Five Lessons for Pro-Lifers from the Women’s March

Whether you are participating in legislative efforts, sidewalk advocacy, volunteering at a Pregnancy Resource Center, or leading a Students for Life group, you should be talking about your pro-life work. Pro-lifers need to talk more about what we are doing for the movement because building awareness is half the battle of grassroots mobilization efforts. Successful social change comes from recruiting those who agree and reaching out to those who disagree.

Let’s take a look at how pro-choice people discuss their activism. I am going to use the Women’s March of January 2017 as a case study for how we as pro-life advocates can improve our own messaging by examining the March’s approach and identifying what we can learn from it. The second Women’s March took place this year on January 20th, but, for the sake of simplicity, I am only going to reference the first march in this post. The march this year was less clear and consistent in its messaging, so it isn’t as useful a case study.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes.

Women’s March in Washington in January, 2017.
Photo credit: Roya Ann Miller

When the Women’s March took place last year, it was discussed all over social media, news sites, and in our communities: the kind of buzz that every social protest hopes to create. People talked about why they were going, how they planned on getting there, and what their experience was like after they came back from either the national or local march. If activism sparks discussion, it is a sign that the activism achieved some level of success. These marches were not just public demonstrations which took place on one day and were over the next. The people participating talked about it openly before, during, and after with anyone that they could reach.

Here are my takeaways after closely studying the success and shortcomings of the pro-choice movement’s participation in the Women’s March:

Do: Talk about your activism. A lot.

The success of the Women’s March in creating a conversation in our culture was overwhelming. They had an advantageous position of being anti-Trump, which has been such a popular and quick way to attract attention ever since he announced his presidential campaign. This messaging and celebrity appearances at the national march certainly granted them access to mainstream media. On the other hand, it is undeniable how incredibly underreported the March for Life has been for the last four decades by large news sources, despite being the largest annual protest in our nation’s history. It is because of this imbalance that individual activists need to speak out about what they are doing. The pro-life movement certainly does not have the same sort of heavy top-down support that abortion choice activists have available. For this reason, we need to increase our bottom-up mobilization efforts even more than our pro-choice counterparts so we can counteract this unequal top-down distribution. When people ask about your weekend, mention your shift at 40 Days for Life or volunteer work at the pregnancy center. Talk about your activism with friends, family, coworkers, and strangers. Talk about your efforts on social media. Talk about why you are pro-life and what you are doing about it.

Speakers at the Women’s March, with Cecile Richards in the background.
Photo credit: ABC News, YouTube

Don’t: Forget your audience.

When we speak to pro-choice people about our activism, we should intentionally present our message differently than when we speak to other pro-life people. This is not because we are afraid to speak the truth with people who disagree with us, but rather because it is wise to speak according to your audience. It is not deceitful to be strategic in how you present ideas to different people.

When my friends talked to me about the Women’s March, they made a remarkable number of assumptions about what I thought. They acted as though it was completely undeniable that Trump is evil and women will be oppressed during his presidency. My friends who went on the Women’s March talked to me about it as if I were someone who agreed with them about a whole spectrum of issues like climate change, foreign policies, abortion, and health care. It was as if they didn’t even consider the possibility that we could disagree about one or more of these topics. We could have had a great discussion about these complex issues if they would have talked with me, but instead they were talking past me. They assumed I supported the march for all the same reasons they did without listening to what I had to say.

Their largest misstep was making assertions about their activism in a way that didn’t allow for me to respond. Because of this, I was less open to hearing anything they were saying about the march, regardless of their passion. I didn’t feel as open to hearing their reasons, even though I am an open-minded person, because they did such a poor job trying to figure out where I was coming from.

Do: Have unity in public discourse.

When you watch the speeches of those who speak out publicly in support of a woman’s legal right to abortion, they almost seem like they are reading from the same script. Pro-choice messaging has a clear, coherent voice. They have specific sound bites which communicate their message clearly that they repeat over and over.  Their sound bites subtly hit on common ground pressure points of public opinion, such as women’s equality, accessible health care, and individual freedom. Look at the social media pages, signs from rallies, advertisements, and television interviews. You will see one collective unit moving forward together. The local marches were designed to look, sound and feel the same as the national march in Washington D.C. This is a great strategy to influence the culture because it is easier for people listening to digest one strong message rather than many smaller ones.

The organizers of the Women’s March knew their mission. The Women’s March was executed to purposefully send a message, even down to the details of how it was organized. For example, they explicitly and publicly excluded pro-life feminist groups from participating. New Wave Feminists was removed from the list of official partners when it was discovered that they are a women’s advocacy group that is also pro-life. At the same time, Planned Parenthood was both an exclusive premier sponsor and premier partner of the national march. NARAL Pro-Choice America was also listed as a social justice partner.

Don’t: Only focus on the negative.

