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If Bill de Blasio’s landslide win is any indication, it’s clear that liberals—and New Yorkers in general—deplore Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his controversial stop-and-frisk policy. So it was no surprise that when he went to Brown University on October 29, his appearance generated a certain amount of buzz. What was unusual was that, after about half an hour of booing and heckling from the audience of students and members of the public, Kelly and the Brown administration were forced to cancel the talk. Was this “shoutdown” an abrogation of free speech or a necessary moment of speaking truth to power? The Nation asked writers Rania Khalek, Richard Yeselson, Jesse A. Myerson and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt to weigh in.
‘Racism Is Not For Debate,’ Rania Khalek
During his reign as NYPD police commissioner, Ray Kelly has taken suppression policing of black, brown and Muslim bodies to a whole new, record-setting level. So when Brown University students heckled him off stage as he attempted to give a lecture on “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City,” I thought, good riddance! It’s about damn time that bigot face his critics.
After all, this is the same man who said to state officials that his purpose as the overseer of stop and frisk is to “instill fear” in black and Latino men “every time that they [leave] their homes.” Meanwhile, he has the audacity to claim publicly that his racist policies are saving the lives of young men of color. He’s also the architect of a massive spying apparatus on Muslim communities that rivals the FBI at its COINTELPRO finest. Given that Kelly’s policies have long suppressed voices and bodies of color across New York City, it seemed fitting that students from and speaking up for those communities managed to successfully drown him out.
While I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, I was stunned to see several self-proclaimed liberals and progressives express outrage not at Brown’s embrace of a racist public figure but at the students who confronted him.
Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast went so far as to label the student protesters “fascist” for acting in a “totalitarian spirit” that has apparently spread to campuses across the country as part of some vast conspiracy to deny controversial speakers (i.e., powerful figures who happen to be racists and/or war criminals, like Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Beinart specifically references) their right to free speech.
It’s quite revealing that this same rhetoric is almost never applied to the racists and war criminals who are temporarily inconvenienced by protesters. I don’t recall, for example, anyone in the mainstream describing the NYPD’s excessive force against Occupy Wall Street protesters or their seemingly endless killings of unarmed people of color in such stark terms.
There’s also a tendency among critics to promote a false equivalence between the student protesters and Ray Kelly, a warped logic that completely ignores the power imbalance of lecturer versus audience, of influential public official versus proletariat. People in positions of power have huge platforms that typically shield them from their detractors, leaving those impacted by their policies with little recourse for their grievances.
Just as Kelly has a right to free expression, so too do the students who pay tuition to the school he was paid to speak at. Brown students had a rare opportunity to confront New York City’s finest bigot, and they took it. Sure, they weren’t polite about it. But as one protester shouted, “Racism is not for debate.”
‘The Problem With Moral Monsters,’ Richard Yeselson
The West German student left of the late ’60s—opposed to the war in Vietnam and fearful that the government’s “emergency” legislation could be the first step leading to a recurrence of fascism—had grown impatient with the elderly professor and his pedantic distinctions between street propaganda and rigorous political analysis. Students heckled and shouted down his lectures, called him a capitalist apologist and despised his weak-willed opposition to their takeover of publishing houses and universities. That this stale academic had publicly called for a general strike of West Germany’s powerful unions in response to the Emergency Act won him no acclaim. Once, several young women even rushed his podium, showered him with rose pedals, exposed their breasts to him and mockingly attempted to kiss him. The old man fled in shame.
By February 1969, the professor was at wit’s end. Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School sociologist and philosopher, wrote to his great friend, the modernist genius Samuel Beckett, and mused, “The feeling of suddenly being attacked as a reactionary comes as something of a surprise. But perhaps you too have had the same experience in the meantime.” Beckett, whose nonpolitical plays and novels belied his participation in the French Resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War, remarked about the student militants, “Was ever such rightness joined to such foolishness?” Until he died of a heart attack just a few months later, Adorno was a man who had dedicated his life to the task of imagining an emancipatory left, “one in which people could be different without fear,” as he wrote in 1945, in the shadow of the barbarism of Auschwitz and the Gulag and the destructive dawn of the nuclear age.
This Marxist intellectual wouldn’t, I suppose, seem to have much in common with New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who his antagonists tell us is a racist, and thus needn’t be heard, or, conveniently enough, rebutted either. If you know what you know, why bother to even to argue with those you disagree with? They’re wrong; you’re right—case closed.
