Your activism is not what makes you worthy to be known or loved.
Yes, your activism can be the thing you care about most. It can be the place where your mind wanders, the place where you have rich conversations, and an immeasurably great source of joy (and consternation). It can be creativity and emotions and hopes and dreams.
(You are still a legitimate activist if that’s way overstating it, and your jam is showing up once in awhile, when you can, because you care about a better world. Thank you so much!)
Activism can be quite personal, and often it is. The focus of your activism, the change you are seeking, may indeed direct whether or not you and/or someone you love will be able to live with dignity and justice under the law, in a community, or even one’s own body.
But this should never be confused with you and who you are.
I have been an activist for a minute, and I have watched a lot of people flame out. Often times it is based in trying to do too much, or expecting too much from the activism. The root cause of much burnout seems to be over-identification with the activism: Not just that the activism is more important than one’s personal health, life, and needs, but that the activism is the same as the person.
This type of over-identification also tends to make people not much fun for others to do activism with, because people over-identifying with activism tend to get defensive, territorial, and weird about the work. Differences in opinion or approach can be taken as a personal attack, because the person either consciously or unconsciously has decided they are the movement.
Social movements are protracted, frustrating, gorgeous things. The way social movements succeed, in good times and bad, is through longevity and sticking to it. So, investing in your long-term ability to do the work is never selfish. That means keeping a life and a self outside of activism.
If you are reading this, you likely know that I’m a feminist activist who has been on the abortion front lines for decades. My birthday was Tuesday, the day the nation came to grips with a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade. Many friends, meaning well, told me they were especially grateful for me on my birthday, in light of the news.
I appreciate that. Who doesn’t appreciate being seen for their work? But I also want to say quite clearly, I am grateful for me the person. The feminist and pro-abortion activist and leader is one important facet of my identity, but it is not me, the person, the sum of the miracle of my life.
These coming days, weeks, months, and years are going to be extremely difficult times for activists in my field. The pressure to over-identify with activism will be strong. This threatens our movement’s ability to continue over the long-haul because we can’t all burn out together, and it threatens the health and well-being of the activists, period. Do you really want who you are to be defined against Justice Samuel Alito’s blatant disregard for the dignity and humanity of half of the population? I sure as hell don’t.
Elon Musk has bought Twitter and will make it a private company. This man makes fantastic cars but is one of the last people in the world who should be regulating speech on social media.
This is an era when hate speech online is rampant against people of color, LGBTQ folks, women, and intersections of the three. Musk is a bully.
Incitement to violence and false information came perilously close to bringing down our democracy on January 6, 2021. Musk wants ‘all the speech’ out there.
Putting Musk in charge of Twitter is like putting a fire-breathing dragon in charge of maintaining cabins built out of match sticks. Do you really feel okay sending your children to that camp?
Many of my friends and valued colleagues have already deleted their accounts. As a burgeoning old who is no longer the twenty-something advertising copywriter who started @erintothemax in 2008 (LOL that I never changed my handle when my volunteer activist life took over my professional life, srsly!), I am moving a bit slower.
I have requested a download of my Tweets, and have taken the app off my phone to give myself mindful time to consider my next steps. It’s pretty likely I will start blogging here more again; I’m here tonight instead of Twitter, aren’t I?
Twitter has given me so much good. For my career and causes I care about, it has given me a platform to meet other activists and collectively amplify our power, connect with journalists and better inform the media conversation on feminism and beyond, speak truth to power, and learn, learn, learn. Twitter has offered an immediacy and intimacy that is both its charm and its danger. More than 15,000 people care what I have to say, which is quite funny if you think about it.
Through a number of social media platforms including Twitter I have been subjected to a good bit of abuse and harassment over the years. Most of it is garden variety stupid but on some occasions it has presented a serious invasion of privacy, threat to my safety and security or that of my family, or caused significant emotional harm. Sometimes it has happened in the name of ‘pro-life.’ Other times it has occurred in the name of ‘social justice.’ Sometimes it is people who have been physically or otherwise violent toward me who come back years later to let me know they are still stalking me and wishing me harm. There is untold bullying and abuse directed toward women and feminists online, and this stuff is particularly pointed toward people with marginalized identities I do not hold: trans and gender non-conforming people, Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, people with disabilities, and fat women.
I do not trust Elon Musk to mitigate the infringements on the ability of people of good faith to use their voices in the public square. I believe he will make it worse. Just two days ago Musk posted a fat-shaming photo of Bill Gates on Twitter contrasting him with an emoji of a pregnant man in case anyone needed to “lose a boner fast.” Can Feminist Twitter continue to be a thing in this new reality?
