The Religious War Against Women By Ellie Smeal (August 1994)

By Ellie Smeal

Thank you. It’s wonderful being here. I’ve really enjoyed my little stay here in Madison. I just went to see Freethought Hall, and I really feel that you all should be proud of it. It’s quite a tribute to the hard work of Anne Gaylor and her family and to you all–the membership of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I would also like to salute Anne for her work for years in the Women’s Medical Fund for raising considerable amounts of money every year to give to women who could not afford an abortion otherwise.

When I was told that you were thinking of honoring me in this way, I really had to come. I had to meet the people who coined the term “Black Collar Crime.” I just thought that these are my kind of people who really “get it.” I am particularly interested in black collar crime because I was raised in the Catholic tradition. In fact, I went to church regularly, not only through my childhood, but through some of my adulthood. And it’s strange in many ways because as you know I, for years now, have been fighting for women’s right to choose abortion and for women’s right to be named priests, ministers, rabbis, and for women’s rights everywhere.

On the issue of abortion I was constantly asked about my Catholic tradition and how this matched my views on reproductive choice. It always amazed me because of course most Catholics in our country practice birth control and percentage-wise have more abortions than Protestants or nonbelievers.

I was a not just a Catholic, but an Italian Catholic. First generation Italian American. For those of you who are not familiar with the Catholic tradition in our country, in many ways it is an Irish Catholic church. In essence, we were a minority within a minority because, of course, the Catholic population is a minority in our country. So in reality, who I am is a part of what I am. One of the reasons I understand sex discrimination so well is because I understood discrimination against Italian Americans and Catholics. Discrimination was my first experience as a child. I knew my family was treated differently because we were from a nationality that was not accepted. My Dad used to rant and rave about every television show that would picture us as Mafia or organized crime.

My Dad actually helped formed my ideas of fighting the establishment, and my understanding of what little things mean. For example, Dad in the ’50’s was just a wild man over Eisenhower whom Republicans recruited and the Democrats did too. He couldn’t decide if he was a Democrat or a Republican, do you remember that? And Eisenhower also had never voted. The first time he voted was for himself. That’s called voting when it counts, I guess. He didn’t have a religion either. He had to choose a religion and a party when he decided to run for president. My Dad found that irritating. He’d been a long-time supporter of every liberal. What really drove him nuts was Eisenhower wearing religion on his sleeve and going to church publicly every Sunday. And then when Eisenhower put “In God We Trust” on the money, there were a lot of sermons in my house, but Dad actually sort of liked that one. He didn’t like the “Pledge of Allegiance” because that involved his children in school, but he thought “In God We Trust” on the money makes some sense because the religion of the country had become money!

So I come from sort of a weird Catholic tradition. Actually we went to church every Sunday and every Sunday my father’s habit was to count how many times they passed the hat. Frankly, I think I learned in that period the importance of separation of church and state. Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and religion is a very serious quarrel with me.

I also learned the importance of thinking free and not taking anything at face value because down deep my family really didn’t want me to take it very seriously. The reason they didn’t want me to take it very seriously? I was their only daughter. They were very fearful that I would take seriously the position of the Church. In fact I might be one of the few Catholic American women whose father, when I introduced my Catholic husband-to-be to him, asked as his first question out of the box: “Do you take it seriously?” And Charlie did not know how to answer the question. I didn’t know quite for sure exactly what the right answer would be. So Charlie hemmed and hawed, and I said, “Why don’t you just get to why you are asking?” And he said, “Well, I only have one daughter. And if you take it seriously, I don’t want you ever to have any babies in a Catholic hospital.” If you have a baby in a Catholic hospital, if you have pregnancy trouble, the instruction is to save the baby and not the mother. And since the mother was going to be his only daughter, he did not want that at all. Of course, Charlie told him, “Don’t worry about that, I don’t take it that seriously.”

Actually I did not rebel from my background. I like to say that. It’s the truth. I come from a family of free thinkers who really believe that nobody should be in the back of the bus. Individuals count and matter. Standing up for what you believed in was important, but more important was that you believed in something. And that you took life seriously and looked out for others, especially those less fortunate in our society.

