Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.
Abortion rights activists hold up signs as anti-abortion demonstrators march towards the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, January 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
According to The New York Times, GOP leaders—all men—are strategizing on how to push through a Senate bill that would ban abortions after twenty weeks. Senator Marco Rubio is quoted as saying, “Irrespective of how people may feel about the issue, we’re talking about five months into a pregnancy. People certainly feel there should be significant restrictions on that.”
Well, count me as one of the many people who don’t. Before I had my daughter, anti-choicers frequently told me that once I became pregnant—once I saw an ultrasound or felt a kick—I would be against abortion. But being pregnant and becoming a parent only made me more pro-choice.
I’ve written about my fraught pregnancy elsewhere—about how I got sick and nearly died when I was twenty-eight weeks pregnant, and the subsequent struggle with my daughter’s health and my own well-being. Despite all that, I was lucky—I am fine, my daughter is fine. But if I had gotten ill a few weeks earlier, I could have been faced with ending my pregnancy to save my life. It would have been an awful, but clear, choice.
I cannot imagine being in a hospital room—devastated, frightened and confused from medication—and being told that I had to jump through legal hoops in order to get the care I needed. If you think this would be a clear-cut case—I was fatally ill—you’re wrong. At what point is a woman sick enough to qualify for one of the “exceptions” Republicans so valiantly include? Would I have needed to have eclamptic seizures first? Waited until my liver completely failed and gotten a transplant? Women have already died in this country because of laws that trump fetuses’ rights over women’s personhood—it could happen again easily.
My story is hardly unique. Women get ill, fetuses are unviable or too sick to continue with a pregnancy. And yes, some women need abortions past the twentieth week for reasons that have nothing to do with health circumstances. We live in a country that makes procuring reproductive care as difficult as possible: we give young people inaccurate and dangerous information about sex via ideologically driven abstinence-only education; 87 percent of counties in the US have no abortion provider; we deny financial assistance to the most in need and put up obstacles for younger women; one-third of women seeking abortions have to travel more than twenty-five miles to obtain one, and crisis pregnancy centers routinely lie to women about far into their pregnancy they are. Not to mention that we provide nothing in the way of support to parents—no mandated paid parental leave, no universal preschool or subsidized child care.
The Republican war on reproductive justice is directly responsible for women’s seeking later abortions. It’s easier for anti-choicers to perpetuate a myth of callous women who cavalierly decide to end their twenty-two-week pregnancy than to admit that their cruel and punitive policies are why women don’t get the care they need earlier.
The Republican leadership may see polls on what Americans think of later abortion and think they have a winning issue here. But they’d be wrong. The GOP is so out-of-touch with what pregnancy actually looks like—how complex and nuanced women’s lives really are—that they don’t see the stories behind the numbers. They’re going to make the same miscalculation they did last year by underestimating women and the way their experiences shape their vote. Our reproductive stories are not black and white, and they’re certainly not something that can be mandated or restricted by policy. Not at two weeks, not at twenty weeks, not ever.
Wondering how feminists can make their voices heard? Listen to Jessica Valenti’s response in her newest #AskJessica video.
George Zimmerman waits for the resumption of his second-degree murder trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Florida, July 1, 2013. (REUTERS/Joe Burbank)
My first week of college, I had a heated debate about abortion with two new friends—both were white, and one, Nancy, was extremely pro-life. I was feeling pretty proud of myself for having such an “adult” conversation—we disagreed, but everyone was being respectful. Then my other pro-choice friend asked Nancy what she would do with a pregnancy if she was raped. I will never forget what Nancy said: “I think it would be cute to have a little black baby.” When we expressed outrage at her racism, Nancy shrugged. It never occurred to her a rapist would be anyone other than a black man. (DOJ statistics show that 80 to 90 percent of women who are raped are attacked by someone of their own race, unless they are Native women.) When this young woman imagined a criminal in her mind, he wasn’t a faceless bogeyman.
