I discussed Hillary Clinton, abortion rights, and the women’s movement on Joy of Resistance, a radio show on WBAI Pacifica Radio 99.5 in New York City. You can listen to the show here (segment begins at 35:15):[audio http://nuarchive.wbai.org/mp3/wbai_150423_210000joyrapeforum.mp3]
No woman in the public eye symbolizes the tremendous change in opportunities for women more than Hillary Clinton. It is not in spite of this, but because of this, that she inspires passion and deep ambivalence. People love her, or people hate her. The media reports on and questions her style as if the entire credibility of constitutional democracy might rest on her cleavage, her hair, her pantsuits, her scrunchies, and now, her logo.
On substance, feminists are frequently told to judge her by the sexual mores of the man she married. Someone has yet to credibly explain how judging a woman by the actions of her partner, rather than her own actions, is feminist.
In the 2008 elections, the Democratic Party failed to treat Hillary with the respect she deserved. She was surrounded with calls to get out of the race while she was still ahead in the primary.
As one of my mentors, Olga Vives, argued with passion, even during her final days on a sick bed, the women’s movement failed to recognize the extraordinary transformative power of a woman candidate for president, and failed to stand behind Hillary during a grueling primary.
I was, with Olga, active in the National Organization for Women then. It was a contentious time.
Some women’s organizations bestowed endorsements on Obama early in the race, when their memberships were still divided on whether to support Obama or Hillary; others endorsed her, but didn’t challenge the blatant sexism of the Democratic Party pushing her out too soon.
In this vacuum, some of those women’s advocates left standing for Hillary went to ugly places. Some refused to accept Obama as a legitimate candidate, and one who earnestly continues to champion advancements for women, especially in the areas of pay equity and sexual assault; others embraced the racist strategies to defeat him deployed by the right.
One of the strangest strains was a vocal group that proclaimed Sarah Palin was both a feminist (wow, no) and the right candidate to assume the vice presidency (oh my goodness, considering what might have happened really could give a woman the vapors).
This climate presented a difficult slate of options for those of us who were ready for Hillary the first time. She was treated with horrific, condescending, get-out-of-the-way sexism by her own party, and yet the most vocal response to that was a fantasy-land embrace of Sarah Palin, an emotional reaction that amounted to gender essentialism and overlooked the antifeminist platform of her platform, party, and ticket.
My response was simply to get behind Obama, cry when Hillary spoke at the convention, and lose faith that women’s organizations will do the right thing simply because they are women’s organizations — and that the Democratic Party, its leadership, and the progressive movement should be trusted to handle feminist affairs with the current infrastructure charged with holding them accountable.
Which brings me to today.
The problem is that this time around, the treatment of Hillary from within also bears shades of sexism, albeit in a different way. It’s as if to atone for what happened, now the new rule is that Democrats are not allowed to criticize or question Hillary’s positions. Any of them. Even before the general election. Or you, yes you, are failing feminism and perhaps our one and only chance to see a woman president in our lifetimes.
This is not how politics works. Politics, and particularly primary season, is supposed to involve a robust debate of the issues and honing of positions on matters vital to the community.
There is an inherent sexism in the idea that, this time around, Hillary must be handled with kid gloves. If a woman is running for president with the blessing of the big dogs, why must we sit in the back of the classroom and raise our hands and wait to be called on?
There was sexism coming from the establishment in the past, too, in the idea that it wasn’t Hillary’s turn, that something was wrong with her “likability,” when she was a competitive candidate in 2008.
Just as there is sexism in the frame that only women can credibly challenge Hillary today. Why must Hillary play in a women’s league?
This piece is happening on both sides of the aisle.
The calls to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are interesting, because by dint of her actions, principles, and resolve, Warren symbolizes the progressive movement better than any other one candidate. But I’d also like to challenge these calls a bit from a gender lens.
First, it’s the simple matter men dominate everything, including the infrastructural leadership of the progressive movement, and even with Warren’s qualifications, it’s a bit fishy that the official energy backed by money and power has coalesced around her and no other alternative; that a woman is expected to challenge a woman from the left.
