Pink Pachyderms: the US’s anti-choice women and the politics of fear (and privilege)


By Veronica Strong-Boag and Kelsey Wrightson

6262125642_2999cc3114_o-1While the conservative war against choice is far from new, tactics have evolved. In 2008 Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential candidate for the Republican Party, used the phrase “pink elephants” to describe the newest face of the global war against women, namely female Republicans working within legislative institutions to limit reproductive freedoms. In the United States, conservative campaigners and lawmakers have successfully repealed fertility rights won by champions of women. Beginning with the defunding of Planned Parenthood (first in 1976 with the Hyde Amendment and continuing into the new millennium under George W. Bush [2001-2009]) and following the 2008 global recession with widespread curtailment of state access to abortion, reproductive freedom has been increasingly ‘legislated away.’ That threat was recently exemplified in Texas where bills pushed through a Republican-dominated senate sharply limit access to abortion services, shut down clinics, and changed rules of care to impose medically-unnecessary deterrents. Even the heroic filibuster of Democrat Wendy Davis could not stop the anti-choice tide.

Women such as Senator Kelly Ayotte (Republican New Hampshire), Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (Republican, Minnesota), Lieutenant -Governor Rebecca Clayfish (Republican, Wisconsin), and Florida Attorney-General Republican Pam Bondi are enthusiastically ploughing the anti-choice furrow. They follow generations of Republican women, who, even before the attainment of the franchise, functioned variously as ‘party women,’ GOP officials, or ‘clubwomen’ sympathizers.  Applauded by the ‘pro-life’ group, the Susan B Anthony List (a name that invokes a suffrage pioneer but a cause that would have certainly caused that radical proponent of women’s rights apoplexy), today’s pink elephants pit women against women, and endeavor to plaster a female mask on a movement financed and led largely by white men. Although Rymph found female Republicans supporting equality in the past, questions have to be asked regarding the ‘New Right’ and the evident assault on gender equality: why are some women identifying with a conservative movement that threatens their own bodily integrity and what is the impact of their efforts on American anti-choice laws?

Superson identifies both religious and secular reasons for female support of conservative and anti-choice movements. She takes up the now classic arguments of Andrea Dworkin: conservatism promises women protection from supposedly naturally violent men. Given the Right’s insistence that violence and social disintegration are inevitable without traditional marriage and nuclear families, only a retreat to an imagined past can bring women economic and physical safety. Women, in other words, should appreciate that they benefit from tradition’s constraints on the ‘natural’ urges of men. Submission to patriarchal domination is the price they, and not so incidentally their fetuses, must pay for protection. Conservatism itself reaps obvious benefits from women. Not only do they do much of the daily grind of partisanship, they can also make parties appear more inclusive.  In return for support, a miniscule group of women receive the bounty and recognition offered Sarah Palin and her sister-travellers.

As evidenced by surging anti-choice legislation in the 21st century, the conservative women’s movement has gained significant power as US lobbyists. Two prominent groups, ‘Women Concerned for America’ and ‘Independent Women’s Forum’, like the Susan B. Anthony List, regularly take the lead in pressing state and federal governments to curtail choice.  Such advocates drape themselves in the flag of traditional morality, even as they often deploy Third Wave feminism’s recognition of diversity by claiming to stand for the ‘underrepresented,’ supposedly ‘silent, majority’ (Concerned Women for America). Despite such claims, the narrow range of class and race embodied by the Pink Pachyderms is striking: better-off whites are once again endeavouring to reduce the rights of others.

Combating such opponents sometimes appears to place feminists in a catch-22.  On the one hand, fighting among women invokes longstanding misogynistic assumptions about women’s supposed incapacity for rational discourse and ‘team play.’  Ignoring the anti-feminist threat poses other, arguably far more serious, dangers: the welfare of the majority of women is deliberately jeopardized by well-placed and heavily financed zealots in patriarchy’s cause.