I hadn’t thought of this exchange in years, not until I was reading the responses to George Zimmerman’s acquittal—particularly those about the role of white womanhood. When I first heard that the jurors were women, I naïvely hoped they would see this teenage boy shot dead in the street and think of their children. But they weren’t just any women; most were white women. Women who, like me, have been taught to fear men of color. And who—as a feminist named Valerie pointed out on Twitter—probably would see Zimmerman as their son sooner than they would Trayvon Martin.
Brittney Cooper at Salon expressed the same sentiment: “I am convinced that at a strictly human level, this case came down to whether those white women could actually see Trayvon Martin as somebody’s child, or whether they saw him according to the dictates of black male criminality.”
And indeed, Anderson Cooper’s interview with juror B37 sheds light on who was considered deserving of empathy and humanization. Hint: it wasn’t Trayvon Martin. As Igor Volsky of Think Progress pointed out, “B37” used Zimmerman’s first name in the interview frequently and twice used the phrase “George said” even though Zimmerman didn’t testify. She also indicated that she wasn’t moved by Rachel Jeantel’s testimony because of her “communication skills” and that “she was using phrases I had never heard before.”
Perhaps most tellingly, though, “B37” told Cooper that Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place, but just got displaced by the vandalism in the neighborhoods and wanting to catch these people so badly that he went above and beyond what he really should have done.” (The phrase “above and beyond” is interesting, given it’s generally understood as a positive.) To her, Zimmerman was a protector. Sure, maybe he went a bit overboard but “Trayvon got mad and attacked him,” and Zimmerman “had a right to defend himself.”
This juror’s comments cannot be divorced from our culture’s long-standing criminalizing of young black men, and white women’s related fears. As Mychal Denzel Smith pointed out here at The Nation and on MSNBC’s Up With Steve Kornacki, defense attorneys stoked this fear deliberately and broadly.
To my disgust, O’Mara literally invoked the same justification for killing Trayvon as was used to justify lynchings. He called to the witness stand Olivia Bertalan, one of Zimmerman’s former neighbors, who told the story of her home being burglarized by two young African-American boys while she and her children feared for their lives. It was terrifying indeed, and it had absolutely no connection to the case at hand. But O’Mara presented the jury with the “perfect victim,” which Trayvon could never be: a white woman living in fear of black criminals. Zimmerman had offered to help her the night her home was robbed. Implicit in the defense’s closing argument: he was also protecting her the night he killed Trayvon Martin.
They carefully made Martin—the victim—into that not-so-faceless bogeyman. Now, I don’t know what was in the jurors’ hearts—but the story the defense told and that juror B37 parroted is not a new one. It’s a story that ends with fear trumping empathy and humanity. (A fear that even now is being grossly defended as justified.)
Yes, white women—all of us—are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism.
I’d like to think if I was on that jury I would look at pictures of Trayvon Martin and see him for the child he was. I hope I would.
In the days since George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges, people in cities across the country have come together to express their outrage and disappointment.
For this week’s video I wanted to answer a question I’ve gotten a lot over the years, and it goes something like this: Do you ever try to talk to your brother, your father, or someone in your life about feminism, but you get the sneaking suspicion (or the clear-as-day realization) that they just don’t get it?
You can ask me a question on Twitter using the hashtag #AskJessica. If you’re not on Twitter, hit me up on my Facebook page. I’ll answer one question a week by video—so if there’s anything you’ve ever wanted to ask me, now is the time!
And don’t forget to check out last week’s #AskJessica video, “How Do I Deal With Street Harassment?”
I’m super excited about the launch of our new video series, #AskJessica. Here’s the first, on street harassment. You can ask me a question on Twitter using the hashtag #AskJessica. If you’re not on Twitter, hit me up on my Facebook page. I’ll answer one question a week by video—so if there’s anything you’ve ever wanted to ask me, now is the time!
Sick of always taking the high road when it comes to dealing with misogynists? So is Jessica.
President Obama meets with National Security staff in the Oval Office. President Obama will name Avril Haines (second on the right), a White House legal adviser, as deputy director of the CIA. (Reuters/Pete Souza/The White House)
There comes a point in most women’s lives when you realize that you’re perceived as public property. Maybe it’s the first time you’re catcalled, or maybe it’s when a teacher tells you to cover up. The experience can come in an infinite number of iterations; the only sure thing is that the first time is never the last time. Walking around in a female body means you are constantly reminded that your value exists in the way that other people—men, especially—look at you.
