Now that the "pit bull in lipstick" who got her start in the PTA has had her honor defended on the national stage, it's only fitting that we're all waiting for Obama's "female surrogates" to fight back. In case we were a bit anesthetized, with all that rocking and "change" chanting, we now have a reason to wake up: hot girl-on-girl action, Election 2008.
In the two weeks since Sarah Palin was introduced to America, first as the second-ever female candidate for vice president, and soon after as the baby-making, gun-toting, wolf-killing beauty queen of the Christian Right, the question of sexism -- or, more precisely, the media's use of sexist frames to introduce and belittle female candidates -- has returned with a vengeance.
The first burst of coverage concentrated nearly exclusively on Palin's family and appearance. In Lifetime-style soft focus, we learned that she's married to her high school sweetheart, her fifth child has Down's syndrome, and her eldest son is bound for Iraq. Then US, People and the Enquirer sharpened the view. Could the McCain camp truly have known that Palin's unmarried 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was five months pregnant? Was Trig really Bristol's first baby? And what about those persistent rumors that Palin had an affair?
The National Review Online countered these salacious details by asserting that Palin's family represented "vitality and life -- the men are virile, the women are fecund." Robert Novak called her "attractive"; Rush Limbaugh crowed that the Right had the "babe"; bloggers named her McCain's "Trophy Vice"; and Maureen Dowd engaged in a fantasy about Palin in go-go boots. State-specific political buttons, produced by day four, proclaimed "Coldest State, Hottest Governor," and "Hoosiers for the Hot Chick." The New York Times added some gravity to the gossip mill when it reported that the vetting process for Palin had been cursory at best. Unnamed sources said that McCain had wanted the pro-choice Joe Lieberman to be his candidate, but he had caved under James Dobson's pressure. Palin was a craven choice; a pair of breasts; an ingenue; a joke.
What has passed for "issue specific" coverage of Palin has focused on her purported moral hypocrisy: She can't be pro-life if she shoots at wolves and moose; she can't be pro-abstinence if her daughter isn't a virgin; she can't be a serious candidate if she won a beauty contest; she can't be for family values if she refuses to stay at home. The Times' "Mommy Wars: Campaign Edition" queried mothers about Palin's prospective work-family balance and found that most were uneasy about Palin's taking on such a difficult job: "A mother of an infant with Down syndrome taking up full-time campaigning? Not my value set" was a typical response. (Not to be outdone, the Washington Post titled its story on the same theme "Gov. Mom.") Is it any surprise that Rick Davis, campaign manager for McCain, spoke of needing to revise the speech that had been written for the prospective vice presidential candidate because it was "very masculine"?
Meanwhile, the majority of Americans, myself included, remain clueless about the true intellectual and political positions of the person before us. How "nice" for her to get this kind of a free pass; to only have to parry comments about her body and her kids. If you're a female politician, the political is the personal. Your body is the source of your ideas, and the issues you support are "women's issues." And if you cross into male territory -- guns, money, security -- your best response, as Palin seems, intuitively, to get, is camp.
It's obvious that the caricature of Palin to which we're being exposed is the inverse of the caricature of Hillary Clinton. Even if you'd missed the first half of the campaign, all you'd have to do is flip the script. If Palin is "better suited to be a calendar model for a local auto body shop than a holder of the second-highest office in the land," then Clinton is a dumpy, frigid, post-menopausal, castrating bluestocking who only got women's votes because she was a victim of her husband's indiscriminate -- but hell, with that kind of wife? -- sexual transgressions. At least the Right gets the "sexy librarian"; those of us on the other side are stuck with the saccharine Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits.
The surfeit of ridicule to which female candidates have been exposed throughout this campaign has sent feminist writers into a tailspin. Some, like Melody Rose, writing in the Oregonian, have taken to patiently explaining that women are just a teensy weensy bit constrained: "A woman has to choose between running as the candidate with the proper competence -- and thus, being manly -- or as the candidate who is properly feminine -- and thus, being unqualified," she writes. The Nation's Katha Pollitt was more succinct. The McCain camp must think women have the "IQ of a Tampax," she snorted, to bet they would switch from Clinton to Palin purely because Palin is a woman.
