The battle over abortion rights is simply a flashpoint in women’s pervasive experience of being deprived of control of our destinies
One of the most frustrating things about being “pro-choice” is the assumption that the only choice we care about has to do with our bodies. Really, the choices we’re talking about have to do with preserving, or expanding, all of the choices available to women. The choices we make about our bodies, yes, but also choices about our time, our minds, our emotions, our money, our thoughts, our votes and our voices.
There is not a woman reading this right now that hasn’t experienced a reminder, probably quite recently, maybe even today, that her choices are more limited than a man’s. This week, I asked the Twitter universe for examples of this – examples of how women don’t have the options that men do in all kinds of situations. Some of the answers were funny, a lot were serious, all of them meant something. A few favorites:
@anamariecox not always on hairstyles, try wearing hardhat w/ponytail, but don’t have to worry about shaving for respirator fit (beards bad)
— Geeky Girl Engineer (@gkygirlengineer) September 18, 2013
@soonergrunt @anamariecox I would have been a flight medic, would have made a sniper both closed at time. Men aren’t thrilled with 11bravo.
— JessicaRRG (@Mumaroo1) September 18, 2013
@lechatsavant @anamariecox not diagnosed with adhd until my 40′s because everybody knows only boys have adhd
— Knuck (@knck1es) September 18, 2013
@anamariecox when you see a woman executive, chances are she’s in HR because, you know, vagina means soft skills, right?
— Lois Lipstick Long (@LipstickLong) September 18, 2013
And a last one, kind of meta and very sad:
@anamariecox Not wanting to share incidents here to avoid dealing with potential backlash when colleagues/professional contacts see it
— Teresa Genaro (@BklynBckstretch) September 18, 2013
(You can find almost the entire thread here.)
My own first clear memory of realizing that my future would be different than a boy with the same dreams was in high school. I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and, like most 15 year-olds who read On the Road, I immediately wanted to take off across the country myself. That Kerouac was sexist I don’t think I realized or maybe chose to ignore. But what I knew in my gut was that I probably would never be able to make that trip, certainly not by myself.
Since then, there have been other reminders. As I said, almost daily ones. But my own experience is less important than the fact that I even something that specific didn’t just happen to me.
When I asked the Twitterverse for those examples, in fact, one of the very first responses was from another journalist, who shared her frustration over not being able to safely take the same assignments as male colleagues – which is the adult, professional version of my own frustrated Kerouacian dream, and one I share today. I have male colleagues who have reported from war zones, profiled Somali pirates, gone undercover in secret societies, and they’ve written amazing pieces – stories that I will never get the chance to add to myself.
It’s true that you or I could do any one of those stories. What’s different for me, for us is the effort, the support needed, and the danger involved.
In the implicit closing down of options, in the subtle way power is exerted over our choices, in the diffuse and invisible discouragement, the lack of any one person to blame … that narrowing of choices in the assignments I can take or in the places you can go or the sports our daughters can play – all of these are minor analogues to the more intensely personal and dramatically physical shutting-down of women’s choices about their bodies.
Yes, there are villains in the story of needless access restrictions and “safety” regulations; yes, there are specific lawmakers and activists. There are people we can rally against. But what makes the battle for reproductive choice so tricky is that while it’s easy to defeat or expose the obvious assholes (Todd Akin), the rhetoric and tactics of our opposition draw on the existing and pervasive forms of institutionalized sexism that don’t have an obvious connections to pregnancy or contraception. Some examples of what I mean:
• Laws that require practioners to have hospital privileges or that bar the use of telemedicine in reproductive health, but allow it for non-gendered procedures, draw on the idea that women’s bodies are inherently more mysterious and delicate, and that they must be protected against imaginary threats.
• Laws that mandate ultrasounds (pdf) or counseling (pdf), or both, draw on the idea that women don’t know their own bodies, or don’t realize the consequences of their decisions. This despite the fact that today most women seeking abortions – up to 72% – are already mothers. They know what’s happening to them, the connection between what’s happening to them and the potential for a child.
• Barring abortion in all cases except for when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest relates to the belief that in any other situation, a woman’s unwanted pregnancy is “her fault”, that a woman who decides of her own free will to have sex is tacitly agreeing to become pregnant – because the only real reason for a woman to have sex is, of course, to get pregnant.
• Waiting periods, and multiple clinic visits, hinge on the underlying belief that women are prone to hasty, “emotional” decisions, that they must be protected from their own hysterical behavior. This despite surveys that show almost 90% of women who seek abortions are “highly confident” about their decision before they contact a provider.
This assumption of flightiness, that women who want to end their pregnancies haven’t made a rational decision, underlies almost all the justifications for limiting women’s access to providers of reproductive healthcare. The decision to end a pregnancy involves emotions, it generates emotions, but it’s not an emotional decision. People who are anti-choice disparage the abortion decision as one made to “get out of” being pregnant, as one made out of selfishness or hedonism. But any woman who’s faced an unwanted pregnancy knows that the decision to end it carries its own negative consequences. I’m not talking about pseudo-scientific warnings about “post-abortion syndrome” or any permanent mental or spiritual or physical impairment, but just a weight of knowledge that inevitably follows the decision to refuse what we know to be a gift, in exchange for a different kind of gift.
Any real choice also has consequences; any freedom worth having has a cost. When we argue for choice, choice of any kind, we are not arguing that we want something for nothing. We are arguing for the right to pay the cost that men pay, and get the same benefit in return. To do the same work that men do, and get the same pay. To achieve what they’ve achieved and not have it taken away.
When I opened up that conversation on Twitter, I knew that there would be pushback.
A lot of the pushback took the form of “men suffer too!” I have some sympathy for this argument. Gender roles constrain men, though they usually constrain men only when they want to exercise a behavior that’s considered feminine. Men don’t suffer when they act like men; they experience bias when they want to do something that women do. What’s more, the gender bias is rarely (not never, but rarely) enshrined in law. Imagine if there was a waiting period for Viagra.
Also, I would gladly trade some of the so-called “advantages” women have for, say, equal representation in politics. You can have my Jimmy Choos. Give me Governor Wendy Davis.
Most of the negative commentary on Twitter was just sarcasm and mockery – laughing at the idea that having to pay more for alterations was part of the “war on women”. Two things on that: first, any time women are reminded that they don’t have the same freedoms and benefits that men have matters; and second, invalidating the discussion as trivial kind of proves the point that we need to have it.
That mockery and pushback are also a hint at the most powerful tool we have in claiming the choices we’ve been denied: to speak out about them. To call out the sexism we experience as sexism. This can be exhausting, I admit. I think most of us choose to not do it all the time; it could turn into a full-time job. (That’s mine!)
Everyone can choose their own limits about these things, pick her own battles. It helps to have a sense of humor. But we do have to talk about it.
Not talking about institutionalized, invisible and everyday, “trivial” sexism allows it not just to persist, but persist in ways that other women (and men!) don’t even recognize. I give credit to a lot of the men who watched that Twitter discussion unfold and wrote that they “didn’t realize” what we faced. Didn’t realize that, yes, we notice when there aren’t women’s teams on television, or women’s names on the ballot, or that our pants don’t fit, or that garage mechanics overcharge us.
I worry that some women might not realize that those forms of sexism are pervasive but not permanent. Things can change. Things do change. But we have to talk about them first.
• This column is a version of a speech the author gave at NARAL-Pro-Choice Minnesota’s “The Power of Choice” event on 19 September
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