Stranger still, this being noticed or touched or commented upon is framed as a compliment—it’s not enough that women are meant to endure the neverending objectification, we’re actually supposed to enjoy it. Women are taught to be eager to please not just in our demeanor but in our appearance, and everyday harassment is presented as friendly conversation: “Why don’t you smile?!”
Recently it occured to me that the expectation that women enjoy male attention in all forms may be behind the many unfortunate media profiles of influential women. Whether a rocket scientist’s beef stroganoff or a White House counsel’s high heels—when it comes to covering successful women, the media prefers palatable over powerful. Articles like these are not always written by men, but they always seem to be written for them.
The most recent—and perhaps one of the most egregious—example comes from the Daily Beast, where the site’s first piece on President Obama’s pick for CIA deputy director Avril Danica Haines is headlined: “New CIA #2 Pick Used to Read Anne Rice Aloud at Her Bookstore’s Erotica Night.”
The article’s premise alone is sexist—would the racy reading habits of a male appointee ever be fodder?—but the content is even worse. A neighbor is interviewed about Haines, “reminiscing about when when she would rehab her apartment in ‘jeans or a pair of shorts’” and reporters Ben Jacobs and Avi Zenilman inexplicably include an explicit Anne Rice excerpt that Haines may have read. They paint a picture that rivals Penthouse Forum:
[The event] at the bookstore featured a room lit with red candles where guests held chicken tostadas, waiting to eat as Haines read aloud the opening pages of The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, by Anne Rice writing under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaire, which features passages such as:
‘He mounted her, parting her legs, giving the white inner flesh of her thighs a soft deep pinch, and, clasping her right breast in his hand, he thrust his sex into her.
‘He was holding her up as he did this, to gather her mouth to him, and as he broke through her innocence, he opened her mouth with his tongue and pinched her breast sharply.’
What possible purpose would including such an explicit passage serve other than to present a very sexual visual of Haines?
But appealing to whom?
When the presumed audience is always male, women’s objectification becomes the norm. A woman’s humanity, her intellect, talent and substance pale in comparison to how “appealing” she can be to men. And the danger of the male gaze is that it does tangible harm. When the media focuses on powerful women’s sexuality, their credibility is undermined. Research shows that when female politicians have their appearance covered—even favorably—she pays a price at the polls. And in everyday life, the assumption that women’s appearance must meet male approval isn’t just burdensome—it’s harassing. This is especially true for young women who bear the brunt of the male gaze everywhere from school to the airport.
In a media landscape where sexist hit pieces on powerful women are common, “appealing” profiles are especially insidious. But objectification is not a compliment, even when well-intentioned. Old habits die hard for men who have been raised to believe what they think about a woman is the most important piece of information they can relay. But ogling isn’t journalism, and until some men learn as much, we’re going to be stuck with a media that is more Peeping Tom than press.
Former Obama campaign staffers are protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. Read Zoë Carpenter’s report here.
Don’t feed the trolls: it’s probably the most common refrain in online discussions, especially when dealing with misogynists in feminists conversations. The idea is that the best way to deal with sexists is to starve of them of the attention they’re so clearly desperate for. Besides, we think, why sink to their level?
But the high road is overrated. It requires silence in the face of violent misogyny, and a turn-the-other cheek mentality that society has long demanded of women. A vibrant feminist movement has ensured women don’t take injustices laying down offline—so why would we acquiesce on the Internet?
When I started Feministing in 2004, the hate mail started to pour in right away. At first it felt easier to ignore the haters, but it was incredibly difficult to write about feminist issues every day without acknowledging the awful backlash we were experiencing behind-the-scenes. So we created a series of posts called “Anti-Feminist Mailbag”—we published our hate mail, mocking the often mystifyingly stupid prose. (“Why do you have to be for abortion to be for women’s rights? How can it be a part of your body if it is a male?”) It was a way to take back power through humor, while revealing just how much hate is still directed at women who speak their mind.
