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

 

 

Ireland No Longer Has An Abortion Ban, And It Makes Me Cry

By large, irrefutable margins, Ireland has voted to legalize abortion. People don’t want total abortion bans. Even in Catholic countries. This means the world to me, as someone who is half Irish by blood, was raised Catholic, and works for abortion rights.

I was born Erin Maureen Boylan. I do not share this name often; it’s a part of my identity that mostly slips under the radar. My biological father, where the Irish in me comes from, died suddenly and unexpectedly when my mom was five months pregnant with me. I have been told we share some things: a “sense of the outrageous,” a love for writing, and political activism.

In large part, it is because of what happened to my mom that I am so strongly pro-choice. Because of the circumstances surrounding my birth, and the hell, chaos, and poverty that created for her, I am well aware of how quickly circumstances can change. Instead of parroting blanket statements from men in robes who say that sex is bad and do not see me as equal, I choose compassion and love.

I was born into my life, specifically, and I do not believe in abortion bans. I am aware that my mom could have chosen to not continue the pregnancy that created me. I love her. I know her. I think the choice to have an abortion would have been fine, and if I could have held her hand had she chosen to make it, I would have.

I love my life, and I know I owe my life to a woman who was excited and in love and over the moon, and then suddenly very sad, traumatized, and alone. She was here and I was not yet; I put her first without question.

As I reflect on Ireland overturning the abortion ban, and the man who put the Irish and the political activism in my blood I know, on some visceral level, that what unites us more than anything is our deep and unconditional love for my mother. We trust her. We believe in her. We know that she is wise. We know that she is strong and can get through anything. We would have supported her together, from our own space in the spiritual ether, if she had made another choice.

There have been only a handful of times in my life when I have felt very close to my biological father, and the Saturday that the Irish abortion ban was to be overturned was one of them. I teared up on a long run, watching the sun rise. I felt him and how he would have reacted to what was about to happen in Ireland. I thought about how proud he would have been of me and my work, specifically my work to expand abortion access. I thought to myself in a loud, proud voice, Erin Maureen Boylan, reporting for duty. I kept running. I cried.

Finding God

Twenty years ago, on Easter, I was losing my mind. I was basically dead. The worst picture that exists of me was taken that morning. You would cry if I shared it. I never will, because people with anorexia would use it to justify hurting themselves.

I rose each time we were supposed to in the Catholic Mass, blacking out a little bit each time. I had a real mental breakdown of sorts during the service; some of the ugliest thoughts of my life. And primarily because the calories in Communion freaked me out.

That Monday after Easter was a real come-to-Jesus moment; I had a several-hour medical assessment culminating in a doctor assembling my family together, and informing us that my pulse was 32 and I was probably going to have a heart attack that week.

When I set out to lose weight, I didn’t set out to do that.

My parents gave me the choice whether to go to the hospital or not. God bless them, that helped. They let me go home, they let me cry about it. They let me come to the awful realization on my own that I needed to go. The next morning I went into school early, and told my teachers what was happening. They wouldn’t see me again for awhile. I hoped I could get my work done and be able to graduate on time, but I didn’t know. It was a stressful moment for a straight-A student.

After telling my sad story one more time, I lingered in the door of the room where my math class would soon meet. “Mr. Talbot?” I said. “Yes?” He looked up at me. “I’m sorry I used to come late into class because I was outside smoking.” He smiled with such care. Men with beards can be harder to read, but those eyes communicated an encouragement by example to forgive myself. “I was never really that worried.”

Getting better was a bitch. I was able to graduate. I got better. I got worse. I went on a merry-go-round of recovery. Ultimately, I came out ahead by connecting the dots that my eating disorder was a personal, hellish manifestation of a society that oppresses women and girls. I found a way to fight what happened to me, which prevented me from going back into the darkness. In this way, feminism saved my life.

Over the years I have considered my relationship to God in light of what happened. As I described, I had a private breakdown in the Catholic Church when I was basically a walking corpse and, frankly, I don’t think that’s a total coincidence. As my consciousness grew, I connected the all-male Catholic hierarchy’s treatment of women to what happened to me, and the all-male Catholic hierarchy’s outsized role in the sexist systems that go unquestioned in both religious and secular settings.

