The media are doing everything in their power to divert the spotlight from Ricky Gervais’ opening monologue at last week’s Golden Globes. Michelle Williams is clearly Hollywood’s chosen beneficiary. Her emotional “on-the-verge-of-tears” speech advocating a woman’s “right to choose” is garnering much acclaim from women’s groups, after she claimed that her personal “choice” enabled her to have the kind of career success that brought her the award.
Williams’s speech addressed women directly from the stage, warning that they needed to similarly act in their own “self-interest.” She vaguely alluded to November’s election, with the oft-heard clarion call that Roe v. Wade would meet its demise given anything but total Democratic victory.
Pro-life activists and writers were equally quick to push back on Williams’s speech.
“After all, we are talking about a human life that was ended for the sake of her career,” Abby Johnson tweeted. “How sad it must be to trade an innocent human life for a tiny golden statue!” Other pundits, such as National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis, went further and called out Williams’s euphemistic use of the word “choice” to denote abortion. DeSanctis then carefully dissected the actress’s logical fallacies (such as the assumption that abortion is a woman’s only option before conception or after).
“Rather than empowering women,” DeSanctis wrote, “Williams is telling them that they won’t be able to fulfill their dreams without exercising the right to kill their own unborn children, that they must use violence against another human being in order to get ahead.”
That’s correct, and Williams’s speech deserves the scrutiny it is getting on that point. Yet there is a need to train the spotlight on what her speech means for feminism as a movement.
Having achieved the self-actualization that feminism promised, women must now fearlessly own the consequences of their actions. We need to be suspicious of those who try to justify their own choices in the name of all women. Michelle Williams was not necessarily advocating a considered feminist position from the podium. She was defending her own arguably selfish ones. It is increasingly important and necessary for women to be able to tell the difference.
From Self-Determination to Self-Centeredness
It’s also a make-or-break year for feminism. This year marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, and all feminists will advocate that women need to make choices—not only for themselves as individuals, but for their daughters and women as a social class.
Genuinely progressive ideals consistently have tended to expand and grow the domain of personhood, of the people entitled to the protections and rights that a person may claim. Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century protofeminist author of Vindication of the Rights of Women, wrote “It is time to effect a revolution in female manners—time to restore them to their lost dignity. It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners.” When Wollstonecraft articulated that position, women could not vote; they could not own or inherit property except through male authority.
Yet even within the constraints she under which she lived, Wollstonecraft knew that there were immutable human principles of right. Wollstonecraft considered those to include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—concepts with which she had familiarized herself when studying Rousseau, Thomas Paine, and John Locke. Her work argued that educating women and granting them the same rights as men, was a human good. She pushed further: “How can a rational being be ennobled by anything that is not obtained by its own exertions?”
Other writers in the feminist canon likewise spoke to self-determination but at the same time were careful to place it within the larger universal moral and human context. Susan B. Anthony asked “Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not.” Anthony lived a full century after Wollstonecraft, yet she was aware that advances in technology were helping to free women from the time-consuming tasks necessary to ensure survival, not only for themselves, but also for their families. “Modern invention has banished the spinning wheel,” Anthony wrote, “and it is the same law of progress that makes the woman of today a different woman than her grandmother.”
Her colleague at the famous Seneca Conference, Elizabeth Cady Stanton articulated this early tenant of feminism that stemmed from Wollstonecraft’s original treatise. Feminism recognized that the humanity of children was equally important. “When you consider that women have been treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.”
At the Golden Globes, where some women nodded their assent around the rather angelically clad Williams, a certain irony was increasingly apparent. Williams’ words were reflective of self-centered and arrogant thinking, quite adrift and apart from the societal advances that have all but removed abortion as a tragic necessity.
Yet so-called feminists cling to abortion rights as if we still lived in the fetid tenements of 20th century New York City. This is not the case in post-millennial America.
Means and Ends
When the State of New York passed its Reproductive Health Act last year, it placed the right to choose abortion in the New York State Constitution. This enshrinement within the state constitution is designed to protect a woman’s right to abortion if Roe v. Wade is, by some ruling of the judiciary, overturned—a presumed cataclysm that would send us back to the pioneer days, or hurtle us into the dystopian world of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.
The extreme nature of New York’s law is not merely protective of a woman’s right to choose. It is a pro-active right to kill another person based solely on the determined value by another person amid the passions and exigencies of the moment. Recent scientific advancements, particularly in imaging, have rendered obsolete the “clump of cells” argument formerly made against the humanity of the fetus in the uterus.
