Why this article isn’t an example of feminism: on essentialised femininity

Recently an article was published on the Times of  Malta written by the general secretary of +9studenti (a pro-life student group) entitled “True feminism is pro-life”.   The author argues uses as an essentialist-like feminism to appeal to what she thinks is ‘true feminism’.

Many have argued that the article isn’t feminist because it’s pro-life or because it appeals to essentialist thinking. While I agree that this article is not an example of feminist thinking, I disagree with the reasons given. Feminists can indeed be pro-life. A friend of mine directed me towards two links that might perhaps convince some staunch pro-choice feminists of the truth of this claim.

Here I quote a section from the article on Alternet that tries to answer the pertinent question of whether one can be a feminist and against abortion:

MV: I know you’ve got an entire chapter on this, but can you be a feminist and pro-life?

JB: Yes. Certainly you cannot bomb an abortion clinic and be a feminist, nor can you prohibit another woman from accessing an abortion and call yourself a feminist. But you can say that you believe that life begins at conception, that you are ambivalent or even deeply sad about abortion, or that you don’t want to attend the March for Women’s Lives. What you do have to do is find a way to be authentically pro-life that isn’t anti-woman. You can work on birth control and sex education. You can become a foster parent. You can work with your place of worship or elected representatives to make sure women who are having abortions are supported. There is so much to do on the pro-life side that simply isn’t being done.


I believe Jennifer Baumgardner’s response to this question embodies the very spirit in which prochoicemalta/pennyroyal tea was started. I often say that pro-lifers, instead of concentrating on calling women murderers or wasting weeks on end picketing abortion clinics, should be proactive and make it possible for women to have children in safe environments, go through unwanted pregnancies and most importantly, put their money where their mouth is and adopt or contribute to orphanages.

Feministsforlife leads me to my second point. If you visit the website you can see that they appeal to an essentialist kind of feminism; that is, espousing the idea that femininity exists as a substance or ideal and can be embodied and should be embodied by women. They believe women show or should show these qualities that are inherently feminine. However, because of the enormous effect post-structuralist/post-modernist feminism has had on the many feminist movements today and because its critique of former feminisms was so powerful that no feminist movement cannot go on without a nod to post-structuralism, many assume that essentialist thinking is anti-feminist.

It’s obvious that this article does appeal to essentialised femininity:

Women, out of their very nature, are loving and emotional; never would they choose to kill their own child except in extreme situations. 

I have already discussed this with other people on a forum and I think it would be useful to quote some bits of the discussion itself:

JP Gove‘: Well, some feminists are post-structuralists and would agree with you that gender is socially constructed, but there have been gender essentialists amongst the feminists as well, especially the most radical (“separatists”) who claim that equality can never be achieved due to the essential nature of either gender – for example, in men being essentially violent and domineering, according to this view. So essentialism is not necessary anti-feminist, nor is feminism necessarily post-structuralist, although one can see why they would be closely linked historically.

The article is in poor form, so it had to rest its argumentation on defining “true feminism”, and exposing itself to a true scotsman fallacy, but in and of itself, the argument is neither very controversial nor exotic. Many feminists have already decried the mainstream idea of equality as that of women simply aiming male ideals and structures, and legitimate feminists (not social Catholics, hiding behind feminism, as might be the case here) have criticized the culture of abortion rights to an extent similar to this article.

AM(myself): I agree with your second post Jean Paul Govè that essentialism need not necessarily be anti-feminist.(I also agree with you that pro-lifers aren’t necessarily ignorant. As I often state I respect the educated pro-lifer, it’s the unthinking ideology-spouter I cannot stand and that goes for pro-choicers)

Still, as someone who has struggled between essentialist feminism and post-structuralist feminism, I’d say many essentialist feminists would would find her article rather atrocious. Essentialist feminism usually does not take that form; as you said, she is a social Catholic hiding behind feminism. Her rhetoric seems to imply a great deal of complacency on the part of the woman, while most essentialist feminism(s?) I have come across would assert some inherently feminine sort of power. The author doesn’t seem to be very interested in any kind of independence. I also think a lot of essentialist feminists would be pro-abortion, as they tend to cite the long history of abortion and naturalise it as acceptable. 

JP Gove’ : I mentioned one form of essentialist feminism. It might not necessarily be the only form of essentialist feminism. I think there were essentialist feminists who have asserted the feminine along “traditional” lines, as caring, motherly, etc…

AM (myself): Yes there definitely were feminists who appeal to a vision of the woman as inherently more caring, emotional, sexually dangerous, motherly, fertile etc.

Yet these feminists tend to look at history and statistics as proof of the naturalness of the essentialist thinking they espouse. They also tend to take inspiration from traditional female symbols such as the moon or the fertile earth. They believe these female symbols are complimentary to the symbolic structure of the male.

If I may say this of this article; it isn’t feminism. I know perhaps I may fall into the same ‘true scotsman’ fallacy but it seems to me that this is simply a ‘traditional’ view on women that really isn’t traditional at all. It merely seems to me to be modern Catholicism; for some reason she seems to be afraid to appeal to religion and appeals to feminism instead. Taking an anti-abortion stance is actually a relatively modern invention, while essentialist feminism tend to take inspiration from the very basis of Western cultural symbolics for women.

If Aristotle can be taken as one example, he was in ‘favour’ of abortion up till 40 days for men (I think) and 90 days for women. Most Islamic scholars (who I believe contributed a great deal to the knowledge basis of the West though they now, for some reason are not considered part of it anymore) also have a traditionally pro-abortionist stance. If this is feminism, it is not a proper movement. It’s too idiosyncratic. 

 For more on essentialised femininity, check out this awesome blog where she speaks about a romantic kind of femininity that is still very popular today. (I myself indulge in it enormously, the Pre-Raphaelites are one of my favourite artistic movements) 

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