It was also a way to demand accountability in a space that’s often dominated by hate speech made anonymously. If someone was thoughtless enough to message us from a easily-tracked e-mail address, we outed them. One lucky young man who called me a “stupid cunt” turned out to be the public relations officer for his college republican group. Good times ensued.
For Lindy West, staff writer at Jezebel, engaging with hateful detractors is not just important as a way to bring attention to misogyny—“A lot of those attitudes are poisoning our culture, and it’s too easy to write them off as some fringe opinion,” she says—but also because it can be cathartic. Recently, West has been taking on sexists on Twitter over rape jokes and their cultural consequences. “If talking back to some random idiot makes me feel better—if it’s fortifying for my mental health—then I don’t care if I give some dumbass with thirteen followers the flash-in-the-pan attention he’s been craving.”
“I’m in this for the long haul. It’s not a game to me. I’ve been lucky enough in my career to get to the point where I can talk about things and people listen. And now that I’m here I have an obligation to keep going, and, by extension, to do whatever I need to do to keep my brain intact,” she says.
West also mentions that fighting back online often gives other young women the tools they need to respond to misogyny in their own lives: “I like to cherry-pick certain trolls to give other women (and men) templates for how to respond to the typical misogynist arguments.”
Indeed, one of the questions I’m asked most often by younger feminists is how to emotionally and mentally deal with the incredible amount of hate that gets thrown their way. My advice has usually been not to talk to brick walls—to think of their activist energy as a precious resource and save it. But I’ve never fully taken that advice. Responding to—and making fun of—sexists has always been a part of my feminist work. Not just because it shines a light on misogyny or holds people accountable to their words—but because it’s fun.
The truth is—despite stereotypes that paint feminists as forever negative—doing feminist work requires boundless optimism. It means believing that people have the ability to be better, that culture can change, and maybe even that people who hate can learn to love. It’s exhausting. Sometimes reminding ourselves how hilariously stupid the opposition can be is a necessary break from the burden of idealism.
The downside of engaging with sexists is that in an online culture where common knowledge says ignore trolls, speaking out becomes “asking for it.” You don’t get a ton of sympathy for egging on assholes. While ignoring haters can sometimes be the best move, putting the onus on women to stay silent is not. So though I still believe in picking your battles, I’ll continue to get down in the muck with misogynists from time to time—because the low road needs feminism too.
Why is Dartmouth disciplining students protesting rape? Read Jon Wiener’s take.
Photo courtesy womenactionmedia.org.
Feminists won big on Tuesday when an online campaign forced Facebook to revisit their policies on misogynist hate speech. In just a week, the protest—organized by Women, Action & the Media (WAM), Everyday Sexism and writer Soraya Chemaly—generated nearly 5,000 e-mails and 60,000 tweets directed at Facebook’s advertisers. After companies started to pull ads, Facebook responded with a lengthy statement committing to change their policies and admitting they hadn’t been doing their due diligence curtailing violent sexism: “In recent days, it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate…. We need to do better—and we will.”
The success of the action is not just more proof that online activism is increasingly becoming feminism’s strong suit—from Facebook to Komen to transvaginal ultrasounds—but it also gives some hope that the culture is starting to shift around violence against women.
Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of WAM,* says the win left her “cautiously optimistic.” Friedman points to the outrage over the social media-documented rape in Steubenville, gang rapes in India and the suicides of several young rape victims as indications that Americans may have had enough of the consequences of rape culture. While she’s still unsure that the country is ready for widespread change, she believes “there’s a critical mass right now; it could be a tipping point moment.”
And with social media giant Facebook taking such a big step forward, Friedman says it could “move the bar for what we tolerate online.”
Like Friedman, I’m hopeful but wary—the fact that such a campaign needed to be launched at all is a depressing indicator of where American culture is on sexual assault and violence against women. That someone could think to post a picture of a dead woman who appears to be shot in the head with the tagline, “I like her for her brains,” or a woman lying at the bottom of the stairs with the line, “Next time, don’t get pregnant,” is enough to give any optimist pause. Even worse is that such hateful misogyny could be considered humor. And the fact that up until now Facebook didn’t classify this as “hate speech” means that the people behind these images and pages had their sexism validated and accepted.