When pro-abortion arguments such as Williams’ are based so explicitly on power and dominance, it undermines the fundamental morality behind feminism as a progressive social movement. This is a major turning point. It is not just a preservation of Roe v. Wade, which sought to strike a balance between the interests of a woman in the earliest stages of pregnancy when the “humanity” of the fetus might be in question, and the rights of an undeniably viable later-stage fetus. Instead, it changes feminism into a type of personality disorder.
Professionals in the fields of psychiatry and psychology have debated the distinctions between sociopaths and psychopaths, but most agree the personality traits associated with them are similar and are destructive. Both sociopaths and psychopaths see others only as a means to their personal ends, not as fellow human beings with rights, feelings, or needs.
The DSM-5 includes Antisocial Personality Disorder under the heading of personality disorders. Impairments in both self and interpersonal personalities are present as well as pathological traits. Symptoms tend to begin in adolescence or early adulthood and continue over many years. Some symptoms someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder may exhibit are:
- Being very charming or witty in order to manipulate someone or get what they want.
- Exudes a sense of superiority or arrogance.
- Impulsive and prone to taking risks or engaging in dangerous behavior with little regard to how it may affect others.
- Lack of empathy or feelings towards others or a situation.
- May display hostile, aggressive behavior, or become violent.
- Being dishonest or lying to people.
- No regard or care for what is right or wrong.
- Being irresponsible.
- Inability to maintain healthy relationships.
- Lack of regard for rules or societal norms.
Michelle Williams’ reasoning, entirely self-focused and narcissistic, appalls those whose views on abortion were framed around the genuine social and physical cruelties of earlier generations. Neither first-wave feminists like Susan B. Anthony nor more contemporary second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan would likely be wholly comfortable endorsing a position like the one Williams advocates today. Friedan, like Wollstonecraft, defined the fully realized role that women play in The Feminine Mystique as being an integral part of the human whole:
We have gone on too long blaming or pitying the mothers who devour their children, who sow the seeds of progressive dehumanization, because they have never grown to full humanity themselves. If the mother is at fault, why isn’t it time to break the pattern by urging all these Sleeping Beauties to grow up and live their own lives? There never will be enough Prince Charming’s or enough therapists to break that pattern now. It is society’s job, and finally that of each woman alone. For it is not the strength of the mothers that is at fault but their weakness, their passive childlike dependency and immaturity that is mistaken for “femininity.” Our society forces boys, insofar as it can, to grow up, to endure the pains of growth, to educate themselves to work, to move on. Why aren’t girls forced to grow up—to achieve somehow the core of self that will end the unnecessary dilemma, the mistaken choice between femaleness and humanness that is implied in the feminine mystique?
Friedan, like her earlier philosophical counterparts places feminism as a driver in the locomotive evolution of human rights, the same thoughts that feminists from Wollstonecraft to Anthony continued to develop as time and technology propelled humanity forward.
Women’s Conundrum Now
The most damning thing about Williams’s tearful oration was not that she had had an abortion. It was her bizarre justification for doing so. Not since Judith Jarvis Thomson defined the fetus as a parasite in her 1971 article In Defense of Abortion, has there been such a reductionist view of reproduction in a woman’s life.
Williams, like Thomson, has an extremely atomistic view of childbearing and womanhood. It is hard to see it as socially constructive. Such compartmentalization is now out of step with other mores that frame women as the complete and complex human beings grown an intelligent women know they are.
The gender barriers were broken long ago, and more are being broken every day. Women can be mothers and maintain successful careers. Women have dozens of options to exercise before we have sex. Why is it seen that a woman’s decision to kill someone is the only decision she can exercise to further her opportunities? When others take lives for personal or financial gain, it is called murder, not self-defense or self-preservation.
Williams unwittingly has exposed the conundrum feminism poses to women now. On the one hand, feminism tolerates those who want to use the feminist mystique for their own non-feminist, even antifeminist ends: the organ traffickers; the human traffickers; the men who want purely recreational sex to be the social norm, a norm wholly detrimental to the interests of society.
On the other hand, feminism can stand proudly on the shoulders of the men and women who came before them and will come after them. It can adhere to the human rights traditions that extend and expand our awareness of what demands recognition as being human.
Which will it be, 21st-century feminists? An unfeeling, virtually sociopathic feminism or a feminism that is a proud and integral part of an ongoing project to more completely embrace humanity?