[Editor’s Note: Freelance writer and speaker Sue Ellen Browder has addressed members of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women and has appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including the Today Show, Oprah, EWTN News Nightly, and Fox News. As the author of Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement, Browder has spoken at many pro-life conferences around the country, including the March for Life. She spoke to Charles Camosy about latest book, Sex and the Catholic Feminist.]
Camosy: At one time in your life you were a pro-choice feminist writing articles for Cosmopolitan, but you are now Catholic and identify as a pro-life feminist. Can you say more about this major conversion?
Browder: I grew up as a sexually innocent girl in a small town in Iowa, and I was quite glamour-struck. I thought all the models on the covers of those slick women’s magazines in the Rexall Drug Store were real, and all the writers for those magazines were rich and famous. I wanted to be like them.
So two years after I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, my husband and I traveled with our new baby boy to New York City where I landed a job as assistant to the articles editor of Cosmopolitan.
The year was 1971, when the feminist movement and the sexual revolution were both in full swing. I’d previously been fired for being pregnant, a common business practice in those days, so I had strong personal reasons for wanting to fight for women’s rights, and every journalist I knew was pro-choice. It was a kind of groupthink.
At age 57, I converted to Catholicism. I told that deeply transformational story in my book Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement. But even after I became a Catholic, I managed to cling to my conviction that so-called “reproductive rights” – contraception with abortion as a back-up – were unalloyed goods for women. In my mind, the Catholic Church was right about God, but when it came to women’s rights the stuffy old Church “just didn’t get it.” Of course, I was secretly saying that when it came to women’s rights God “just didn’t get it.” But I didn’t realize that’s what I was saying.
Then in 2009, I went to the West Coast Walk for Life with a friend who’d had three abortions and vowed to be “silent no more.” When I witnessed those thousands of good-hearted people marching, singing, and praying together, I was just blown away. I realized the major media had completely missed this story, and I was one of those who had missed it.
Coming to know many strong, intelligent, liberated pro-life women led me to change my mindset–to realize the abortion mentality, which elevates career ambitions over having a family, betrays women. My experience at the Walk for Life, coupled with going to confession and receiving healing from the Lord for aborting our third child, changed me from a career-at-any-cost feminist to a pro-life family feminist.
I don’t think St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae gets enough credit for what it actually says. You note in your new book Sex and the Catholic Feminist that this pro-life encyclical calls us to embody a new feminism. Can you say more about how John Paul has affected your thinking?
St. John Paul II was pope in 2003 when my husband and I became Catholic. Wonderstruck by the beauty and truth I’d found in the Catholic Church, I began reading every encyclical of his I could get my hands on. In Evangelium Vitae, he called for women to promote a “new feminism” to overcome the discrimination, violence and exploitation women face. He spoke directly to women like me who’d had abortions, saying, “Try to understand what happened and face it honestly….With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life.” Only later did I realize that with those words he’d given me my marching orders.
The contraceptive pill, as you know, is often thought of as the innovation which launched contemporary feminism. How, in your view, should Catholic feminists think about the contraceptive pill?
Today’s dominant feminist views often regard the pill (with abortion as back-up) as being “that without which” female emancipation could never have taken place. But that’s completely false. In the 1970s, pro-life feminists worked through litigation and lobbying to open up academia to women, force newspapers to stop running “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female” classified ads, allow women to serve on juries in every state and to get Congress to pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (which made it illegal to fire a woman for being pregnant). All these feminist victories were won without any discussion about–or need for–the contraceptive pill. Should a woman really have to pump her healthy, young body full of unhealthy, man-made chemicals to finish her degree, keep her job or get a promotion? Isn’t this just another form of bondage (this time to the medical establishment and Big Pharma)?
Swallowing the pill may convince some women they’re in control when they have casual sex, but taking it actually devalues a woman’s personhood. In his 1968 letter Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI warned the world that when you separate sex from authentic love (through the pill or other artificial methods), many men will come to see women merely as sex objects to be “used” for their own personal pleasure — the very thing the #MeToo Movement is protesting today with such justifiable outrage. This complex, invisible interconnection between sterile sex and the sexual objectification of women once completely escaped me, as it still escapes most pro-choice feminists today.
You note in your new book that the feminism promoted by Cosmopolitan and similar institutions is “highly profitable.” That sounds like an important thing to underline here. Can you say more about how money drives much of what is sold to us as feminism today?
You’re right: It’s a very important point to underline. Once you hard-sell the hook-up culture, or what I call in my book “the Cosmo lifestyle,” to a young woman, then she’ll just naturally think she needs all the sexy products the sex profiteers are selling — from “girl power T-shirts” and “power woman” perfume to singles travel, contraceptives and abortion. Sex-revolution profiteers (who rake in billions of dollars by using women’s naked or half-clad bodies to capture consumer attention) are using feminism and the idea of sex as “power” to sell women on an attitude that can deeply damage their relationships, physical health and mental well-being.
It is easy to think about reasons that “the left” and major media wouldn’t give pro-life feminism a hearing. But don’t pro-life feminists also face friendly fire? Major pro-life leaders give talks about why one shouldn’t identify as a feminist. And of course, Donald Trump’s anti-feminist views and actions are well known. How should pro-life feminists navigate these waters today?
I understand why some pro-life leaders see feminism as a dirty word. But the essential point I’m trying to make in Sex and the Catholic Feminist is that pro-lifers aren’t fighting feminism per se. We all believe women should have the right to vote, go to law or medical school and receive equal pay for equal work. What we’re really fighting is the false joining of feminism with the sexual revolution, which reduces a woman’s personhood to her sex organs and sexual desires.
By shunning the F-word (feminism), we’re allowing sex-revolution propagandists to control the public story and claim they’re the cool ones standing up for women and girls while pro-life Christians are just a bunch of old fuddy-duddies stuck in the Dark Ages. The early feminists who won us the right to vote were all pro-life. In this hundredth anniversary year of women winning the vote, it’s time for pro-life Christians to take back our story, reclaim the F-word and shout it to the skies.
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.