It’s not acceptable that just a few years ago Pope Benedict said allowing women to be priests is a sin equivalent to pedophilia, particularly when the Catholic hierarchy was exposed to have suppressed the sexual abuse of children and adults by its own priests. As I grew older, I learned that the opposition to abortion and birth control that I heard through CCD classes is about controlling and shaming women’s sexuality. With more time I came to connect the dots that shame about sexuality and gender roles is about controlling people in order to ensure that white men retain the most power in society, period. At age 22, I saw the sex-abuse cover up stories and I snapped. I told my mother, “The Catholic Church is the embodiment of the patriarchy and I’m never going back.”

So I stopped going to church, which was something I barely did in the first place. I began to identify as an atheist. Of all the stigmatized identities I have occupied in my life, few get people as upset as saying “atheist.” How interesting that we are socially comfortable with people saying there is a God, or there are Gods, or there might be a God, but not saying, there is no God!

Recently, I have started attending an Episcopal Church on occasion. It gives me a certain level of ritual that I appreciate as someone raised in the Catholic Church, and I enjoy the community and find the frankness of explanation in the written materials refreshing. At this point, I am not going up for Communion, but I take the opportunity as it proceeds to get on my knees and pray. I pray for equality. I pray for girls who are struggling. I pray for Black women getting the recognition they deserve. I pray for people who have abortions to know that they are doing nothing wrong, and with gratitude for the safety of the compassionate people who serve them. I pray that the people who oppose women’s equality may gracefully find a way to join the community of people who respect women and our ability to make decisions about our own lives. I pray that I will find the grace to welcome people into my community working toward equality and justice — even people who have espoused views that harm women and girls — and lead by example to encourage welcoming in others.

Religion did not pull me out of the worst crises of my life; I pulled myself out, with love support from people who supported my agency and dignity as a human being. Here I am, twenty years later, improbably alive. Improbably, too, I am going to church. I brought my daughter this Easter Sunday, twenty years later. I am finding grace in song and stories, reclaiming prayer within my own life, and maybe even finding God. I am open to the journey.

When Democratic Party Institutions Try To Fundraise Off Of You, You Tell Them To Stand Up For Abortion

Every fundraising letter, every telephone request for money is an action opportunity. For years I have been taking action with the fundraising letters sent by the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, state Democratic parties, and Democratic-aligned PACs that don’t take abortion rights seriously. The call to action is simple:

Don’t give them money. Tell them to stand up for abortion rights consistently and without hesitation, and then you’ll give them your money.

Many times the letters include a prepaid envelope for your convenience. And with a telemarketer, hey, you can chat. In other words, these actions are free and take just moments of your time.

Now, do it. Do it every time they ask you for money. And give the money that you might have donated to them to Democratic candidates who do unflinchingly stand up for the right to abortion, even as some out-of-touch national leaders suggest a “big tent” for candidates.

I mean, come on! Under the wrongful big tent theory of change I’ve written about extensively for Rewire, Democrats lose more seats because the base does not unite behind candidates (in fact, check out this recent poll that proves recruiting anti-abortion candidates is more of a liability for Democrats than a gain in terms of voters), Republicans have more supporters for anti-abortion policy in legislative bodies, and the poor, sadistic, complicit Vice President Mike Pence gets the additional anti-abortion Democrats he needs so that he doesn’t have to make the trek from the White House to the Capitol to cast tie-breaking votes to kick human rights for women and transgender people who become pregnant in the teeth.

Your instructions to Democratic Party organs to stand firmly for reproductive health, rights, and justice when they come to you looking for money are not symbolic. They matter. They are tallied.

Fundraising Letter with I will support you when you stand up for choice written over it!

Over the years, I have been pleased to hear that I have inspired many  friends and fellow activists who know me to send their letters back with instructions to national party leaders to stop crapping on abortion, which is what is inspiring me to write this down here. Please, start taking this action, pass this message on, and urge your friends to do the same.

Also, please do give generously of your time and money to those Democratic candidates who hold strong for abortion rights. In the past year I’ve been as loud as I’ve ever been about holding Democrats accountable, and I’ve also given as much as I ever have directly to candidates and PACs that share my values — 10 percent of my  income in the last year, to be exact. It’s not just money and volunteer time that talks. It’s the absence of giving money and support, too.

Together we do have power.

One of these days national Democrats may get it, and stop repeating the right wing talking points implanted within our midst to undermine our effectiveness. But with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) having the gall to suggest a big tent on abortion inside an event hosted by Planned Parenthood — for cripes sake, the insult! — just a few days ago, I’m not holding my breath. I’m just taking action with every opportunity that presents itself, including in my mailbox and on my telephone. You can do the same, quickly and easily.