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Brooklyn College will host a panel on BDS on February 7. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)
I don’t know what I think about the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel. On the one hand, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its treatment of Gaza are clearly wrong. On the other hand, I don’t like to see citizens, who have little power, held to account for the doings of their governments, all of which are fairly reprehensible, including our own. Does a campaign to ban Israeli-made hummus from the Park Slope Food Coop really forward any cause except self-righteousness? I was even more turned off by incidents like the picketing of the Jerusalem Quartet in Toronto and London and the collapse of a projected anthology of writing by Middle Eastern women because the publisher, University of Texas Press, refused to accede to demands by some contributors that the two Israeli invitees be excluded.
Still, whatever one thinks of BDS, there is surely nothing wrong with Brooklyn College’s political science department hosting a panel about it consisting of two BDS supporters, philosopher Judith Butler and BDS organizer Omar Barghouti. Attacked by Alan Dershowitz and many others, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould has stood admirably firm in her defense of academic freedom, but now a wide array of New York politicians are up in arms. I was sorry to see that my own City Council representative Gale Brewer has signed a letter from Lew Fidler, assistant majority leader of the New York City Council, threatening to withhold funds to the College and to CUNY if it went on as scheduled.
Really, council members, you would impoverish these already threadbare city institutions because you disapprove of a panel? Haven’t we been here before, with Mayor Giuliani, who threatened to unleash hellfire on the Brooklyn Museum for showing a picture he felt disrespected the Virgin Mary?
Another letter, this one from local “progressive elected officials and leaders,” calls for the political science department to “withdraw its endorsement of this event rather than send the message to its students and to the world that the divisive perspective offered by the organizing groups is Brooklyn College’s official view. In addition, we ask that you remain vigilant in ensuring that events bearing the official imprimatur of the College provide adequate opportunity for diverse perspectives to be heard. We believe that this is the very hallmark of academic freedom.” It’s signed by a long list of Democrats, including members of Congress Jerrold Nadler, Nydia Velasquez, Yvette Clark and Hakeem Jeffries, as well as all four Dems considering a run for mayor: Christine Quinn, Bill de Blasio, John Liu and Bill Thompson.
Why do I think their position has more to do with election math than about their fears for the lofty mission of Brooklyn College?
Dear “progressive elected officials and leaders,” I have spoken on dozens of panels at assorted campuses round the land. Sometimes these were politically mixed events and sometimes all the speakers shared a common perspective. Sometimes it was even just me up there! What is wrong with that? Surely you don’t think the school should arrange for someone from the Eagle Forum to share the platform with me when I speak about feminism, or bring on a priest and a rabbi to put in a word for God when I speak about atheism? On every campus, dozens of panels and lectures take place every week, hosted by student groups, academic departments and programs, endowed lecture series and so on. If over the course of a year every side gets its turn, why isn’t that good enough? I’m busy on Thursday, as it happens, but I would like to hear what Butler and Barghouti have to say about BDS, just as I would like to hear what its opponents have to say. President Gould has issued a letter saying that in the next two months the college will host events featuring opposing views. That’s the right way to handle this controversy.
The wrong way is for politicians, progressive or not, to set themselves up as micro-managers of campus programming, backed up by threats of financial punishment to an institution that can ill afford the loss. Isn’t that a kind of mirror of BDS itself?
Brooklyn College President Karen Gould writes that her institution does not endorse the views of the BDS panel or any other speakers, but does "uphold their right to speak, and the rights of our students and faculty to attend, listen, and fully debate."
What should we call the position that the woman who is pregnant should decide whether she keeps the pregnancy or ends it? My column on Planned Parenthood’s semi-retirement of the word “pro-choice” got a lot of responses. Pro-rights, pro-woman, pro-freedom, pro-liberty, plus some thumbs-up for pro-choice—after all, we already know what it means.
Here’s a selection of e-mail responses and comments I received when I sent my column out to my usual list, but forgot to use bcc, sparking a lively discussion (and a few irate demands to be left in peace).
Lindsay Beyerstein, lead writer, Sidney Hillman Foundation
I’m a pragmatist. I think we need to use whatever rhetoric works best. If focus groups are telling us that “choice” isn’t working, then we’ve got to think of something else.
Rhetorically, “pro-choice” has a lot to recommend it, though. First off, “choice” is one syllable. Second, it’s part of a neat binary: “pro-choice” vs. “pro-life.” The media love a good binary.
It’s fashionable to pine for nuance in abortion discourse, but our movement should be happy that we’re easily identifiable in rhetorical space as the sworn enemies of the “pro-life” crowd. It saves a lot of explaining.
None of the various alternatives to “pro-choice” are as clear or informative or as easy to use as the existing term. For example, does the average person know that “reproductive justice” means pro-choice rather than pro-life? The pro-lifers are arguing for their own vision of reproductive justice, after all. “Reproductive rights” is a little clearer, but it’s an unwieldy noun that can’t easily be made into a punchy adjective, or a noun to describe someone who holds those views. “Repro rightser” doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “pro-choicer” and “pro-lifer” do.
Whatever the PR folks say, I’m always going to think of myself as “pro-choice” because it’s the most accurate term for my attitude towards abortion. I’m not pro-abortion, or anti-abortion. As long as every woman has access, I don’t care if the abortion rate goes up or down. (Except insofar as it declines because of a reduction in unintended pregnancy.)
