Category Archives: social justice

Federal judge upholds most of restrictive abortion law in Texas

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The biggest news in abortion access this week comes from Texas, where parts of one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation–part of the bill that the now legendary Wendy Davis filibustered against this summer–was blocked by a federal judge. This is good news for feminist activism, a social movement whose presence in Texas has been instrumental in bringing national attention to the restrictive laws in this state. However, it is important for supporters of abortion access to fully understand the content of this law and the ways in which this ruling is not fully a win.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel’s decision blocked an aspect of the law which required  admitting privileges for all physicians who perform abortions.  The judgement seems to be based off the precedent made by the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which upheld the constitutional right to abortion under the Fourteenth amendment’s right to privacy, and the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision, which established an undue burden clause, indicating that abortion restrictions which place an “undue burden” on those seeking abortion is unconstitutional.  Referencing today’s ruling in Texas, Judge Yeakel ruled that Texas’s law “places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus and is thus an undue burden to her [emphasis mine.]“

Despite the block against the restriction targeting admitting privileges, other extremely harmful aspects of the abortion law in Texas will go into affect over the next week. This include a ban on all abortions after 20 weeks, (even those performed to protect the life and health of the uterus-owner) as well as a provision stating that after October 2014, all abortions must take place in “surgical facilities”. Judge Yeakel also did not block a provision which requires that medication abortions be prescribed according to FDA protocol– a restriction that sounds “sensible,” but actually limits the ability for qualified physicians to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

The Texas fight against abortion restriction is drawing national attention, and it is important for supporters of abortion access to realize this fight for what it is. This is the new battleground for abortion access– bills which seek to challenge PP v. Casey and the “undue burden” clause, bills which blatantly disregard the right to privacy established under Roe vs. Wade, and the growing constant need to push back against restrictive legislative measures rather than fighting forwards for economic justice, abortion funding, and healthcare for everyone.

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What The Bible Really Says About “Illegal” Immigration

If you can take this:

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 19:22)

and turn it into this:

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(while ignoring all the other laws in The Bible which tell you its okay to have multiple wives or marry twelve year olds as long as they are virgins and commands you not to touch a menstruating woman and not to wear cotton-polyester blends…)

then how does this:

“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

and this:

“…And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow…” (Jeremiah 22:3)

and this:

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice…” (Deuteronomy 24: 17)

and this:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for your were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

turn into this?

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Judy Schulz, Richard Schulz

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Race and Reproductive Freedom in the Childfree Community

This is a direct response to Melissa McEwan’s post at Shakesville today about being childfree, but it’s also something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time in regards to mainstream feminist views about “reproductive choice”, the recent attention being paid to teen parent shaming, and re: the Reddit Childfree community.

 

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Melissa McEwan’s article detailed her personal experiences as a “childfree” individual– someone who consciously chooses against being a parent for any number of personal, cultural, financial, environmental, or political reasons. Being “childfree” is not a new phenomenon, but those who identify as such are becoming more vocal, demanding an end to the endless questions about their reproductive choices, swapping tips for finding “childfree-friendly” doctors, and using feminist and reproductive justice rhetoric to articulate their identities and struggles. They are fighting for rights that students of second-wave feminism might recognize: the right to be sterilized on demand, without question, without waiting periods, and without needing a spouse’s permission; the right to define themselves as other than mother, father, or parent; and the right to absolute reproductive freedom and to make their own choices about their lives.

McEwan identifies the societal pressures to reproduce that she and other childfree individuals are subjected to as “cultural reproductive coercion”. And it certainly is a very specific form of cultural reproductive coercion– coercion to reproduce. The childfree community makes me uncomfortable (even though I do identify myself as “childfree… for now!”) because it often fails to apply an intersectional approach to this idea of “cultural reproductive coercion,” choosing only to focus on the pressure to reproduce– a pressure that is a result of white privilege and the fact that society wants you to reproduce.

