McCain VP Pick: A New Day for Feminism?

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin represents a new face for Republican presidential politics, but also a new vision of what it means to be a feminist or a strong woman in political leadership. Serrin Foster is president of the group Feminists for Life, of which Palin is a member. Foster discusses the impact of the Alaska governor's place on a major party ticket.

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DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

I'm Deborah Amos. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is in St. Paul, Minnesota covering the Republican National Convention. In a moment, a New Orleans resident will describe his family's evacuation from the powerful winds and heavy rains of Hurricane Gustav. But first, the selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for vice president of the Republican party has excited many social conservatives particularly those for whom abortion is a critical issue. Palin is considered a hero to the pro life movement and a leader in developing a new approach to the issue. Here to talk more about it is Serrin Foster. She's the president of Feminists for Life, a non-profit advocacy group that claims Governor Sarah Palin as a member. Welcome to the program.

SERRIN FOSTER: Thank you for having me.

AMOS: How long has Governor Palin been part of your organization?

FOSTER: Governor Palin came out about her membership in 2006. And I think it's fairly telling that of all the pro life organizations that she could possibly have joined that she's proudest of her membership with Feminists for Life.

AMOS: And how is your group's approach different from other pro life anti-abortion groups?

FOSTER: Well, there are many groups of course who are working on direct services for pregnant, (unintelligible) women. There are others who were involved in legal issues, of course. But Feminists for Life's unique approach is to systematically eliminate the reasons that drive women to abortion. We are part of the continuing tradition of the early American feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who opposed abortion. And many have whom believed that abortion was a reflection that the needs of women had not been met and Feminists for Life believes that too. And we all believe that women deserve better than abortion. So, rather than as an organization of social conservatives, we have people who may be social conservative, we have a lot of very liberal members and who do not find themselves you know, easily boxed in. So we have people from the Democratic as well as the Republican side who are very excited about each, you know, candidate.

AMOS: Mm hmm.

FOSTER: Feminists for Life has been on Capitol Hill and I've been working on various issues that, alongside of many of the candidates, the Violence Against Women Act, fighting the family cap in child support enforcement...

AMOS: Let's go back to Governor Palin just for a minute and for listeners who are just getting used to her story, explain to us how she became such an important figure on this issue.

FOSTER: How she became an important issue on this - well, I think the fact that she is pro woman and pro life and she is a woman herself has made her important to those who are looking at her now for the first time. Of course, Feminists for Life has - you know, we've been in touch but I don't know her since she joined and sent her materials and you know, kept that up through years. But I think, it's the fact that she has been proud to say she is a feminist and pro life at the same time and somebody who has been in public office, working in position as traditionally held by men has taken down. You know, her predecessor for - you know, was very popular three years worth of time in his office.

AMOS: You're talking about reform agenda, not necessarily her pro life agenda when she was in Alaska?

FOSTER: Right.

AMOS: Yeah. But she is the mother of five.

FOSTER: Yes.

AMOS: And she does have one handicapped child who she chose to have even though she knew...

FOSTER: Yes.

AMOS: That that child was going to be handicapped. Does that sort of put her in your pantheon of heroes? Is that what makes her such a strong candidate for you?

FOSTER: I think she is - I think for Feminists for Life, for pro life people and for those who are disability activist to see that she celebrated the life of her son, not only did she choose to have this baby, she and her husband, but that they welcomed this child into the world and they've celebrated him and not make this big a deal out of it as everybody in the press has been. So I think, it also has given people who work in the disability field a lot of confidence with the fact that, you know she walks her talk. So, just as well as for pro lifers, who see that she didn't make an exception for her own son when she had to deal with what some would call a hard choice.

AMOS: How do you respond to people who say that pro choice is crucial to a feminist identity?

FOSTER: We could - again, you know coming out of the original feminist movement and actually going back to the British feminists who first wrote about abortion and contacts with - women, Mary Wollstonecraft, we have 200 years of pro life feminism. It wasn't until the 1970s when the rights of women in the workplace to achieve equality did women start seeing that abortion might be a solution to the challenges of being able to compete with man in a man's world on men's terms. And for many of us in Feminists for Life, like our former president, Rosemary Bottcher, who found herself back at work days after giving birth to a child, found that you know, combining work and family is a really tough issue.

And you know, how do we remake the world in a way that it's supportive of pregnant women whether they are in the workplace, at home or at school and those who were in the work place after the child's been born? How do we engage society at all levels to support the decisions that women make to have children? For us, we look to the Guttmacher Institute which is the organization that was associated with planned parenthood and is no more. But they list every year the reasons why women have abortions. And for Feminist for Life and many of members by the way who've had abortions really regretted them and kind of went back and said, what if things were different for somebody else. And that's our focus, to systematically eliminate the reasons that drive women to abortion. It isn't enough to sit there and say, you can't have one. What's important is that we - for us and what drives us is the ability to change a situation that drives women to abortion.

AMOS: And do you think that because Sarah Palin is on the ticket that abortion is going to be a bigger issue than it has been in the past? Even Barack Obama spoke about it in his acceptance speech and while he said, he didn't necessarily think abortion was a great idea, certainly both parties can agree that there should be less of them.

FOSTER: Well, it's been a fairly exciting week for Feminists for Life, not only have - we have found out that one of our members was announced as a running mate for one party as vice president, it's also that during - at the beginning of the week, at the Democratic National Convention, they adopted a platform which was radically different from the previous one. In that, it included solutions for women and it named a number of them and that is the heart and soul of Feminist for Life's mission. Our mission is to systematically eliminate the reasons to drive women to abortion, in particular this lack of practical solutions and lack of support. Now...

AMOS: Serrin, I'm going to have to wrap...

FOSTER: But you can help with resources...

AMOS: I'm going to have to wrap you up. And I thank you very much. Serrin Foster is the president of Feminist for Life and she joined us by phone from her home in Virginia. Thank you very much.

FOSTER: Thank you.

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