Frances Kissling, scholar, writer, former director, Catholics for Choice
I think too much of the emphasis on what Planned Parenthood said has been placed on the word “pro-choice.” To an extent they made a mistake in leading with what they won’t do—use a certain word—and did not get enough traction on what they have learned and about the extent to which people are of two or five minds about abortion. There are many grays.
“Choice” abstracted from abortion is a very popular word. Think of school choice, or the ability to choose your own doctor. Those concepts imply deep commitments to what is best for our children and to the right to control our bodies in healthcare. It may well be that it is less popular on abortion because of the one-on-one trade-off against life—or because we have so pushed choice to the limit so that it is seen the only thing we value in a weighing of a decision about procreating.
Changing a word alone will do nothing. And if PP really wants to win over those who have mixed views or think abortion is mostly immoral, but support it, or just the pro-choice people who have been bored or unmotivated by the movement up to now, it will require a very changed way of talking about abortion. There are some good signs and some same-old about the rest of the PP presentation. It’s the first time a group has read polls and done focus groups where they have not immediately retreated from ambiguity and the fact that there is not majority support for abortion without limit or regulation. That shows a refreshing lack of defensiveness. There was an acknowledgement that for many people something very complex is going on, and the very layered way in which people think about the issue.
However, the personal decision, “no one can walk in an other’s shoes,” is too shallow and still too close to “leave women alone and just stay out of it.”
Helen Benedict, writer
“Personal decision”? How is that even a label? It’s not even an adjective. How about Leave Women the Fuck Alone? Or the old Get Your Government Off My Body? Too wordy I guess.
Wyndi Anderson, senior director of programs, Provide
Katha, I think you hit the nail on the head with this one line: “The trouble is, the stigma is not about the word but about the concept behind it, and eventually the negative connotations migrate to the new term.”
As someone who has worked with stigmatized folks who struggle to access services (people with addiction, mental illness, HIV etc.) I believe you are correct. We can change the language all we want, but when the person who needs access to abortion shows up for the medication or the procedure, they will face the stigma of the service and the decision and all the hurdles that come with it, no matter what frame we are using. I grew up in South Carolina, where there are lots of ways not to say “abortion” or “pro-choice”; there are all kinds of code words used. But the folks always knew exactly what we were talking about. We have to connect to and deal with the stigma of abortion if we are going to see change.
So we can change words and framing, which can be very powerful indeed and can have an impact on conversation. It is a start. But the real issue for me lies in the stigma related to the action/decision/choice. It is where the rubber hits the road with all the language we play with—does it, in fact, open up and maintain access?
I believe it is in our ability to connect with and talk about this issue with compassion, understanding and vision that will make the difference.
Peter Dreier, Occidental College
I say, whatever works.
If polling shows that there are lots of people (men and women) who support Roe v. Wade, but call themselves “pro-life,” it means that abortion opponents have done a good job of confusing people and branding themselves in a positive way. And, I admit, “pro-life” sounds positive and upbeat. But I do think that our side needs a slogan, a bumper sticker, to express what we are for. If “pro-choice” isn’t it, then what about “reproductive freedom”? Everyone likes “freedom,” right? I’m not sure what the right words are, but I don’t think we have to be wedded to “pro-choice,” just as we’ve moved from “Negro” to “black” to “African-American,” or from “homosexual” to “gay” to “gay and lesbian” to “LGBT,” and so on.
Few of the women or men in my college classes think of themselves as “feminists,” but almost all of them agree with pay equity, reproductive freedom and many other once-radical ideas of the feminist movement. Social Security was initially called “old age insurance” when Socialist Congressman Victor Berger first introduced it in 1911. Even after FDR proposed it as “Social Security,” many Americans considered it a “socialist” idea. But now even most conservatives believe that Social Security is sacrosanct, according to polls. Most NRA members say that support the Second Amendment, and oppose “gun control,” but pollster Frank Luntz found that most gun owners, and even most NRA members, favor tough background checks and other restrictive measures.
So, language matters, and it changes over time. If people support a women’s right to decide to have an abortion, but they don’t think of themselves as “pro-choice,” let’s find another way for them to say who they are and what they believe.
Daniel Zitin, book editor
“Choice” is a bankrupt and corrupt word now, precisely because of its use in such terms as “school choice,” which means “destroy public education,” health insurance plans of which you have a “choice” but all of the options bad and widespread other uses in various markets where you are offered “choices” that do not include what you really want or need but are merely intended to give you the illusion that you are nurturing your “individuality,” defined as the products you choose to buy. Even on its own terms, as a marketing tactic, the idea of choice is something most people are wising up to. I think today the best idea is to speak of “women’s rights,” to be for women’s rights, one of which is every woman’s right to control what happens to her body.
Fahima Vorgetts, Afghan Women’s Fund
I often had difficulty with the word “pro-choice” for the reason that the other side is using “pro-life,” which is very attractive and in a way put me on the spot. “Liberty of choice,” “freedom of choice,” “in control of my body,” “privacy” are high on my list.