I previously brought up the second-wave feminist fights for abortion rights and against sterilization restrictions, and again, if you’re familiar with those fights this may all begin to sound familiar. The “mainstream,” white, educated, cis, upper or middle class feminists of the second wave were fighting against “cultural reproductive coercion” to reproduce because society wanted and expected them to. Many of these women found their liberation through rejecting society’s call, putting off motherhood by fighting for birth control and abortion access.

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At the very same time, black, Latino, and indigenous women in America were suffering extraordinary rates of forced sterilization and forced removal of their children by social welfare agencies, while the leaders of certain groups in the Black Power movement forbid its female members from using birth control because it was akin to genocide. For these women, “cultural reproductive coercion” looked very different. Society told them not to reproduce because they would not, could not, be good mothers, and some among their own people told them they must reproduce because their people were dying out. Many of these women fought against the mainstream feminist movement’s goal of removing waiting periods and other restrictions on sterilization because those same restrictions helped prevent them from being sterilized without their consent or knowledge after a cesarean section or a routine operation. For many of these women, having a child on their own timing, by choice, and to parent that child in their own culture and communities without threat of removal by the state was liberation.

McEwan does mention race in her post about being childfree. She writes:

“…And when I still didn’t change my mind, I was subjected to all manner of shaming narratives trying to convince me there is something wrong with me if I choose not to parent. I am a traitor to my womanhood. I am an incomplete woman. I am a selfish woman. I am a frivolous woman. I am barely a woman at all, if I refuse to use my fertile, cis, female, male-partnered body for what I am told is its natural (and only) purpose. I am a traitor to my race—a white woman partnered with a white man refusing to have white babies when the white birth rate is dropping in the US. I am a traitor to my country—an educated middle-class woman refusing to make a contribution to the future of the great society which has provided her with so much. The ultimate taker among makers….”

By the end of that paragraph, McEwan finally hits the most important part of her argument: the fact that she experiences “cultural reproductive coercion” to reproduce because she is a white woman. When we (as feminists, or as childfree individuals) talk about reproductive justice, freedom, and respect, we must also talk about white privilege. The majority of those who identify as “childfree” are white, highly educated, urban, secular individuals with higher-than-average incomes. The childfree community, specifically as it exists on the popular website Reddit, is often home to young parent shaming,  welfare shaming, and the propensity to call those who choose to parent “breeders,” which to me sounds weirdly… eugenicist.

Are the endless assumptions about a married white couple’s eventual fertility and the patronizing tone of a doctor trying to talk a young white woman out of voluntary sterilization a barrier to complete reproductive freedom? Absolutely. But we must remember that these barriers are a result of white privilege, and that poor, uneducated women of color continue to bear the brunt of our society’s “cultural reproductive coercion” not to reproduce.

A few weeks ago while spending my usual weekly morning at Planned Parenthood as a clinic escort, an older, friendly, liberal, all-around “good person” who is a fellow clinic escort said something that made me very uncomfortable. We were standing together watching one of our usual protestors who frequently chases passersby down the street to hand out anti-abortion pamphlets. Many of the escorts have noted and remarked that this protestor seems to run harder and faster after people of color, particularly young women of color, and especially young women of color accompanied by children. As we watched this fold out in front of us, the clinic escort I was standing with began to shake her head and said something similar to this: “You know, I live in [the city] so I often see these young black women walking around with three, even four kids in a stroller, and I think ‘Why don’t you just go to Planned Parenthood!’“.

Defenders of reproductive justice are not immune to the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and classism that constantly influences who we (as individuals and as a society) deem fit to reproduce. Feminist and reproductive justice activists along with the childfree community need to be proactive in removing oppressive “cultural reproductive coercion” against everyone.

 

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Reproductive Justice on TV: Call The Midwife

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There is a special place in my heart reserved for British television and period costume dramas–anything from Pride and Prejudice to Bleak House to Downton Abbey.  So, when I heard that BBC’s newest period drama combined fierce independent career women with 1950s hoop skirts, I knew I had to check it out.