Over at Salon, Rebecca Traister's deep disappointment in having to take Palin seriously was palpable: "What a failure by McCain to have this woman -- with her pregnancies and progeny and sex life and child-rearing prowess now being inspected instead of her policy and voting history -- stand in for, and someday, possibly emblemize, the political progress of American women ..." And at Feministing, cdnmama wrote that "Women all over the U.S. must come to terms with the somewhat disconcerting fact that the ticket in this race that offers a chance for the improvement of women's economic and political situations ... is, in fact, made up of two men."
There are a few problems with this kind of point-counterpoint approach to the question of "sexism" in the press and on the political stage. The first is that rarely is the situation as neat and tidy as the recent brouhaha over Palin. It's true that the Women's Media Center produced a harrowing video of clips, most from FOX and MSNBC, demonstrating that not only Clinton, but also female commentators and other women politicians, are regularly sexualized and demeaned by members of the press. There's no shortage of video, radio, print and cartoon denigrations of women, particularly female candidates, as the National Organization for Women's "Media Hall of Shame" has amply proved.
In isolation, these clips are clearly offensive; the commentators are abhorrent, especially when they're laughing, or sneering, in the midst of their remarks. But most political commentary is more slippery than this. The caricature may look the same, but instead of being the central focus of the piece, it's the catchy hook; the thing we're not supposed to take seriously; the appetizer before the serious critique. A recent piece by Gail Collins in the New York Times is a case in point. She begins by referencing the "moose-gutting, polar bear-trashing, aerobics-class-networking vice presidential nominee" and then moves in to the real content of the piece. It's a rhetorical flourish, but repeated often enough, these epithets begin to stick.
And then there are the candidates themselves. In order to soften the incendiary potential of their candidacy, many female politicians will speak of their politics as stemming from their roles as wives and mothers, thus legitimizing the very approach for which they'll be skewered in the press. To ask female politicians to pretend they aren't women, or mothers, however, is equally absurd.
It's for these reasons, and many others, that I find it troubling that "feminism" has come to mean the work of pointing out, over and over -- sometimes politely, sometimes with rancor -- specific remarks or images that are demeaning to women. No longer a movement for social justice with a goal of freeing both men and women from pernicious and confining ideas about masculinity and femininity, power and privilege, feminism is seen today as a game of "gotcha," with women -- mainly wealthy white women -- playing the game against men to win.
In this caricature of the movement, feminists are just another "special interest group," showing up on some "Crossfire"-style split screen to point out Chris Matthews' latest gaffe. And sure, it's good that as a result of these kinds of critiques, the Times' ombudsman scoured its coverage of the Clinton campaign and expressed "regret" for writing about the "Clinton cackle." But does anyone think that nailing MSNBC -- which, in true cowardly fashion, just demoted both Matthews and Keith Olbermann in order to look "fair and balanced" -- is going to stop people like Donny Deutsch from calling Palin the "new feminist ideal" because "men want to mate with her and women want to be her"? Since when has being a successful sex object been a feminist cause celebre? And what has happened to the public understanding of what feminism really means, if the word can be appropriated in such a fashion?
There's a big difference between identifying sexist acts and undermining patriarchy, the system of power and privilege that reinforces and grounds particular stories about how men and women should behave, how sex and gender should be expressed, about who is rational and who is emotional, who's a "fighter" and who's a "babe." These narratives are refracted and reinforced by the media and by people speaking from podiums, most certainly, but they aren't the work of a few bad eggs.
To equate feminism with the fight against "sexism" is to imply that the work of feminism is that of changing or eliminating those individuals who perpetrate these sexist acts. If we could just stop the Chris Matthewses and the Norman Mailers, the Maureen Dowds and the Phyllis Schlaflys, the story goes; if we could just get people to stop watching FOX News, or write another letter to MSNBC, then somehow, someday, women will be treated with respect. And it's the idea that feminists focus on individuals, rather than systems of power, that grounds the conservative caricature of feminists as a cardigan-flapping bunch of prudes, censoring a couple of good fellows who were just making a joke.
If all it took to free women, or African-Americans, or immigrants, or the poor, from the stories that make them seem "different," menacing, irrational and emotional was "recognition," then feminists should be spending their money dropping educational pamphlets from the skies. But these ideas about masculinity and femininity, sexuality and race -- ideas that make the joke of the New Yorker cover instantly comprehensible, no matter what you think of the joke -- are entrenched and crucial to the ways we in America have made the world make sense. If it were easy to overturn the history of these stories about blacks and women, we could simply point out that Palin and Clinton aren't getting a fair shake and that Michelle Obama is walking a tightrope. We could expect that the pages of print devoted to scrutinizing the Clinton coverage would have influenced the coverage of Palin. But that's just not the case.