As a pragmatic intellectual inquiry, this is an exercise in epistemic closure little better than those that Rush Limbaugh leads every afternoon on your AM dial. If you don’t engage the arguments you really hate, and instead scream them into silence, you can’t refine and improve your own arguments, which make it harder to gain more adherents to your cause. As a political strategy for leftist struggle, feeling victorious after forcing an odious guest speaker to retreat to his hotel room is kind of like thinking that you’re ready for Wimbledon because you just kicked a 9-year-old’s ass, 6-0, 6-0. By contrast, free speech is the friend of leftist dissent, not its enemy. It’s why the very first major campus fight of the ’60s, at Berkeley, was called the Free Speech Movement—the cause and the use of speech was the lever that enabled students to fight the university administration. Leftists may have wiped out Ray Kelly last week, but, over time, suppressing speech is a game that universities, with aid from the state and augmented in the private workplace, play much better than students do.
You might imagine that you could never be in the position of a racist authoritarian purveyor of state violence like Ray Kelly—he’s a top minion of the ruling class, and you permanently fight the power. But that is another way of saying you don’t think you’ll ever have the power and influence to command the podium yourself, that you are permanently a subaltern. Because the hegemonic discourse unequally assigns Kelly many more opportunities than his adversaries, it’s best to throw away one of your own opportunities to expose his ideas as pernicious—as long as you take him down with you. Just desserts.
But then consider Adorno: at the end of his life, he can’t believe that he is being called a “reactionary.” Theodor Adorno, one of the most important leftist thinkers in the history of the twentieth century! In the late sixties, he was regularly shouted down as if he were no better than… Ray Kelly. That’s the trouble with making a group decision to prevent an alleged moral monster from speaking, rather than upholding the democratic norm that speakers—whatever their politics—speak, and then other speakers (that’s you) vigorously respond to their terrible speech with better speech, more convincing and humane speech. Who knows? The next time, or the time after that, another group may decide that you’re the moral monster. And that group might not even come from the right. I understand—how absurd: Who could be more radical, more militant than you?
That’s what Theodor Adorno thought, too. And you’re no Theodor Adorno.
‘No Other Avenues,’ Jesse A. Myerson
The available avenues for redress against a ruthless paramilitary commandant like Ray Kelly are extremely slim in the United States. As is clear from the gaping dearth of prosecutions on Wall Street and many-times-over war criminal Henry Kissinger’s open invitation to advise presidents on foreign policy, this country’s propensity to treat its elites, however nefarious, with polite deference ensures that future villains will develop their programs undeterred by any anxiety.
To be sure, New York’s Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio is likely to replace Commissioner Kelly. But as important as that gesture may be, it has nothing to do with holding Kelly responsible for the abuses of his tenure. To the contrary, Kelly is highly enough regarded in the law-enforcement world right now to be floated as a possible secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. No matter who Bill de Blasio puts in charge of the NYPD, Ray Kelly is poised to go on to another elite position, probably one that offers a superior salary and just as much influence as his current one.
Shouting down a speaker is clearly not the optimal exercise of democracy. In the democratic utopia for which we perennially strive, good faith debate would always carry the day. And if the means existed to impose significant consequences on Ray Kelly for the abuses of his tenure as commissioner of the largest municipal police force in the country, I would gladly advocate those means over shouting.
But those means do not exist. The way things go in this country, Ray Kelly will never be held to account for the un-debatably authoritarian police state he has supervised. No amount of leafleting outside a Ray Kelly speech, or respectfully incisive questioning in the Q&A section thereafter can hold Kelly to account for the millions his regime stopped, frisked, humiliated and spied on. And leafleting or questioning could never garner the amount of media attention that the “shoutdown” at Brown has. Under these circumstances, the only power therefore afforded to these students to enact a modicum of accountability is the power to make it known that Ray Kelly and others like him cannot expect to speak at Brown University and be treated with respect. It’s not much, but it’s something.
In my assessment, more is gained than is lost by the breach in decorum which Rich Yeselson has worked himself into a fury condemning—going so far as to call me and others who smile on the protest “authoritarian” on Twitter (in defense of Ray Kelly!). Yeselson warns of the corrosive effect that this sort of shouting has on “a democratic culture.” The existence of such a culture is dubious to begin with. Furthermore, agreeing to a public speaking engagement necessarily implies bearing the risk of being shouted down. People like Ray Kelly, whose careers consist of the wielding of violent power over an entire population, ought not to have such tender feelings that they can’t cope with this sort of reception.