Meredith Tax, US director, Centre for Secular Space
I never liked the term “pro-choice.” I prefer to talk about “reproductive rights,” because women have a right to bodily integrity, and also that enables one to bring in issues of healthcare, sexual choice and what kind of social support one actually needs to have children. The abortion rights movement went for “pro-choice” as a marketing strategy, but I don’t think it really helped us much. Evading the real issue seldom does. The real issue is and always has been female autonomy: do women have the right to decide when and if to have children, or has this issue already been decided for all time by God, destiny, tradition, the need to reproduce the nation or whatever other cause is invoked to keep women subordinate?
Further, I think we have to move away from sloganeering and find more complex ways to talk about reproductive rights. What we say does not always have to fit on a sign. But if it comes to signs, “Not the church, not the state, woman must decide her fate” still works for me.
Elizabeth Benedict, writer
Myself, I still like “choice,” but perhaps we could take the word “liberty” out of mothballs and promote “reproductive liberty.” It’s not used as often as freedom (no “liberty fries”) and has some nice historical echoes.
Phyllis Rosenzweig, poet
I hate to say this, but the “pro-life” people really win the best-name contest (although was it you who said they should really call themselves “pro-birth” since they don’t seem to care overly much about the life the person might have after it is born?). I have always been turned off by the label “pro-choice,” even if I approve the message. The label always sounded boring and somewhat stodgy to me, and an obvious attempt to play it safe and to try not to offend anyone. Isn’t the issue really one of being pro-abortion, the right to a legal and safe one, for any woman? Why not just say “pro-abortion” or perhaps, even better, “pro-abortion rights” when that is what “pro-choice” really, if secretly, means? It would still fit on a bumper sticker, but would using the A-word scare too many people away? I honestly don’t know. It is an issue of that creepy word—“branding”—and many people know more about how to manipulate that than I do. Perhaps thinking of it in terms of branding sounds like trivializing the issue, but we all do know the power of language. I would back whatever terminology PP decides is most effective.
David Abraham, University of Miami School of Law
Emphasizing “choice” was always playing with the master’s tools. “Choice” is market talk and equates the market with freedom. Like “choice,” the discourse of a “woman’s body is her own” is property talk and market talk. We live in a capitalist world where choice does seem to most folks the ultimate expression of their freedom. And given the significant libertarian streak in the American left, a more social discourse was, apparently, a less appealing prospect.
Robert Boyers, editor, Salmagundi
I have always liked “pro-choice” because I knew what the term referred to and didn’t regard it as at all problematic. But if it offends or alienates people who are otherwise sympathetic to the idea of women’s reproductive rights, then by all means let us drop the term. The term “women’s rights,” like the term “reproductive rights,” seems to me at least somewhat problematic, in that it raises questions about what is encompassed by a word like “rights,” which may seem to some people to refer only to rights officially accredited in law. For the moment I prefer the term “reproductive freedom,” which is specific and avoids at least some of the issues associated with the words “choice” and “rights.”
Barbara Winslow, Brooklyn College
“Choice” may or may not be corrupt or bankrupt for all the reasons you have given, but so is the word “feminism.” I have been teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies courses at various universities and colleges (and speaking at middle and high schools) for over forty years, and I get the same push back at the word “feminism”—it’s a word fraught with all sorts of class and race baggage. At the end of my class most students understand the complexities of the word “feminism” and write to me that they consider themselves feminists. As for the term “pro-choice,” the problems are obvious: class, race and gender determines choice. But historically “pro-choice”—at least for left feminists—has also meant no coercive sterilization, access to birth control, the right of women to bear children without state interference.
Judy Norsigian, executive director, Our Bodies, Ourselves
I have a similar experience to Barbara’s. Students enter these dialogues with different conceptions of all the various terms we use. It’s important to define how we use the terms we do, to explore our varying understandings of these terms and then see where we agree and disagree, as we examine position statements, policy proposals, etc. I usually explain why I use the term “anti-abortion” rather than “pro-life”—I don’t like to suggest that someone who supports a woman’s right to abortion has any less concern for human life than someone who is opposed to abortion. And obviously, there is a continuum here in terms of the circumstances under which one might support access to abortion. More recently, I have heard more students express negative judgments of peers who are “careless” and don’t, by clear choice, use contraception to prevent pregnancy; some students say that they don’t want public funds to be used for those who are “irresponsible.”
My impression is that there is more “victim-blaming” emerging in these conversations. We have witnessed a similar attitude amongst those who don’t want to cover medical expenses for implant removal as part of the ACA-created health exchanges, if the woman originally got the implant for cosmetic reasons (not reconstruction after BRCA surgery). It would be interesting for someone to do a study of how often this problem/attitude emerges for men, i.e., “he made his bed, now he should lie in it.”
Sophie Pollitt-Cohen, GORUCK Events [Editor’s Note: And, full disclosure, daughter of Katha Pollitt!]
Specifically with regards to the word “feminist,” I couldn’t agree more. By shying away from the word, you validate the stereotype. I could go on and on about that with the word and my click moment when I had to say no I am a feminist and I also love my hair and wearing enormous heels and “This is what a feminist looks like!” That being said, I also do think sometimes you achieve more by working with the system and picking your battle.
