On Hating Women, Or Respectability Is Not Dignity

We are conditioned to hate women.

We hate ourselves for being too fat, too thin, too curvy, too flat, too flaky, too serious, not smart enough, not fun-loving enough. We are rarely just right, and that’s political. The problem is set up as personal — allegedly there is something wrong with us (all of us) and we should be ashamed — rather than a society that criticizes women. You can be aware and still fall into the trap.

And how we hate other women! I am tired of being expected to hate Gwyneth Paltrow, or Sheryl Sandberg, or slacker moms who supposedly get to work less than everybody else, or women who are pregnant and on public assistance, or even other feminists who see things differently.

Which brings me to my next point: I’m not sure most feminists, let alone most people, understand how radical it is to accept women as they are.

I am still on a tirade against Dos and Don’ts Feminism, or the policing of women’s personal lives and choices, as a way to evaluate whether they deserve to be equal. But I’d like to push this critique a step further, because one of the core issues at stake is whether we are going to accept women as they are and allow them to take up space, or not.

It is radical to not question women for who they are, or what they need. It is radical to support women as the people they are now, rather than the people we might wish them to be. It is radical to not use women as a yardstick to measure the inadequacies of other women.

One of the areas where this becomes crystal clear is the losing fight over abortion. For too long advocates for abortion rights have focused relentlessly on the sad and regrettable reasons why some women have abortions. Those stories exist and the point is not to minimize them; rather, it is to say that trying to make abortion relatable to people who don’t agree with it fails to attack the root cause of why abortion is controversial in the first place … we don’t believe women are good decision-makers, and we think that only if women are good decision-makers will they deserve dignity and control over their lives.

So, actually, it is very radical to accept women in all aspects of their lives, perfect or imperfect. Because accepting women “as-is” is a necessary precondition to dignity, equality, and justice for women. Dignity is not respectability.

It’s not respectability under the terms of rape apologists who believe that if only women would stop drinking that and wearing that they wouldn’t get raped.

For that matter, it’s not respectability under the very different terms of some feminists who believe that only women who buck the gendered expectations of femininity, like wearing make-up or caring for children or washing a husband’s laundry, are situated to claim equality.

Sometimes I’ll hear my radical belief against hating or criticizing women dismissed as “choices feminism,” or an idea that feminism is about allowing women to make choices and be whoever they want to be and that’s it. Nope. I want women to be equal. But they are not going to be equal so long as we demand a fixed set of behaviors from them, whatever those behaviors may be.

Supporting women as they are is radical, and a first step to greater political and social gains. If political and social gains come at the price of constricting women who do not fit a particular mold, we are simply applying a new shade of paint to an old straitjacket.

Hillary Clinton, A Pro-Choice Champion?

No one can credibly question that Hillary Clinton is a role model for women’s empowerment around the world. Further, it’s well past time for a woman to serve as president of the United States. Finally, there is always enormous pressure on feminists to line up and cart out the pom-poms during election season — and that pressure only multiplies when there is one big-time Democratic candidate, and she is a woman.

But if you ask me what I’m ready for, I stand to lose my integrity as an advocate if I don’t stick with my first answer: I’m ready for reproductive justice and I want to see it in my lifetime.

I’m ready for Hillary to step up.

Reproductive justice is a human rights framework developed by women of color that includes three keys: the right to have children, the right not to have children, and the right to parent in safe and healthy environments. Reproductive justice goes beyond issues of “choice,” and acknowledges that societies have proactive obligations to provide the means for people to live with dignity — offering quality health care for everyone, funding abortion and contraception without exceptions, and ending police violence against communities of color, to name a few. 

Is Hillary going to go there? Don’t tell me to trust her. Don’t point at the Republican candidates and their alliances and personhood bills and Terri Schiavo court briefs. And please, don’t tell me how to be a feminist and what my priorities should be.

Spring 2015 is only the beginning of campaign season; it’s still a bit chilly for cheerleading skirts, yes?

Much of my work is concerned with ending a reproductive health care crisis. This is not a side issue, and if you believe it is, I encourage you to think hard about white male dominance and how a framework of so-called bad sexuality and poor personal choices is set up, by design, to sideline just about everyone but white men in power.

That Hillary is a woman, that Hillary is a feminist, that Hillary could become president and shatter one important glass ceiling, does not automatically mean that she is going to use her backbone to reverse our gravely serious reproductive health care crisis.