At first glance, it seems like a harmless waste of time to devote political analysis to the question of whether Barack Obama might be "too thin" to be president, implying he's a bit too faggy for the job, or to joke about Palin as a dominatrix, spanking McCain. It feels safe, and comfortable, to bring these candidates out of the stratosphere and onto the couch. But if we waste the next 60 days on questions of "personality," with the word standing in for gender and racial conformity, rather than intellectual heft, the conservatives could win. And if we keep on with the fiction that racial and gender stereotypes are held by a few remaining bad eggs, we will severely underestimate the challenge that this election poses to ourselves as individuals, and to our nation.
The excitement generated in the first months of the Obama campaign was at least in part a result of the legacy of movement politics, the language of which saturated most of Obama's early speeches. It was the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, that spoke of making fundamental, liberating change. It's that kind of change that roused the people who had never voted and never cared about voting to think that this time might be different. It's why Sarah Palin saved her deepest scorn for movement organizers, to put us on notice that that kind of change is dead. But there's this thing about movements and change: They don't need heroes; they don't need magical leaders. All they need, all they ever need, is time.
If it's not enough of an indignity to be resoundingly spanked by the passage of eleven amendments forbidding gay marriage, gay folk are now in the position of reading articles in The New York Times announcing that the Human Rights Campaign and other mainstream gay rights organizations are engaged in a "debate over whether they should moderate their goals in the wake of [their] bruising losses." In the face of such a rout at the national level, the mainstream press seems to expect that queers, tails between their legs, will follow the DNC in castigating themselves for promoting any agenda other than that of corporate interests.
What's interesting to consider is how it became plausible for the Times and other members of the press to read the success or failure of gay marriage as indicative of the gay rights movement's relative progress. Or, more precisely, why "gay marriage" has come to stand for gay rights, when historically, many of those involved in the gay rights movement have fought not only to achieve sexual freedom, but also to destroy those larger structures of power - classism, racism, and patriarchy - that contribute to the oppression of those who are different. Given the fact that some progressive queers read marriage as symbolic of the very culture they seek to transform, it is not surprising that they see the quest for marriage rights as inherently problematic.
Yet it can also be said that because the Right so successfully used the threat of gay marriage to galvanize voters in the re-election campaign of President Bush, those working in mainstream gay rights organizations were compelled to respond: the gay community was under attack. And, following the truism that "no publicity is bad publicity," it made sense for them to re-appropriate the negative attention by demonstrating that gay and lesbian couples deserve the rights granted to their straight married analogs. As stories about gay marriage crowded out reporting on other issues that could have been the central focus of the movement, the debate about marriage, either by default or by choice, appeared to be the main concern of gay people as much as the Christian fundamentalist base. At the pride parade in Atlanta last summer, for example, almost all of the floats focused on marriage, and participants threw intertwined rings to the spectators to remind them of the Christian Coalition's efforts to pass a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage.
Although it makes sense that mass spectacles, such as Pride Parades, would respond to the dominant depiction of gays through camp and resistance, the very success of the Right in commandeering the rhetoric about marriage served to exacerbate an already existing tension in the gay rights movement. What has happened among the queer community in the last two years is that the question of gay marriage has become attached to a larger debate between radical and assimilationist camps about the political priorities of the movement. Should queers focus their attention on the way they are depicted in mainstream culture, seeking dispensation from the larger straight world, or should they work to achieve rights by transforming American culture as a whole? Books like Jonathan Rauch's Gay Marriage: Why its Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, for example, argue that "same sex marriage extends and clarifies the mission" of marriage by "shoring up the key values and commitments on which couples and families and society depend." Others, like Mattilda, aka Matt Bernstein Sycamore, editor of That's Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation find it "ironic that the central sign of straight conformity is seen as the pre-eminent goal of the gay rights movement." For radicals like Mattilda, marriage is a signifier of class privilege, a way of dividing a particular version of gay identity from the larger queer community. Among queers, the prospect of gay moms or dads, cheerily waving from the windows of suitably bumper-stickered Volvos, seems to evoke either heartwarming ideas of social progress or the urge to vomit and throw rocks.