Susan Douglas, University of Michigan
I too have wrestled with what we do with the word “feminism.” Right wing pundits and so many media representations have marginalized and demonized feminists and feminism such that many women simply don’t want to take on a stereotype that has nothing to do with who they are. So maybe we should trade it in for something else. On the other hand, feminism has a long, profoundly important history, and if we dump the word we jettison that history and capitulate to those who seek to take our history, politics and language away from us. I do find that when I teach or give talks about the representation of women and feminism in the media, that young women (and yes, even some men) will come up to me afterwards and say “Well, I guess I am a feminist.”
Sara Murphy, NYU-Gallatin School of Individualized Study
Really interesting column, Katha. I think you hit on a central dimension of this language shift, but I might twist it a little differently. You point, quite rightly, to the way any piece of language can mutate and become stigmatized, no matter how what its origins or the intentions that accompanied its introduction. But it strikes me that what Planned Parenthood is really fleeing here is the conquest of the rhetorical field around abortion by the right: the real problem, in other words, is not “pro-choice” but “pro-life.” After all, who is anti-life? The anti-abortion forces knew their business when they chose that language.
So I wonder what is going on when we see survey results that evince a discomfort with the term “pro-choice.” Is it that it has been so resolutely opposed to “pro-life,” which seems to represent a position that no one could possibly contest unless they were, in fact, part of some kind of “culture of death?” For some sectors of the population, has “pro-choice” been successfully recoded as thanatophilia? People in their twenties have really grown up with this opposition shaping the discursive field around abortion, implicitly and explicitly, after all.
And then there is perhaps a deeper set of questions that have their roots in the Roe decision itself: as so many people have pointed out over time, arguing the case around privacy has in the end proved problematic, since it did in essence posit abortion as a personal choice, as something engaged in a hypothetical isolated individualist space, a space that in so far as it exists is one of extreme privilege: if a wealthy woman wants an abortion, by and large, she has the “choice” to make her “private decision.” Since most of the rampant undermining of Roe affects poor and young women most deeply, one might say that this is really the revenge of the terms on which the decision was made back in ‘73. But what it also shows, I think, is how constricted our language and conceptual horizons are with regard to women’s political and personal status.
Don’t miss Katha’s initial column on Planned Parenthood’s move past the label “pro-choice.”
Remember when Joe Walsh, the Republican congressman from Illinois, claimed a ban on abortion needs no exception to save the life of the woman? “With modern science and technology, you can’t find one instance,” he said, in which a woman’s life could have been saved by abortion. Well, how about this instance: In Ireland, where abortion is strictly forbidden, doctors allowed 32-year-old Savita Halapannavar to die of septicemia after days of horrendous suffering, because her 17-week-old fetus, which she was in the process of miscarrying, still had a heartbeat. Never mind that there was no way this fetus could have survived. Never mind that technically, Ireland’s abortion ban permits an exception when there is a “real and substantial risk to the life of the mother.” The doctors let Savita die, as she and her husband pleaded for them to end the pregnancy. “This is a Catholic country,” one doctor explained. The always cogent and knowledgeable Jodi Jacobson explains it all here and here.
If you think it couldn’t happen in the United States, you haven’t been paying attention. After all, in 2010, Sister Margaret McBride, an administrator in a Catholic Hospital in Phoenix, was fired and excommunicated after she approved a first-trimester abortion for a woman with life-threatening pulmonary hypertension. What happens in Catholic hospitals when there’s no Sister Margaret willing to risk the bishops’ wrath? With conscience clauses expanding to cover not just individual doctors but whole hospitals, a pregnant woman may find her care is being dictated not by standard health protocols but by a religion she doesn’t even follow. Savita was a Hindu, after all. What about her conscience?
Who is more valuable, a living woman or a dying fetus? The Catholic Church has given its answer, and Savita Halapannavar is dead. If this was Islam, we’d never hear the end of it.
Follow developments, including notifications about protests and demonstrations, at #savita.
Help Irish women now: Every year thousands of Irish women travel to the UK for abortion care. Between travel, accommodations, lost wages and childcare, the expense can be prohibitive. The Abortion Support Network offers help with funding, information, and a place to stay. Honor Savita’s memory by donating what you can.
Savita's death sends a strong message to women: "You are nothing." Check out Jessica Valenti's take here.
To get all the latest stories from The Nation's feminist writers like Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, Melissa Harris-Perry and others delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our weekly Feminist Roundup email.
Wanting to do something to help in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I went down to Gotham Hall in midtown Manhattan on Friday and, along with a motley crowd of other New Yorkers, donated blood. (I had never done this before, due to a phobia I apparently shared with lots of people, including, it turns out, several of my friends. Did you know only 2 percent of the population has ever donated blood? If you belong to the other 98 percent, I can testify that it’s not painful or scary, everyone there will be very nice to you, and afterwards you will feel brave and useful. You may even get a reward. This particular drive happened to be cosponsored by the Yankees, and I was given a voucher for two tickets to a Yankees game. In my case this was like giving a cat a box of chocolates, but still).