I heard a lot of people involved with the Women’s March express anger, sadness, and fear as motivations for participating. Many people told me the worries they had about what would happen in our country and how they were going to fight against it. The amount of time they talked about what they were opposed to seemed to overshadow the positive of what they wanted to fight for. If we want to recruit others to our cause, then we need to inspire. When I speak with pro-life friends who are not involved in activism, I try to keep it positive. No one wants to be around a “Debbie Downer.” We want people to be excited about what we are doing, and it can be a serious turn-off if they only hear our complaints.

One of the worst places for venting or complaining is on a public platform like social media or in a group where the negativity can be contagious. I want to motivate others to get involved, so I intentionally share more with them when I am uplifted or have had a recent good experience. For example, maybe your pro-life group is really small and you want to recruit more members. You could approach people by saying, “We only have four people in our group this year and we need you to join, otherwise we won’t be able to host our November event!” Instead you could say, “You would be a valuable asset to our group, especially since we have a large and exciting event coming up in November. Can I share a little about it with you?” These two options communicate the same message but the first is desperate while the second one is appealing.

Pro-life work inevitably requires dealing with negative emotions and experiences. I am not saying that we need to take a happy approach to everything we deal with and that we should always feel uplifted; rather, I am trying to encourage balance in the way we spend our energy thinking and talking about things. I want to acknowledge that it is important to process challenges as they come and that we should give appropriate attention to the negative without allowing it to consume all of our time.

Do: Use visual branding.

People gather for the Women’s March in Washington U.S., January 21, 2017.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Establishing a recognizable image can attract attention and send a message without using words. The pink hats worn by the marchers are a perfect example of this because they were both distinct and widespread. After the march I saw pro-choice people showing up in front of Planned Parenthoods to counter the protests of pro-life people for the first time. They were wearing their bright pink hats and had added signs and shirts in the same color. Visual branding helps those involved to feel unified and demonstrates to those not involved what movement they represent.

I would like to close with some additional suggestions from the way I talk about my pro-life work. These don’t relate as much to the Women’s March, but may nonetheless prove to be useful for you to adopt when you share about your work with others.

#1: Make a good first impression. You should be strategic when you first discuss your pro-life position because first impressions matter a great deal. If I am unsure how the person I am speaking with stands on the abortion issue, I always make it a priority to lay fertile ground for a dialogue to follow. I start by explicitly stating that I think it is important for people who disagree about complex issues to talk to each other openly about it.

#2: Have a prepared introduction. I usually try to brace people in a conversation before I drop the often uncomfortable “abortion topic” because I am aware of how deeply abortion impacts so many people. I am very intentional about this if I don’t know the other person that well. For example, when people ask me what I do for work, I first say something like, “Well, it is actually super controversial! Oftentimes when I tell people about what I do, they get a little uncomfortable because they don’t fully understand the motivations behind my work. Would you like to hear about it anyway?” I used the same opener when I was a leader of my campus pro-life group when people asked me what I was involved in during college. This introduction was helpful for starting off the conversation by engaging the other person’s curiosity and putting me in a position to explain why I am a pro-life advocate without coming off as preachy.

#3: Don’t only talk about activism. It can come off as weird to only talk about pro-life stuff all the time. Just as it is healthy to live a balanced life, it is also important for people to know you in a well-rounded way. Share the pro-life part of your life amidst other topics, and it will be easier for others to track with your concerns about abortion. It will also help you avoid the pitfall of what we at ERI call Fetus Tunnel Vision.

#4: Have a Support System. There is definitely a time and place for talking about frustrations and difficult experiences that you’ll come across as an advocate. A healthy support system will help sustain your energy, so build a network of pro-life friends who you can lean on for support. That network can help to relieve some of the emotional stress which comes with this work. I suggest that you choose people for the support system who are pro-life but are removed from the immediate group that you work with on a regular basis. These friends can be there for you when you are struggling with relational challenges. For example, it would be appropriate to go to a pro-life roommate for advice regarding a conflict with a board member in your Students for Life group, but not appropriate to go to another SFL member. Outside perspectives are usually more likely to identify your blind spots than people who are involved in the situation. Those people are also less likely to escalate the problem.

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The post “Five Lessons for Pro-Lifers from the Women’s March” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Former Director of Training

Rachel is a former speaker, writer, and trainer with Equal Rights Institute. Rachel graduated in 2017 from the University of Michigan with a Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience major and Women’s Studies: Gender and Health minor. She was the president of the Students for Life club at the University of Michigan, leading their efforts to educate students on pro-life topics and to advocate for pregnant and parenting students.

Rachel is also a former staff member of the pregnancy medical center, ArborWoman. She formerly served on their Operations Committee and participated as a volunteer in their ministry.

Rachel wants the pro-life movement to be known for its love. “I want us to be courageous enough to speak with charity about abortion. Having a loving approach when presenting a good argument is a sign of strength, not weakness. We cannot allow our anger towards abortion to be directed at those who support its legality. Pro-life people care not just about the unborn, but about all people, and we need them to know that.”

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