Feminism has been struggling with its role in connection with religion from day one of this wave of feminism, which I would put at the beginning of the 1840’s. I love telling the story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and the role of religion. Susan B. Anthony worked with Cady Stanton in the fight for the vote which took years and years. The two women never saw the vote. They died, had lived into their 80’s without seeing it, as we all know. But one of the things that I don’t think people are as familiar with is the fight between them. They were very close associates and colleagues. Anthony was the spokesperson and Cady Stanton essentially wrote her speeches and was much more the theoretician. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had seven children and that made it so she couldn’t travel as much. Frequently Susan B. Anthony would go over there and take care of the kids so that Elizabeth Cady Stanton could write, and sometimes watch the kids so that she could travel.

One of the things they did not agree on was what to do with religion. Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed that the feminist movement should take it on forthrightly–that it should be dealt with–that you could not ignore this institution that was teaching woman’s subjugation. In fact, she spent a great deal of her life writing a women’s bible, and Susan B. Anthony felt that this was too much–that feminists had taken on so many opponents that they didn’t need one more opponent.

Anthony felt very strongly about temperance and about liquor. And in addition, both of them worked on abolition. But Anthony was one of the national leaders for the abolition of legalized liquor. Cady Stanton thought that Anthony’s work on temperance was a problem. They didn’t need to take on those liquor interests. They had enough problems taking on everything else. But she thought we should take on the religious issue.

So to torture Susan B. Anthony every time they would disagree on something else, Elizabeth Cady Stanton would begin to talk about when she was going to release her Woman’s Bible. Anthony did not want this, so she would distract Stanton with another project. Finally when they both were approaching eighty, Elizabeth Cady Stanton thought that she had to release this bible because she was fearful that her kids wouldn’t. So she said she was going to release it for her eightieth birthday. Susan B. Anthony said, “Oh we can’t do that.” What she really wanted to do for Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s eightieth birthday was have this big tribute for her at the Metropolitan Opera House. Every time Elizabeth Cady Stanton talked about releasing the bible, she made the tribute bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

So they did have a big tribute. Elizabeth Cady Stanton deserved it and so did feminism. They had this huge tribute to her with 8,000–many of the most famous people of the day came. And shortly after the birthday tribute, Elizabeth Cady Stanton released The Woman’s Bible!

The last five years of their lives, they hardly talked to each other. Susan B. Anthony got very angry about it. I think they reconciled right before the end. Because she released the Bible, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was censured by the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association because they decided they had to distance themselves from this or they would never get suffrage.

What we now know is that American feminist historians have proven that the number one opponent against suffrage probably was liquor interests. What we have found out through very careful research is that the liquor interests were in cahoots with the religious interests to prevent women’s suffrage. In essence, both Anthony and Stanton were right! Each thought the other’s interests were going to gang up people against them so they could not obtain suffrage. But Anthony, who was so sure taking on religious interests was wrong, didn’t realize that her work in the temperance movement was also a problem. One of the morals of the story is: Let’s recognize the obvious. Both religion and liquor interests were problems. And not to call it as it is, is to fool yourself. They should not have fought that long about it, and they should have taken it just as it was. We cannot pretend not to have an opposition when we do.

The Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution was not defeated by “nobody.” We had tremendous opposition just like the suffragists. We had religious opposition, we had business opposition–big time business opposition, we had organized sports opposition. I could go on. Many feminists today and many people for the ERA do not/did not want me to say who was opposed to the ERA. I felt that people should know who was opposed. We are now fighting a struggle for abortion and choice, and some people do not want us to say the obvious–that religious interests are one of the major reasons that this issue is torturing the American feminist community and women in particular. They think that if we take on religion again that we will lose. Somehow we are to ignore who is opposed to us. I think it is a terrible error. I think we should say what is the truth.

The opposition to choice is fundamentally being led by religious leaders. Look at the annual “March for Life” march (and you can see it on C-SPAN). I send people to it every year. You can’t even count the number of collars. It’s cardinals and bishops speaking. Orthodox Rabbis, Greek Orthodox, priests and the fundamentalist ministers. It’s a shame you can’t hardly imagine. It is unbelievable. There’s one woman usually up there on the stage and that is Nelly Gray who coordinates. But it’s one religious leader after another preaching, trying to show how moral they are on the basis of what a 16 year old or 17 year old girl does. And god knows they do not–I’m sorry! (laughter)–they do not want us to look at their behavior, they want us to believe in their morality by talking about the behavior of young women.