What does a gay family look like?
The Human Rights Campaign is a nonpartisan organization devoted to advancing "equality based on sexual orientation and gender expression" and ensuring that GLBT Americans "can be open, honest, and safe at home and at work." With a membership of nearly 600,000 and an annual budget of 30 million dollars, it is the largest and most wealthy gay rights organization in the nation. Its task is twofold: to lobby the federal government to include the needs of GLBT individuals and families in national legislation, and to support state gay rights organizations in their efforts to lobby the legislature and overturn anti-gay laws and ordinances. Last year, according to Seth Kilbourn, Director of the Marriage Project, the HRC gave 1.7 million dollars to state gay rights organizations and devoted 1.6 million dollars to its education and get out the vote efforts.
When the HRC decided to lobby for marriage rights, therefore, it sent a strong signal to other organizations that gay marriage should be the issue around which the gay movement should coalesce, and many, such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, followed suit. The HRC created an ad campaign as a central component of their lobbying efforts, running the ads in newspapers and periodicals with a readership potentially sympathetic to gay and lesbian rights.
The ads - black and white photographs of gay couples - are beautiful, and have a visual and textual consistency. One ad depicts a white lesbian couple sitting under a tree with their daughter, another an interracial lesbian couple who stand with their heads resting lightly against one another, and yet another a "senior" white lesbian couple who sit on a park bench holding hands. The text accompanying the photos explains that "Anna and Marion are worried about losing their house," whereas "Jo and Teresa don't qualify for full social security survivor benefits even after a lifetime of paying taxes." Marriage, the ads explain, will save these families from troubles straight couples never have to face. Implicit in this stylized representation of gay families is the argument that gay people deserve marriage rights because they are "just like you," with the implied receiver of the advertisement a straight, middle-class professional who is either already married or aspires to be. The tacit link between the viewer and the people in the photographs is their shared notion of what it means to be a family - quite literally, of what a family looks like.
Though the ads are attuned to the multicultural spectrum of gay and lesbian couples, they are silent on the issue of class. The message is clear: gays and lesbians work hard, save money, buy houses, have children - in short, want to achieve the American Dream - and they deserve its benefits because they pay their taxes like everyone else. To be fair to the HRC, it's important to remember that the ad campaign was designed not only to persuade viewers to vote against anti-gay marriage amendments, but also to counter the propaganda put forth by groups like James Dobson's Focus on the Family. When you're in an image war, it makes sense to fight fire with fire - for every freshly-scrubbed Christian family, HRC substitutes an impeccable pair of gay men, designer pants neatly pressed, beaming proudly at their twins.
What's lost in all this attention to the politics of representation, however, is the long-term impact these images have on the gay community and the element of the straight world that chooses to valorize them. By arguing that gay couples deserve the recognition and rights conferred on those who are married, HRC and others have also chosen to create a particular image of gay culture, one palatable to straight people because the realm of difference exists in the space of the private. Because most Americans believe in the right to privacy, and because the Supreme Court overturned Bowers v. Hardwick, making sodomy legal, HRC strategically evokes the law of the land to buttress the arguments for gay marriage. Because gay couples differ from straight couples only in the realm of sexual object choice, the campaign implicitly argues, they should not be subject to discrimination.
In this sense, the argument for gay marriage becomes not only a discussion about rights, but also about the distinctiveness of gay people. If to be gay is just about a sex act, and now a legal one at that, then discrimination against gay people becomes merely a matter of sexual prudery. Anyone who is hip enough to realize that sexuality is more than the missionary position, it would seem, should be able to support gay marriage, and by extension, full gay rights.
But it is precisely this argument that denies the radical diversity of queer culture, and the fact that queer identity, for most who embrace it, implies far more than sexuality.
By representing the family as a nuclear unit composed of a couple and their children, the HRC's ads tacitly reinforce the definition of the family that fundamentalist Christians have claimed is under attack. Sociologists have long demonstrated that the notion of marriage and the family that is currently celebrated by conservatives is inherently white and middle-class, doesn't represent the majority of family structures in the country, and is a recent invention. While it is hardly shocking that conservatives are claiming an ahistorical definition of the family as a way to promote a very contemporary agenda, it is notable that when gays and lesbians share this definition, they erase the diverse models of the family that are one of the hallmarks of queer culture. In this sense, even as they fight for the rights for gay and lesbian couples, the HRC and others capitulate to the idea that the conservative definition of the family is the ideal standard to which all others hope to conform.