Bearing in mind and heart every kid from my neighborhood who has ever wanted to shout back at one of New York’s Finest but has contained his frustration for fear of the jail cell his passions would land him in, I applaud the uncouth, impolite, disrespectful Brown students who gave that bigot a moment’s discomfort.
‘Campus Leftists, Use Your Words,’ Katha Pollitt
What did shouting down Ray Kelly achieve? What did it win for campus organizers and the larger movement against aggressive policing in black communities? Why was it a better idea than informational picketing, holding a teach-in or other counter event, campaigning for a speaker of one’s own, letting Kelly speak and questioning him sharply in the Q-and-A portion of the evening? An activist could have asked a question (many questions!) that put him on the spot, that got him off his talking points and led him into a gaffe that would have been great publicity against stop-and-frisk. Shouting him down was brawn over brains—and that was bound to go over poorly on a campus full of people who value discussion, debate and ideas and pride themselves on liberal values of open-mindedness and fairness. Maybe the point was to show strength, but actually it showed weakness: it suggests (wrongly) that leftists didn’t have good arguments, so bluster would have to do.
More important, shouting Kelly down shows lack of respect for the audience and for the larger—much larger—number of people who had never given stop-and-frisk much thought. By shutting down the event, activists successfully threw their weight around—all 100 or so of them—but did they persuade anyone that stop-and-frisk was a bad, racist policy? Did they build support for their larger politics and their movement? I don’t think so. I think the only minds that changed that night were of people who felt bewildered and irritated by being prevented from hearing Kelly speak by a bunch of screamers and now think leftists are cynical bullies who use and abandon free-speech arguments as it suits them.
It’s fashionable on the left to mock liberalism as weak tea—and sometimes it is. But you know what is getting rid of stop-and-frisk? Liberalism. A major force in the campaign against stop-and-frisk was the NYCLU, which carries the banner of free speech for all. And Bill de Blasio, who just won the mayoral election by a landslide, has pledged to get rid of the policy and Ray Kelly too. Those victories were not won by a handful of student radicals who stepped in with last-minute theatrics. They were won by people who spent years building a legal case and mobilizing popular support for change.
Last point: even if you don’t believe in an abstract right to free expression (bourgeois!), it’s the best protection going for the left. How will campus leftists argue for their right to present unpopular speakers if, on some future occasion which will surely come, conservative students shout them down? What goes around comes around, and if it all comes down to who shouts loudest, what makes leftists think their voices won’t be the ones drowned out?
Democratic Senators Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and Kirk Watson of Austin lead a rally at a protest before the start of a special session of the Legislature in Austin, Texas, July 1, 2013. (Reuters/Mike Stone)
Mea culpa: I was unfair to David Frum in my recent column on Texas, Europe and abortion. Even after I amended the online version to clarify that he is pro-choice (unlike the other two conservatives I discuss, Ross Douthat and Michael Gerson), a reader could easily assume he was anti-choice, since I do quote him in that context. I think what misled me was that I took Frum to be addressing pro-choicers in his blog post about Germany’s “abortion compromise”; what stuck out for me were the restrictions and over-simplifications. But actually, he is addressing anti-choicers, who want to ban abortion entirely. To them, he probably sounds like he is running for head of Planned Parenthood.
* * *
Douthat claims I’m wrong about the sweep of the Texas law banning abortion after twenty weeks:
It does include exceptions related to maternal health and fetal anomalies: Its post-viability ban does not apply (and I quote) “to abortions that are necessary to avert the death or substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman or abortions that are performed on unborn children with severe fetal abnormalities.”
Oh, come on. Obviously, there’s a life exception. It would probably be unconstitutional to ban abortion to avert the actual death of the woman. Even Justice Rehnquist, in his dissent from Roe, acknowledged as much, and even when abortion was illegal in the United States (as in the Texas law Roe challenged), there was always an exception for “therapeutic” abortion to preserve the woman’s life. We aren’t living in Ireland, after all—and even in Ireland, the horrible, completely avoidable death of Savita Halappanavar has forced passage of a law permitting abortion to save a woman’s life. The problem is how these exceptions are defined, and how they are enacted in practice.
