• Nellie Gray
    (Photo: March for Life Education and Defense Fund)
    Nellie Gray is the founder of the annual March for Life. Gray died in August 2012 at age 88.
Divided by Abortion, United by Feminism
1/27/2013 7:45:00 PM
By ROSS DOUTHAT -New York Times

IN 1942, 71 years before last week’s Pentagon decision allowing women on the front lines of combat, the United States government established the Women’s Army Corps, with Athena as its insignia, and welcomed our country’s first female military recruits.

One of these pioneering women was a corporal from Big Spring, Tex., named Nellie Gray. After the war ended, Gray finished college (with an assist from the G.I. Bill) and moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked for decades at the State Department and the Department of Labor, earning a law degree at night from Georgetown University along the way. Then the social upheavals of the 1970s arrived, the soldier-turned-bureaucrat-turned-lawyer helped found one of America’s most enduring mass movements, establishing an annual protest march that continues to the present day.

That protest is the March for Life, the annual rally against Roe v. Wade.

When she organized the first march, in January 1974, it drew 20,000 anti-abortion marchers to the capital. On Friday, 40 years after Roe and six months after Gray’s death at the age of 88, the marchers numbered in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.

If she had chosen a different political cause, Gray’s trajectory – from soldier to working woman to professional activist – would be a case study for students of second-wave feminism. But the cause she did choose – and in whose service she issued strident attacks on “feminist abortionists” – has endured precisely because it has had a more complicated relationship to female advancement than some cultural stereotypes would suggest.

Those stereotypes link the anti-abortion cause to traditionalist ideas about gender roles – to the belief that a woman’s place is in the home, or at least that her primary identity should be maternal rather than professional. Writing in the Reagan era, the sociologist Kristin Luker argued that this dimension of the debate trumped the question of whether unborn human life has rights: “While on the surface it is the embryo’s fate that seems to be at stake, the abortion debate is actually about the meaning of women’s lives.”

This remains a dominant pro-choice understanding of the abortion conflict – and not without reason, since it finds vindication to this day in the idiot “mansplaining” of amateur gynecologists like Todd Akin.

But such an understanding was too simplistic when Nellie Gray founded the March for Life, and it’s grown steadily less compelling with time. As Jon Shields of Claremont McKenna College pointed out last year, pro-life sentiment has been steady over the last four decades even as opposition to women in the work force (or the military, or the White House) has largely collapsed. Most anti-abortion Americans today are also gender egalitarians: indeed, Shields notes, pro-life attitudes toward women’s professional advancement have converged so quickly with pro-choice attitudes that “the average moderately pro-life citizen is a stronger supporter of gender equality than even the typical strongly pro-choice citizen was in the early 1980s.” Among the younger generation, any “divide over women’s roles nearly disappears entirely.”

The pro-life cause has proved unexpectedly resilient, in other words, not because millions of Americans are nostalgists for a world of stricter gender norms, but because they have convinced themselves that the opportunities the feminist revolution won for women can be sustained without unrestricted access to abortion.

This conviction is crucial to understanding why opinion on abortion has been a persistent exception to the liberalizing cultural trends that have brought us gay marriage, medical marijuana and now women in combat. It helps explain, too, why public opinion on the issue doesn’t break down along the gendered lines that many liberals expect – why more women than men, for instance, told the latest Pew survey that abortion was “morally wrong” and (in smaller numbers) that Roe should be overturned.

It also has long-term implications for how the abortion debate plays out. The best way to argue with a Todd Akin is to dismiss him as a chauvinist, a creep and the enemy of a more enlightened future. But the best pro-choice rebuttal to the young idealists at the March for Life or the professional women who lead today’s anti-abortion groups isn’t that they’re too reactionary – it’s that they’re too utopian, too radical, too naïve.

This means that the abortion rights movement, once utopian in its own fashion, is now at its most effective when it speaks the language of necessary evils, warning Americans that while it might be pretty to think so, the equality they take for granted simply can’t be separated from a practice they find troubling.

For its part, if the pro-life movement wants not only to endure but to triumph, then it needs an answer to this argument. That means something more than just a defense of a universal right to life. It means a realist’s explanation of how, in policy and culture, the feminist revolution could be reformed without being repealed.


Nellie Gray was born in Big Spring, Texas but her family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas and she grew up in Corpus Christi and joined the Womens’ Army Corps from Corpus Christi.

When I became Bishop Corpus Christi and participated in the March for Life in Washington, I met Nellie and we became close friends.  She insisted that I every time I participated in the annual March I should also attend the Rose Dinner that always followed the March and sit next to her at the head table.

She was truly a remarkable, loving woman.  I hope and pray that a future Archbishop of Washington will see fit to begin the investigation that will determine whether or not her cause for canonization should be begun.

– Bishop Rene Henry Gracida

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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