Other women and men in power have not. In just two examples, the last major action of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus has been to collaborate and give its blessing to a deal House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) struck with Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to expand abortion funding restrictions by placing them in the Medicare “doc fix.” And, there is no defensible reason for President Obama to continue restricting abortion funding for rape victims around the world. What has Hillary done to indicate she’d be any different?

Before we start tripping over ourselves to applaud how great Hillary would be on these particular issues, it’s best to take a step back and acknowledge that the bar for who gets to be called a “pro-choice president” has been set extraordinarily low. Democrats and large reproductive rights organizations have conditioned us to accept that the champion is a person running for office against the person who says that rape is a blessing because then you get a baby. It’s time to break this cycle and tie labels to proactive policy outcomes.

We have a new, urgent, expanding crisis as far as access to reproductive care is concerned — clinics are closing, women are crossing the border to obtain medication to self-abort, and 231 abortion restrictions were enacted in the previous four years. Hillary needs to step up. Instead, she appears to be hiding.

She steered clear of abortion and focused on safer topics at the recent EMILY’s List gala, she left abortion out of her “No Ceilings” report on the status of women worldwide, and she had Melinda Gates (who refuses to talk about abortion) and a representative from the Catholic Medical Mission Board (which refuses to purchase or receive donations of condoms for its HIV/AIDS work overseas and acknowledges that it follows the lead of the presiding Conference of Catholic Bishops in each country where it has programs) lead a discussion on maternal mortality at the launch event for that report.

This strategy of trying not to go ‘too far’ or to demonstrate ‘cooperation’ with the opposition on abortion is not leadership. In fact, it’s a proven loser for women’s human rights. In one recent example, Hillary’s famous language about abortion needing to be safe and rare was just used by conservative lawmakers in Arkansas to pass a law restricting medication abortion.

Now, a few things:

Does Hillary support the right to abortion? Absolutely. Has she fought back forcefully against those who disagree? Yes. (Watch this epic takedown of Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) if you don’t believe me.) But reacting to bad guys is not enough, not by itself: this overall strategy is why the reproductive movement is losing.

Second, I’m not anti-Hillary. I went to Iowa to campaign for her before the 2008 election. I wept like hell when she conceded to Obama. For years I have been saying quite loudly that I believe leaders in the Democratic Party and women’s organizations failed her eight years ago by calling for her to leave the race or endorsing her opponent while she was still ahead.

But my lens is more complicated this time around.

I am a feminist activist and a reproductive health, rights, and justice advocate. And I have seen time and time again how those who want to advance “women’s issues” believe the only winning way to do so is to drop the abortion question or be as “strategic” (which really means something between non-confrontational and weak) as possible. So, I get very worried when Hillary is not embracing abortion (and yes, I mean saying the “A” word) when all the pundits say this time around her campaign will focus on Hillary’s role as a champion for women.

There’s no doubt about it — Hillary is an icon. But is she a pro-choice champion? Have we allowed that phrase to become meaningless? Who is working to expand access to abortion today?

There will be enormous pressure, rooted both in subtle sexisms and more overt ones, to not ask these questions as a feminist woman runs for president.

We can rise above that — a woman can and should expect a vigorous primary campaign season. Women can and should be allowed to have public differences amongst each other. Feminism is not just about placing women in the most powerful positions; it’s about demanding dignity for women like Purvi Patel, who is sitting in prison for twenty years on the basis of miscarriage or self-inducing an abortion.

It’s time to set the bar higher than loving Democrats and trusting they’ll figure it out, or nothing will change.

Video: April 2015 HuffPost Live #WMN Appearance

I appeared as a panelist on this week’s episode of #WMN on HuffPost Live, and discussed backlash against Trevor Noah, the consequences of shutting down Planned Parenthood clinics in Indiana, a new “spa-like” abortion clinic in Maryland, and the TSA searching Black women’s hair. You can watch a video of the show here.

Video: March 2015 To The Contrary Appearance

I appeared as a panelist on this week’s episode of To The Contrary, and discussed the 20-year anniversary of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, assessing Hillary Clinton’s leadership for women’s rights, and whether a war on women continues. You can watch a video of the show here:

Celebrating Fewer Abortions Is Not The Path To Reproductive Justice

“We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.” – President Barack Obama

Last night the president used the “A” word — meaning abortion — in his State of the Union address. His message was, in typical Obama style, meant to appeal to everyone — conservatives, liberals, anti-choice, pro-choice. Judging by Twitter, many reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates cheered.

