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The Rise and Fall of Women's Rights

34 Pages Posted: 18 Feb 2012  

Lynne Marie Kohm

Regent University - School of Law

Date Written: February 17, 2000


Women's rights activists scream with urgency over issues regarding reproductive freedoms but miss the real issues by viewing the wage gap problem through rose-colored glasses. There are many examples of feminists reducing activism to a discussion of reproductive freedom and ignoring freedom and opportunity in 385 other aspects of life. The focus of some publications reflects more concern about the lack of training in performing second trimester abortions in medical schools' gynecology and obstetrics classes than about opening opportunities for women to study medicine.

Furthermore, American feminists have taken this distorted mindset abroad. In a well-intended effort to empower indigent South African women, activists prioritized fighting for those women's abortion rights over fighting for educational opportunities, access to health care in general, and protection from gender discrimination. Neither did a report of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) show concern for an extreme shortage of female population in Asian countries. Rather, it focused on the need for human rights treaties to “recognize rights to reproductive and sexual health” as paramount. The report did add, though, that the UNFPA is concerned also about “equality and equity for men and women in all spheres of life.”

This distorted set of priorities has its roots in contemporary women's rights activism. As a result, equal employment, equal pay, professional potential, educational choices, personal happiness, and infinite opportunity have been forfeited in favor of contraception, reproductive alternatives, sexual lifestyle choices, and abortion on demand. The expansion of reproductive choices has placed a stranglehold on womanhood. Instead of experiencing freedom of choice in reproduction, women have been condemned to be further 386 defined by their reproductive capacity. This emphasis on reproductive freedom has detracted attention from the immensely valuable contributions women can make to society aside from reproduction, thereby limiting women to a more narrow spectrum of importance in the economic world.

The first section of this Article gives a brief historical overview of the character and goals of early women's rights leaders. Part II continues with an overview of the various understandings of womanhood, analyzes post-modern feminism and the radical feminist agenda of today's culture, and concludes with a forecast for reproductive freedom. Part III then reviews and evaluates the rise of reproductive freedom in American case law, followed by its fall as a result of restrictions on and regulation of that freedom by judicial and legislative lawmaking. This section illustrates that the women's rights movement's focus on reproductive freedom ironically has given rise to state legislation and Supreme Court decisions that place practical limitations on abortion rights. Part III also will show that feminist philosophy has distorted the legal concept of privacy, which the Court introduced to uphold privacy within the family.

Part IV examines how the feminist movement has impacted societal attitudes and limited women's reproductive choices. Finally, Part V proposes a solution: a return to the original feminists' goals of equality based on strength of character, via a philosophy that encourages and empowers women to find freedom through complementarity between the sexes. This Article concludes that the women's movement began more than a hundred years ago with virtuous objectives but has swerved off track by pursuing unfettered sexual and reproductive freedom, thereby further disempowering women and any movement for women's rights in general. Today's activists have forsaken the honorable and crucial fight for general freedom and equality in order to pursue the narrow objective of freedom from childbearing at any cost. We offer some suggestions for a broader, more balanced approach to pro-women activism.

The exaggerated emphasis on women's sexual and reproductive capacities has jeopardized many of the advances for which women have fought over the past century and has sabotaged the continuing pursuit of equality. Redefining womanhood in light of reproduction and sexuality only, rather than seeing women as whole persons with diverse needs and capabilities, serves to deny the personhood 387 of women. [FN34] Many leading women's activists are desperately trying to free women from that which makes them uniquely women, the human womb, by overemphasizing reproductive capacity and minimizing the rest of a woman's life. As a result, we now are witnessing the conversion of reproductive freedom into mere and ignorant sexual power.

Suggested Citation

Kohm, Lynne Marie, The Rise and Fall of Women's Rights (February 17, 2000). William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law, p. 381, Winter 2000. Available at SSRN:

Lynne Kohm (Contact Author)

Regent University - School of Law ( email )

1000 Regent University Drive
Virginia Beach, VA 23464
United States


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