Rauch builds on this argument by maintaining that established couples benefit society by making a commitment to care for one another. Because this commitment is difficult, those who do the work should receive special benefits. To the straight eye, gay culture appears to suffer from "a case of Peter Pan syndrome," he concedes, but "marriage says . . . if you will make a commitment, you will receive the legal recognition and special status which only marriage brings. If you assume the responsibilities of adulthood, you will get the prerogatives." If those who are "adults" deserve special status, then by extension, those who are single or who live in communal living arrangements do not. Rather than arguing that all people deserve healthcare, for example, Rauch and others contend that married people, by virtue of their relationships, deserve more rights.
When I posed this challenge to Seth Kilbourn, he told me that "the healthcare system is broken" and that HRC "wants to be a part of any debate" about reforming the system. The question becomes, what would happen if all the money raised to promote gay marriage was instead used to lobby for universal healthcare?
Gay Sex Doth Not a Queer Make
For Mattilda, who quipped that HRC should stand for "homogenous ruling class," the choice to make marriage the centerpiece of gay rights is "frightening" because it demonstrates the power those in mainstream organizations have to allocate resources and to choose which segments of the larger queer community will receive the greatest benefits. What has happened to the gay community, he asks, when queer residents of the now valuable Castro neighborhood of San Francisco protest the building of a shelter for homeless queer youth because it compromises their property values? It is only those who already have class privilege and property, he argues, who are able to attain full social equality when granted the rights linked to marriage. "Why are homelessness and police brutality not queer issues?" he asks, and why does the movement not fight to overthrow the systems of power that discriminate against many people, rather than just queers?
Among queers, the argument for gay marriage not only implies a set of assumptions about class privilege and political priorities, but also has become inseparable from the question of representation. Because gay people lack the numbers and financial power to attain civil rights, they must petition straight culture to be recognized. Galling as this proposition is, it immediately raises the question of what it means to be gay, in the eyes of the straight world and then in the eyes of queers. To say that being gay is only about sexual object choice is to argue within the narrowest possible parameters. There is no need to engage the question of why married people deserve health benefits and those in other communal living arrangements do not. There is no need to define marriage, and there is no argument about what it means to be queer. Instead, gay people become straight people who love someone of the same sex. Those who are transsexual or who refuse a fixed notion of gender identity are not only left out of the current discussion, they would have to create a completely separate set of arguments to defend their civil rights.
If to celebrate marriage is, symbolically, to celebrate a traditional notion of the American Dream, then those queers who reject gay marriage are also often rejecting a particular notion of being - one associated with whiteness, with class privilege, with suburbia, with monogamy, with children, with property. It is the wholesale rejection of American individualism, in fact, that is frequently the subtext of the dissent, among queers, to the arguments for gay marriage. It is clearly inconceivable to some Americans that there are those who might not order their lives along this particular path by choice, rather than by disenfranchisement. There are certainly many queers who do long for a traditional conception of marriage and the family and are denied these structures because they are different. And there are many queers who are, in most respects, indistinguishable from their straight neighbors.
But what is important is that many who embrace a notion of queer identity to queer not only sexuality but also being believe that queer culture is vastly superior to that of the straight world and is in danger of losing its voice under the marketing blitz created by the queer wedding industry. The question becomes, what would happen if all people were granted the rights accrued to marriage, and not just couples? What would happen if the greatest, most exorbitant fantasies of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell actually came true? In what ways would American culture be radically changed not by the mainstreaming of virtually straight couples, but by the queering of America? I suppose the question I am asking, one impossible to answer, is the extent to which the queer subculture is alternative in a creative or a reactive sense. It seems that these questions have yet to be raised, precisely because those who identify as queer want no part of mainstream culture, and those who want in are willing, it seems, to sacrifice at least some of their privileges of difference.
There's a new front in the battle for abortion rights – the literal front, that is, of a T-shirt designed by writer and feminist activist Jennifer Baumgardner that proclaims "I had an abortion." The shirt, initially for sale on Planned Parenthood's national web site and now available on Clamor magazine's web site, has generated controversy among not only the anti-abortion community but also pro-choice feminists.
