No Shame: Speaking Positively for Abortion & Reproductive Justice

I recently gave a talk for the Northern Virginia Ethical Society on how to advocate for abortion and reproductive justice with urgency, certainty, and clarity. You can listen here:

Being A Young Feminist Can Turn A Girl Old

A therapist told me to try a women’s studies class, so I did that first semester of my freshman year. I still remember exactly what I was wearing that September morning in 1998, not because it was a cute outfit but because I was obsessed with my legs. The therapist had been treating me for an eating disorder that nearly killed me a few months before.

In this context, going to college was a luxury; hell, living was a luxury. I enrolled in Women’s Studies 101 to check a box. Instead a new world opened. I don’t say this hyperbolically — feminism helped save my life. I was able through relapses and hospitalizations and treatment to stabilize and beat down the anorexia. But what truly saved my life was making the connection that eating disorders are just one manifestation of a deeply sexist world that denigrates and trivializes women, weaponizes our bodies against us, and then tells us it’s all our fucking fault anyway.

With its radical messages of dignity, equality, and honesty, my feminism made it impossible for me to go back to the dark side. How the light went on! I dove headfirst into all the women writers. Kate Chopin, Sylvia Plath, Alexandra Kollontai, Shulamith Firestone, Valerie Solanis. Judith Butler. I told myself I wanted to be a women’s studies professor someday. Until I realized that a lot of this postmodern stuff was hard to read, and I could have an obscure argument in an obscure language with about three other people who maybe understood me, or I could try to work for justice out in the real world.

So this is the ironic thing. I had a series of proto-feminist moments (making GOTV calls for the woman who could have been Minnesota’s first woman senator when I was 11, writing about gender discrimination in the SAT for the school newspaper, the obsession with the Indigo Girls) well before I started taking women’s studies courses in college. But it wasn’t until I left the classroom and went into the feminist non-profit world that I became a “young feminist.” Even if by that time I was 21. Not 18. Or 11.

I’m 35 and I still get called “young feminist” in those contexts on occasion today, although that says far more about those contexts than my age. If 35 is young, it’s only to reflect our societal fears of identifying as old, and our societal inability to give our young people career opportunities with growth potential rather than a pile of student debt that’s damn near impossible for so many to repay. The weird thing is that the term young feminist exists at all.

This label, like anything that impacts a person’s identity, is complicated for me. Sometimes I love the term — you know, it is true that people will have different views of what equality will look like as they grow up in different generations. If all goes well, after all, what a previous generation of feminists fought for should be appallingly conservative to the next generation.

And yet sometimes I think the concept of a young feminist is total horse shit.  I identified as a feminist a few years before feminist non-profits taught me to identify as a young feminist. Just what was the point of segregating us?

I bristle every single time I hear someone say that young women need to be educated so they don’t take the freedoms they’ve gained for granted. First because not every woman has gained the freedoms we’re told feminism has won. But also and especially because it’s so insulting. Talking down to young women is anti-feminist. Presuming young women are not capable of identifying and articulating and fighting for what they need to live as full human beings is anti-feminist. Treating young women as sidekicks in a women’s movement is anti-feminist, particularly in a legislative context where older white men are obsessed with controlling and restricting younger women’s bodies, and demonizing those who dare to have sex and live their lives anyway.

And yet it happens all the time. Today was the latest entry with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) expressing regret over the “complacency” of young women born after Roe v. Wade (1973, how young!). Blaming apathetic young women for the declining state of abortion access has been something of a cottage industry hovering over the pro-choice movement ever since I’ve been around, but in the last few years the situation has gotten markedly better, in large part due to those with less power having the ability to present alternative views on social media. To my knowledge there wasn’t a similar mechanism to democratize voices between activists and the leaders making the big bucks before then.

You know, we should push back every single time someone ‘on our side’ tells us young women are apathetic about feminism or abortion or any number of concerns that impact our lives. We should push back that young men are somehow not included in the group who should take equal responsibility to work toward progress. But frankly I’m getting old (a privilege for which I feel blessed, not shamed) and sometimes I wonder if we will ever find that moment where we won’t have to fight for the full recognition of young people in a women’s movement that has a tendency to treat them as helpmeets or hire them as unpaid interns.

There are approximately two gray hairs on my head now, and I swear, at least half of them came from a vocal minority of older feminists who have been patronizing or worse about my work.

Carly Fiorina’s Faux Feminism Is A Joke

Carly Fiorina’s faux feminism is an offensive ribbon tied around a dangerous pile of lies.