Guess who else was there giving blood? Mayor Bloomberg! Afterwards, he joined the table where I was sitting having juice and cookies with an actor, a police auxiliary, a student and a young woman who works for Common Ground, a group which houses homeless people. The mayor had only one cookie, I noticed, which he broke into pieces first. (This is how high-profile politicians maintain their iconic appearance. Have you noticed that, unlike regular people, they actually look just like their photographs? Not taking that second cookie is part of how they do that.) Despite everything the city is currently going through, the mayor was in an affable mood. I ended up chatting with him, and he said some interesting things.
On the cancellation of the marathon: No, it cannot be rescheduled, and calling it off was really too bad because “it would have brought in a lot of money—a lot of money.” Why the cancelation? “A few people were going to go after the sponsors.” I asked him who the “few people” were, but he just repeated what he’d said.
On Sandy: Electricity coming back in lower Manhattan by tonight or tomorrow! Subways getting back to normal. (Both predictions were accurate. Still, I thought it was notable that he put such a calm and low-key spin on what so many New Yorkers see as a huge ongoing humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands without food or safe housing).
On NYC politics: “New York is a one-party state. The same thing is true in New York City.” Only a Democrat can win the mayoralty. True, Bloomberg himself won as a Republican but “I spent my own money, which no one else has. And even then it was tough!”
On his Obama endorsement: He endorsed Obama “not because I’m thrilled with him, but to me, choice, gay rights, the environment are the real issues, more important than economics. I spoke to him last night, and I told him, ‘Don’t make any mistake, my criticism of your economic policies still stands.’”
On the election: It’s very close. “I would bet twenty-five cents that Obama would win. I wouldn’t bet fifty.” (The mayor is clearly not getting his gambling tips from Nate Silver, who has had Obama as the favorite since June, and currently gives him four chances in five of victory.) He thinks Hurricane Sandy benefited the president, because he was on TV all the time—and for free! He said he thinks Obama will win the Electoral College, but not the popular vote. He pooh-poohed the possibility that such a split would lead to a 2000-like crisis. Anyway, that’s the Constitution, and you certainly wouldn’t want to call a constitutional convention to change it, because “all your freedoms could be blown.”
On the NYC Board of Elections: Those people are completely incompetent! They “disenfranchise thousands of people.”
What’s next for the mayor: He’ll spend his time “working on influencing the things I care about—guns, choice, gay rights.” Not NYC politics. Ex-mayors don’t get involved in the next administration, he noted, which is something he appreciates about Rudy Giuliani, who he thought was a very good mayor (and a Republican, see above, but never mind).
Looking on the bright side: Staten Island and the Rockaways are in ruins, but the city is on track to have the lowest murder rate ever. This year it should be only around 400. Basically, you’re safe “except for drug dealers and domestic violence.” I dunno, something a little off there.
On The Nation: He asked how subscriptions were holding up, and although I actually have no idea, I told him we were doing fine, especially with our fine expanded website that has brought us so many new readers. If Romney won, I said, our subscriptions would go through the roof, but even so, we didn’t support him, which was very self-sacrificing of us. He laughed. I think sincerely.
You can watch part of my chat with Mayor Bloomberg in this video shot by CUNY Graduate School of Journalism student and multimedia journalist Matt Surrusco.
And here is old-school British comedian Tony Hancock in his hilarious 1961 sketch “the Blood Donor”:
For more on Bloomberg's Obama endorsement, check out John Nichols on the New York City mayor's climate concerns.
Do we really need a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times to tell us that a woman with a college degree and a good solid marriage is better off than a college dropout raising three kids alone? In “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’,” Jason DeParle profiled Jessica Schairer and Chris Faulkner, two white women from conventional church-going Midwestern middle-class families whose life trajectory looked much the same when they graduated high school and set out for college. Jessica, though, got pregnant by her freshman-year boyfriend and was persuaded by him to drop out and start a family. Now she’s raising their children in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by herself, on one income (just under $25,000 for a full time job as assistant director of a daycare center) and food stamps.
Meanwhile, Chris, her boss at the daycare center, did everything “by the book” and in the right order: college, marriage, kids. Now Chris has a combined household income of $95,000 a year, with plenty of money to spend on her sons’ sports and extracurricular activities, to say nothing of a loving, involved dad to share the parenting, while Jessica is exhausted, lonely, and can barely afford generic breakfast cereal, let alone Boy Scout Camp for her troubled son. Yes, yes, is the takeaway: inequality is increasing and good jobs are hard to find, but “what most separates” the two women “is not the impact of globalization on their wages but a 6-foot-8-inch man named Kevin.”
Well, if only we could clone Kevin—or maybe put great big Good Guy and Bad Guy signs on young men so that naïve college girls could tell which slacker boys are exploitive louts and which ones just need a nudge to become prime husband material. (Kevin went through a layabout stage but reformed because he wanted to marry Chris. “Marriage, in other words, can help make men marriageable.”) DeParle seems to think getting married transforms people, and maybe sometimes it does—but the lightbulb has to want to change. If marriage turned men into Kevins, there wouldn’t be so much divorce. Let’s say Jessica had gotten her boyfriend to marry her as they originally discussed—and she stayed with him for seven years and three kids, so she clearly tried to make it happen (“I wanted him to love me,” she says—what a world of sadness in those words!)—he would still have been a nogoodnik who rarely worked, lived off Jessica and his mother, and had little to do with the kids even when they all lived together. She would be long divorced by now. Her only other serious boyfriend, whom she dated for a year before letting him move in to her kids’ great delight, had to be removed after six months by the police. I don’t mean to be discouraging here, but maybe there was never going to be a Kevin for Jessica. Maybe there aren’t enough Kevins to go around, because of a whole range of developments over several decades, from the decline of good union jobs to our penchant for putting staggering numbers of men in prison.
