You And Your Activism Are Not The Same Thing

You and your activism are not the same thing.

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.

No matter what, your activism is not who you are.

You are.

That’s good enough.

Why My Work For Abortion Rights Will Change When I Hit Menopause

Just after turning 32, and just before I stepped down from my role as action vice president of the National Organization for Women, I gave a then-radical speech in which I championed the leadership of young feminists and called for the organization to evolve. If you care about what I’m going to write, I urge you to take five minutes to watch it here on CSPAN, and then read on. 

If you watched that, you are probably not surprised that I resigned from that position a few months later. You are probably not surprised that I explained that decision to TIME Magazine with, “When you want to build a jet pack, sometimes that means you have to leave the bicycle factory.” You are probably not surprised that I went on to co-found the cutting-edge, left flank reproductive justice activism group Reproaction with Pamela Merritt a few years later. (We are still leading this and it’s bomb! Sign up for our email list if you haven’t already, and we’ll send you opportunities to take direct action to increase access to abortion and advance reproductive justice.)

I believe in innovation and taking risks. I believe in the leadership of young people and their capacity for it. And I believe with my deepest heart that I would be living in contradiction of my values if I led activist work for abortion rights as a menopausal woman. So this is my promise to you, as I near the big 4-0. Within 10 years you will not see me leading the work I am now.

I will do the daylights out of abortion rights activism in the streets for the rest of my life. As long as I am living, I will never be past tense in the activist community. I nearly died of an eating disorder and I’m not messing around — activism for gender equality is the work of my life and it hadn’t become that, I would have been dead 20 years ago. I believe deeply in the power of direct action to change society and also, ourselves. But, as an older woman, I will be doing the daylights out of abortion rights activism in the streets behind a younger woman or gender non-conforming person holding the bullhorn because that’s who I have always believed should be leading the abortion activism work.

I believe in experience and wisdom. I do not believe people should be cancelled on the basis of age or, for that matter, other characteristics of their identity. I will support young activist leaders for abortion rights, mentor them, show up for their actions, give money to them, maybe even be their employee. It may well be the case that I take a frontline leadership role in another reproductive health, rights, or justice organization with a primary focus in communications, education, elections, policy, research, service delivery, or basically anything other than grassroots activism, or that I go on to lead a feminist or other progressive organization, even an activist one, of which abortion rights is one issue within a broader social justice agenda. I will certainly never stop writing, innovating, taking bold action for gender equality.

I don’t think older women don’t have important reproductive and sexual health issues. I don’t think older women should stop leading organizations (including reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations!) or speaking to the media or testifying in Congress or giving their full-throttle brilliance and if that’s your interpretation, you are purposefully misreading me.

This is about me and my values, and what I see as my role in grassroots activist leadership for abortion rights.

If my body isn’t bleeding, if I am physically no longer in need of access to abortion, I’m moving my perch. It won’t be to irrelevance or apathy. Just wait until you hear this old bird sing.

Bullying Anti-Abortion Speech On The Playground

In my community, the Knights of Columbus operate a large pool that is popular for birthday parties. Behind the pool is a playground. And beside the playground, low enough to be visible for the children, is a monument to the ‘millions of babies murdered by abortion.’

When I saw this, at a party, I became so angry during the ride home that I started to shake.

Recently I was glad to have a conversation with a fellow politically engaged mother, who also expressed concern about sending her children to this pool.

As a professional feminist, I am well aware of how rude young men wearing Knights of Columbus regalia can be to women advocating for our own rights — it has happened to me outside of the Supreme Court more years than one. I, too, pause to give them my money or my presence, even for social situations.

But to think of my daughter and her friends at parties where this statue lies in wait for their burgeoning reading skills is another thing entirely. The line is tricky: My daughter is well aware that Mommy used to attend Catholic Church and doesn’t anymore, because the men in charge don’t treat women and girls fairly (also because of the priest celibacy requirement, which only breeds awful things, and rampant sexual abuse coverups, although neither are age-appropriate to discuss with her in detail now).

I have started to attend an Episcopal Church on a semi-regular basis. It is a good place.

At times, I have visceral reactions watching people who claim themselves pro-life applauding a president who conflates Nazis with good people and separates refugee children from their parents. The Catholic Church I grew up in is not what I thought it was then. Seeing it on a playground, I feel deep sorrow, anger, and resolve to keep at my work.

An Open Letter To Susan Collins And Lisa Murkowski About My Daughter

Dear Senators Collins and Murkowski,

I would like to tell you about my daughter, Winnie. She is five, and a mother’s dream come true. She is healthy, strong, compassionate. She loves to watch baseball and dress up like a princess. Frozen is her favorite movie. Against all odds, she thinks dentists are cool and wants to be one when she grows up. She has been active in politics her whole life — from getting out the vote as a baby in a carrier on my chest, to knocking doors in national and statewide elections, to attending inaugurations. I try to let her take this stuff at her own pace; she can’t get enough. She likes to ask questions about politics and I make a point to tell her the truth.

Tonight, I told her: Mommy is sad. Why, she asked. I explained to her that it hasn’t always been that girls were allowed to do all the things that boys do — and generally it’s gotten better and more fair for girls over the years. I explained that I’ve had more opportunities than grandma, and that grandma had more opportunities than her mom, but if some people have their way about who gets to say what the law is in this country, she might have fewer opportunities than me when she grows up. My daughter knows that I’m a feminist and that I’ve devoted my life to working for women and girls. I told her it makes me very sad to think that it could be worse for her than it was for me.

She wanted to know how, specifically, it could be worse, so I told her the truth. There are some people who think they can make girls have babies, instead of being fair and letting girls decide when they get to have babies. My daughter does pretend weddings like every other day, and says she would love to be a mommy. She also understands that pregnancy is hard and babies are a lot of work. She gets mad when she is not given a choice about what to eat for breakfast. I could see it sink in on her face — at five — how not right this is.

There is a chill in this country, and I just know that as women of conscience you feel it. What I feel is what I imagine it felt like in other repressive countries just before women lost considerable amounts of freedoms they had once enjoyed: a sense that it is coming, a sense that it is inevitable and there is nothing we can do, and some people who are concerned and others who are in denial that anything will change.

You are senators. It breaks my heart that, as a parent, writing an open letter about my daughter to the two of you seems so critical to her future. I wish it were not necessary. But I know, in my heart, that if in your capacity as senators you do not put your feet down and say you will not vote for a Supreme Court nominee that would overturn Roe v. Wade — and President Trump has been very clear that he will only nominate justices who would — that terrible things will happen to at least some of the beautiful and innocent girls who today come to my daughter’s birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and someday will experience the complexity that comes with living in a woman’s body.

As a mother, I am horrified that our little girls could have demonstrably fewer freedoms than we do for generations to come. You have both indicated support for abortion rights and in this current political environment, much less the current Republican Party, I can try to appreciate the contorted, lonely spaces you must find yourselves in. I hope you will try to appreciate the spaces millions of us mothers find ourselves in: Looking at our daughters, trying not to cry, vowing to do our best to ensure they get the freedoms we have now, but knowing that ultimately the matter is not much in our hands. The matter is, practically speaking, very much in your hands.

More than any other senator, it is the two of you who will decide whether President Trump is able to convert the Supreme Court into one that will repeal the federal constitutional right to abortion for generations to come. I hope you will think about my little Winnie, and all the other little girls her age, and how much we as their mothers love them. You are our last resort. Please stand up for our girls.

Sincerely,
Erin Matson