What is a risk of death? An amicus curiae brief in Roe filed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other professional medical associations points out that depending on how that language is construed, and who is doing the construing, a woman suffering from a serious illness—cancer, diabetes, heart disease—may be denied an abortion although pregnancy and childbirth may worsen her condition and she may ultimately die from it, because she is not in immediate risk of death. Do we want doctors looking over their shoulders, worrying that attempting to extend their patient’s life is going to land them before a medical board—or a judge? (Violating the Texas law is, after all, a crime.)
The physical impairment provision raises the same issues. What are “serious,” “substantial” and “irreversible”? What is a “major bodily function”? Medicine isn’t physics: how can a doctor know in advance what situations will count as sufficiently grave? Besides, if a pregnancy turns problematic, shouldn’t the woman herself get a vote in how much risk of suffering and disability she should bear?
As for fetal anomaly, you have to read the fine print: in subchapter M, section 285, this is defined as “a life threatening physical condition that, in reasonable medical judgment, regardless of the provision of life saving medical treatment, is incompatible with life outside the womb.” That covers conditions that kill upon birth or soon after, like anencephaly or organs growing outside the body—but what about fatal conditions that kill later, like Tay-Sachs disease, where children can live, in great suffering, for a few years before dying? And what about serious anomalies that are not necessarily “incompatible with life” but which impose tremendous suffering on the child as well as on parents and families—and which, let’s not forget, the state of Texas is not going to do much to help them deal with.
The Texas law is very strict. It does not even have an exception for mental health or risk of suicide (even the new Irish law includes threats of suicide in its life exception). It disregards the pregnant woman’s own judgment about how much damage to her health is too much. The law is an invitation to second-guess doctors and patients in situations that are fraught with complexity, and to make doctors afraid to trust their judgment and expertise. I just don’t think the Texas State legislature is the proper place for these very intimate major medical decisions to be made.
On his blog, Douthat attributes to me arguments I did not make. I never asserted that abortion restrictions don’t reduce the number of abortions. Obviously, if you make it really hard and expensive and even criminal to do something, it’s going to be more of a challenge to do it. It is amazing how many women manage to overcome the obstacles to obtaining an abortion, but if the difficulties are too great, some women will not be able to surmount them. In Ireland, for example, a woman has to go to another country. For some women, this is not difficult—Ryanair flights are cheap and you can go to the UK and come back the same day. (In fact, logistically, it is probably easier for a Dubliner to get to London than for a woman in Laredo to get to an out-of-state clinic that performs abortions post–twenty weeks.) For other women, it’s very hard: they are low-income, rural, have to find childcare, take time off from work, deal with hostile families, the need for secrecy and so on. What happens to them?
Mara Clarke helps run the Abortion Support Network, which raises funds to help low-income Irish women go to the UK. She writes,
Abortion Support Network has gotten calls from a raped teen who drank floor cleaner when she couldn’t raise the funds to travel for an abortion and a mother of four who was considering crashing her car to induce a miscarriage… Right now I have a woman here who has been trying to come over since MAY and is now over 20 weeks pregnant who told me if this hadn’t happened—our helping her—she would have “done something to myself to get rid of it.” This is a young woman with a young child, who wants more children, just not now.
I should also mention that the real number of Irish women having abortions is surely higher than Douthat thinks. Women who go to the UK don’t always identify themselves with an Irish address or their real names, some go to the Netherlands or Belgium instead and some, using various clandestine routes, buy the miscarriage-inducing drug misoprostol over the Internet.
In any case, Douthat seems strangely nonchalant about a setup, in Ireland or in Texas, in which middle-class women who want abortions go elsewhere to get them, while trapping poor women and causing all sorts of difficulties and problems to many women, whether they manage to terminate their pregnancies or give up and have a baby. As with many opponents of legal abortion, the letter of the law seems to matter more to him than the law’s real effects.
Finally, Douthat thinks he makes a crushing point when he asserts that Irish women have “advanced” without abortion rights, noting that they do well on some crude international measurements of women’s progress. On maternity care, education and life expectancy, for example, Ireland is very good. Irish women have paid maternity leave and maternity benefits, and the law guarantees them the right to return to their jobs. Ireland is, moreover, a much more egalitarian society than the United States, with narrower extremes of wealth and poverty. That is all good.
