Generations, Feminist Beliefs and Abortion Rights Support

By Fine, Terri Susan | Journal of International Women's Studies, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Generations, Feminist Beliefs and Abortion Rights Support


Fine, Terri Susan, Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

Do forces that impacted feminist beliefs in the past, such as gender and generation, impact feminist beliefs today within the context of abortion policy support? While the abortion rights issue was framed during the feminist movement era as a feminist issue, it is now clearly framed along partisan and ideological lines. Public opinion on issues that percolated through the feminist movement and identified as feminist issues in the past may no longer be viewed as feminist issues today. The abortion rights issue was chosen because of the off-held perception that it is solely a women's issue. The strong association of abortion rights with the feminist movement makes opinion on abortion rights an appropriate domain in which to analyze the relative impact of gender, generation and feminist beliefs on policy support.

Data from the 2004 American National Election Study showed that neither gender nor generation achieved a significant impact on feminist beliefs. Men's and women's exposure to the feminist movement, the ideals that the movement sought, and certain policies advanced by the movement, such as abortion rights, achieve disparate impact across generations among women and among men. These findings are critical when one questions how feminist policy questions will be approached and responded to by the public and political elites in the future as feminist beliefs may be a less meaningful precursor to both feminist policy support and issues framed in feminist terms than they have been in the past.

Keywords: feminism, public opinion, abortion

Introduction

The feminist movement of the 1960's sought to confront and change barriers created and reinforced by the view that sex differences should be reflected in both social life and public policy (Freeman 1975). Feminism is the belief that one's sex should not preclude personal autonomy and decision making. One core aspect of the feminist movement focused on the political arena as government decisions affected so many aspects of women's lives. The public and political elites understood that the range of issues that concerned the feminist movement, such as economic, financial and educational discrimination, reproductive rights, and other policy questions such as the Equal Rights Amendment, were feminist in their orientation.

Women sought those legal, social, economic and political rights, opportunities and privileges enjoyed by men. Equality takes many forms including equal treatment, equitable treatment, and personal autonomy. Equal treatment is the notion that sex does not warrant differential treatment (i.e. sex-based employment qualifications, loan and credit eligibility). Equitable treatment is an approach that recognizes sex differences while arguing that such differences do not warrant differential treatment (i.e. comparable worth, where occupational segregation does not justify pay differences). Furthering personal autonomy involves women making decisions without governmentally imposed barriers (i.e. abortion, contraception).

Congress, state and local governments, the President, the executive branch, and the Supreme Court, each made decisions that brought women opportunities that had previously been denied to them as a result of the feminist movement. It also brought about perception change as greater support for equal opportunities in corporate, economic, legal, political, social and religious settings emerged among women and men from that movement. Such perceptions, and the policies supporting them, naturally complement one another as public opinion informs policy decisions and policy change affects public opinion.

Opinion change was also influenced by feminist beliefs. Those who considered themselves feminists, who opposed sex-based barriers to women's personal autonomy and advancement, more often supported liberal public policies while those opposing the feminist agenda endorsed traditional policy approaches (Hout 1999:15).

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