DeParle mentions positively Charles Murray’s contention that single motherhood is a “values” issue, not an economic one. Murray means working-class and lower-middle-class white people have abandoned traditional family values (they’re becoming like—oh no!—black people) but you can just as well see Jessica as having too many of those values: she rejected abortion, she stuck by her man, she tried too hard to make a family. If we really want women like Jessica to avoid early childbearing and single motherhood, we have to stop promoting outmoded ideas about sex and gender: abstinence-only sex ed, shame that leads to inconsistent use of birth control, stigmatizing abortion, woman’s worth depending on keeping a man, “fixing” the relationship as woman’s responsibility, motherhood as women’s primary purpose in life. “I’m in this position because of decisions I made,” Jessica says. That’s a very American value right there: if you screw up in your early 20s, you—and your children—are on your own for life.
What would we do if we wanted to help Jessica and her kids, the millions like them, and the millions at risk of becoming them? I was struck by how completely she was thrown back on her own resources: she went to William Penn University, which costs $20,000 a year and has a freshman retention rate of only 55 percent—maybe she and her boyfriend fell through cracks that shouldn’t have been there. She gets no child support, not even a token amount—which is really outrageous, because even if her kids’ father makes very little, I’ll bet he has beer and cigarettes and girlfriends. She has church, but seemingly no help from her parents, and no helpful network of friends.
Her son has Asperger’s—where are the programs for him? Kids’ extracurriculars and camps cost too much for her, although we know they help learning and development—why aren’t they free? If she leaves her too-expensive neighborhood, her kids will be in a worse school—why? Believe it or not, most Western industrialized countries do a far better job than we do of giving kids a decent childhood and of sustaining their mother too. It does not have to be that if you can’t afford to live in the right neighborhood, your children get a bad education. That is a social and political decision that we have made.
And then there is Jessica’s job. Although she earned a degree from community college and is a highly regarded employee, she is still on an hourly wage of only $12.35. She punches in and out, and she gets no paid days off—even when she was recovering from an operation for cervical cancer. When she took a day off to chaperon a school field day, she lost a day’s pay. Message to Anne-Marie Slaughter: this is how we treat “family balance” in the regular world of work, and this is how we treat skilled, experienced management-level employees in the childcare field. Taking care of children is women’s work, after all, and women are supposed to have Kevins, not family-size paychecks. Why does it seem like a reasonable policy suggestion to tell Jessica she needs a husband, and pie in the sky to say she needs a union? Or a national day care system like the one in France, where teachers are well-paid, with benefits?
Jessica Schairer is doing the best she can. In fact, she is pretty heroic. It’s the rest of us that are falling short.
Nora Ephron poses for a photo at her home in New York, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
Nora Ephron died on Tuesday. It sounds silly to say so, but I had no idea she was anything like 71 (not old, as she told Charlie Rose—old is 80. But still). She wrote two bestselling books about aging, but to me she was ageless—a brilliant, elegant, hilarious woman at the top of her creative powers since forever—since before I used to proofread her Esquire column, back in the early ’70s, which was definitely the high point of that job.
As a writer and a filmmaker, she was charming, acerbic, shrewd and hilarious. She was honest about things women often keep quiet about. She wrote about having small breasts and wishing she didn’t. She gave the last word on fake orgasms in the immortal scene of Meg Ryan in the deli in When Harry Met Sally. In a triumphant example of making literary lemonade out of a big fat extra-bitter lemon, she wrote Heartburn, a deliciously vengeful roman à clef about the breakup of her marriage to Carl Bernstein (the husband “was capable of having sex with a Venetian blind” and left the heroine for a woman who looked “like a giraffe, with big feet”), sprinkled it with recipes (she might have been the first writer to do this) and saw herself played in the movies by Meryl Streep. In the New York Times, where her obit was front-page news, you can see a photo of the real-life pain that produced the barbed wit: Nora at a party at Tavern on the Green, looking sad and pensive, as behind her Carl lifts a wineglass while an unidentified woman perches on his lap.
Nora Ephron wrote about her own life and women’s lives in a way that was passionate and brave and also very, very funny. Her success, indeed her very existence disproved so many canards—women not funny? Movies about women can’t succeed? Rom-coms must humiliate the female lead? I love it that Julie and Julia used cooking as a way to talk about finding one’s passion for meaningful work, for mastery and challenge and expertise. When is that quest for the work one is meant to do in the world presented as something for women? When is the accommodating spouse the man? When do we see the work and life of one woman nourishing the work and life of another, as Julia Child inspires the young blogger Julie Powell? Some criticize Ephron’s movies as fantasies for the comfy classes, but there was more to them that that: they were clever, urbane, worldly-wise and put women at the center—which in today’s Hollywood is practically a revolutionary act. And what’s wrong, anyway, with the fantasy of running a sweet independent bookstore like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail? That happens to be my own personal daydream. Besides, movies are all about fantasies, and when the fantasy is in men’s heads (I am a pudgy layabout, but beautiful women adore me! Ooh look, it’s Batman!), that’s supposed to be what America is all about. As Ephron pithily said, for the men who run Hollywood, “A movie about a woman’s cure for cancer is less interesting than a movie about a man with a hangnail.”