Call the Midwife is a television dramatization of the memoirs of Jennifer (Lee) Worth¹, a young nurse and newly qualified midwife who takes a job in the impoverished East End of London in the 1950s. In the show, nurse Jenny Lee is shocked when she finds out her new job is not at a small hospital, but at Nonnatus House, a nursing convent that houses nuns (who are also nurse midwives) along with young secular nurses. The show is realistic and gritty, detailing poverty in its worst forms–pregnant women infected with syphilis, patients traumatized by workhouses,  and bugs crawling over tea-plates. Alongside their grittiness, Call the Midwife episodes all end with a silver-lining: some sort of lesson that is learned and narrated over each episode’s closing by an older, wiser, Jenny.

Bitch Magazine has already tackled some of the important connections between Call The Midwife and reproductive justice².  Although in the 1950s birth control had been developed and used by wealthier married women in the United States, most forms of birth control were non-existent for the women in Call the Midwife. Married women gave birth to baby after baby whether they wanted to or not, and women who had sex outside of marriage took the enormous risk of pregnancy “out-of-wedlock”.  Though the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House are all midwives, their reproductive health practice goes beyond simply attending births. The show addresses STDs, incest, miscarriage, and infectious disease prevention. We see the nuns and nurses care for premature infants, veterans, mother’s who’ve lost babies, and people at the end of their lives. Perhaps most importantly, and most interestingly to me, Jenny Lee and company provide emotional as well as medical care to their patients.

In the second episode of series one, a young Irish girl stops nurse Jenny Lee on the street and begs her to change a bank note for her, revealing that she hasn’t eaten in two days, but is afraid someone will think she stole the money if she uses it to purchase a meal. Jenny immediately notices that the girl looks pregnant, and takes her into the restaurant for some food. The girl, Mary, reveals that she ran away from a rough family situation in Ireland and was taken in by a man named Zakir and forced to work as a prostitute. After they share a meal, Mary, who is only fifteen years old, tells Jenny that she can’t go back to the brothel because she is afraid that they will hurt her and force her to have an illegal abortion. Mary tells Jenny that she sometimes slept with three or four men in a night and tells a shocked Jenny: “God love your innocence, Nurse Jenny Lee. Which of us is the oldest now?”

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Sister Julienne, the nun in charge of Nonnatus House, finds Mary a place to stay at Father Joe’s home for unwed mothers. After discovering that Zakir has been following and watching Mary, Jenny and Father Joe quickly transfer her to another home far outside of the city, where she gives birth to a baby girl called Kathleen. Jenny visits Mary, who tells Jenny about her experience giving birth.  “The midwife had a mustache… I yelled a little bit. She kept on saying ‘Nearly over’… All I kept thinking was, it’s nearly starting. I’m nearly a mam.” Jenny returns to Nonnatus House, pleased that she was able to help Mary and her child.

A short time later, Jenny receives a letter in the mail, with a messily written note stating, “baby gone please come”. Jenny immediately knows it is from Mary and rushes to the home to check on her. Jenny finds Mary sobbing and screaming for her baby, who has been placed for adoption by Father Joe. Jenny is furious as Father Joe tells her “Babies are always placed for adoption in these cases. It’s thought to be in the child’s best interest.” Jenny asks, “What about Mary’s best interest? She is that child’s mother and she did not consent!” Father Joe responds: “She can’t consent. She’s only fifteen. She’s legally a child herself… it was a case of which child should we choose.”

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This exchange between Father Joe and Nurse Jenny Lee is fascinating. While Father Joe displays a paternalistic concern for what he thinks is right for Mary, his concerns should not be written off. He later brings up issues of economic justice, mentioning that Mary has no home, no education, or skills other than prostitution. He stresses that without a baby, Mary will be employable. He says: “She could find love. She could have another child.” Jenny asks “Do you think that will console her?” and Father Joe replies, “It consoles me.” Jenny then cares for Mary, physically and emotionally, though there is nothing she can do to reconnect Mary with her wanted child.

In many ways, these strict traditions about unwed mothers and babies born out of marriage are a thing of the past. But shaming teen mothers who choose to parent is not a relic of the 1950s. New York City’s recent ad campaign³ against teen pregnancy has been heavily criticized by feminists for shaming teens who choose to parent, whether their pregnancy was planned or not. NYC’s campaign echoes Father Joe’s concerns that a teen parent will not have the economic ability to care for a child and therefore should not be given a chance to parent.