I‘m not sure Irish women are doing all that well, though, if you look more closely. Only 15 percent of the Oireachtas (parliament) is female (across Europe it’s 25 percent), only 7 percent of reported rapes result in a conviction and domestic violence is widespread. The culture, if one can generalize about such a thing, is quite masculinist, as many Irish women writers have bitterly noted. Newsweek analyzed the status of women in 165 countries using a panoply of criteria, not just cherry-picking a few, and ranked Ireland at twenty-two, between Albania and China. (The United States comes in at eighth place; the Scandinavian nations are tops.)
Of course it is a good thing that the Irish social-welfare state exists. To the extent that women have abortions for economic reasons, generous social provisions for families, mothers and children may indeed lower the abortion rate. (Although not necessarily—Sweden has ample social provisions, a high abortion rate and, for Europe, a high fertility rate. As I keep saying, it’s complicated!) That does not prove, though, that plenty of women don’t suffer when abortion is banned, that banning abortion doesn’t limit women’s advancement (with legal abortion, maybe Ireland would be up there with Scandinavia). Nor does it prove that banning abortion has no affect on the status of women generally, whether or not they want to have an abortion.
Not everyone needs or uses all their human rights: if the United States were to ban, say, being a Jehovah’s Witness, very few people would be affected, and yet everyone’s rights would be limited. The same is true of abortion rights. Denying them makes a powerful statement about the limits of freedom and self-determination for all women (and no men), and it also sends a message about what can happen to women (but not men) who get out of line. Not many women were consigned to slave labor in the Magdalene Laundries, after all, even among those girls and women who fell afoul of strict Irish Catholic sexual morality. But the message to all women was pretty clear.
I‘m looking forward, though, to Ross Douthat’s embrace of generous health and welfare provisions for women and children in Texas.
Meanwhile, you can donate to the Abortion Support Network here.
Why are GOP leaders trying to ban abortions after twenty weeks?
Senator Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, speaks as she begins a filibuster in an effort to kill an abortion bill, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Wendy Davis is my hero. Make that my superhero. This brave and unbelievably stalwart legislator filibustered for nearly eleven hours to prevent a vote on SB5, a draconian bill that would ban abortion after twenty weeks and regulate abortion providers so severely all but five of the state’s forty-two clinics would be forced to close. Davis remained standing, unable to take a bathroom break, eat, drink, sit or even lean against a desk. She was polite and patient and calm and gracious, as Republican men condescended and patronized her, and said a lot of ridiculous things that showed they knew very little about women’s bodies or lives. For hours, she read eloquent and deeply personal letters from Texas women who had had abortions. For hours more, she minutely and knowledgeably dissected the problems with SB5. Not that the Republicans were listening. Finally, she was forced to stand down, after she was deemed to have done three things that were not “germane”—she allowed a colleague to help her with her back brace (so much for southern chivalry!), she discussed Planned Parenthood and she talked about the state’s mandatory ultrasound law. Suddenly Planned Parenthood and mandatory ultrasounds are not “germane.” Never mind that Texas Republicans have spent considerable energy defunding Planned Parenthood as a hotbed of abortion and heaping up ultrasound requirements precisely in order to make abortion harder to get.
I know there are plenty of anti-choice women. For example, SB5 sponsor Senator Jodie Laubenberg, who has said that banning abortion after twenty weeks wouldn’t be a problem for rape victims because they don’t get pregnant: hospitals have rape kits that “clean a woman out.” (Wait, I thought women could shut that whole thing down on their own. Or are rape babies God’s gift? Get your story straight, Republicans!) But the optics in the room were inescapable: here was a bunch of prosperous and powerful and utterly confident middle-aged white men champing at the bit to tell women, mostly young and poor, many of color, many already with kids, what they could do with their bodies—all in the guise of protecting the little ladies from evil money-grubbing abortion providers. When Senator Leticia van de Putte repeatedly raised a procedural point, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst just ignored her and barreled ahead. This gave her the night’s most indelible line: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?”
At that moment, an amazing thing happened. The other heroes of the night swung into action—the hundreds of abortion rights supporters who thronged the capitol cheered Davis and van de Putte so loudly and for so long that the vote missed the midnight deadline. Even for those of us watching on line—150,000 around the world—this was a profoundly heart-stirring moment. My friend Rebecca Traister compared it to the singing of “La Marseillaise” in Casablanca. The missed deadline did not prevent someone (who?) from falsifying the time clock to make it appear the vote took place before the midnight cutoff. Thank you, Internet, for screen shots that proved what had really happened. At 3 am, Dewhurst announced the bill was dead.