Right now it is really a decoy campaign, a red herring, a campaign that they really need when you consider the amount of priest-pedophiles in the clergy. Better that when you see one of the Roman collars you think of their teaching family values by talking about abortion, than you think of child abuse caused by priests. We are going through probably the largest scandal in the Roman Catholic Church since the Dark Ages. It is a profound and major scandal.

The hierarchy would like us to think that it is only a small percentage of priests. They say it’s about 5%. That isn’t chopped liver. Could you imagine if 5% of NOW leaders or women leaders were tried and convicted of child abuse, what would happen to the National Organization for Women? Could you imagine? Think of any group!

We have clippings, Annie Laurie collects them for Freedom From Religion Foundation and Feminist Majority collects them from all over this country. Diocese after diocese, parish after parish where priests have been accused and indicted and in some cases convicted, serving large sentences. It is very hard to get to the bottom of how much they have paid in settlements or judgments, but it’s millions upon millions of dollars. Most commonly you will see in print that it’s $400 million dollars. Most experts who are following it think it’s much more. Some estimate it anywhere from $1 billion to $12 billion. It’s diocese after diocese after diocese, parish after parish . . . I tell you I’m shocked.

People tell me I shouldn’t say I’m shocked–it sounds naive to be shocked. I keep saying I wish my Mom was here. I’d like to tell her about this. My mother always thought it was the housekeeper. I never in my childhood even imagined it. I cannot get over it. It is shocking. And yet there is a deafening silence from progressive leaders about it, from political leaders about it, and I must say, from feminist leaders about it. You’re not supposed to talk about it. Every time I bring it up, people look at me as if I’m crazy. They used to laugh. I’ve been talking about this subject since about 1987.

Now they don’t laugh because it’s in the paper and ABC has talked about it. It’s been the subject of an HBO movie. I think it’s been on 20/20. So now it’s permissible to talk about it. The media has given us the ticket to talk about it. I think that we actually fear talking about religion. You all aren’t fearful, but the typical leader is. And I must say, the typical feminist leader is, too. They are fearful that they will be discounted, that they will be labeled, that the fight will be even worse.

I say that it can’t get much worse. Right now they’re shooting us. Right now there are people preaching justifiable homicide. Using lethal force against doctors who provide abortions. I believe the reason that that line is now out is that we have defeated them in public opinion, we have defeated them at the electoral box, we have defeated them in state legislatures, we have defeated them in Congress, and now we have defeated them twice this year alone in the United States Supreme Court.

I’m very proud of the fact that the Feminist Majority Foundation took the case to the Supreme Court for safety buffer zones around clinics. By the way, we were advised by established groups we should not take this case. We were told that in fact it might threaten the freedom of speech of the protesters if there was a safety buffer zone around a clinic. I have led demonstration after demonstration, and in every demonstration we have ever led we have had to follow rules. You got to get permits, you have police lines, etc., . . . But at abortion clinics, they don’t have to get permits, they don’t have to have lines, they can go anywhere they want. Even when they’re threatening to kill us.

When we decided to take this case, to defend the Melbourne Florida Clinic, we were literally standing nose to nose with them. Praying for our death, using those words, saying it in the most vile, horrible way. I was nose to nose, literally, with Randall Terry and he was saying that I was going to be condemned to hell and there was to be on my right side (or left side–I can’t remember which) Hitler, and on the other side, Stalin. I get them both, and I’m in the center! The weirdest thing this guy said–because I thought hell was fire, you know, and damnation, but no–was that demons were going to eat me! I looked at him and said, “What are you, crazy?” I actually became dumbfounded. ‘Cause he was saying in such detail how the demons were going to do these things, with the television camera rolling. I wasn’t laughing, I have to tell you, because I was watching his eyes.

Many of the followers looked like they were in a daze. There were antiabortionists yelling out that they would strike dead various people. My niece was on the line and they used her name and said that they would kill her. My staff people around me they were threatening to kill. Randall Terry was saying the most horrendous things. How dare they speak like this!

And so I pulled our people off the line, I got my lawyers and said we’re going to take these people to court. What is the point of the Constitution? What is the point of law and order if this can go on? Torturing women, city after city, town after town. And so we went to court and I must say it has been quite an experience. We won. We were before the Supreme Court of Florida within months and won 7-0. Then came the next hurdle. We had a legal team who was headed by a male lawyer who is the immediate past President of the ABA. I knew we needed to win with a man who knew the court system and who was one of the people who was like the judges, and who would have the prestige to get us within a year to the United States Supreme Court. We wanted it to go fast. I felt that people were going to be killed. (This case was initiated before the shootings.)