Nora wrote that as a girl she wanted to be the only woman at the table of wits, like Dorothy Parker, but she was no queen bee: her life was full of women friends and colleagues. “Nora was as interested in other people as she was herself interesting,” the novelist Meg Wolitzer wrote me in an e-mail. “She was a real force in the world, and a great friend.” Still, professionally she was a feminist in a man’s world—two men’s worlds, actually, journalism and Hollywood. Maybe that was what produced her way of getting right to the point: neither world has a big attention span for ladybiz. In a roundup of responses to the question “Who Gets to Be a Feminist?” that kicked off Slate’s DoubleX blog, she wrote, “I know that I'm supposed to write 500 words on this subject, but it seems much simpler: You can't call yourself a feminist if you don't believe in the right to abortion.” Bada-bing! (How prolix my own answer, by comparison.) In a 1996 speech she told the graduates of her own alma mater, Wellesley, to be “not the victim of your life but the heroine.”
In every way, Nora Ephron was the heroine of her life. That’s feminism.
Disturbing news comes from Ned Stuckey-French, an old friend who directs the program in publishing and editing at Florida State University: on May 24, new University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe announced he was shutting down the University's press and laying off its staff of ten. As Ned notes, the press, perhaps best known for publishing the collected works of Langston Hughes, cost the university $400,000 a year. The head football coach's salary? $2.7 million. Because you can always find the money for the things you really want.
Ned's book The American Essay in the American Century was published by the University of Missouri Press last year. Here's his take:
Wolfe, a former software company president with no experience in academics, was named president last December. He has acknowledged that he made his decision without visiting the press, talking to its employees, consulting with faculty, or looking for any new donors to help support it. Authors with books on the spring 2013 list have been told their contracts are being cancelled, never mind that this may include the tenure books of junior faculty, thereby derailing their careers.
In one interview, Wolfe compared the situation to an independent store going bankrupt and a Walmart moving in. The same products are sold, he explained, but Walmart has a better business model.
The press, which was founded 54 years ago, has published about 2,000 titles for both scholars and the general reader, everything from a biography of St. Louis Cardinals’s Hall of Famer Stan Musial to the Collected Works of Langston Hughes. It has also published the letters and autobiography of favorite son Harry Truman, and now Missourians and others have decided to “give ’em hell.”
Authors, teachers, librarians, Missouri alums, and readers from across the state of Missouri and the country have voiced their outrage. In the short time since Wolfe’s announcement, a “Save the University of Missouri Press” Facebook page has attracted over 1700 followers and over 2500 people have signed an online petition in support of the press. Articles about the massive reaction to the closing have appeared already in Chronicle of Higher Education, Publishers Weekly, Inside Higher Ed, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star and the Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune.
Scores of supporters have shared the letters they’ve written to Wolfe and the University’s Board of Curators. The authors make it clear that when they are supporting the press they are supporting not just Missouri books and authors, but also debate, scholarship, and the preservation of a broader cultural past.
Letters of support have come in from scholars as far afield as Louisiana and Belgium praising the press’s publication of the collected work of German philosopher Eric Voegelin. Distinguished Mark Twain scholars Tom Quirk and John Bird wrote to bemoan the damage that the closing of the press’s Mark Twain and His Circle series will do to Twain scholarship. All ten of the editors of the Collected Works of Langston Hughes issued a statement explaining that such work “contributes to the larger, ongoing project among scholars of African American literature to recover texts by black American writers that have been historically marginalized from the American literary canon. This large-scale process of textual recovery and publication, begun on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement when students and scholars were advocating for representation of African American literature, history, and culture in American universities, is truly one of academe’s most important success stories. Without the work of scholars engaged in this project, African American literary studies in the academy simply would not exist.”
Many critics have questioned the priorities of a university that shuts down its press to save (according to the University’s press release) a $400,000 annual subsidy, while paying its head football coach $2.7 million each year. They point out that Missouri will now be the only university in the Southeastern Conference (its athletic conference) that does not have a university press.
President Wolfe’s spokesperson, Jennifer Hollingshead, said that comparing the press’s subsidy to the football coach’s salary makes no sense.
It’s like “comparing apples and bowling balls,” she said.
Of course, you can compare any two things—a university press and Walmart, for instance. And apples, we know, are natural, various, and the source of humanity’s knowledge, while bowling balls are uniform, unyielding and used to knock things over.
Bei Bei Shuai. (AP Photo/Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department)
Bad news came from Indiana on May 11. The state Supreme Court has refused to review charges of attempted feticide and murder against Bei Bei Shuai. Just before Christmas 2010, Shuai, who was thirty-three weeks pregnant, attempted to kill herself by consuming rat poison after her boyfriend, father of the baby, abruptly announced he was married and abandoned her to return to his family. Rushed to the hospital, she had a Caesarean section, but her newborn daughter died after a few days of life. (Here’s my column on the case.) Despite amicus briefs from eighty respected experts and relevant medical and social organizations—the state of Indiana, for reasons best known to itself, will do its best to send Shuai to prison. Potential sentence: forty-five to sixty-five years. The only good news is that after spending 435 days in jail, Shuai is now out on bail.
