First, please allow me to appologize for my silence here lately. Now that the election is over and Obama is doing all the right things, well… some of the pressure is off. However, I just saw HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels and… well, it might be the red wine, but I loved it. Sure, it was a little corny and the soundtrack hardly matched the era but I’m a sucker for a powerful story.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about feminism (er, Feminism?) and what it means to me. After all, almost nothing I’m doing right now would have been possible without incredible sacrifice by brave, powerful women who came before me. I’m unmarried but living with a man I love, I am getting an MA at a Major East Coast University, I control my reproductive system, and voted in the last election.
So, stay with me, this may take a while.
In many ways I am not an expert on gender theory or politics—I tended to doze through my classes on feminist art criticism in college; I’ve resisted the term feminist longer than many of my peers; and it is hard for me to get angry about someone using the phrase “you guys” instead of “you all.” Also, and this may not make me popular with the feminist blogosphere, I think that American women have it pretty good– not in every way, and not perfect, but pretty good. Hillary Clinton, after all, could only put “18 million cracks in that last glass ceiling” years after many countries, even countries generally considered hostile to women’s rights embraced female leadership.
As the daughter of a quiet second-wave feminist, I grew up wearing T-shirts that said “little me” and reading books about powerful, historic women (Nellie Bly and Margaret Sanger continue to be an inspiration). I had no doubt that America will see a female president in my lifetime; I supported Barack Obama from day one and never looked back. Until, that is, I had the opportunity to meet a woman named Michele who worked as an underground abortion counselor in the late 1960s in Minnesota.
I spent several months working at an abortion clinic in Sioux Falls, SD last summer—ground zero in America’s abortion wars. While there, I met a variety of educated, articulate, and passionate men and women, including Michele, working to protect women’s health by protecting their choices.
I spent an hour or two with Michele, hearing about her work with a leading pro-choice physician, Dr. McCoy, her experiences with a back-alley abortionist, and the desperation many women expressed when they came to her. My passion for the women’s health movement had always been fairly intellectual, my generation has never known a time before Roe v. Wade, and Planned Parenthood has always just been there to provide Pap smears, birth control, or STI screenings.
During my visit with Michele, she told me about a time she and a male colleague were involved in a “sting” on a back alley abortionist. The woman who offered to perform the abortion, a bartender who “did abortions on the side,” worked out of her old, brick apartment in a “dingy” part of St. Paul, MN. When Michele and her male companion came in, they saw a big spaghetti pot on the stove in which the abortionist was boiling some catheters and needles. When she walked down the hall, Michele saw a group of men in one of the bedrooms smoking silently, she described them as “the muscle” and did not understand why they were there. Women should never, ever need to seek out medical care in a situation like this.
Although some argue that it is not so bad to leave “the abortion question” to the states, this would create a country in which women in states like California and New York have different legal rights than women in places like South Dakota or Mississippi. America tried this in the 1960s and it was precisely this situation that lead to the landmark Roe v. Wade case. Trigger laws, which Washington Post columnist Linda Hirshman wrote about in late September, set women in anti-choice states up to feel the effects of Roe being overturned or challenged incredibly quickly. These laws are already on the books and will go into effect as soon as Roe v. Wade is overturned. Some of the laws make traveling to other states to obtain an abortion illegal. Although these laws do have exceptions for the mother’s health, if they are worded anything like the law currently on the ballot in South Dakota they will make performing an abortion a felony if the state later deems that the woman’s health was not, in fact, in danger. Not only does this open the medical community to endless second-guessing by the government, it removes the ability for women to make decisions about their own health care. Even if a woman can afford to travel across state lines to obtain medical care, she may still be punished under the theory that the fetus has a “home state” in which abortion is illegal.
At the end of our visit, when the coffee she made had run out, Michele looked me in the eye and thanked me. Thanked me. I was speechless. All I did was walk past a few protesters. I did not find women tickets to Mexico, I was not helping them offset the cost of international air travel or find sympathetic doctors willing to do follow up exams. I was not breaking the law.
The abortion wars my generation fights tend to take place in the ballot box or on petition sheets. They are nothing compared to working with doctors in Mexico, smuggling birth control, or setting up “stings” on back-alley abortionists. Michele also apologized that her generation had not been able to secure a woman’s right to choose, that we are all still fighting this battle 30-something years later. Standing in her small home in South Dakota, I realized that I owe a larger debt to my mother’s generation than I realized. Today’s feminism ought to mean protecting the private choices of all women and ensuring that all options remain open—to work, to have a family, to terminate a pregnancy.
When Senator McCain put “women’s health” in air quotes, not unlike how some people put them around “evolution” or “God,” I knew it was time for me to recognize that Roe v. Wade is not secure and we are not living in an era friendly to women’s choices. Who seriously doubts that women’s health ought to be a consideration in the abortion debates? It has become something of a cliché, not to mention an understatement, to call the 2008 election a “turning point” in American history. Americans are talking about ageism, racism, sexism, and elitism in a more sustained way than we have in years—certainly in my lifetime. This election cycle has also forced the women’s movement, feminists (they are not, I think, the same thing), and all women to reconsider just what it is that American women expect from our society, our candidates, and ourselves. When John McCain selected anti-choice Governor Palin as his running mate, the woman’s movement suddenly had to do some serious soul-searching. The “liberal feminist elite” no longer looked so welcoming and supportive of all women.
Choice issues will prove to be the new litmus test for the American strain of feminism (and probably for the next justice on the Supreme Court). When women demand that they have every medical option open to them, it is because the consequences of illegal abortion will hit women hardest, first, and most frequently. For a long time feminism sought equality under the law and in society.
When it comes to healthcare, women and men simply are not equal and will never be equal. Women give birth, they are also more likely to be raped than men, and are more likely to be the parent in a single parent home. Women need choices. Michele told me about women calling Dr. McCoy in the middle of the night, blood running into their shoes, and nowhere to go. This cannot happen again in America. It is a shame that it ever did.
Real equality means having the same degree of control over health care as men do. Is any state seriously considering a ban on vasectomies? When anti-choice laws go into effect they push women into a state in which they are not in control of their bodies, health care, or families. Today’s feminism means supporting women who choose not to have abortions for whatever reason, but it also means supporting women who, for whatever reason, do not wish to give birth. For far too long the right has labeled the pro-choice movement as “pro abortion.”
Let me be clear, nobody is “pro abortion.” True pro-choice politics is about supporting (and respecting) the choices of all women within the context of complete access to a variety of services. When someone asks if being pro-choice is a requirement for the label feminist, the answer must be an emphatic yes! No air quotes.