Inspired in part by the bold irreverence of second-wave feminists, who circulated a petition proclaiming the fact of their own abortions and published it in the first issue of Ms., Baumgardner created the T-shirt in order to remove the stigma that relegates those who have had an abortion to shame and silence. The shirt is one component of a multipart project Baumgardner conceived to draw attention to women's experiences of abortion. Other elements of the project include a film that will debut at the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January, featuring interviews with women who have had abortions; a guidebook to busting through the gridlock on the abortion debate, with a photo essay by Tara Todras-Whitehill, that will be published by Akashic Books; and the creation and distribution of resource cards that help women locate abortion services and obtain post-abortion counseling.
Only the shirt, however, has become a phenomenon. Because of its public nature, the tee has sparked a national response that neither Baumgardner nor Planned Parenthood anticipated.
"The shirt was always the least significant part of the project," Baumgardner says, explaining that she printed 500 shirts, mailing some to influential feminists and selling the rest at last April's March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C. Soon afterward, Planned Parenthood offered to carry the shirt on their web site to "remind everyone that abortion policy affects real people," according to Gloria Feldt, president of the organization. When the Drudge Report posted a photograph of the shirt on its opening page, however, what a Planned Parenthood media representative termed a "media tsunami" soon followed.
The shirt has certainly fulfilled Baumgardner's hope that it would start a conversation about abortion, but the very brevity of its message has had an unanticipated consequence. Although it's no surprise that individuals such as Jim Sedlak, executive director of the American Life League's STOPP International, think the shirt "celebrates an act of violence" and demonstrates that Planned Parenthood "lacks any sense of integrity, tact and compassion," it's interesting to note that many pro-choice feminists are ambivalent about – or even angered by – the shirt's message. Why, they ask, is the abortion fight taking place on something as public and casual as a T-shirt?
In one respect, creating a T-shirt to proclaim the reality of abortion in the plainest of language is the perfect antidote to the climate of fear that informs the ongoing battle for women's reproductive rights. The Bush administration's attack on public health – including sex education, as well as abortion – is taking place in multiple arenas. Family-planning organizations that receive federal funding are forbidden to present information about abortion to their clients. President Bush has refused to provide federal funding for research on new stem-cell lines because the cells are garnered from embryonic tissue. The successful passage in Congress of the partial birth abortion ban has caused doctors who perform abortions to fear for their medical licenses because the law's wording is so vague. The recent passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which allows a defendant to be charged with two federal crimes when a fetus is killed or injured during an attack on the pregnant woman, presents an even greater challenge to Roe v. Wade, because it creates a precedent in which the fetus is granted the legal status of a person. The House has also passed a bill that allows healthcare providers who oppose abortion not only to refuse to give their patients information about abortion or perform the procedure but also to deny them emergency contraception; it would also prevent government officials from penalizing healthcare institutions for refusing to provide information or services to their patients. The Republican Party platform contains a plank calling for an explicit ban on all forms of abortion, even if the health of the mother is endangered.
In the face of such a far-reaching anti-choice agenda, the presence of women wearing T-shirts proclaiming their decision to have an abortion would seem a forceful response. As Barbara Ehrenreich recently reminded readers in a New York Times editorial, "Abortion is legal – it's just not supposed to be mentioned or acknowledged as an acceptable option." Since Roe v. Wade, she writes, "at least 30 million American women" have had abortions, "a number that amounts to about 40 percent of American women." Yet according to a 2003 survey conducted by a pro-choice organization, "only 30 percent of women were unambivalently pro-choice." Ehrenreich logically surmises that many women who refuse to state publicly that they are pro-choice have nevertheless obtained safe, legal abortions. By remaining silent about their experience, or by refusing to call the act of terminating a pregnancy because of fetal birth defects an abortion, these women are tacitly supporting those who seek to outlaw abortion. To be vocal about abortion – not by supporting an abstract "freedom of choice," but instead by naming abortion as a fact of women's experience – is thus to break the dual threat of political and private shaming that keeps women silent.