A lot of people thought we would lose because it was a Rehnquist Supreme Court. Frequently groups like ACLU and other established groups have this belief that you should not take a case if you can lose because that establishes bad law. It is my opinion that if you don’t take the case you’ve already lost! And you are kidding yourself that you have “good laws” because what is the practice is, in reality, the law.

I wanted to know: Were we going to protect abortion clinics? What is the right to choose if they can shoot you? If they can stand nose to nose and threaten you? If they can block women from entering? And what good is it if you can get into a clinic in New York City but you can’t get into one in Pensacola or Melbourne or Fargo, North Dakota, or Fort Wayne, Indiana? Does every woman have to travel to New York City or Los Angeles? Are we going to lose the right to use medical care one clinic by one clinic? I knew one thing–we had no defence, no police protection in city after town after town–especially certain sections in the South, especially in small areas where the local police chief or the local D.A. is a right-to-lifer. So we took the case to the Supreme Court, and I’ll tell you how surprised I was. When Mr. Rehnquist began reading the decision on June 30th, 1994, I could not focus on what he was saying. Everything was blurred because it never dawned on me that he would write the opinion for our side! We won 6-3.

As you know we just passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. It was a lot of work and pushing from our group, and NOW and Planned Parenthood. We got marshals out after this most recent shooting. But I do not think that we are–even with the Freedom of Access Act–safe. The reason they have gone to a justifiable homicide strategy is when all else loses for our fanatical opposition, they go to terror and assassination strategies.

This is an assassination strategy, let there be no mistake about it, and I believe it is organized. They are preaching, some of these extreme leaders, now not only justifiable homicide against doctors, but against pro-choicers.

One person in particular–I think you probably saw him on television–is a priest from Mobile, Alabama. He’s saying such extreme things as, “Members of NOW, Planned Parenthood, ACLU and other pro-choicers should be sought out and exterminated as vermin.” Yet he has not been defrocked. The priest and the bishop keep saying that he has had his pastoral responsibilities taken away. That means he is no longer the pastor at that small church in Mobile. But they have not moved him to another site. He is constantly stirring it up in Mobile which is 50 miles away from Pensacola, the site of the murders. He admits that he has communicated regularly with Paul Hill, the most recent murderer. And that he talked to him right before the shooting. They have not moved him, they have not defrocked him and by the way they have not defrocked many of the pedophiles.

But they do usually move the pedophiles. Once they become discovered by their little parish they tend to move them to another parish. But they don’t warn anybody, so it could be repeated again and again and again.

Do you remember what they did to the two nuns who had the courage to do the most audacious thing, to speak at the 1986 NOW March for Choice? They were called back to Rome. They were made to recant and finally they were kicked out of their orders. But to the priest pedophiles, those that preach justifiable homicide–nothing. That is the church’s moral leadership. And yet there is not enough outcry. We should be calling for their defrocking immediately.

By the way the Mobile priest is not the only priest who has signed a justifiable homicide petition. Out of 31 names signing justifiable homicide petitions, four are priests and about ten are ministers of others faiths.

Yes, indeed, there is an organized opposition to women’s rights and unfortunately that organized opposition is in established religious circles. Not only are they fighting us, obviously on abortion, but on many other fronts. Let there be no mistake about it: they also helped block the Equal Rights Amendment and many other goals for women’s rights.

What do we do? We keep fighting. We keep exposing. I think, for example, we should look into social services for religious interests. I was very impressed by the fact that when charges were leveled of widespread sexual abuse at Catholic-run homes in two Canadian provinces, they had public hearings on it. And it resulted in closing one of the Catholic homes that was still operating. I believe that we should call for hearings where there is abuse to see if in fact it is affecting the delivery of services to children in our own country.

One of the things that I find shocking in the whole debate on separation of church and state is that we do not talk about how much money goes for organized religion and so-called charities. I did an analysis of the top one hundred charities in our country. Among them are largely religious groups. Catholic charities itself receives the seventh largest amount of federal money for charities in our country. Over $300 million dollars a year. But when you add up all the top one hundred, there are numerous Roman Catholic charities–Covenant House, Boys Town, I could go on . . . There are also Lutheran charities and other denominations that receive money from the federal government. In fact I think there is an informal formula for where the money goes to social services, the programs serving the homeless, AIDS, children in foster care, etc. About 40% goes to Catholics, probably 30% goes to Protestants, and on down the line. And for that reason, I think that none of the organized religions speak out on what is happening to our so-called separation of church and state. We don’t really have separation of church and state when we are funding charity operations of religious interests.