Very likely, Governor Perry, a true believer in the anti-choice cause, will call another special session to push SB5 through. And very possibly, thanks to the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, Wendy Davis will be redistricted out of office ASAP.
But beyond whatever losses are to come, it’s possible to glimpse something more important: the awakening of that famous pro-choice sleeping giant we’ve heard so much about. Lawyers and advocates and politicians and lobbyists are terribly important, but in the long run they can’t preserve our rights if pro-choicers themselves are complacent. Last night it looked like there’s not much chance of that in Texas. Allons enfants!
Show your appreciation for local activists by making a donation to the Lilith Fund, which helps low-income women pay for their abortion care.
While Wendy Davis was defending women’s rights in Texas, President Obama gave a speech outlining his climate change plan at Georgetown University.
Wajeha H. Al-Huwaider, far left, with Phellicia Dell, Rebecca Lolosoli, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tina Brown. (PRNewsFoto/The Daily Beast)
Last week I wrote in this space about the Saudi government’s persecution of the human-rights activists Wajeha Al-Huwaider and Fawzia Al-Oyouni. After a trial that was a mockery of proper legal procedure, the two women were sentenced to ten months in prison followed by a two-year travel ban on trumped up charges of “inciting a wife against her husband.” They say what they were actually doing was bringing groceries to Nathalie Morin, a Canadian married to a Saudi whom she has said is abusive and leaves her in the house without sufficient food for her children. Morin, whose case is well-known in both Canada and Saudi Arabia, was not allowed to testify at the trial.
Now Morin has told the truth on her blog:
The charges against Wajeha Al Huwaider must be cleared, she has not asked to be involved in my story and she should not suffer the consequences. She never knew me and knew nothing about me. She only wanted to help me as a woman, a wife, a mother and human being herself from what she heard by others. She never tried to make any kind of interference in my relationship with my husband and she never had a discussion directly with me.
Muslims for Progressive Values, an excellent Canadian group, is calling for people to contact Thomas MacDonald, the Canadian ambassador in Riyadh at firstname.lastname@example.org. Urge him to get Nathalie Morin to repeat this exculpation in a formal legal document, making sure to include Fawzia Al-Oyouni, as well. It should be signed by her and stamped by the Canadian Embassy.
Even if you are not Canadian, you can help put pressure on the ambassador to do the right thing.
More information here.
Read the backstory about how Wajeha Al-Huwaider was sentenced to prison.
Wajeha Al-Huwaider with Phellicia Dell, Rebecca Lolosoli, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tina Brown (PRNewsFoto/The Daily Beast)
Terrible news from Saudi Arabia: After proceedings that stretched out over nearly a year and violated many legal norms, Wajeha Al-Huwaider, the prominent Saudi Human rights activist and co-organizer of protests against the ban on women drivers, has been sentenced to ten months in prison, along with her colleague Fawzia Al-Oyouni. (I interviewed Al-Huwaider here.) After they serve their terms, both will be banned from travel for two years.
Their crime? It’s a little complicated. They were accused of kidnapping and trying to help Nathalie Morin, a Canadian woman married to a Saudi, flee the country in June 2011. Morin, who has said her husband locks her in the house and is abusive, has been trying for eight years to leave Saudi Arabia with her three children. (There’s a so-far-unsuccessful campaign, spearheaded by her mother, to get the Canadian government to intervene.) Al-Huwaider says they were responding to a frantic text message from Morin, who said her husband had gone away for a week and left her locked in the house without enough food or drinkable water. When they arrived at the house with groceries, they were arrested.
The two activists were found not guilty of kidnapping, but the judge convicted them of “Takhbib”—inciting a woman against her husband. Apparently helping an abused wife feed her children is a crime in Saudi Arabia. Can’t have that in a country where women need their male “guardian's” okay to travel, work, study or even undergo surgery, where fathers have automatic legal custody of children and the Koran, interpreted at the whim of judges, is the only legal code.
Al-Huwaider writes in an e-mail:
We will be banned from traveling for two years following our release. We will be trapped in this women’s prison—that is, Saudi Arabia—for 3 years.
This is the first time in Saudi legal history that a travel ban has been imposed in a social case. This proves that the decision has really come from the Minister of Internal Affairs, and that they planned to prevent us from engaging in any human rights activities.