This episode of Call The Midwife does not leave viewers feeling like either Father Joe or Nurse Jenny were correct. As the episode closes we see Mary leaving the home without her child and into an uncertain future as adult Jenny tells us: “Mary was never reunited with her child. She might look for her, but her name would not be Kathleen anymore.” Mary’s blank face in this final scene reminds us that Mary was not allowed to control her reproductive future. While the nuns at Nonnatus House were able to save Mary from a forced abortion, they were not able to assist her in keeping and parenting the child that she very much wanted. In the reproductive justice movement, there is often a focus on making sure all people can access safe and legal abortion, but Call the Midwife is an important representation of the range of issues that reproductive justice must address in order to truly allow every person to determine their own lives.

 

¹ Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth (please buy from local/independent bookstores when you can!)

² Call the Midwife: What Nuns Know about Reproductive Justice by Jill Moffett. Bitch Magazine (29 Oct, 2012)

³ New York City’s teen pregnancy campaign 

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Filed under children, feminism, gender, medical anthropology, pop culture, reproductive justice, reproductive rights, sexuality, social justice

What Google Thinks About Feminisms

Disclaimer: The title of this post is NOT meant to indicate that Google as a company OR as a collection of employees thinks these things. By “Google” I mean to indicate collective internet consciousness, as these autofills reflect common searches done by people who use Google’s services.

This post was inspired by Steph Herold, who recently tweeted this picture:

arefeminists

Honestly, it was no surprise to see that public perceptions of feminist movements are often way off the mark. But when I started doing some Google research of my own, I found some more harmful ideas emerge. (Trigger warning: transphobia):

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Planned Parenthood to Move Away from “Choice”

prochoiceRealizing that I identified with the “pro-choice” label was one of my very first “click” moments as a young feminist. From the Second Wave’s fight for legal abortion to our current struggle in the conservative war against reproductive healthcare, “pro-choice” has been one of feminism’s uniting slogans, one that we declare on bumper stickers, buttons, and protest signs. Just in time for next week’s fortieth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, Planned Parenthood announced its plans to abandon the pro-choice label to make room for language that is more inclusive of the complexities of abortion. Below is a video from Planned Parenthood called “Not In Her Shoes” which details some of the reasoning behind the organization’s shift in language.

This move by Planned Parenthood is concerning in more than a few ways.

To begin, it is disappointing that Planned Parenthood used such cissexist language in this latest video. It is not hard to say that “people need abortions” rather than “women need abortions”. The video not only relies on female pronouns and identities for its cartoon patient–it also genders the politicians, congressmen, and presidents male. This blatantly erases that fact that there are women in positions of political power at all. And it ignores the fact that quite a few of the congressional representatives who continue to vote to limit access to abortion services are women. The fight for abortion access is not men against women, so why is Planned Parenthood representing it that way?

Okay, so you might say I am nitpicking. Let’s return to the larger issues represented by the “Not In Her Shoes” video. For many people seeking abortion in the US, “choice” is not really an option that can be exercised at will. Bills that limit state funding for abortion services for poor people, laws that keep underage teens from getting abortion without parental consent, and the mere fact that there is only one abortion clinic in the entire state of Mississippi is a very good reason to abandon the “pro-choice” label. Abortion access is not merely about having a legal choice anymore. To encompass this range of issues regarding access, affordability, and stigma, young feminists have been using the label “reproductive justice”.

It is understandable that Planned Parenthood, which continuously fights for its federal funding and its right to keep clinics running, is maybe a few steps behind the modern feminist movement. They are right to emphasize that “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels seem to ignore certain complexities in the issue, and perhaps most importantly, they create a hostile environment between the two sides with no room for dialogue about the real issues that people face. But the announcement to abandon the “pro-choice” label still makes me wary, and here’s why:

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“It depends on the situation,” reported the majority of voters when asked their personal view on abortion. Planned Parenthood wants to interpret that as “abortion is complicated and should be left a private decision”. I interpret that as “sure abortion is sometimes necessary for rape or incest but some sluts use it as birth control and that is just wrong and we should stop them no abortion on demand!”. Let me emphasize that this survey asked for personal views on abortion. The people who said “it depends on the situation” were really saying: “to me, some people’s choice to have an abortion is morally acceptable and some people’s choice is morally unacceptable.”