Second, some of us may remember when Jessica Williams asked her “feminist” critics on Twitter to lean the fuck away from her after she indicated she was not interested in taking over as host of The Daily Show. There’s an element of that here, although it’s nuanced.
On one hand, Elizabeth Warren has said repeatedly that she is not running for president — and the activists continue to beat the drum. On the other hand, this is sort of how politics work — the song and dance of being asked to run by the grassroots. Still, one is left with a discomfiting sense that were Warren a man, her word might be taken at her word by large progressive organizations like MoveOn.
On the Republican side, Carly Fiorina is expected to run for president, or at least make a great deal of noise. No one expects her to become president — she couldn’t even win a Senate election. So what exactly is she running for, and why is she getting so much space to air her views in presidential fora on the right?
Simple. She is running against Hillary’s campaign on behalf of the real candidates for the Republican Party — just like Jackie Sharp on House of Cards. It’s insulting to Fiorina, and it’s insulting to Hillary. It’s also insulting that the men of the Republican Party who are credible contenders are delegating the women’s work of taking down a woman named Hillary Clinton who steps out of the boundaries of traditional womanhood.
The coming election will bring with it a bevy of sexist attacks; and feminists must call them out and demand a change in culture, no matter where we stand on Hillary and her priorities. But feminists and everyone must also be free to question Hillary and examine her policy proposals as we move forward; it’s frankly sexist to silence ourselves in pursuit of elevating one woman to the top.
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.
In our culture, pregnancy is viewed as something you did to yourself. Having a child comes with consequences you must be prepared to accept. This isn’t gender neutral; it’s no accident that women’s reproductive capacity is reduced to a supposedly objective decision-making matrix that sets up women as a class to fail.
On any given day, cultural and political leaders will portray children as punishments for casual sex; as luxuries for wealthy families; and at their most heinous, as ruses for public benefits or citizenship status.
The idea of pregnancy and children as consequences for which women must pay plays out in many sectors of our lives, including restrictions upon reproductive rights, and punitive attacks on the social safety net.
Here I will discuss some of the negative consequences for women in the workplace. I say women intentionally; although not all women are or will become mothers, it is often anticipated they will. So even a woman who has no intention of having children is often unfairly judged by her actual and prospective employers.
The United States does not guarantee paid parental leave. Today pregnant workers still face inadequate workplace protections, as made clear by the failure of Congress to pass a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act that would simply clarify that employers must offer minor accommodations when necessary, such as increased bathroom breaks or lighter lifting duties. A year of day care costs more than a year in public college in 31 states.
These are not just women’s issues or family issues; these are massive economic problems that constrain our economy.
But, I’d argue, our cultural attitudes suck at least as much as our institutional failures to accommodate the reality of parents who work, a reality that resoundingly ends in undervaluing women in their personal lives and on the job.
I have a toddler. It has only been a few years since I was in my early thirties, single, and facing all sorts of biological clock-type questions about whether I wanted to have kids. Bluntly, this kind of pressure can destroy a dating life (if you want one) — I have watched it happen with friends and experienced variations of it myself. But even more, I wish that some of those people who wondered about me being single would have instead asked what I was reading, or working on, or thinking about current events.
If and when women do have children, the very real work they turn around and put into caring for those children is often portrayed as heroic (“the hardest job in the world”), which may be well-intentioned but is ultimately patronizing since caregiving for one’s own family is put on a pedestal but neither compensated nor respected in the marketplace. In portraying the motherly woman as idol, this false heroism also excuses men in heterosexual child-rearing relationships from stepping up to do their fair share.
And on the job? Mark Zuckerberg once said of Facebook having younger (i.e., childless) employees:
“Young people just have simpler lives. We may not have a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.”
What’s important, apparently, is to be found in those corners of the office where working moms don’t hang out late at night.