Life is short, so let’s dive in. Carly has made her pro-life views and willingness to lie through her teeth for them a marquee aspect of her candidacy.

This woman has concocted disgusting, disturbing and roundly discredited lies about Planned Parenthood that fan the flames of terrorist attacks like the recent mass shooting in Colorado Springs. These lies are in service of a small group, to which Carly belongs, who wish to ban abortion entirely — and that hurts women. Access to abortion is a great thing for women. Whether we use it or not (though lots of women — 1 in 3 — do), easy access to abortion ensures our safety and well-being if we find ourselves pregnant in the wrong place or at the wrong time.

There is no such thing as a pro-life feminist. Pro-life opposition to abortion, contraception, sex education, and reproductive health care is diametrically opposed to women achieving equality and justice. This is basic stuff: If women don’t have control over whether and when we have kids, we have no dignity and equality under the law. We need to be able to control our fertility in order to have equal access to opportunities, period.

Pro-life advocates like to say they are pro-woman (which often takes on an additional LOLsob factor when you account for the overwhelming number of men driving the pro-life bus). But if you can only agree that women should have the final say over their bodies when they do not have sex and are not pregnant, you aren’t actually pro-woman — and you certainly don’t believe in equality for women.

All this makes Carly Fiorina’s latest faux feminist salvo even more weird. Now she’s claiming a feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses (emphasis mine). Ooh, that’s rich from a woman working to prevent women from having choices over their own lives.

Deeper still, Fiorina’s definition of feminism as a woman doing whatever she wants — well, that’s ridiculous. Feminism is an action agenda working to secure equality and justice for women. A feminist is someone who believes in redistributing power toward women and other marginalized people, and works toward that goal. Living your life the way you want is great, and feminism works so that women can have those choices. But simply having choices and exercising any choice whatsoever doesn’t mean that you’re a feminist.

You can choose to work against the interests of women — and men — as Fiorina does, and if you are a woman that may make you a trailblazer in the backward-looking world of the male-dominated GOP.

But choosing to live your life doesn’t make you a feminist, though presuming to make some of the most important choices in life for other women certainly makes you a hypocrite.

Video: Late November 2015 To The Contrary Appearance

I appeared as a panelist on this week’s episode of To The Contrary, and discussed women joining ISIS, clinic shutdown laws and self-induced abortions, and women’s equality.

You can watch a video of the show here:

Legal, accessible abortion is something to be proud of.

Share Your Truth Without Shame

I became a feminist activist because I developed anorexia and nearly died. When I got better, I swore to do whatever I could to make it less likely others would have to go through the hell I did. I believe that eating disorders are just one awful and predictable outcome of a gender-mean society that tells women they must take up less space — and not just in physical shape and size.

I don’t think about this stuff every day, but it grounds the work I do. This is the moral center I bring to my work. When I get frustrated, or demotivated, or sick of being trolled, I remember why I’m doing what I’m doing, and my love pours back in. Oppression hurts.

Today I work primarily on increasing access to abortion and advancing reproductive justice — the right to not be pregnant, the right to be pregnant with dignity and access to quality health care, and the right to raise families in safe and healthy communities.

To me this work is a continuation of what propelled me into feminist activism in the first place: reproductive oppression, like shitty beauty standards, is predicated on the same core issues that stem from treating women like objects instead of human beings who deserve dignity, equality and respect. It’s about impossible demands on the body (food and sex are primal, yo), using internalized shame as a mechanism of control and subjugation, and a sense that women’s bodies are open for public comment and need to be controlled and tamed. And yes, men are both directly and indirectly oppressed on these lines, too, so fixing these problems benefits everyone.

So I’ve shared some version of that in more conversations and speeches I can count. It is, after all, my story and why I’m here. Today I shared this at William and Mary Law School in a talk on attacks on Planned Parenthood and how we can protect reproductive freedom.

After it was over, multiple students came up and thanked me for sharing my story. One, in particular, told me it was the first time she’d heard anyone — student or professor — share in a classroom that they’d experienced an eating disorder. Mind you this was only like a hot second of my presentation in the context of an hour, but it made a difference to her. How sad that so much of life is people pretending they’ve got it all figured out and always have. That is like the literal antithesis of power. It is overcoming that makes us strong.

We all have a reason why we work toward the causes we do, and it’s effective organizing to share it. But more important, when we share our authentic stories and make ourselves vulnerable, we are shouting the shame that’s supposed to hold us back and flipping it the bird. I believe it is radical act each time a woman tells the truth about her life. To other people. To herself.

Change really does start with you.

 

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.

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