The pro-choice label emphasizes the fact that having or not having an abortion is a personal choice. I fear that by abandoning that strong label, Planned Parenthood is allowing people to continue to believe it is up to them to decide when abortion should be “allowed”.

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Representations of Poverty in “The Casual Vacancy”

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Though I stood in line for the midnight release of almost every Harry Potter book, I was a bit more hesitant about reading J.K. Rowling’s newest book.  The Casual Vacancy has been hailed as an “adult” book, something vastly different from the author’s previous series about wands and wizards. Set in a small British town called Pagford, The Casual Vacancy follows the town’s residents through intertwining narratives, all surrounding the political issues brought forward by the death that occurs in the book’s first chapter.

Most reviews of Rowling’s newest tome have been lukewarm at best–critics and readers were put off by her very realistic prose which features swearing, drug use, depictions of rape and abuse, explicit sexuality, and references to Facebook. In contrast to Harry Potter’s magical world, where nobody ever needs to pee and magical teenagers left mostly to their own devices never progress past snogging, Pagford seems shockingly realistic. Many reviewers have blamed this feeling on Rowling “trying too hard” to show her worth beyond children’s fantasy. However, I found that the disingenuous feeling of Rowling’s realism came from somewhere else: the extreme representations of poverty in The Casual Vacancy.

   (My discussion from here forward will contain spoilers from The Casual Vacancy.)

Though Rowling’s mess of characters share screen-time pretty equally, much of The Casual Vacancy centers on the character Krystal Weedon. Krystal is the character who represents “the Fields,” a contentious area of Pagford that borders the larger town of Yarvil and contains unkempt public council housing and the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic. The Weedons are the only of Rowling’s main characters who live in poverty– though her remaining characters suffer from abuse, self-harm, and mental illness, they are all characterized as solidly middle class. The characterization of the Weedon’s poverty sets them apart from the other residents of Pagford, as does the fact that they serve to represent the entire idea of “the Fields,” a subject that crosses the minds of the rest of Pagford’s residents due to its political impact in the central plot point of the parish council elections.

The Casual Vacancy, and along with it, the characterization of the Weedon family, suffers from the extreme situation of poverty that Rowling chose to describe. It isn’t that the Weedon’s situation is not realistic– of course, stereotypes of poverty are informed by real brushes with it. The problem is that by representing social issues like poverty in extremes, we often cannot recognize the problem in any of its other forms.

The argument against extremes was first articulated to me through a feminist lens in a 1989 bell hooks article, “Violence in Intimate Relationships: A Feminist Perspective”. Hooks argues that while feminists have had to focus on extremes to bring an issue to the attention of the public, this same focus can be harmful when addressing more common forms of the problem. In the essay, hooks uses the term “battered women” to illustrate her argument. “Battered woman” not only defines a victim of intimate partner violence by their injuries, but implies repeated, visible, and ongoing physical abuse. When the term “battered woman” is translated into a representative figure in books, television, or film, we get the typical image of a battered wife– visibly bruised, emotionally shaken, and marked with a token black eye. This image erases many other forms of intimate partner violence that occur, most notably, emotional abuse that does not leave such visible scars.

The argument against extremes has been brought up in many feminist issues. In 2011, feminist activists convinced the FBI to change its definition of rape, which had not been updated since 1920. The FBI’s old definition included the phrase, “forcibly and against her will,” which (despite the obvious gender pronoun issues) placed pressure on rape survivors and law enforcement to prove whether the rape was “forcible”. The FBI definition was influenced by larger myths that we have about rape in society: that rape is usually committed by an evil stranger in a dark alley who physically injures their resisting victim. As feminists, we know these myths are wrong, but society continues to focus on “extreme” versions of the crime, which is represented and then echoed through our media and laws.