The American conflict is not precisely replicated anywhere else in the world, although nations where religious fundamentalism runs riot over women’s bodies offer obvious similarities. If, however, the comparison is to the United Kingdom and Canada, we see the significance of different political structures. Halfmann argues that the party-based parliamentary systems of Canada and Great Britain, unlike the US’s lobby-dominated politics, have marginalized abortion on the national agenda. National medical systems (however compromised) offer another level of difference, and sometimes protection. This is not to suggest, however, that some of the same prejudices don’t inform British and Canadian reactionaries. In Canada, Conservative Party backbenchers have repeatedly attempted to reopen the debate under the guise of preventing ‘sex selective abortion.’ With the appointment of Rona Ambrose, who previously voted against reproductive freedom, as Minister of Health (2013), pro-choice Canadians have to remain vigilant.  Feminists also need to scrutinize groups such as R.E.A.L Women, which, while significantly less powerful than its American counterparts, is allied to Focus on the Family, a group with close ties to US evangelical conservatives. Even as they face the reality of the Dominion’s different religious and political make-up, such reactionary forces aspire to be the ‘true north’s’ own elephants, trumpeting the protection of women and western civilization from what an earlier generation of anti-feminists termed the apocalypse of ‘long-haired men and short-haired women.’

Around the world at the dawn of the 21st century, reproductive freedom for women, which has only a bare beginning in many countries, is under assault. That attack is occurring in the midst of a state and international world order confronting unprecedented threats to human survival (over-population and environmental collapse to name only a few) that contribute to rising distress, violence, and determination to protect immediate self-interest. As in wars of every description, symbolic women and their real bodies stand on the firing lines. According to America’s pink brigade and their global counterparts, women need to accept that their interests are served by obedience and acceptance of the ‘natural’ patriarchal order.  In the meantime, anti-feminist pink elephants, much like the character of Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s dystopic The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) stand by to reap the benefits of defending male privilege. That sorry tale provides a visceral warning of the costs of failing to advocate and entrench reproductive freedom.


“Wave of American Politicians Pushing Abortion out of Reach” in The Globe and Mail, August 23 2012, A8–9.

Angyal, Chloe. “Coverage of Reproductive Rights Features Almost no Reproductive Health Experts,” Feministing,  July 11 2013.

Bacchetta, Paola and Margaret Power, eds. Right-Wing Women: From Conservatives to Extremists Around the World,  Routledge, New York: 2002.

Blee, Kathleen M. and Sandra McGee Deutsch, eds. Women of the Right, Comparisons and Interplay Across Borders, Pennsylvania State University, USA: 2013

Dusenbery, Maya. “North Carolina Lawmakers Sneakily Add Abortion Restrictions to Motorcyclevagina bill,” Feministing, July 10 2013.

Kilkenny, Allison. “Sixty-Four arrested at ‘Moral  Monday’ Abortion Access Protest in North Carolina,” The Nation,  July 9 2013.

Marshall, Susan E. “Marilyn vs. Hillary: women’s place in new right politics.” Women & Politics 16.1: 1996,  55-75.

Pike, Robert M. DREW HALFMANN, Doctors and Demonstrators: How Political Institutions Shape Abortion Law in the United States, Britain, and Canada. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011, 354 p.” (2013): 116-120.

Rommelspacher, Birgit. “Right-Wing ‘Feminism’: a Challenge to Feminism as an Emancipatory Movement.” in Women Citizenship and Difference Yuval-Davis, Nira and Pnina Werbner eds. Zubaan, USA: 2005.

Rymph, Catherine M. Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right UNC Press, New York: 2006.

Scherieber, Ronnee. Righting Feminism: Conservative women and American Politics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York: 2008.

Spence, Jean. “Palin: ‘Look out for Stampede of Pink Elephants’” Washington Wire, May 14 2010.

Wingrove, Josh. “Conservative MPs rally for renewed abortion debateThe Globe and Mail, May 9, 2013.

This article was written by: Wrightson, Kelsey