You might think, “What the fuck, Zuck?!” and write it off, but I’ve heard versions of this riff in explicitly feminist settings. In one example, I heard a non-profit executive express resentment that women with children didn’t have to work as much as she did. In another, I heard a consultant express concern that a boss who worked standard business hours because of her kids didn’t understand her younger employees needs to come in later in the day.
The first case is frankly bullshit. There’s a cliche going around that if you want something done, you should give it to a mom — and that’s often true. I know motherhood has greatly increased my time management skills. If I need to get something done, I no longer plan to get it done later — that leaves too much margin for error when a toddler depends on me. Further, it’s unfair because many employees smoke and take smoke breaks, or go on long lunches with friends, or leave early to play recreational sports.
The second case greatly concerns me, because ultimately what concern over the supposed rigidity of a working mom’s office schedule says is that a woman with children isn’t fit to make decisions, and isn’t fit to judge how her team should work, including whether they should keep the same hours. In other words, that a mom isn’t fit to be the boss.
Yes, dads get some crap in the workplace, too, but rarely if ever will you hear it suggested that he’s not pulling his weight, or he’s not fit to be the boss, because he has kids. It’s assumed a woman will step up for him when junior throws up all over the classroom on presentation day.
My college thesis examined the failure of the feminist movement (at the time, so we’re talking 2002) to tackle the problem of child care in a visionary way and as a major rallying cry — specifically, why it costs so much, why quality is so varied, and why it is inaccessible to so many. The voices calling for universal child care, or Social Security contributions for caregivers, are too few and far between.
Ultimately the conclusion I reached is that liberal feminism is too invested in theories of bootstraps individualism, and that acknowledging caregiving as gendered, much less a societal obligation (it takes a village) rather than a personal lifestyle, could be seen as threatening to undermine the “long way” you’ve come, “baby.”
I still believe, to an extent, that’s true, but to another extent I would argue today that the failure to progress also sits largely in the friendly and willing cooptation of many feminist organizations by the Democratic Party, which throws bones to the ladies as a matter of electoral convenience and sometimes deeply felt principle, but never should be confused with a movement making radical demands for social change. Although it has been.
I believe these dynamics are at play when we consider why it is not equal to be a mother, or for that matter a woman, in the workplace.
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.
I have experienced a fair amount of trolling in my day. The trolling has occurred in my Twitter mentions, on Facebook, by email, in comment boxes, in paper mail, in voicemails, on blogs, and by call-ins to television and radio programs on which I have been a guest. It has been directed at me personally and organizations I’ve been affiliated with. Garbage like this can come with the territory when you’re a feminist, and especially when you’re a woman on the Internet.
At its most garden variety, the trolling is a never-ending stream of comments on my sluttiness, my stupidity, and my appearance. The trolls can’t decide if I’m super ugly, or hot and have good “jugs.” The focus is never my actual appearance so much as baldly sexist attempts to reduce my worth to my appearance. Ah, and how could I forget — I am an advocate for reproductive health, rights, and justice — therefore I am a murderer!
Most of the time I ignore this stuff, but on occasion I will share a few of the Tweets I get because opponents of equality and justice for women need to be revealed for exactly who they are.
On the ground, the trolling can take the form of anti-abortion activists getting in your face and taking your picture. Here I am with one such man who I distinctly remember taking photographs of everyone’s faces outside the Supreme Court during a Roe anniversary:
Logic does not apply to trolling. Twitchy decided I should be the person to pay when Hustler, a magazine that does not have my support, created an horrific Photoshopped image of S.E. Cupp that I denounced. (Incidentally, trolling against feminists often takes the form of arguing that we need drop everything we are doing and spend the rest of our efforts applauding the personal lives and policy positions of right-wing women.)
Trolling is often, by nature, obscene, although sometimes it seems like the obscene goes beyond imagination. Horrible things have happened to some people I care very much about. Adria Richards was targeted by 4chan with the express purpose of destroying her life. Imani Gandy has been the target of racist stalking on Twitter. Andrea Grimes continues to receive rape threats in the aftermath of making a joke about vaporizing guns. These women have all spoken up bravely about their stories, and they inspire me. (And while I don’t know her, I’m also greatly moved and inspired by Lindy West speaking up about a troll who took on the identity of her deceased father.)