The message to women is clear: you are criminally liable to the state for your conduct during pregnancy, even if you are mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, or whatever you want to call the extreme psychological state in which people try to kill themselves after receiving a terrible life-upending blow. Isn’t that what the coroner used to say: someone took his own life “while the balance of his mind was disturbed”? Suicide by pregnant women is not rare; it is, in fact, the fifth leading cause of death for them.
To call what Shuai did murder seems to overlook the fact that she was trying to kill herself. But this prosecution is unfortunately in line with a national trend of criminalizing the behavior of pregnant women whether through drug use, self-abortion—even, as in one case, falling down the stairs.
The state law under which Shuai is charged was passed in 1979, as part of a post-Roe wave of “unborn victims of violence” laws that made the fetus a separate victim in crimes against pregnant women that caused her to miscarry or die—for example, attacks by muggers or abusive partners. Pushed by abortion opponents as part of their strategy of building up the legal “personhood” of the fetus, it nonetheless seemed like a good idea to a lot of well-meaning people: shouldn’t there be some acknowledgment that assaulting a woman and causing her to miscarry was a special kind of awful? According to Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which has taken on Shuai’s case, the legislative record clearly shows that lawmakers did not intend for the Indiana law to target pregnant women themselves. But that is what is happening.
Abortion opponents insist that nothing could be farther from their minds.
As Father Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, put it: “The pro-life movement is not out to punish women. Our goal, instead, is to stop child-killing. What would throwing women in jail do to accomplish that goal?”
Will the abortion opponents who claim to want only to protect women speak up for Bei Bei Shuai?
What you can do:
Sign the petition to Free Bei Bei Shuai.
Donate to National Advocates for Pregnant Women and help fund Shuai’s defense.
Watch a video of Bei Bei Shuai speaking about her case here.
Read my column about Bei Bei Shuai.
Earlier this spring, Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” for arguing that contraception should be covered by health insurance. This week, Larry Flynt PhotoShopped a picture of conservative pundit S.E. Cupp to look like she had a penis in her mouth and published it in Hustler as “satire’—Cupp wants to defund Planned Parenthood, you see. No? I didn’t either. This degrading image has nothing to do with political satire and everything to do with wanting to put an outspoken woman in her place—on her knees with a dick in her mouth to shut her up. It’s a pornographic version of “Iron my shirt” and “Make me a sammich.”
Hustler may not be a beacon of the liberal media, as conservatives are gleefully claiming—but it’s all too maddeningly true that misogyny can be found all over the political spectrum, and needs to be denounced, by both men and women, wherever it appears. When it comes to women exercising their right to participate in public debate, we are all Sandra Fluke, and we are all S.E. Cupp as well.
What you can do:
Sign The Women’s Media Center statement of solidarity with Cupp, e-mail it to your friends, and post it on your Facebook page.
Tweet your support at #IStandWithSECupp.
Let the media—left, right, center—know that the crude sexualization of women who voice their opinions in public is not “satire.” It’s misogyny.
If you had any doubt that Republicans have an even bigger anti-woman agenda than their love of compulsory vaginal probes might suggest, consider Wisconsin’s Senate Bill 507.
Co-sponsored by two GOP state legislators, Senator Glenn Grothman and Representative Don Pridemore, it directs the state to prepare educational materials that blame “nonmarital parenthood” for child abuse and neglect and “emphasize the role of fathers in the primary prevention” of same. Don’t be fooled by that gender-neutral abstraction “parenthood.” This bill is clearly aimed at shaming and blaming single mothers. “Fathers” after all prevent harm to children, so logically the only parents left to cause it are... yes, those unmentionable women who have the babies without a wedding ring to show for it. You might think that even in Wisconsin it takes two to tango down the aisle, but not according to Senator Grothman, who says, "There's been a huge change over the last 30 years, and a lot of that change has been the choice of the women."
Maybe, but a lot of it isn’t. It’s not as if men are eager for shotgun weddings either.
Pridemore goes farther. Women lucky enough to have landed a husband should stay with them, even if those men are violent. What should battered wives do? Love their husbands more! "If they can re-find those reasons and get back to why they got married in the first place it might help,” Pridemore advises. Because nothing says “prevention of child abuse and neglect” like wife beating.
The best response I’ve seen to Pridemore’s marital counsel is this modest proposal, which was forwarded to a feminist list:
From: Caroline H.
Sent: Fri 3/23/2012 11:40 AM
To: Rep. Pridemore
Subject: In response to your comment about divorce in case of abuse
Mr. Pridemore -
I would like to make a deal with you. I propose we live together (I'll even relocate to Wisconsin!) for a year in an abusive relationship. I'll beat the shit out of you on a regular basis, verbally assault you, make you live in extreme fear, break down any shred of self-worth you might have, all that good stuff. After 12 months, we can both reevaluate our positions on the issue.
Granted, you don't know me well enough to "love me," thus giving you happy thoughts to call on when I'm beating you violently, but let's see what we can work out. What do you say? :)