I need to close this post talking about my friend Mazzie, who recently passed away. Mazzie in many ways exemplified the best of Twitter: I met her online, she was a razor-sharp feminist, funny as hell, encouraging me and everyone who followed to think deeper, be more caring, and advance social justice in inclusive ways. We interacted on the platform for I don’t know how long until once, in 2013, a man exposed himself to me and the District of Columbia police refused to take my report.
I tweeted about this and Mazzie stepped up, posting on neighborhood police listservs until I got a call a few days later from the police, inviting me to come into the station and file a report. She did this for someone she never met in real life. I’ve made some of my best friends on Twitter, some I meet and have had all these significant moments in the flesh with, and others like Mazzie, who was deeply real to me, whose last words to me on Facebook just weeks before she became suddenly ill and died were “I’m so glad we have each other <3.”
Yesterday, the day before Elon Musk bought Twitter, my friend Amanda Levitt organized a Zoom memorial for Mazzie. More than 50 people attended. On this screen I cried openly with others, some who I had met in-person and others I had only followed or known online for years. I made new friends and strengthened existing online relationships yesterday. We all agreed that Mazzie would want us to spend more time with one another in new and unexpected ways.
Tonight I’m going to think about Mazzie, not Elon Musk, as I weigh my next steps. I don’t want to think about the evil and the violence on the platform and what I anticipate could happen next. I want to capture the good and love and think about how to continue that moving forward.
Rest in peace, Kimberley Anne Schults. You were the beautiful soul who would have said exactly the right thing about the craptastic Elon Musk Twitter takeover. In your absence I’ll take a beat.
October 4 was the first day of the new Supreme Court term. In a few short years since the Whole Woman’s Health case, the Supreme Court has radically shifted to a six-member super majority of justices opposed to abortion rights. In September, they allowed a cruel and blatantly unconstitutional six-week abortion ban to go into effect in Texas. This term they will consider Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in which the state of Mississippi is openly seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that affirmed the federal constitutional right to abortion. Against this backdrop, 2021 is the worst year on record for abortion restrictions enacted in the states — more than 100.
As I’ve said repeatedly, for nearly 50 years the anti-abortion movement has pursued a two-pronged strategy: to stack the Supreme Court to overturn Roe, and eviscerate access to abortion in the states. They now have the chessboard they’ve long sought. And what has been very bad — a reality where Roe practically and functionally disappeared for so many people years ago, especially people in red states, women of color, low-income people, and young people — is on the precipice of getting much, much worse.
I believe in direct action with my entire soul. When I’m taking action I feel a power extending from my veins to my feet, a rootedness that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. All the meetings and strategies and talking points, they play critical roles. But nothing brings change the way ‘breaking the agreement’ does, as a dear friend and mentor Zoe Nicholson has taught me. Direct action works. Direct action is not indirect action, such as lobbying an individual to take action on our behalf. It is using our bodies and the environment to literally change the equation.
So here’s what we did last week: Dozens of us marched up to the Supreme Court as the term officially began, carrying a “no abortion ban” banner, chanting Abortion Is Unstoppable, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, moving peacefully through abortion opponents shouting all sorts of invective toward us. After continuing to chant on the sidewalk outside the Supreme Court, we moved into the street and blocked traffic in an act of non-violent civil disobedience. We then sat in the street with our signs, continuing to chant. Capitol Police provided verbal warnings. With the final warning, activists who were not risking arrest got up and moved to the sidewalk. Twelve of us stayed down.
We were handcuffed, patted down, arrested, and brought to Capitol Police headquarters in wagons for detention and processing. Throughout we remained peaceful and dignified, in honor of the utter seriousness of what is at stake. Equality under the law, bodily autonomy, gender justice, racial justice, democracy, religious freedom, sexual freedom, and the right to sexual pleasure. After three hours in jail, we each paid $50, provided a fingerprint, and were released.
Would I do it again? Absolutely, in a similar situation in which all avenues for leverage have been exhausted. That is where we are with this Supreme Court. The best hope we have for the group project from hell taking place on First Street Northeast is Chief Justice John Roberts, who is hostile to abortion rights and still has five more justices who will overrule him, as they did in allowing the Texas abortion ban to go into effect. (This is to say: Not great hope.)
