Root Your Activism In Your Moral Clarity

I’ve been at social justice work since I was a kid. It didn’t necessarily start with my parents — though they discussed public affairs with me as if I were an adult, they were hardly activists or political people. I just liked to read newspapers and books about politics, and had a strongly felt sense of right and wrong.

My activism started out as general liberal/progressive-type stuff. I started phonebanking in middle school for what could have become Minnesota’s first woman senator, and by the time I hit high school I was dodging the police officer assigned to the outside of the school to catch skipping students (I was out campaigning for Senator Paul Wellstone).

It wasn’t until late high school and early college that my general leftist activism channeled into explicitly feminist activism. I developed anorexia and nearly died, fighting tooth and nail for my life. When I got on the other side of that, I vowed to do whatever I could to help prevent other women and girls from having to go through what I did — or at least, to make it easier for them to get out. I saw my eating disorder as a manifestation of a society that demands women and girls take up less space.

I took a wider view and went into general feminist activism. Women and girls are consistently pressured to take up less space in public life, to have bodies held to impossible standards and open to the public approval and judgement of others, subjected to violence and control, paid less, respected less. The areas where women are most praised for stepping up — presenting ourselves in sexualized ways, for the pleasure of others rather than ourselves; or taking notes at the meeting or having a really clean house —  do not refute my view of less space because they, too, support rigid gender roles that help no one, woman, man, or gender non-conforming. I should note, here, that my commitment to feminism has also kept me on track and in some ways, helped to save my life on an ongoing basis. Having the views I do now makes it pretty hard to go back to hurting my body the way I once did.

Over time, I have specialized more and more in reproductive health, rights, and justice issues, and I see strong links between cultural control over women’s bodies in the form of impossible standards of physical beauty; legal control over women’s bodies in the form of sexual repression and the shame and stigma that supports it; and medical control over women’s bodies in the form of forced C-sections, “religious freedom” with the effect of denying women access to health care in health care settings, denial of accurate medical information for fear we might choose to have abortions, and the like.

Reproductive activism can be a hard field to be involved in — our side loses a lot, the opposition is unhinged more often than not, and terrorism and violence is part of the pro-life movement’s playbook. But frankly, all activism is hard. That’s why I shared my story. The reason why I do my work is rooted in my moral clarity: I’m doing this work because I survived, and I feel a sense of purpose in advancing women and girls. I’m doing this work because if I could stand up to my eating disorder, I can certainly stand up to anti-abortion, sexist, racist, homophobic bullies who are trying to intimidate activists and ordinary people out of the discussion.

If you’re an activist, I encourage you to think about your story. Why do you do the work you do? This is the moral clarity you bring to your work. It will feed you when days and nights are long, and help you avoid burnout (though you also need to take care of your own life or you will burn out — for more on that, see my old post Time Management: Activism Without Losing Your Mind).

Your story and your moral clarity are not a set of political views. They are not an emulation of people you admire or a repudiation of people you can’t stand. They are not about what you think other people should do to move closer to justice in the set of issues you advocate. They are not even your theory of change, or how you think the work should be done.

Your story and your moral clarity are why you, uniquely you, feel motivated to do the work you do. I encourage you to take some time to think about yours, and remember to come back there every so often. This will nourish your work for the long haul. At least it has for me, for my entire adult life.

If you’ve read this far you must be an activist; so long as you’re fighting the good fight, thank you.

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