It is because of the bravery of these four women that I’m going to share a trolling story I have never publicly acknowledged before. It deeply hurt me and I didn’t want to reward the trolls. Now, however, I am beginning to see the power in pulling back the curtain. Here goes.
After my daughter was born, I did what a lot of new moms do: I sat in a hospital room in the dark, holding and nursing a baby all night long. To keep myself awake, I sat on my phone and sifted through congratulations and well wishes on email, Facebook, and Twitter.
An individual with more than 40,000 followers on Twitter took a photograph I had shared when my daughter was first born and put up a blog post about me, encouraging his followers to give me hell. Even pasting this partial screenshot makes me angry — the violation of my privacy, the most private and joyous and significant of moments, the appropriation of the first photograph of my beautiful daughter’s life.
His followers began to deluge me with “pro-life” hate in my Twitter mentions, telling me that she should die, telling me that it would have been better if she had never been born, telling me that I didn’t deserve her. I held this new life in my hands in the dark — this great love of my life, this daughter who needed to be brought to me because I’d just had a C-section and could not stand up myself, and I wept as quietly as I could.
It was terrible.
I couldn’t just turn off Twitter; I’d just had a baby and I didn’t want to be alone. Tons of legitimate friends were sending me congratulations and encouragement, and I wanted to share this moment with them. So I saw the terrible messages, too, and I blocked every individual who sent them to me. I estimate that I received hundreds of hate tweets in a series of a few days, and my guess is that I received many more that I didn’t see because I’d blocked the senders.
I wanted to share this story now to illustrate one of the ways that we can deal with online abusers and stalkers: we can acknowledge them. While it doesn’t always make sense to engage at the time, I think it’s important for people to realize exactly how low trolling can go. This is not a question of whether people are “tough” enough to participate in public dialogue. There are people out there who are working very hard to silence feminists. I can speak to this especially from my perspective as a feminist who dares to call proudly and with enthusiasm for a world where, without exception, everyone has access to abortion as a matter of human dignity.
I’m okay, guys. The story I shared was really tough for me, but I got through it and I am still fighting without fear for that better world we all deserve. I’ve heard others, especially feminists who aren’t active on the Internet, or those who are but may be earlier in their careers, express doubts about taking up public space for fear of the trolls. We are all best qualified to know what our personal needs and limits are, and I respect that, but I don’t want anyone to believe I’m saying the best way to beat the trolls is to give up. That is, after all, what they want.
I’m going to conclude this post by sharing a response I once gave to a young woman who was receiving hateful emails and asked for my self-care tips. Here’s what I said:
I’m sorry to hear you are receiving bad emails. That can get pretty demotivating and demoralizing. Here are some things I’ve done to take care of myself in the past, although not all at the same time and some tips may even be contradictory. Use your judgement of what works for you now, in this situation:– Delete — without reading. I will delete some things without reading them, especially when I’m getting deluged with hate. If I start reading something and realize it’s hate, I stop mid-way through and delete.– Share. Read the bad things and then share them (without sharing the identity of the person, as they really want the attention and I’d hate to give them that). This is not something I really consider self-care, so put yourself first.– Block. I used to be slow to block people on Twitter, for example. No more. I block assholes right away. They do not deserve my mental space nor does anyone deserve an explanation from me about why I block them.– Be more guarded. While I’m still pretty free with my personal information, there are things I work hard to keep private and that varies depending on where I am in my life. I used to be really secretive about where I lived, especially when I was living alone.– Most of all, just walk away. Life is too short to accept other people’s pain unless you have freely chosen to do so. Abuse is ridiculous and doesn’t deserve your time. Even without the abuse, carve out time for yourself. I have gotten much better about not checking email and social media as constantly as I used to — and it is relaxing!