But this is important: Justices on all sides of the ideological spectrum appear to be concerned about the public opinion turning against their legitimacy, seeing them as politicized (warranted, given how Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett were rammed through). The leverage we have left is letting them know that if they further disrupt the legal status of abortion, outrage and protest will follow — and putting a pro-choice sticker on your Facebook profile picture isn’t going to change a damn thing as far as these justices are concerned. Breaking convention is an important piece of this puzzle.
All this is to say, I’m not a fan of people leaping to ‘let’s get arrested’ because something bad is happening. Strategy before tactics is Organizing 101, whether the tactic we’re talking about is getting arrested or selling cookies and flyering outside the grocery store. If we’re trying to be smart, we’ve got to define what we want, our targets and what we want them to do, relevant power players and pressure points, and a pathway to winning, before even thinking about tactics.
Also, importantly: Non-violent civil disobedience is a sacred tradition that I believe carries most impact when it’s saved for the times we most need it. We all know the story of Chicken Little. We need to act when it truly, actually matters. This is the time I believe we are now in with abortion rights.
We must be clear that non-violent civil disobedience is not for everyone. Due to systemic racism, risking arrest and encounters with law enforcement means very different — dangerous — things for people of color than it does for someone like me, who is mostly read as a white, middle-age, suburban mom-type. There are also times when for mental or physical health reasons, or caregiving reasons, or any range of personal reasons that radical action is not right for any given person at any given time. In any case, there are a number of roles for people who are not arrested during civil disobedience that are equally critical to the action. Further, risking arrest makes no activist cooler, more devoted, or more effective than another activists; a spectrum of activities are needed to bring change.
Based on my experience, I urge you to consider the following if you’re considering non-violent civil disobedience in support of abortion rights during these tenuous times for equality and justice:
Plan in advance. Getting arrested in the heat of the moment affords far less time to build maximum visibility and security strategies for your participants.
Be prepared that abortion opponents will probably be there. I recommend complete and total non-engagement. Don’t talk to them, don’t let them touch you, and raise your hands and ask for help if they get too close to you. Sadly, a common tactic they have is to get close to you and then claim you assaulted them. Don’t let them get away with it.
Know the laws, and work with lawyers in advance. Some groups will want to engage with police prior to the action, whereas others will very justifiably not. The time to have these serious discussions is well in advance of the action.
Approach the action with a clear message. You’ll want everyone looking at you to know what you’re doing and why. Have clear signs, clear T-shirts, and clear chants. Have people on press detail who will not be risking arrest. Event advisories, press releases, social media, photographs, videos — if you’re not letting people know it happened, it didn’t happen.
Root in purpose. Meditate. Feel the importance of what you are doing and why. Know who you are acting for. Take your time in the moment of civil disobedience. You will feel an incredible closeness during the action. Do not forget, direct action doesn’t just change the circumstances — it changes the activists. In action we feel our power. Root it in purpose.
The increasing attention on the abusive treatment Britney Spears has received in the media throughout her career as well as a conservatorship that robs this talented, brilliant woman of basic control over her own life has put the spotlight on a number of important conversations, including the rights of people with disabilities to live with autonomy and dignity and the real crappiness and sexism of the 2000s.
This is when my feminist activism began, and I recall how being a feminist not of the baby boom generation was considered such an abberation at the time that basically anyone was labelled a “young feminist,” whether they were 5 or 45. I was one of them, and would like to pause and reflect back on how different it was to do feminism then than it is now.
We were marginalized. Basically everyone, whether or not they identified as feminist, was getting date raped whether they acknowledged it as that or not. People repeated Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazi” slur uncritically. Literally the first question I usually got was, “are you a lesbian?,” which rules because lesbians are awesome, but made no sense coming from people like a live-in boyfriend’s family.
While there was really exciting growth of activism among my age cohort, and second wave feminists pursued incremental progress within the corridors of power, overall the movement was in a fallow period. This is not a slam. The young feminists of the 2000s and early 2010s were successful beyond our wildest dreams. In the span of those years, feminism shifted from a punchline to a mainstream value. While I love the more radical, less-mainstreamy stuff, especially the hard questions about claiming sexual equality and pleasure, deconstructing white womanhood and its relation to systemic racism, and challenging gender roles and gender period, it matters when people more generally want to advance gender equality. We engineered that change, us feminists in the 2000s, through blogs and protests in the streets when most people thought what we did was a joke and older feminists thought we really needed to cover up our midriffs. It is because of our work that the numbers grew. There are so many more feminist activists today, just look!
Of course we talked about Britney then. We were, like everyone else, obsessed with her. We would endlessly debate whether Britney and other stars were empowering for women and what it all meant. But we were climbing up hill, all of us. I’m proud of how far we have come.