Bell Hooks, feminist scholar and author, said that “Feminists are made, not born.” In a society dominated by constant gender role-policing, virulent historic and ongoing racism, and a misogyny that runs so deep as to lead millions of white U.S. citizens to elect a racist, childish, sexual predator as our nation’s leader, women’s journey toward feminism is perhaps even more miraculous and in urgent need of sustained defense. I am thankful to the women who brought me to this ongoing feminist journey, and thought I’d share with you how I boarded this bus (like I said, it’s a journey, and I’m not “there” yet, nor do I ever expect to be.)
When I was about 10 years old growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I remember watching TV on the floor of my living room, hearing my mother say to a friend on the phone, “I’m not a feminist but…” and then going on to lament the double standards, sexual harassment and physical abuse she experienced in her lifetime. For my mother, a strong and compassionate woman, “feminist” meant “abortion.” Regardless of how she might have truly felt, this view was perpetuated by her pastor, with no room for nuance or empathy for women facing unwanted or unviable pregnancies. In fact, the voices of women who had abortions, or any real facts about the devastation caused by unsafe abortion globally, were entirely absent from the narratives on abortion that I heard as a child. Always present though during those Sunday sermons were the cutting judgement directed at women who defied gender norms and our pastor’s “fire and brimstone” version of God’s love. Her frustrated tone on the phone that day made me nervous. I remember lying in bed at night listening to the crickets outside and thinking, “Is this just what you get when you’re born a girl?”
During college in Atlanta, I was invited by a friend to attend a volunteer training at a women’s reproductive health clinic. That invitation was my first exposure to local feminist leadership, discussions about what feminism really means and the importance of intersectionality (without which, honest feminism cannot exist). There, I learned that abortion is an experience shared by nearly 1 in 3 U.S. women, and that before it was legalized, U.S. women regularly faced injury or death due to unsafe abortion. I learned that the same legislators who rejected comprehensive sex education and birth control were also passing laws making it harder for women to access safe abortion. It seemed clear to me then, just as it did when I was 10, that being a woman meant getting the short-end of the stick. By then I also knew it wasn’t just women. Throughout college, I volunteered as an interpreter at a hospital providing care to immigrant families and was disturbed by the health inequalities they faced. I could plainly see that different women and their families experienced injustice to varying degrees, largely as a result of the way in which racism and xenophobia are embedded into the institutions and society in which we live.
Around that same time, I took a job at an agency that seeks to support survivors of domestic violence. I was responsible for completing “shelter intake” and I often found myself sitting with women with swollen faces and traumatized children who feared for their lives. They knew the man who attacked them night before would be free by tomorrow. I remember sitting in courtrooms passing women tissues and holding their hands as we listened to too many judges ally themselves with abusive men. Sometimes, the court system would strip women of their children altogether, occasionally handing them over to the same person who had raped and tortured their mother. I saw poor women, mostly women of color, have their children taken by the foster care system after they became homeless in their efforts to find safety. Fear and sadness were palpable in their voices. Sometimes, though not often enough, so was triumph in the face of a system largely working against them.
I remember one woman, Maria* that I was very close with. I met her on a humid, rainy Atlanta night. The police brought her to the shelter after responding to a 911 call she made when her then-boyfriend threw her to the floor and repeatedly kicked her in the stomach, furious with her for becoming pregnant. She had tears in her eyes and was visibly anxious, and I brought her some soup from the shelter kitchen. As she cupped the bowl with her hands she explained to me that she had left Honduras a year ago, nearly suffocating in the back of a truck on her journey to cross the border. She had grown desperate watching her children suffer hunger and depravation, and was determined to give them a better life than she had. Once in the U.S., she fell in love with a man that promised to help her and her children, but ended up abusing her whenever she refused to help him get high.
Later that year I sat with her while she was in labor, holding her hand through contractions. It was a few months later, when she was in transitional housing, that she called me to tell me that an acquaintance had raped her at a party. She was adamant that she did not want to go to the police or the hospital, and she was equally adamant that she did not want to continue this pregnancy. A day later, we sat for 6 hours in the waiting room of the same reproductive health clinic I had begun to volunteer at years before. As I began to call every abortion fund hotline I could find online, I watched her grow more and more desperate. I remember the tears rolling down her face and her watching her rocking back and forth. I rubbed her back and we kept on calling. I felt my stomach drop a few hours in, when I considered the possibility that she’d be forced to go through with this pregnancy. We finally reached the operator on the other end of the National Network of Abortion Funds Hotline, and, within a few hours, her procedure was over and we were pulling away from the clinic.
As we drove away, I thought about the multiple forms of structural and interpersonal violence she’d suffered, and the dearth of opportunities she’d had to create a better life for herself and her children. I thought about my own privilege, how undeserved it is, and my heart filled with anger. Misogyny was the tip of the iceberg for her: xenophobia, racism, sexism, and even U.S. imperialism in Central America had brought her and many other women I worked with so much pain. This righteous anger, and cautious hope, fuel my desire to help create change today.
My work with Maria and communities like hers has convinced me that abortion access is only one tool for achieving gender equality. Albeit, it’s an extremely important one, and it is not hyperbolic to say that when people are denied access to contraception and safe abortion, they die or suffer severe consequences to their health, dignity and life opportunities. But we can’t stop there. Safe abortion will never be a battle we’ve entirely won until we dismantle they forms of oppression that lead to women’s lives mattering less in the first place. The patriarchy depends on a sick web of injustices that, too-often, succeeds at keeping women, particularly women of color, and their communities from reaching their full potential.
To answer my 10-year old self: my mother’s trauma and the trauma of so many women is not normal. Injustice and the suffering it causes in people’s lives are not normal, and neither is the systematic overvaluing of some people’s lives over others. What we do need to normalize for all the 10-year-olds of the world is the struggle to fight back against oppressive forces that kill and maim some and ultimately hurt us all.
I am grateful to be a small part of this growing, collective resistance through my work with feminist colleagues, fighting every day for the realization of reproductive justice in the U.S. and all over the world. And as has been chanted by protesters across the south, I Believe That We Will Win.
*Not her real name. All identifying details have been altered to ensure Maria’s anonymity.