had abortions as “baby-killers,” and, perhaps, by a spate of clinic bombings. To detoxify their political brand, “pro-life” organizations rephrased their argument in a feminist cadence. Women, as opposed to the unborn, became abortion’s primary victim.
I was very impressed by Johnston’s decision to apply to be a Women’s Center resident group: It was smart politics. Still, the Board voted unanimously to reject its request, on the grounds that the Women’s Center was pro-choice.
Shortly afterward, I ran into Johnston. Ever cordial, he asked how I was, and I asked how he was; briefly, we discussed the Board’s decision. He expressed feeling some disappointment, but no surprise. I told him I thought the political strategy he had tried out was extremely clever, fearfully so.
We were both earnest believers. But what I always enjoyed about Johnston was that our conversations on such matters were professional: there was no pretense that we were anything but partisan students of America’s abortion debate.
Johnston’s application to the Women’s Center was a bet; I respected it. It didn’t cost CLAY anything to place. Though it lost, he, I thought shrewdly, chose not to publicly whine about it.
CLAY’s current leadership apparently lacks Johnston’s acuity.
Last week, Isabel Marin ’12, CLAY’s “Women’s Outreach Coordinator,” authored a column that argues CLAY should be “supported under the Women’s Center umbrella” (“A place at the Center,” March 31). It goes so far as to attack the Women’s Center’s repeated rejections of CLAY’s application as unworthy of its name and contrary to “the spirit of feminism.”
Marin’s column is riddled with distortions. For instance, Marin quotes abstract, carefully selected sections of the Women’s Center’s constitution, choosing to omit the clause that declares the Women’s Center to be a pro-choice organization. Furthermore, Marin’s attempt to ally CLAY with Yale Men Against Rape under the category of “non-stereotypical feminist groups” is disingenuous. The goals of Yale Men Against Rape are feminist in the most conventional sense of the word and the movement; it is she who is doing the stereotyping.
Marin argues that the Women’s Center should unhesitatingly grant CLAY “the appellation ‘feminist.’” Unfortunately, the word “feminist” means something, both to the Women’s Center and apart from it.
The central failing of the column is Marin’s willful misapprehension of this fact. Feminism is an ideology; the women and men who subscribed to it are those who won women the vote, the right to own property, access to education, protection from sexual harassment and legal abortion. Feminism is definitively pro-choice; it defines abortion as a civil right and insists that the withholding of abortion is discrimination. This is the position of the Yale Women’s Center, National Organization of Women and every major 20th-century feminist thinker.
More offensive than Marin’s indifference to history is that the role that she proposes for CLAY — providing pregnant women with help — is already played by a Women’s Center group. The Reproductive Rights Action League, has long labored to address all aspects of sexuality and family.
Marin is right that “the pro-life women in CLAY face glass ceilings and tough choices as do all women.” The Women’s Center merrily fights for all women, including pro-life women. It is possible to be both pro-life and a feminist; pro-life women have certainly made serious contributions on many feminist fronts; I am sure that Marin holds many feminist opinions with which I passionately agree. But the pro-life ideology seeks to limit women’s choices, is opposed to women’s freedom, is itself anti-woman and will always be anti-feminist.
In denying CLAY its support, the Women Center did not imperil the future of feminism, or its relevance, but rescued its life. Feminism is an authorizing legacy. In invoking feminism, pro-life organizations — even pro-life women — seek to steal feminism from its history, and, wittingly or not, reduce it to a meaningless term.
For the pro-life movement, that’s smart politics. Peter Johnston would have known that. Perhaps that’s why I miss him.
Chase Olivarius-Mcallister is a senior in Branford College and the former political action coordinator of the Yale Women’s Center.