That both Ehrenreich and Baumgardner have called upon women to speak publicly about their abortions is no coincidence; rather, it represents their desire to honor, and perhaps resuscitate, a tactic integral to the politics of second-wave feminism. Many of the political agendas of second-wave feminists were the by-product of consciousness-raising groups, which encouraged women to speak out – not only to break the silences that foster discrimination but also to build community. This legacy of speech-as-activism is still found in Take Back the Night vigils – in which women name their experiences of physical and sexual abuse – as well as in the explosion of feminist zines and the music of riot grrrls.
Like Ehrenreich, who called for women to "take your thumbs out of your mouths, ladies, and speak up for your rights," Baumgardner sees a direct correlation between the increase in women's speech and the increase in their rights. "When women were most vocal about their experiences of abortion," she said, "Roe. v. Wade was enacted. Now that women are silent about their experiences of abortion, we are seeing a decline in their reproductive rights." Given this history of feminist politics, it's no surprise that Planned Parenthood, which initially agreed to sell 200 shirts on its web site, sold out so quickly that it had to refer potential customers to Baumgardner's site to meet the demand. Ehrenreich wears her shirt to the gym; Ani DiFranco wore hers to an interview with Inc., an apolitical business magazine. When the photograph of DiFranco sporting the shirt and holding her guitar appeared, readers wrote to the editors to protest, sparking an extended dialogue about abortion rights on Fresh Inc., the magazine's blog.
One of the most fascinating things about the shirt is the fact that it says so little and yet is interpreted in such radically different ways. I spoke with many women in the Atlanta area about the shirt, most of whom were pro-choice feminists, and heard it called tacky, cavalier, simplistic, arrogant, cool, shameful and brave. One 24-year-old woman found the shirt offensive because it returns the abortion debate to the public realm. "The whole purpose of abortion rights," she told me, "is to ensure that a woman can make her own decision about her body, in private, without having to seek permission from anyone else – not even her partner." A woman wearing the T-shirt, she explained, is asking for comments of approval or disapproval from men and women. "My body is mine," she said, "and I shouldn't have to justify or announce my decisions to anyone else."
Another woman told me that, though she's pro-choice herself, she couldn't understand why a woman would announce her abortion unless she was doing so as a matter of pride. "Does she want me to think about the fact that she had an abortion every time I see her?" she wondered out loud. "Because if I saw her wearing the shirt, that is what would stay with me, even if she never wore it again." I asked why she was associating a factual statement with the sentiment of boastfulness. "Because it's on a T-shirt," her friend chimed in. "Like the one I have that says 'No One Knows I'm a Lesbian.'" Her statement was greeted by nods of approval from the other women who were listening to our conversation. Because there are so many T-shirts that function as affirmations of identity, people have a hard time seeing the shirt outside of a pre-existing context. The logical question to ask, then, is the extent to which the fact of having an abortion is an aspect of a woman's identity. The decision to have an abortion is complex. A woman may respond to having an abortion with relief, guilt, grief or any number or combination of emotions, each of which will contribute in some way to her identity.
And what about the shirt as a fashion statement? If a woman wears the shirt because she likes it but hasn't had an abortion herself, she could be seen as an ally in struggle, or she could be faulted for appropriating another woman's experience – or, worse, disregarding it altogether. It all depends upon the way others perceive her. An activist from California told me that she wants to see as many women as possible wearing the shirt, regardless of whether they've had an abortion, to "participate in the collective destigmatizing of the procedure." To represent the fact of abortion, as the shirt certainly does, is not equivalent to representing experience. It's only an opening line.
But the question of representation is not limited to the shirt itself. The woman who wears the shirt creates a context for its reception in multiple ways. Her appearance, the location in which she wears it, and the fact of her being alone or in a group all add to the shirt's meaning. A woman wearing the shirt in a progressive city like Madison, Wisconsin, or Olympia, Washington, or in a "hate-free-zone" neighborhood like Atlanta's Little Five Points would probably get a reaction, but she'd be as likely to receive positive as negative comments.
What about the shirt's power to belie the stereotype of the kind of woman who has an abortion? A married suburban mother keeping a distracted eye on the children spilling out of her minivan is just as likely to have had an abortion as a single woman in her early 20s. If it comes as a shock to picture the shirt worn by a middle-aged, middle-class woman, it's a testament to the success of conservative rhetoric in casting woman who choose abortion as irresponsible, selfish, or overly careerist.
The negative reaction many feminists have to the shirt reveals a fundamental contradiction in the current state of pro-choice politics – or, more precisely, the extent to which those who are pro-choice feel ashamed, at some level, to support abortion. The fact that so many women read a simple statement as a "celebration" of the procedure speaks volumes about the feelings women have internalized as a consequence of the conservative assault on women's rights. Although most of the women I spoke with were uneasy about their response to the shirt, repeatedly insisting that they were pro-choice even as they told me they would never wear it, some reacted to a photograph of the shirt with anger.
"The only reason anyone would wear such a shirt would be to piss people off," one 19-year-old woman snorted. "No one who was serious about supporting abortion rights would wear it." Those who saw the shirt as an aggressive tactic also thought it was perfect ammunition for the anti-abortion movement, playing into the propaganda that paints pro-choice women as glorying in the selfish taking of a life. And judging from the comments on conservative blogs like Outside the Beltway and Baby Center, this argument has some merit. Amidst the usual vitriol and sardonic humor (one person wrote that the back of the shirt should say "Roe v. Wade – Eliminating Future Democrats One Choice at a Time") is a sense that, by creating a T-shirt so many would see as offensive, the pro-choice movement had intentionally sought to outrage the Christian right.
In fact, the fear that the shirt could inflame the existing passions of the anti-choice movement has led some Planned Parenthood affiliates to condemn it. Here in Georgia, I first learned about the shirt when Denise Noe wrote an editorial in the Aug. 2, 2004 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution criticizing the shirt and calling for "famous women who have had babies and given them up for adoption [to] announce this fact." The following Sunday, the paper's Woman to Woman column featured a point/counterpoint discussion of the shirt by a liberal and a conservative female commentator. Because the shirt's reception in Atlanta was anything but positive, I was curious to see if Planned Parenthood of Georgia was selling it. When I spoke with Leola Reis, the organization's vice president of communications, education, and outreach, she told me the chapter had not been consulted about the national organization's decision to sell the shirts. When media attention to the shirt escalated, she reported, the chapter had a lengthy and difficult discussion about the issues it raised.
"Women have enough trouble trying to secure a safe and legal abortion without having to become the unwitting victims of pro-life wrath," she says. Though she understands the intention behind the shirt, she's not sure it will have a positive effect on the actual experience of women trying to attain abortions in such a conservative time. Chapters of Planned Parenthood in Idaho, North Carolina, and South Carolina have criticized the shirt outright, and Planned Parenthood Canada distanced themselves from the controversy by saying, via their web site, that they "cannot comment on the approach" taken by Planned Parenthood of America.
It's important to recognize the extent to which the attention of the pro-choice movement has shifted away from the bodies and lives of women who need abortions and toward those who aim to strip women of the right to control their reproductive lives. So it's not surprising that a large part of the movement is plagued by the notion that anti-choicers riled up by the sight of women proclaiming their abortions on their chests will want to step up their efforts to deny them this power. Given this fear, it would seem a smart strategy to keep quiet, stay under the radar, and hope that women will vote anti-choice legislators out of office. Such a focus, however, ignores the effect pro-choice speech, including the shirt, might have on a woman feeling isolated and ashamed because she had had an abortion or is considering it. A public sisterhood of those who have chosen abortion, for a variety of personal reasons, could do a lot to counteract the hateful rhetoric of the anti-choice movement.
Baumgardner's T-shirt is a lightning rod for the emotions that surround the abortion issue – especially among feminists – because it forces the current unspoken contradiction of the pro-choice movement into public speech. It's smart to recognize the current political climate, the fact that abortion providers have been targeted and killed and clinics bombed, and that women's health clinics operate under the awareness that their staff might be assaulted or murdered for doing their job. In the face of real violence and real political majorities, it might seem logical to lie low and safeguard the rights of women by creating an environment in which they can exercise their right to terminate a pregnancy without fearing for their lives. At the same time, some of the most powerful slogans from both the feminist and gay rights movements focus on the act of speaking up: "Your silence will not protect you." Keeping quiet might seem like a smart political tactic, but when women muzzle themselves because they are afraid, their silence can masquerade as the appearance of support for the anti-choice agenda.
If we don't break the silence about abortion, our right to control our reproductive destiny will never seem as natural as the right to wear our political opinions on a shirt.