The same problem of extremes exists in society’s treatment of poverty. I am speaking from an American perspective, which of course differs from the exact issues of poverty that are prominent in Britain, specifically regarding issues of race. But here are just a handful of ways society creates a specific idea of what “poor” is supposed to look like:

Poor folks are regularly ridiculed for using food stamps to buy basically anything (soda, “junk food,” or treats for children). Poor people who buy new shoes must not really be poor. Poor people should stop having children, but we don’t want to pay for their contraception either. If you are not homeless, you are not really poor. If you buy fast food, you aren’t really poor. If you have money to celebrate birthdays/holidays/etc, then you’re not really poor. And so on. 

In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep this past September, Rowling touched on her own experience with poverty in Britain and how it informed her writing of The Casual Vacancy. Rowling said: “It’s not my story, but it does address themes, subjects that are very important to me”.  She may have been better off writing something closer to her story. Rowling is well-known for her period of poverty while she was writing the first Harry Potter book as a single mother. This time in Rowling’s life is almost mythical in the media, which likes to toss around stories about her writing the novel on napkins because she couldn’t afford paper. The media has also written that Rowling’s habit of writing in cafes was directly related to her poverty– she was escaping her unheated flat. Rowling has denied such myths, complicating the portait of her time of poverty. Those myths, along with many others, feed our desires for a romantic and extreme form of poverty. But the reality of Rowling’s situation did not fit our poverty narratives. She was a poor single mother from a middle-class family, educated at the University of Exeter, divorced after an unsuccessful marriage in Portugal, and unemployed and on welfare benefits so that she could finish writing a book about a boy wizard. Rowling’s life does not fit into stereotypical poverty narratives, but it is an image of poverty nonetheless.

The Casual Vacancy is very much a book about politics and class wars, so Rowling may have intentionally created the Weedon family as a stereotype for poverty in the UK. If this was the intention, I believe she failed. Rowling herself articulates the problem that I find with her book in this quote: “One of the great problems for me is that the poor … are so often discussed just as this large, shapeless mass. You lose your individuality a huge amount when you have no money, and I certainly had that experience…”¹ .

It is unfortunate that the extreme and stereotyped description of the Weedon family represented the poor as something Rowling wished to avoid: a large, shapeless mass of stereotypes.

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Can we please stop “What about rape and incest” -ing?

This election season, the issue of abortion in the case of rape seems to be the only thing that both parties might be able to agree on. I say might because, of course, there are plenty of Republican politicians who believe that women who become pregnant from rape should be forced to carry that pregnancy to term. But from my own involvement in the abortion and contraception debates on the internet and in the real world, the majority of folks are able to admit that even if the idea of abortion makes them uncomfortable, there should be certain allowances for abortion in cases of rape.

This tiny sliver of common ground feels like progress to some– but to me, the “there should be exceptions for rape and incest” rhetoric is very destructive to the future of the abortion debates and to my position as an activist. This position suggests that legally and morally, only certain people are “allowed” to have abortions. It divides women with unintended pregnancies into categories of moral “good” and “bad”. Not to mention (and pay attention, MRAs) that if being raped is the only way that a woman would have access to safe and legal abortion, false rape accusations would skyrocket. 

Especially within the pro-choice movement, using “What about a woman who has been raped?” as your primary argument for abortion access is ineffective at best, because it does not get to the heart of the issue. We cannot decide who is more deserving of an abortion. We cannot judge whether a woman’s reason for having an abortion is legitimate or not. We need to trust women.

I am fiercely pro-choice and do not mind calling myself pro-abortion either (a post on that for another day) but even I would like to see later-term abortions (when a fetus is closer to medical viability) be as rare as possible. This does not mean we should make them illegal, or only accesible to women who fit certain frameworks set by the government. This means we should encourage comprehensive sex education, safe sex and contraceptive use; make all forms of contraception accesible and free; and make abortion within the 1st trimester easily accesible and free. That will reduce late-term abortions. Making exceptions only for rape will not.