From the first session I knew that it was going to be very bad and I was always expecting the worst, but I didn’t think that the judge would be this aggressive.
As I see it now, it was a ‘good catch’ for the Wahabi court to convict two liberal women who have been campaigning for years to promote equality and women’s rights.
Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni have a month to appeal. Muslims for Progressive Values, a Canadian group, is appealing to leaders in Canada and Saudi Arabia.
Americans can help them too:
Contact the Saudi ambassador and protest this absurd miscarriage of justice.
Contact your congressional representative and senators and urge them to push the president and State Department.
Human Rights Watch has more details.
Michelle Bachmann protested against immigration reform in DC today. Read George Zornick's report here.
Protesters rally outside the Supreme Court in San Salvador in support of Beatriz and her family. (Reuters/Ulises Rodriguez)
Yesterday, after a long delay, El Salvador’s Supreme Court voted 4-1 to deny a young woman the abortion she needs to save her life. Beatriz, who is 22 and the mother of an infant son, is terribly sick with lupus, hypertension and kidney disease. Her doctors have said she is likely to die if forced to continue the pregnancy. The final touch: Beatriz’s fetus is anencephalic (missing most of its brain) and will not be able to survive outside the womb. If ever “right to life” was a contradiction in terms, this is that case.
Jodi Jacobson has details here.
Ten weeks ago, when Beatriz was in the first trimester, the minister of health said she should be allowed to have an abortion. The country’s powerful Catholic Church and far right erupted. Despite stern calls from the office of the UN Commission for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes has dithered as Beatriz’s condition deteriorates and an abortion becomes more dangerous: she is now 24 weeks pregnant.
Since 1998, El Salvador has had a complete no-exceptions ban on abortion, promoted by the country’s powerful Catholic Church and passed with the votes of legislators from the former left-wing movement FMLN—because if there’s one thing right and left agree on, it’s that women’s lives are less important than achieving political power. (Daniel Ortega made the same move in Nicaragua in a successful bid for church support.)
Since the ban, the Central American Women’s network reports that over 600 Salvadoran women have been imprisoned for having abortions, including miscarriages and stillbirths suspected of being the result of abortion. A word to the wise: when US abortion opponents insist they would never put women on trial for terminating a pregnancy, be skeptical.
Beatriz’s case has captured international attention. We need to keep the pressure on so that her life can be saved. Soon it may be too late.
What you can do:
Sign the petition to Pope Francis urging him to step in and save Beatriz. (I know, I know: things are pretty bad when we have to ask the pope to save a woman from abortion opponents!)
Donate to the fund to help Beatriz pay for her medical care. Any funds left over will go to Salvadoran organization Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Ético, Terapéutico y Eugenésico, which is leading the legal fight to save Beatriz.
Tweet to the President of El Salvador @mauriciofunesSV.
Listen to the UN! Save Beatriz! The whole world is watching @mauriciofunesSV #savebeatriz
What about Beatriz’s right to life? Her human rights? @mauriciofunesSV #savebeatriz
Why is the US military more intent on protecting its command structure than victims of sexual assault? Read Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column.
Was it really five years ago that some brave Saudi women dared to drive their own cars to protest the blanket denial of basic human rights to women in the Kingdom? Not much has changed since, despite a few cosmetic measures. Women are still minors for life, under the legal control of father, husband, uncle or even son. Shocking abuses of power are routine. Theocracy still reigns. And women are still banned from getting behind the wheel.
Here’s a dispatch from Wajeha al-Huwaider, one of the organizers of the driving protest:
Five Years Since I Drove My Car on Women’s Day
We were five women who launched a campaign for women’s driving in KSA. We were able to collect around 3,000 signatures for a petition which was sent to King Abdullah Bin Abulaziz. Around 80 percent of those who signed the petition were women.
On Women’s Day, March 8, 2008, I drove my car and made a video clip to support the driving campaign which was released on YouTube. That video clip ensured that the driving campaign became known around the world. I thought at the time that it would be a matter of a few months before the KSA authorities let women drive cars.
Five years later, there are no indications that this right will be granted to women. So, the fact is women might have to wait for years to gain the right to drive cars. Moreover, the situation is getting worse for women now. The Saudi authorities have limited the number of countries whose citizens can work as private drivers for Saudi families. This has raised the cost of hiring drivers.
Women suffer every day in order to get basic things done, like going to work or buying groceries. Also, many can’t work because they can’t find a driver at an affordable price.
