Zeigler, Mary. After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Zeisler, Andi. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. New York: Perseus Books, 2016.
The last two books of the semester, After Roe and We Were Feminists Once, offer a glimpse into the more recent struggles and activities of feminist issues. While After Roe examines the pro-life and pro-choice movements responses after the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision, We Were Feminists Once analyzes the downfalls of the contemporary feminist movement.
In her book After Roe, historian Mary Zeigler offers a comparative study of the pro-choice and pro-life movements’ responses to Roe. Zeigler argues that the decade after Roe experienced fluidity between both movements rather than political polarization (pg. xii). This included a small group of women on both sides of the abortion wars that believed a coalition would prove to be a stronger front in representing women’s diverse interests. For example, both pro and anti-abortion activists joined to advocate for fetal research and anti-discrimination laws relating to pregnancy. Traditional scholarship depicts the Supreme Court decision as the ultimate influence in partisan politics (pg. 22). However, according to Zeigler, each movement’s responses to the decision (not the decision itself) eventually created a more concrete divide between women. Furthermore, traditional narratives portray both sides of the debate as respective homogeneous groups. However, Zeigler’s monograph shows that there were internal factions within each movement. For example, the coalition of “environmentalists, civil rights advocates, and population control groups” in the pro-choice movement began to splinter in the decade leading up to Roe. Feminists began to distance themselves from the population control movement after allegations of racism and forced sterilization emerged (pg. 5). Such an example exemplifies how Zeigler applies social movement theory to her analysis of the abortion wars after Roe.
One aspect Zeigler analyzes is the judicial activism of the pro-life movement following the Roe decision. While a presentist mindset would assume that anti-abortion activists would favor little court interference in the anti-abortion movement, in actuality many anti-abortion lawyers and grassroots activists “opposed efforts to strip the Court of its authority” (pg. 28). The 1970s saw activists supporting court involvement for a fetal-protective amendment. The ‘judicial overreaching’ argument that we associate with the pro-life movement today did not originate until the 1980s (pg. 38). Additionally, one tactic utilized by anti-abortion activists was the incrementalist strategy. This strategy called for compromise abortion regulatory policies rather than attempting to completely eradicate Roe v. Wade. For example, these activists pushed for laws requiring parental consent to abortion.
Another aspect Zeigler examines is how the ‘woman’s choice argument’ became synonymous with the pro-abortion movement. By the late 1970s, feminists initiated a campaign to portray a woman’s choice to abortion as one that exemplified her independence (pg. 129). Furthermore, in order to consolidate their movement, feminists chose a single issue agenda (abortion) for women to focus their supports. This was also in reaction to feminists’ efforts to distance themselves from the controversies surrounding the population control movement. Pro-abortion feminists portrayal of their movement as one that favors woman’s autonomy and their coalesced focus to a single issue as a symbol for the overarching feminist movement proved to define future efforts post-1970s.
Feminist and co-founder of the organization Bitch Media, Andi Zeisler’s book We Were Feminists Once analyzes how the current feminist movement serves the interests of popular culture and has distanced itself from the true goals of feminism. Zeisler states that this “feel-good feminism” is run by consumer politics that portrays feminism to be a “cool, fun, accessible identity that anyone can adopt” (pg. xiii). This filtered version of feminism inadvertently disassociates itself with deeply-embedded structures of social, political, and economic inequalities women still face today but rather focuses on female unity (pg. xv).
Of particular interest was Zeisler’s analysis of the perceptions of women in television. As seen in the examples below, there was a duality in the relationship between television and popular culture. Both entities greatly influenced and responded to each other. During the ‘second-wave’ feminist movement in the 1970s, television shows included the multi-faceted aspects of the reality of women’s experiences such as divorce and single parenthood. However, the 1980s witnessed a decline in female characters due to assumptions that the radicalism of the feminist movement in the 1970s was a “done deal” (pg. 86). Moreover, the emergence of reality television into mainstream media simplified women’s interests and capabilities to that of beauty and sexual objects (i.e.: The Bachelor).
In contemporary feminist discourse, the word ‘empowerment’ is omnipresent in popular culture. However, Zeisler believes this term embodies the notion that “anything can be a feminist choice if a feminist makes the choice” (pg. 171). The use of ‘empowerment’ evidently turned into a marketing strategy. This consumer empowerment strategy was and is seen in a variety of popular culture modalities, from the Spice Girls “Girl Power marketing” to Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign (pg. 179). Rather, Zeisler believes that so-called “feminists” must grapple with the ‘tough’ questions and issues women still face today.