I’ve heard a lot of folks say they are pro-choice, spit out a “what about rape and incest” to make their point, and then degrade women who have abortions for “convenience.” This line of thinking is so destructive. What is your definition of convenience? Is it convenience if you don’t want to be a parent, took every precaution not to become one, but became part of that 0.1% of people whose birth control fails? Is it convenience if you are a single mother of an infant who knows she won’t be able to afford food and childcare for two children under three? Is it convenience for a fifteen year old who has only known abstinence-only sex education and was told by her boyfriend that she couldn’t get pregnant the first time?

These weak arguments against abortion only show that the anti-abortion movement is more interested in controlling people’s bodies and sexuality than they are in ending abortion.

 

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Hysteria: A Double Take

Editor’s Note: Sorry for the delays in posting this week. Today I am featuring an awesome guest post by Marissa. 

I wonder why it is rare in film to see women partaking in rebellious activities, rather than activities that are not rebellious whatsoever, but somehow claim to be. Hysteria, a newly released film directed by Tanya Wexler, examines the invention of the vibrator during Victorian England, and depicts female orgasms as the cure for the contrived illness of “hysteria”. Why is female sexual desire– especially the idea of a woman having an orgasm– still something that feels so taboo?  How is it that a film such as Hysteria can exist based solely on the shame surrounding the idea of a woman as a potentially sexual being, the comedic elements relying on shame-induced laughter? And lastly, why do we continue to tell the offensive and oversimplified story that all an uptight woman needs in order to feel liberated is sex?

Hysteria centers around Mortimer Granville (played by Hugh Dancy), a young and educated British fellow, who wants to innocently dedicate his life to helping others (and also make lots of money).  Granville is portrayed as a progressive/liberal character, because he believes in “modern medicine” and specifically the futuristic idea of germ theory. He favors all things modern and looks down on those he believes to be stuck in the past. The beginning of the film depicts him struggling to find someone who will bless his naïve eagerness and hire him. The only person who will give him a job is Dr. Robert Dalrymple (played by Jonathan Pryce), a “women’s doctor”. Dr. Dalrymple has two daughters, Charlotte (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Emily (played by Felicity Jones).  Charlotte is “feminist” because she is loud and reactive, while Emily is quiet, obedient and clearly missing out the exciting life that Charlotte the feminist leads.  Charlotte punches men in the face when she is angry, and Emily just doesn’t get angry.  Dr. Dalrymple treats hysteria by giving women orgasms via pitching a puppet-show-like tent around their waists. Then, while they’re lying down so they cannot see him, he rubs them off. This is all unbeknownst to the women, who are depicted as having no idea that they are even feeling sexually aroused, and furthermore may not even know that they are capable of these sensations.

A major reason that I wanted to explore this film was because I find it simultaneously troubling and fascinating how we all too often underestimate the psychological strength of medical labeling (for example when words such as “sick” or “crazy” are used to describe a person). Labels like these carry much weight, and can easily encourage the formation of intense, dominant/submissive relationships (between friends, family, doctors and patients, whoever). This film is shocking because it does not portray hysteria accurately, but attempts to make light of it.  It does not depict the pain and suffering that many women experienced during Victorian England. It does not do justice to what hysteria really was—a contrived medical diagnosis that gave men the power to oppress women, to strip them of their rights and to delegitimize the way that women felt. I argue that the film reflects how many of these misogynistic ideas have still managed to linger around. The female characters in the film are not complex individuals, and as a viewer, I wondered how they really felt about what was going on. Obviously, if we cannot acknowledge past suffering we cannot honestly move on.  The diagnosis of hysteria was never humorous, and fully worked to further sexism and the violence against female-identified bodies. Hysteria may aim to lovingly mock the past, but in reality, it winds up inadvertently displaying how little feminist and queer efforts have impacted the major film industry and society at large.  I realize that Hysteria was not meant to be a “serious” film, but the point is precisely that it is grappling with very serious topics. Although it may have intended to be a retrospective, tongue-in-cheek look at the invention of the vibrator, it fails to tell the whole story, which I also realize is generally difficult (if not impossible) to do.  The danger is that the film masks itself as feminist, telling a story pitched to female viewers, intending to give women more power by telling us to just laugh off the past. We absolutely cannot laugh off the past, especially when it comes to issues of inequality.