Under these circumstances, we are demanding a transportation allowance from the Saudi government until they provide reliable public transportation in every Saudi city. The Saudi government has plenty of money and they can easily afford it. The government is preventing women from driving, so they should pay us so that we can survive.
In the US, Katrina vanden Heuvel says, women bear the brunt of federal budget cuts.
Three hours is a long time for a TV program, but Makers, the much-heralded PBS documentary about the last fifty years of American feminism, could have been twice as long and it still would have felt short to me, given the immense, dramatic and complex story it tells. The Feminine Mystique, NOW, consciousness raising, the ERA, Roe v. Wade, Gloria Steinem, the movement of women out of the home and into the workforce, the overturning of one legal and social barriers after another (sex-segregated job ads, quotas in medical school, police indifference to violence against women), the lavender menace, Anita Hill, Gloria Steinem, the Pill, the (alas, ongoing) fight for birth control and abortion and look, there’s Gloria Steinem again. Even if you are familiar with most of the material presented here, most of which can be found in other popular histories like Gail Collins’s delightful When Everything Changed, it’s thrilling to see it on screen: the director of the all-male Boston Marathon trying to shove Katherine Switzer out of the race in 1967 (she had sneaked in by registering under her initial); Billie Jean King borne aloft to “the match of the century” by costumed boy toys on some sort of Egyptian palanquin; Shirley Chisolm delivering a fiery speech with utter calmness and assurance, feminists sitting in at the Ladies Home Journal; best of all, the everyday women who made history by standing up for their rights, as workers, as battered women, as wives who had just had it up to here. There are plenty of ads and articles and talk show clips to remind us of how trivialized women were, and how exhilarating were what seem today like very modest steps—could it be that That Girl was the first TV show centered on a woman who was not an appendage to a man? That 1992, the much-celebrated Year of the Woman, brought the number of female senators up to five?
Makers is resolutely centered on pop culture—Erica Jong and wonderful Judy Blume are there, but no mention of Adrienne Rich, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Ellen Willis, Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, bell hooks, among the many writers the have given the movement artistic and intellectual heft. It also hews to a particular mainstream narrative that makes Steinem central and scants other strains—black feminism and womanism, the zine movement, Riot Grrl. Still, Makers captures the excitement of the Second Wave—the huge marches, the demonstrations, the meetings, the heady joy of victories coming thick and fast. Everyone was so young! They had such fun! And so much sex! (Betty Dodson, who made masturbation respectable, although the film doesn’t actually mention that, says after she left her sexless marriage and fell in love at 35, “We stayed in bed for a year”). Is nostalgia just an inevitable part of historical documentaries? Even Phyllis Schlafly, who gets quite a bit of airtime as the slayer of the ERA, looks fresh-faced and trim and cheerful as she marshals her reactionary troops, if hardly the ordinary housewife she pretended to be. (“I used to tell her, I think I cook dinner more often than you do, says former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder.)
The last hour, bringing us up to date, is much less satisfying. The filmmakers are committed to their optimistic storyline but have to deal with the various ways women’s progress has been stymied and the movement has splintered. We enter the land of “choice feminism,” where Abigail Pogrebin’s leaving her high-powered TV job for a quieter life as a part-time working mother is somehow both perfectly fine (no judging!) and the fault of her feminist mother Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who did not fix the world fast enough. Responding to the familiar charge that young women are apathetic, we hear briefly from younger feminists Amy Richards and Shelby Knox (both Steinem protégées), who argue that young women are activists even if they don’t identify as feminists. We get no sense of the intense, vibrant, combative nature of online feminism. Where are Jessica Valenti, Amanda Marcotte, Latoya Peterson, the Crunk Feminist Collective? Where’s Med Students for Choice and the National Network of Abortion Funds? There are plenty of contemporary counterparts to the coal miners and “stewardesses” and battered wives whose fight for justice ignites the earlier sections—think of the brave women soldiers coming out about rape in the military. Instead, Makers claims that young feminists are focusing on the even greater oppression of women in the developing world, which implies that global feminism is America’s gift to the world, and gives the impression that feminism in the US has reached a natural stopping point. As right-wing commentator Monica Crowley puts it, feminism today means whatever you want, including choosing not to be a feminist.
From the problem that has no name to the movement that, according to Makers, has no identity. What will the next half-century bring?
We're all women workers now! Bryce Covert explains why.
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.”