But this glaring, in-your-face misogyny may be the spark that pushes culture forward—there’s no arguing with these images, these court cases, these stories. Maybe it needed to get a lot worse—or more visible—for it to get better. For years, the most common anti-feminist talking point has been that American women don’t have it all that bad. That we should stop complaining and focus on women in other countries who are “really” oppressed.
But today, telling women that sexism doesn’t exist anymore is a really hard sell. Thanks to the Internet and the speed at which stories move—not to mention the vile sexism in most online spaces—any American woman who spends more than five minutes onlines hears about or experiences misogyny every day. And the absolute deluge of sexism—from “legitimate rape” and birth control controversies to rape jokes and high-profile domestic violence murders—makes it impossible for anti-feminists to call these stories anomalies in an otherwise equal society. What they really are is proof of systemic political inequity and cultural disdain for women.
So if we are at a serious tipping point—what should feminists do next? For issues of violence against women, I think the answer is clear. The action against Facebook is a great first step in focusing on the culture’s understanding of rape and domestic violence (something I’ve argued before). Now is also a perfect time for feminists to think critically about what kinds of stories capture their attention and energy. Why, for example, were so many feminists livid over Daniel Tosh’s rape “joke,” but forgiving of The Onion’s horrific piece describing Rihanna’s imagined violent death? It’s not real progress, or real feminism, if the mainstream movement only takes on causes that affect the most privileged.
For Friedman, her takeaway is that women need to know we can demand better. “Instead of thinking ‘that can’t be changed,’” she says, “let’s start thinking, ‘what can change that?’” The bad news is that there’s a lot that needs changing, but the good news is that it’s clear feminists—and maybe even all Americans—are up to the task.
*Full disclosure: Friedman and I co-edited a book together, Yes Means Yes.
Failed senatorial candidate and SBA beneficiary Todd Akin. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
A few years back, a women’s organization with a bad record engaging with young feminists decided to add on an event to their annual conference. It was a forum specifically for younger women, launched with painfully constructed slang: “We’ll be headin’ to Albany and hangin’ at the Crowne Plaza!” The tagline was even written in a graffiti-type font.
Anti-choice organizations’ efforts to present themselves as “pro-woman” give me a similar feeling of second-hand embarrassment—you wish someone would tell them how foolish they sound. But unlike the aforementioned well-meaning organization—who despite cringe-worthy language, works hard to improve women’s lot in life—anti-choice groups use feminist language to push an agenda that puts women’s health and lives in danger. It’s like if your mom tried to prove how cool she was to your friends by punching them in the face.
Leading the “pro-woman,” anti-choice charge is the Susan B. Anthony List—an organization that seeks to elect anti-choice men and women to office. Think of them as the bizarro EMILY’s List. Like its cohorts the Independent Women’s Forum and Feminists for Life, SBA List tries to shroud its radically conservative ideology in pro-woman rhetoric. Hence its name (though there’s no evidence that suffragist Susan B. Anthony was in favor of criminalizing abortion) and mission to prove that access to abortion is actually bad for women.
But a comprehensive report just released by NARAL Pro-Choice America shows just how thinly veiled the SBA List’s anti-feminism really is—no matter how many women-friendly slogans they use.
The organization stood by Todd Akin after his “legitimate rape” comments suggesting that women can’t get pregnant after rape, and said they “couldn’t agree more” with Richard Mourdouck, the GOP candidate for the Indiana Senate who said pregnancy from rape is “something that God intended to happen.” The organization also supported Rick Santorum’s presidential run with over half a million dollars—the man who said pregnancy after rape was a gift from God and that victims should just “make the best out of a bad situation.”
The SBA List, clearly expecting more anti-woman comments from their candidates, even organized a training program for politicians to help them avoid sounding crass and ignorant—even if their policies are just that.
It’s not just the people they support who are out of touch—the SBA List’s leadership is similarly retrograde. Marilyn Musgrave, the organization’s vice president of government affairs, voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act while serving in the Colorado Legislature and has said that legalizing same sex marriage would lead to “group marriage.” She even opposed adoption by same sex couples.
SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, who tried to convince women that Virginia’s widely mocked ultrasound mandate was just “a matter of giving a woman more information,” strangely says that the abortion rate increases the more women use birth control. She’s also said, “the bottom line is that to lose the connection between sex and having children leads to problems.”
This “bottom line” epitomizes how out of touch and antiquated the SBA List is. Ensuring that sex doesn’t always result in children is one of feminism’s greatest wins. Reliable birth control has freed women in a way that arguably no other modern invention has, but to SBA List, that’s too much freedom.
So maybe the SBA List and other conservative women’s organizations are pro-woman in a way—they’re just pro a version of womanhood that most of us left behind a long time ago. And even if they gussy it up in modern garb (the Suzy B blog!) it’s a version of “woman” that modern women are simply not willing to return to.
What happened to LGBT inclusion in comprehensive immigration reform? Read Aura Bogado’s take.
Contraceptives at a pharmacy in Toronto. (Flickr/Cory Doctorow)
Yesterday, the FDA announced that it will make Plan B—also known as emergency contraception (EC) or the morning after pill—available over the counter to women older than 15 years old who can prove their age. This decision comes less than a week before the end of a thirty-day deadline imposed by a federal judge mandating EC be available without a prescription to women of all ages. So despite the FDA’s announcement, the Obama administration still needs to appeal the judge’s decision or request a stay by Monday.
Some heralded the FDA’s decision as a victory—Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards called it “an important step forward.” But Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights—whose lawsuit against the FDA sparked the federal ruling—called the restriction “arbitrary.”
“Lowering the age restriction to 15 for over-the-counter access to Plan B One-Step may reduce delays for some young women—but it does nothing to address the significant barriers that far too many women of all ages will still find if they arrive at the drugstore without identification or after the pharmacy gates have been closed for the night or weekend.”
Indeed, it’s hard to see how most 15-year-olds would be able to access the drug, given that they need to prove their age in the form of a driver’s license, passport or birth certificate. As Sarah Kliff at The Washington Post points out, most states won’t allow teens to apply for a driver’s license until they are 16 years old, and in 2010, only 28 percent of 16-year-olds even had licenses.
Teens who don’t have access to a government ID would not have any easier a time procuring a passport or birth certificate. If a girl had either of those documents, it’s most likely that her parents would have them filed away. And if a teenage girl wanted to obtain a passport or birth certificate herself, there is no way she could do so in the seventy-two hours needed to ensure that Plan B is effective. There’s also a socioeconomic factor to who has licenses and who doesn’t, making the proof-of-age restriction even more burdensome to marginalized communities, especially young women who are undocumented.
Even 15-year-olds with an acceptable form of identification are not out of the woods. A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics showed that many pharmacists don’t understand the law as it pertains to Plan B. The study found that because of pervasive misinformation, nearly 20 percent of 17-year-olds would be denied the drug. And now we’re not even talking about pharmacists—but cashiers, who are more likely to be younger and untrained in protocol surrounding Plan B.
The larger question, however, is why should there be an age restriction at all. The reason a judge ruled Plan B should be available to women and girls of all ages is because it’s safe for all ages. And seriously, if we believe a 14-year-old is too immature to know how to take a pill, do we really think she’s adult enough to handle an unwanted pregnancy?
The truth is that the age restriction is completely arbitrary, tied only to our puritanical comfort levels. And listen, I get it; I think it’s fair to say that most people are uncomfortable with the idea of a 14-year-old having sex. But here’s the thing—access to Plan B isn’t about keeping a 14-year-old from having sex—by the time she gets to the pharmacy, that ship has sailed—it’s about keeping a 14-year-old who has already had sex from getting pregnant. And despite what urban legend (or past embarrassing FDA memos) may tell you, making emergency contraception more available is not more likely to make young teens have sex—it will just make them less likely to end up pregnant.
We can’t let our discomfort with teen sex trump young people’s right to sexual and reproductive health and we can’t continue to let politics trump science. If we care about young women’s health and bodily autonomy and integrity, we’ll drop all age restrictions from emergency contraception. Anything less isn’t just illogical—it’s immoral.