Hysteria uses similar logic to beauty magazines: a woman must suffer and sacrifice in order to be considered worthy. I would like to seriously question this: should we really always suffer for what we want, or even need? I’m not arguing against the concept of hard work, but I am arguing against the idea that abuse, self or culturally inflicted, is okay if there is a positive outcome. In Hysteria, Charlotte is financially dependant on her father (whom she despises), and in the end she is only satisfied when Granville gives her money so she can pursue her dream. However, in order to get Granville’s money, she had to go through hell. There are plenty of feminists who are not simply reactive—they are thoughtful, brilliant, and yes–often very angry, but for the most part (if they have the financial means to do so) rely on themselves and their support systems for their needs rather than the forces that oppress them. Why is it that there are not more movies made about women starting revolutions, loving each other, and achieving their goals without requiring the approval of men?

In Hysteria, a woman can quite literally only have an orgasm at the hands of a man (until the end when the portable vibrator is invented) and the film completely disregards women who might use their own hands to induce orgasms. Hysteria pities women who are not like Charlotte, who may actually be comfortable in their submissiveness (such as Emily). What about those women who fully embrace their positions of submission and subordination and might even enjoy it?  Are those women considered less worthy of respect? How does this film account for them, besides including a character that is a former female sex worker, and who is often the unfortunate subject of jokes?

The medical diagnosis of hysteria is not taken seriously within the film, and this creates a lack of acknowledgment that distorts the very real, very serious, and very legitimate feelings that women experienced (and still experience!). Consider the trouble that would occur if a comedic film were made depicting the logic of a group of oppressive people? It would not be funny at all! This film fails to show how women really felt (and feel), and furthermore, the ways in which patriarchy is still alive and kicking today, just in a slightly different form.

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Gender, Race, and the Wage Gap: Why Intersectionality Matters

We often talk about the wage gap solely in terms of gender. From the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to the argument over whether a wage gap exists at all, we are usually only talking about men vs. women. The wage disparities that many people face, however, have more to do with the intersection of gender and race. White women, the group of people who are most talked about and targeted in the discussions of the wage gap, actually make more money than everybody except white men. Black men make less than white women, and black women make less than black men. Hispanic men make less than black women. Finally, hispanic women are most disadvantaged by the wage gap, making only $0.60 to a white man’s dollar.

Before I continue on with this discussion, I’d like to address some of the confusion that arises when we talk about the wage gap. The wage gap exists and is affected both by race and gender. However, the statistics that are used in order to locate the wage gap vary enormously. Many people argue that choices, not racism or sexism, create the wage gap¹. They argue that men work more hours per week than women and that women tend to enter lower-paying career fields. These arguments have been debunked time and time again². No matter how many outside factors you control for, women make less money than men for doing the same work.

Women are not the only demographic affected  by the wage gap. Race weighs more heavily on wage disparities than gender. But the wage gap is still seen as merely a feminist issue. This is why feminism and other movements for equality need to look at this and many other issues with an intersectional lens. The wage gap affects working women, but it also affects men of color, single-parent families, and poverty levels. Media coverage of the wage gap needs to include these groups that are affected the most, not just focus on white women vs. white men. Feminism does not own the fight against the wage gap. This fight belongs to men and women of color, families in poverty, gay and transgender workers, as well as women everywhere.

For more information on the wage gap and intersectionality, see:

Infographic: The Gender Pay Gap– See What Inequity in Earnings Costs Women and Their Families Each Year and Over Their Lifetimes

Top 10 Facts About The Wage Gap 

Pay Equity and Single Mothers of Color: Eliminating Race-Based and Gender-Based Wage Gap Key to American Prosperity

The Gay and Transgender Wage Gap: Many Workers Receive Less Pay Due to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination

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