Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Mary Ziegler (Florida State) joins us as a guest blogger this month. Her work in legal history focuses on the law and history of abortion, illegitimacy, contraception, marriage, and child care. Her post last week introduced her topic of exploring feminist legal history.
What do we mean when we talk about feminism? My book project has forced me to reconsider how I would answer this question. My scholarship fits comfortably within any classic definition of feminist legal history: I focus on the intersection of law and history in the context of reproductive health, divorce, marriage, and abortion. I consider myself a feminist and a historian. I brought these understandings of myself and my work to the book and the question at its core: how did Roe v. Wade impact social-movement debate and what can the history of the decision teach us about law as a tool for social change, in the context of gender relations more broadly? Research for the project took me to over seventeen archives, to the basement of convents, and the offices of anti-feminists. The most fun came in the oral histories I conducted with over 100 of those who participated in the abortion wars in the decade after Roe. I spoke with men and women, doctors and homemakers, lawyers and activists, abortion opponents and population controllers, and feminists of every stripe. What I learned made me wonder what it meant to be “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” As importantly, the research made me question who should count as a proper object of study for women’s legal history.
At the beginning of my research, I had treated pro-choice activism as synonymous with the women’s movement—unquestionably a core subject for feminist legal historians. I learned that the relationship between women’s rights and the legalization of abortion was much more contested than I had predicted. Identifying a cause with women’s rights had profound ideological and strategic ramifications. Physicians, population controllers, and even feminists wondered if embracing the rhetoric of women’s rights would set back the progress of abortion reform.
Law also played a surprising and unanticipated role in the creation of the abortion-rights cause. On the one hand, feminists could use the Roe decision in arguing that their movement should frame abortion as an issue of women’s rights. The Supreme Court’s approval made the idea of abortion as a woman’s right more legitimate, more mainstream, and more politically palatable. On the other hand, feminists’ wish to preserve that victory created damaging internal debates about the proper scope of a reproductive-justice agenda, about protections against sterilization abuse, and about what counted as true reproductive liberty.
I wonder how often causes and social movements we identify as feminist have a more troubled history. Did different legal movements once count as feminist? Might social causes associated with feminism today once have had a radically different meaning, both legally and politically? It is questions like these that make Women’s History Month more exciting than ever for feminist legal historians.