Some of the most famous advocates edited out what he said about abortion, and kept on running:

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 10.15.57 PM

The problem is that what he said actually sucked.

By saying “surely we can agree it’s a good thing that … abortions are nearing all-time lows,” the president served up a wallop of abortion stigma. In essence he said it’s a good thing to have fewer abortions. This implies that those women who keep on having abortions anyway are doing something wrong. And that, my friends, is not good.

It’s a good thing every time a woman is able to safely end a pregnancy she wants or needs to end. Of course it’s a good thing every time a woman avoids an unintended pregnancy.

It’s a leap to say it’s a good thing when there are fewer abortions — that does not strictly mean that women are able to access the abortions they want or need, and that more women are avoiding unintended pregnancy.

It is possible to talk about the abortion rate dropping without stigmatizing abortion (which implies, in some ways, that maybe restrictions on abortions aren’t so bad). The way to do that is to present the facts without value judgement.

Good women have abortions, and bad women have abortions, and for that matter transgender men have abortions, and in all cases their abortions are neither good nor bad. They are simply the facts of their lives.

In any case we don’t all need to agree on a woman’ s personal life, and the frame that we should — that a woman’s life is up for the inspection and agreement of the group — is ridiculous and sexist in big, blinking lights.

So long as we expect the Democratic Party and their associated elected officials to provide leadership on reproductive issues, leadership on reproductive issues is going to sound like saying there is something wrong with abortion while at the same time calling for access to reproductive health care.

That’s a mixed message, and a losing one. We can do better.

Video: January 2015 To The Contrary Appearance

I appeared as a panelist on this week’s episode of To The Contrary, and discussed abortion clinic closures, working parents, and global women’s rights. You can watch a video of the show here:

In Response To A Reader Who Calls Herself A Pro-Life Feminist

Recently, I had a letter to the editor published in The Washington Post: A pro-life feminist? There’s no such thing. In this letter I argue that “Feminism is an action agenda to secure the social, legal and political equality of women. Supporting policies and practices that help that agenda is what makes a person a feminist. The concept of a pro-life feminist is untenable because restrictions upon abortion deny women their agency as moral decision-makers and dignity as human beings.”

In response to this letter I received an email from someone who does consider herself a pro-life feminist. I would like to respond to her message seriously, and so I’m quoting her letter in full:

Dear Ms. Matson,

In your letter to the editor in the Washington Post today you stated that it is impossible for a person to be both pro-life and a feminist. Since I am both please allow me to explain my thinking. I believe that the unborn are human beings and therefore should not be deprived of life. (I don’t believe I need to make the case that slightly less than half of all unborn babies are female to support my self-labeled feminism.) I would ask that you not deny me my ‘agency as a moral decision maker’ and accept my definition of myself as a pro-life feminist. I contribute to organizations and schools which provide education for historically poorly served populations of girls and young women so that some day they may achieve financial security, be able to afford reliable family planning and enjoy motherhood free of fears about supporting their children. I consider it a feminist action to support the education of these young women and girls.

Thank you for this opportunity to express my thoughts.

I am grateful for this letter. While it does not disprove my argument, it does represent another point of view and I’d like to use it as an opportunity to dig deeper.

Before addressing this letter directly I feel it’s critical to raise the broader context in which this discussion is taking place. We live in an age when a primary form of outright opposition to feminism is a systemic and contradictory strategy to redefine feminism.

The first common iteration of an argument to support this strategy says feminism is worthless because equality has already been achieved and any woman who says otherwise is a weak and self-victimizing whiner.

The second argument keeps the basic idea that equality has been achieved but serves to support the status quo by, paradoxically, declaring feminism a good thing and then co-opting that definition to turn it into an identity for individuals, frequently ‘strong conservative women,’ who work against equality and justice for women as a class through support of things like corporate deregulation, assault weapons on demand, and religious fundamentalism masquerading as ‘institutional conscience’ (as opposed to the whining women who are working for laws, policies, and culture shifts that will empower women, such as raising the minimum wage, ratifying an Equal Rights Amendment, and ensuring access to health care — including reproductive health care — as a basic human right).

Briefly, these two claims are untrue and rest on wildly faulty premises. Equality has not been achieved. Feminism is a movement and not an identity. Opponents of equality and justice have a strong investment in painting feminism as an individual characteristic; it’s much easier to demonize feminists as man-hating harridans than it is to praise white male supremacy.