I used to think that Catholic Charities funds came from money given from their membership or parishioners. I never understood it is taxpayer money. Just to give you an example of how much money we are talking about, I saw an article in the New York Times where Cardinal O’Connor–who was fighting about the Nondiscrimination Against Gays Clause for employment passed by the New York city council–said he would rather give up his $91 million dollars in annual monies from New York City than to abide by the ordinance barring discrimination against gays. Ninty-one million! That was four or five years ago! Separation of church and state? We’ve got to follow the buck!

I believe we need to start making the separation of church and state not just a public education issue, it should be a social service issue across the board.

These are very difficult times. Christian Coalition which is led by Pat Robertson is organized in a political fashion that has taken over the Republican Party in about ten states. Remember when Patrick Buchanan stood before the Republican Party convention in 1992 and was so violently criticized for saying there is a religious war? There is no question in my mind that he was so strongly criticized because he was revealing their position!

I believe that the extremists in the rightwing do believe that this is a religious war. They have declared war on us–and on the majority of this country who are not religious fanatics. Extreme rightwing religious groups are not just threatening abortion clinics. They are talking about forming Christian militia. They are talking about a religious war so that we will have a theocracy, a Christian theocracy. I tell you, in my opinion, it is treason against our Constitution.

In the ’70’s I watched the religious rightwing destroy the hope of half our population–and most of our people–to see equality for women in our lifetime. We saw the warning then, that the conservative movement was taking over our country and no one would listen. And we watched in the ’80’s, as many of the gains we fought for in the ’60’s and ’70’s were rolled back. Now in the ’90’s, instead of things getting better, we’re on the front lines again. This time they are shooting us. We are now watching, I think, the first beginnings of organized terror, which has been used in Europe, South America, Africa, being used in our nation to achieve political objectives.

We have been asleep at the switch.

It is almost the 21st century. We cannot debate forever nonsense, but we must fight the forward movement of the right wing. No matter how many of us they shoot, there is no way we are going to give up the rights we have taken centuries to win!

Y’all keep on keepin’ on, but we gotta do even more!

Questions & Answers

During the lively question and answer session, Ellie Smeal decried a recent poll which found that 6% of the American population surveyed agrees with the “justifiable homicide” argument of antiabortionists. The radical antiabortion fringe even picketed Dr. Britton’s funeral, Smeal reported. One carried a sign saying Paul Hill deserved the “No. 1 Gunsman Award.”

“Talkshows treat this as a reasonable debate. I also believe in the ‘free marketplace of ideas,’ but I will not debate justifiable homicide. I’m not going to debate someone about whether it’s justifiable to kill me! It’s just not polite!” she quipped.

Smeal said she believes that the violence is an attempt to “isolate the doctors.” She cautioned against escalating rhetoric on the pro-choice side: “The heart and soul of the feminist movement is nonviolence. I don’t want to wake up and find we are the SS. We have to build a different world.” The remedy for antiabortion violence is to “bring these people to justice.”

In response to questions about RU486, she noted that she did a workshop in Cairo at the world summit on overpopulation about RU 486, which has been renamed “mifepristone” by the Population Council. By the way, she reported that in Cairo “in the end, only four countries voted with the Pope, such as Malta, which the Vatican owns.” The Feminist Majority Foundation, she said, is raising money for the clinical trials. “This pill costs but pennies. Meanwhile 500,000 women die annually from complications of unwanted pregnancies.”

She castigated the “medical McCarthyism” that has been indifferent to the campaign to keep RU486 out of our country and to prevent its use to help research in cancer prevention. “There is a No-Nothingness among some professionals,” she added, citing her studies of the potential medical uses of the pill.

In response to a question about Rush Limbaugh, she said of his term, “FemiNazis”: “Do not think lightly of that word, labeling us as a killer of the Jews.” The Nazis, she pointed out, were antifeminist and antiabortion.

She concluded by noting that support remains strong for feminism. “In some polls, the majority of adult women identify as feminists. In most polls, there is hardcore 30% support.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation