My testimony on Texas’ SB5

My testimony was just read on the floor of the Texas Senate, by Senator Wendy Davis of Ft. Worth. She is currently filibustering SB5, a horribly restrictive abortion bill. You can read more about SB5 at Burnt Orange Report. The testimony is not the full story of my abortion, and there were factors beyond my health that were absolutely in play when I made that decision. But we were asked to keep it to 500 words or less, so here’s what I was able to summarize within that limit.

My testimony:

I was in Austin on Sunday and Monday. I came from DC, because I had an abortion in Houston a few years ago, when my birth control failed due to antibiotics given after a surgery for my cervical cancer. Because of health problems I’ve had (ovarian cysts, endometriosis, cervical cancer) and the surgeries I’ve had to treat them, carrying a pregnancy could be extremely dangerous, both for me and for the fetus. Procedures to address my cervical cancer have compromised the strength of my cervix – later in a pregnancy, it’s possible my cervix wouldn’t be able to hold up a full uterus. But we couldn’t know! If I had carried the pregnancy and developed complications, I would likely have had to abort in order to save my life and any possible future fertility. It would have been well past 20 weeks. My doctors have told me that any pregnancy for me will be very high risk. I was only 23, in a relationship with someone who didn’t treat me very well, and far from any family emotional or financial support. So while there were medical issues, having a baby at that time was simply not in my own best interest, or in the interest of a child. Carrying that pregnancy just wasn’t possible, and women who face those same complications don’t only live in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas, the only places clinics will remain if SB5 passes. They live all over the state, in rural areas with limited contraception access and high rates of teen pregnancy. They live in Oklahoma and Louisiana, where the closest clinic by far is in Texas. All women need access to abortion, whether healthy or not, whether a rape victim or not, whether they have the financial resources to raise a child or not. Republicans would now tell me that I couldn’t follow my doctor’s advice. They should be ashamed of themselves for preaching about freedom from government intrusion while stepping quite literally between me and my doctor.

Dear POTUS: Why do I have to be someone’s daughter for you to think I deserve rights?

In the last four years, President Obama has done some great things for women: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expansion of women’s health services under the Affordable Care Act, support for Planned Parenthood. And I was happy last night, in his State of the Union address, to hear him push for Congress to vote on the Violence Against Women Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act.

But I was disheartened by his reasoning for why Congress should do these things: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence.” [emphasis mine]

My worth as a woman, and as a person, is not imbued by my relationship to someone else. I should not be granted rights and protections because I am somebody’s wife, mother, daughter, or sister. I deserve those rights and protections by virtue of my status as a person and as an American citizen. (NB: Immigrant women absolutely deserve those rights as well, but let’s save that for another post.)

It’s also tremendously insulting to the women who serve in our Congress and Senate, and assumes that the default for a legislator is male. Believe it or not, some of those women vote on equal rights legislation because they want those protections for themselves (Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Virginia Fox notwithstanding, who as traitors to their sex last night actually shook their heads while President Obama talked about the Paycheck Fairness Act).

President Obama actually used that phrasing twice last night. The second time was when referring to the newly lifted ban on women in combat: “We will draw upon the courage and skills of our sisters and daughters, because women have proven under fire that they are ready for combat.” Is the strength of the incredibly brave women in our military really so important because it comes from someone they’re related to? I’d think the achievement of these women is extraordinary because of what they, as individuals, have gone through. Disappointing, also, is the focus on women’s ability to serve in combat roles to protect the United States, without mention of the United States failing to protect these women from unprecedented levels of sexual assault while serving in our military branches and academies.

I’ve noticed this trope time and again in President Obama’s speeches and decision-making. He has used this “our wives, mothers, and daughters” phrasing many times before. But focusing on the women and girls in one’s life when considering the consequences or benefits of a decision has not always helped women. President Obama cited concerns about his daughters having access to emergency contraception when going against the science- and evidence-based recommendations of the Food and Drug Administration to make Plan B available over the counter to girls under the age of 17.

Boys and men are frequently implored to think of abstract women in relation to themselves – what if she, the woman you’re harassing or thinking of raping, was your sister, your girlfriend, your mother? How would you feel if someone did that to her?

Well I am someone’s sister, someone’s girlfriend, someone’s daughter. But I don’t think that I should be able to walk down the street without being cat-called or followed or assaulted because someone suddenly realizes that I could be their sister, their girlfriend, their mother. I should have the right and the freedom to walk down the street unmolested because I am a person. Because I am a woman who should have all the same rights and bodily autonomy as that man who yells as I pass that he wants to touch my breasts and then calls me a bitch and follows me home when I have the gall to ignore him or call him out on his misogyny.

So please, Congress, don’t deign to grant me rights because I could be a woman that you know. Grant me those rights because I am a woman, and because that alone is enough.

Feminism is in my blood

On my left shoulder blade sits a tattoo of a yellow rose. Both of my maternal great-grandmothers were named Rose, and I’m named after one of them. The yellow rose is also my mom’s favorite flower. Above the rose, in Hebrew script, is the word haisha. Woman.

When my mom first saw the tattoo she was pretty furious, even though she hadn’t been too demonstrably upset by the other two I’d had inked previously. But she seemed to calm down a little once I told her that she was the reason I’d gotten it.

You see, my mom is the reason that I’m a feminist. And my grandmothers, and my great-grandmothers, and I wanted to pay tribute to all of them for forming the core of my identity.

My Nanny Rose, the one I was named after, was a suffragette. Born in 1897, she was educated in school through the eighth grade, but was offered a job on the first day of ninth grade and never resumed her formal education. She became a bookkeeper for a toy train company, stopped working for a while to raise my grandmother, and then returned to bookkeeping about 14 years later. My grandmother reports to me that Rose “never had any question that women could do anything” and raised her accordingly.

The other Rose, my maternal grandfather’s mother and my brother’s namesake, went to work in the defense plants at the onset of World War II. She was actually a Rosie the Riveter! She had no formal education as a girl in her native Russia, but eventually learned to read and taught herself English in order to pass the citizenship test in 1938. One of my paternal great-grandmothers was one of the founding members of Hadassah, the Jewish women’s group.

Nanny Rose’s daughter, my maternal grandmother (also Nanny), became a teacher. In those days, teaching was considered an ideal profession for women because they could be home in the afternoon along with their children. She only stopped working for two years after my mother was born, and then went to graduate school for her masters and PhD while still teaching high school, and later college.

Nanny was a contemporary of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, becoming active in the feminist movement and as a feminist academic around the time The Feminine Mystique was becoming widely read. Nanny wrote her PhD thesis on “The Changing Role of American Women.” In the 1970s she became the Director of Career Development at the City University of New York (CUNY), counseling young women on career opportunities. She was also active as a member of the CUNY Women’s Coalition, which won a major lawsuit against the university for discrimination against women in their recruitment, hiring, promoting, and retaining of female faculty.

After retiring and moving to Massachusetts, Nanny started volunteering with a local rape crisis hotline. As part of the training, she says, they were instructed in “what to tell girls about how to avoid being raped.” She asked, “why don’t we just instruct men not to rape?” So she started the Real Men Don’t Rape campaign. She did some fundraising, had billboards put up in the area, had a Letter to the Editor published in the New York Times, and distributed informational packets to local high schools. These types of campaign are far more common now, but this was 25 years ago. About 10 years ago, Nanny gave me her copy of Transforming a Rape Culture, which really opened my eyes to so much history, and to ongoing activism to address the rape culture and crisis. I consider this one of the most transformative moments in my feminism.

In her own right, my mom is an ardent feminist, and was a trailblazer for women in the legal profession. As a young, pregnant associate at a BigLaw firm in 1982, she and another pregnant associate advocated for the creation of a standard maternity leave policy that would allow women the flexibility to care for a newborn, and still return to work. This was ten years before the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act.

I don’t recall my mom ever sitting me down and telling me about how to be a feminist, apart from always being told that a girl can do anything a boy can do, that my gender shouldn’t hold me back from any career I want, and that pro-choice was absolutely the way to be. But she leads by example, lives her values, and always supports me in whatever activism I want to do. Thanks to her encouragement, and being raised knowing about my family’s activist history, I waged my first ever campaign at the age of 13, getting every kid in my middle school to sign a petition to Nike protesting the use of child labor in their manufacturing.

Recently, Gloria Steinem emotionally said at an awards dinner that she is “living out the unlived life of [her] mother.” I feel so lucky to have been raised and influenced by women who found fulfillment in their own careers and their own lives, such that there are no dreams left for me to take up on their behalf. It does feel like a lot of responsibility to live up to their accomplishments, sometimes, but I hope to blaze my own path and be an effective advocate for the next generation of feminist change.

But I feel so fortunate to know, also, that feminism is in my blood. In January of 1982, the Palm Beach Post published an article, entitled “For These Women, Feminism’s A Family Tradition.” It’s all about my mother’s, grandmother’s, and great-grandmother’s activism in the feminist movement, and how they were then advocating for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. The original copy of that article is one of my most prized possessions.

I’m still a few years off from trying to have a child of my own, but I have sometimes wondered whether I would even want to have a daughter. It’s so hard to raise girls these days, with the media environment, hypersexualization of young girls, and rampant levels of violence against women. But now, reflecting on all that the women in my family have accomplished, and how each has contributed to the next generation a strong, passionate feminist who fights for her rights politically and in her own professional world, I think I’d like to give it a shot.

The pay gap persists because of men like Mitt Romney

In last night’s debate, Mitt Romney and President Obama were directly asked, by a young woman, about pay equality. “In what new ways do you intend to rectify inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72% of what their male counterparts earn?”

President Obama answered first, and was able to cite his first major policy win, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Personally, I thought he should have just shouted “Ledbetter! Bam!” and then dropped the mic, but the President and I may have some stylistic differences.

Romney, however, answered with what can be summarized as “I hired some women once.” Bear with me on the long block quote, because I want to take all of this apart piece by piece.

Thank you. An important topic, and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state, because I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I went to my staff, and I said, “How come all the people for these jobs are — are all men.” They said, “Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.” And I said, “Well, gosh, can’t we — can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified?”

And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet.

I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks,” and they brought us whole binders full of women.

I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.

Now one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort. But number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school.

She said, I can’t be here until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said fine. Let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

We’re going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women. In the — in the last [four years] women have lost 580,000 jobs…We’re still down 580,000 jobs. I mentioned 31/2 million women, more now in poverty than four years ago.

So let’s take a look at all of what Romney said in there, even though none of it actually addressed the question of pay equality.

1. Romney’s claim that he requested information on female candidates for Cabinet positions is a lie.
Like most of the Internet, I am just tickled by the new “binder full of women” meme. However, it’s important to note that, however amusing, this is a lie. I mean, he had a binder full of women’s names and resumes, he just didn’t ask for it like his cute anecdote in the debate suggests. What actually happened is that before the 2002 election some women noted the dearth of women in leadership positions in government, and so founded a bipartisan group called MassGAP to attempt to address that disparity. They compiled a binder filled with women who were qualified to be in Romney’s cabinet, and presented that binder to him. To recap: MassGAP, un-prompted by Romney, did the research, compiled the information, and gave him the binder. So his story about being dismayed by the lack of female candidates presented to him and sending out a search party to find a few is, of course, a complete lie.

2. Romney never answered the equal pay question, but he could have answered just fine, apart from that whole Ledbetter thing.
Out of 14 Cabinet positions, Romney appointed six women. These women, though, were appointed to the departments that Romney didn’t really care about and, in some cases, wanted to actually get rid of altogether. None of his female appointees were involved in financial issues, the budget, business development – the things he really cares about. However, it looks as though the Romney administration did pay Cabinet officials pretty equally, regardless of gender, so it’s a little weird that he didn’t mention that fact when talking about all the ladies in that binder. Maybe he didn’t want to go near the question at all because he opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and opposes the Paycheck Fairness Act? Let’s take a look at the positions and genders of Mitt Romney’s Cabinet when he started out in 2003:

  • Commonwealth Development: Douglas Foy
  • Transportation: Daniel Grabauskas
  • Housing & Community Development: Jane Wallis Gumble
  • Environmental Affairs: Ellen Roy Herzfeider
  • Economic Development: Robert Pozen
  • Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation: Beth Lindstrom
  • Business & Technology: Barbara Berke
  • Workforce Development: Jane Edmonds
  • Health & Human Services: Ron Preston
  • Elder Affairs: Jennifer Davis Carey
  • Labor: Angelo Buonopane
  • Administration & Finance: Eric Kriss
  • Veterans’ Services: Thomas Kelley
  • Public Safety & Homeland Security: Edward Flynn

Romney appointed women to 42% of his Cabinet, the same number as his predecessor. The fact that these positions were the ones that Romney openly derided, however, tells us something about how he sees women’s capabilities and roles.

3. If you hire women, you need to allow flexibility so they can get home in time to cook dinner. Men don’t need flexibility, because the women are there to care for the kids, and men aren’t interested in having dinner with their families.
Romney tries to come off as a caring guy quite frequently. Last night, when he talked about allowing flexibility for female employees so that they can balance mothering with working, I’m sure at least a couple people thought to themselves, “well, isn’t that considerate of him.” But these assumptions about what workers of different sexes need are dangerous to both women and men, and they directly contribute to the pay gap.

Parents need to have flexibility in their workplace so that they can care for sick children, deal with half days and schools closing early or opening late because of snow, be home in time for dinner, or make it to their kid’s soccer game. Or the daycare closes at 5 or, more realistically for lower income families, they’re concerned about their children being home alone after school because there’s nobody available to watch them.

But those needs apply equally to both men and women, and fathers should be given the same allowances as mothers to attend to their children’s needs, and to spend time with their families. A more flexible workplace benefits us all, and if men were given the same allowances as their female counterparts to take time for family a host of workplace and societal benefits could result, from less resentment toward mothers who leave early, to a shift in how we as a society think about the role of fathers.

The most damaging part of this assumption that women are going to need to take more time away from the workplace for their children, is that women are therefore less productive or less committed, and thus worth less to the company. This is what reinforces the pay gap – well, we would pay her the same, but he’s here all the time, and she leaves at 4:30 every day to pick Timmy up from daycare, so their contributions aren’t the same. This kind of thinking also allows people to deny that the wage gap exists, by blaming the disparity in income on women’s choices.

As President Obama pointed out in his response to that equal pay question last night, these are not women’s issues, these are economic issues. Women who make less money contribute less to the economy through purchasing, and families with women who earn less money have fewer resources available to put food on the table, to pay for higher education for their children, and to cover their healthcare costs.

Mitt Romney’s condescending answer about the binders full of women – seriously, he worked in business for 25 years and still didn’t know of a single qualified woman to hire?! – betrays his overarching view that women are not equal to men, and shouldn’t be compensated as if they are. After all, the most important thing about having female employees is making sure they still end up back in the kitchen.

Being offended is the consequence of paying attention

Last night, after watching that Procter & Gamble Olympic ad proclaiming themselves the “proud sponsor of moms” while flashing cleaning products across the screen, I updated my Facebook status to reflect my opinion that the ad is sexist and that it angers me.

A friend commented, “Robyn, you know you and I have relatively similar politics, but you really should stop being offended so often. It can’t be healthy.”

This is not the first time someone has mentioned that I should, essentially, lighten up. That I should stop getting upset every time someone says or does something that isn’t perfectly in line with my apparently exacting standards of correct speech and behavior. But I would (and am about to) argue that I get upset because I really don’t think what I’m asking of people – to be thoughtful and deliberate in their speech – is really so hard.

So, yes, I admit that I am offended quite often.

I am offended every time I see an ad that could be a domestic violence PSA but is instead showing a beaten woman because somehow that will sell a handbag. I am offended when I see women’s bodies degraded, with black eyes and contorted limbs, for the sake of fashion, considering that a quarter of all American women will be the victim of intimate partner violence in their lifetime.

I am offended when I hear my friends, who would never dream of discriminating against a black person or even saying the word “nigger” out loud, call something “ghetto” and somehow ignore the racist implications.

I am offended whenever someone says “that’s so gay” and reifies the status of gay people as less than. I am further offended when I call that person out and s/he tells me that language is evolving, or that they’re not really trying to equate gay people with something negative, or that they didn’t mean gay as in homosexual gay.

I am offended when those same people and their parents are the ones standing in line at a Chik-Fil-A to show the world just how much they are committed to denying the basic right for everyone to marry the person they love, and then claiming they have nothing to do with LGBT children killing themselves or dangerous bigots in Nebraska carving the word “dyke” onto a woman and then setting her house on fire.

I am offended by the othering nature of Asian fetishes and of people in men’s rights forums claiming that women from developing countries just know how to treat a man better than us uppity American bitches.

I am offended when I hear someone say they got “gypped” when they mean “ripped off,” further perpetuating the negative stereotypes of Roma people, who continue to be persecuted pretty much everywhere they go.

I am offended when boys are taught that real men are strong, tough, macho, and don’t cry, because rigid gender norms hurt us all.

I am offended when someone sneeringly refers to undocumented immigrants as “illegals,” or argues that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes and drain the system, ignorant to the actual facts.

I am offended when I read about how porn culture has resulted in girls as young as 8 years old getting bikini waxes.

I am offended when someone says they were “Jewed down,” and when they don’t even recognize why this Jew would be upset by the stereotype they’re promoting.

So, yes, I suppose I am frequently offended. It’s because I’m paying attention. Why aren’t you?

 

Aurora, Gun Violence, and Women

Here we are again. In the wake of yet another tragic mass shooting, people who have opinions about guns are starting up their arguments again. We need stricter gun control laws! Don’t challenge my right to own assault weapons! More thorough screenings and waiting periods could help prevent future shootings, and may have helped prevent this one. If only other people in the theater had been armed, he could have been stopped sooner.

I happen to fall on the side of advocating for stricter gun control laws, because I believe that there is absolutely no reason for these kinds of things to happen over and over and over again. I don’t see why gun advocates feel the need to fight for everyone’s right to have an assault rifle. Why should an AK-47 be available outside of a military context?

But apart from my concerns about the roles of gun control activists and the NRA lobbyists in these types of mass shootings, I am very concerned about the type of everyday gun violence perpetrated against women that is allowed to continue unabated because of our lax gun laws. And before you tell me about how people with domestic violence convictions aren’t allowed to purchase guns, a 2002 Government Accountability Office report found that between 1998 and 2001, there were more than 2,800 people with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions who were able to purchase guns without being caught by the National Instant Criminal Background System.

When most of us think about how intimate partner violence is carried out, we generally don’t think about women being shot. We think about hitting, shoving, slapping, pushing. Maybe we think about choking or sexual violence. We usually don’t think about shootings, though. But the fact is that of all women who are killed by guns, about two-thirds of those are killed by an intimate partner. And, a 2003 study found that access to guns increases the risk of intimate partner homicide five-fold compared to instances where there are no weapons (and guns are the most frequently used weapons in intimate partner homicide, far exceeding the rate of use of all other types of weapons combined.)

Having a gun in the home is risky for women, and even riskier if there is a history of domestic violence. While having a gun in the home is linked to a 3-fold risk of homicide in the home generally, that risk increases to 8-fold when there is an intimate partner involved and 20-fold when there is a history of domestic violence. These numbers are unacceptable, and if we are committed to protecting women from violence at the hand of an intimate partner, we must commit to reforming our nation’s gun control laws. 

I have no desire to take away a law-abiding citizen’s right to defend himself and his home from an intruder or to go hunting. But you don’t need access to an assault rifle to fend off burglars or to take down Bambi. When NRA lobbyists and ordinary gun rights activists fight against laws for background checks, waiting periods, and other proposals, what they are fighting for is a lunatic’s right to shoot up a movie theater. Moreover, they are fighting for the rights of men that don’t necessarily appear unstable to kill women.

James Eagan Holmes killed 12 people last night. More than three women are killed every day by an intimate partner in the United States. If we want this to stop, reforming our gun control laws is essential.

To you it’s a joke. For women, it’s life.

I don’t think there was anything funny about the rape joke that Daniel Tosh told, nor about his response to a heckler. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

I don’t find this funny, because the threats of sexual violence, of guys just raping me, are all too real in my life. Every time I have left my house this summer I have been harassed on the street (and this is not exaggeration, this has seriously been every day).

“Hey baby.”
“Smile for me, honey.”
“That is a seriously nice ass for a white girl.”
“Baby, I’d love to hit that.”
“Walk in front of my car again, I want to watch you move.”

Last week, a man who thought I couldn’t understand his lewd comments because he spoke them in Spanish threatened to rape me when I yelled back at him, and he grabbed at my ass.

This is my reality. So when Daniel Tosh and his supporters try to argue that it was only a joke, I don’t buy it. Was Tosh being serious when he made those comments? Probably not. I obviously don’t believe that he actually wanted men to attack that woman. But what if a man or two in that audience did think that?

And would they really be so wrong to think that invitation to rape was sincere? After all, there are thousands of boys and men on Twitter going on and on about how funny it was, how that bitch deserved for those things to be said to her. Deserved to be threatened with violence and violation, for standing up for herself and for the at least 25% of women who will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

But it was just a joke, they say. None of us would ever rape a woman. We, ourselves, aren’t rapists. But how can they be sure that the man next to them isn’t? How can they be sure that while they’re laughing at Tosh’s “jokes” the man next to them isn’t thinking “right on. That bitch needs to be put in her place.” How can they be sure that the man next to them isn’t one of the 6% of college-aged men who will admit to sexually assaulting a woman, so long as it’s not called rape? So long as it’s just “having sex with a woman who is inebriated” or “having sex with a woman who has consented to certain sexual activities but not to sex.”

And how can they know that the adolescent reading their tweets isn’t going to learn from their words that threatening a woman with rape is acceptable?

This is the rape culture. That we have normalized threatening rape so much so that it is considered a joke to a segment of the population, almost entirely male but by no means exclusively, is the rape culture.

This is why there have been a few posts online in the last day or two that point out how a rape joke can be humorous if it is used to make fun of the societal ills that lead to this rape culture, namely the posts by Lindy West at Jezebel and Jessica Valenti at The Nation. None of us want to censor you. By all means, make funny jokes, make light of terrible things like genocide or racism or, using Tosh’s example, dead babies. Go right ahead.

But make sure those jokes have some sort of social awareness to them, and that the sole purpose isn’t to mock rape victims or to threaten violence against someone. And make sure that the jokes you make, or the jokes you defend, don’t tell women and people who interact with women that women are less than, that they are deserving of rape, that the proper response to a woman asserting herself is violation. Make sure that these jokes and defenses of jokes don’t trivialize rape or make it acceptable.

Because I believe you when you say you’re not a rapist. But some people out there are, and they get permission every time you laugh at a joke like that.

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