Yet a third common iteration of this strategy to undermine and redefine feminism accepts that equality has been achieved, or is at least theoretically achievable immediately, if only women would make smarter choices and stop being their own worst enemies. This is an area where in particular the anti-sexuality fundamentalists love to flutter their batons. Of course women are equal, they argue. They just can’t have sex unless they are prepared to have a baby or pay for their own contraception, because that’s the way the world just works. It’s about personal responsibility!

We live in an age where pregnancy is viewed as a consequence of something you did to yourself. While this personal responsibility frame may appear gender neutral, it is women as a class who are disadvantaged. Men are free to have their health care needs recognized as health care needs rather than something “extra.” Women, on the other hand, have the specific health care needs related to their sexuality and reproductive health consigned to questions of “morality,” or “difficult social issues,” or even the supernatural — mystifying the basic truths that pregnancy is produced by heterosexual sex and a baby is produced by a woman giving birth.

These attitudes feed into discrimination against the accessibility and coverage of reproductive health care that must be available to women as a necessary precondition of their social and legal equality. Let’s repeat that again, because it’s important: Women cannot be equal without access to and coverage of all forms of reproductive health care, whether or not they use them. 

This view that pregnancy is something you did to yourself also feeds into a bunch of seemingly unrelated bullshit social narratives – that women as a class make less money or occupy fewer positions of power because they are individually “deciding” to have children, that women as a class are more subject to dependence on public assistance that must be made less available by government because otherwise women are too individually “licentious” or “slutty” and won’t keep their legs shut, and overwhelmingly that women as a class can rise above a world largely run by white men and white male dominance in their capacity as individual women by being good girls and making bomb-ass choices.

We can’t gloss too quickly over the fact that men are largely free to engage in heterosexual sex without these consequences. We should carefully pause on arguments that the unique reproductive capabilities of the female body come with unique responsibilities that must be borne by women, rather than accommodated by society as routine human needs in the form of health care.

In essence, the freedom of men to have sex without being consigned to a second class social, legal, and economic status, coupled with the freedom of men to have their bodies accepted as bodies and part of medicine rather than vessels of sin and consequences is the screaming, blinking reason why there is no such thing as a pro-life feminist. You can’t mystify a woman’s body and disrespect her decisions and be a feminist. Even if you are a woman  yourself.

Back to the letter-writer, though. I want to be sure to respond to her distinct points:

I do respect her ability to self-define and especially make her own decisions, and, as I said in the original letter she was responding to, it is possible to never have an abortion yourself (or even swear you would never have an abortion yourself) and still be a feminist; the issue lies in your approach to other women.

Self-definition is not rooted in the control of others. Furthermore, feminism is not rooted in the control of women; coercion around the issue of pregnancy is pure and naked control of women. Ultimately, however, this is not an issue of self-definition.

Whether or not the letter-writer agrees, she is appropriating the label of feminism so long as she continues to believe that individual women should not be respected in their decisions around sexuality and pregnancy.

I am grateful the letter writer donates to education for women and girls, and retain hope that she may someday open her heart, mind, and even wallet to the inherent dignity and humanity of other women — even if they are sexual, and even if they may not make the same decisions she does.

Video: Why I’m Voting Pro-Choice

NARAL has a nifty new video out about why you should vote pro-choice, and I’m proud to be a part of it:

Be awesome or don’t bother, friends.

Video: October 2014 To The Contrary Appearance

I appeared as a panelist on this week’s episode of To The Contrary, and discussed the war on women, consent on campus, and fighting breast cancer. You can watch a video of the show here:

Video: Abortion Is A Life-Saving Act

I recently appeared on The Square Circle, and toward the end of the show panelists are given an opportunity to speak to what they believe is an underreported story from the week. Imagine my surprise when the woman before me offered up a story about and her opposition to an art display at the University of Michigan that celebrated abortion as a life-saving act.

While I had not heard of the story previously, I felt compelled to respond immediately:

Opponents of legal abortion should never be given the opportunity to take the high ground. Their anti-choice positions are fundamentally against basic human rights for women. You should not apologize for supporting abortion rights; further, you should not let anti-choicers make you feel ashamed or immoral. State your support for legal abortion with pride. The moral high ground is, in fact, yours.

If you would like to watch the entire program, the link is here.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,652 other followers