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Defending Senator Gillibrand: Calling for a More Inclusive Feminism

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand ruffled some feminist feathers this past week by saying in an interview she’s “worried that the women’s movement is dead…there’s no functional movement where we’re working together and making sure all women are heard on all these issues.”Many feminists were quick to point out the recent gains in fighting back against abortion restrictions, fighting for equal pay, tougher domestic violence laws, and so on. It seems these feminists stopped reading her comments after the part where she’s worried the women’s movement is dead. The truth is, Senator Gillibrand hits the nail on the head. The feminist movement has been plagued by infighting and splinter groups since its inception. Feminism has not been inclusive to beyond rich, white, heterosexual women. As Jessica Valenti writes in Full Frontal Feminism, “unfortunately, when feminism is talked about, it’s still positioned from the experience of a white, middle- to upper-class, hetero gal. It just is. And if that’s the only way we think of feminism, then we’re essentially erasing the existence of any other woman who doesn’t function within those confines.” Audre Lorde said it is not these differences of race, class, and sexual orientation that separate us women, rather it’s our inability to include diversity: “Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation.”

Feminism, like most social movements, has been marred by ugly episodes of exclusion in its past. First Wave Feminism, known for its achievement of getting women the right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment, was known to be racist. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the leading voices of the women’s suffrage movement, believed white, educated women such as herself were more deserving of the right to vote than African-American men; she was also very dismissive of the plight of African-American women. Second Wave Feminism, which took place from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, was homophobic in nature. Betty Friedan, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), reportedly referred to lesbian feminists as the “lavender menace.” Heterosexual feminists believed including lesbians would give credibility to the notion that feminists were man-hating lesbians and would cripple their ability to enact lasting political change. NOW also refused to include lesbians in its official platforms. This exclusion of lesbian feminists led to radical splinter groups that focused on removing male influence in society. Today’s feminism has been plagued by episodes of transphobia. Transgender women have been excluded from the conversation on how to advance women’s rights because they are not “women born.” The fact that there is a segment of feminism referred to as “trans-exclusionary” radical feminism (TERF) is abhorrent.

All this to say, Senator Gillibrand is right; feminism doesn’t have a unifying platform. That being said, there are many issues where all feminists can find common ground. Feminists can unify behind ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment because amending the Constitution to guarantee equal rights to women is something all feminists can agree on. Feminists can rally around abortion rights and affirming Roe v. Wade because you cannot be a pro-life feminist. Feminists can work for universal education for young girls and ending child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). While the women’s movement has been successful recently in fighting back against the onslaught of abortion restrictions, attacks on birth control, and lack of action on equal pay, we could take a lesson from the successful gay rights movement by uniting behind common causes to move progress forward.

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The Hypocrisy of the Pro-Life Movement

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Snapshot of the opposing sides of abortion (Image via rawstory.com)

There are few political labels I dislike more than that of “pro-life” applied to those who oppose abortion. Abortion was established as a fundamental right for women by the Supreme Court in 1973 with Roe v Wade. 41 years later, the war on abortion access is still raging. Over the past three years, there has been in a surge in the number of abortion restrictions passed in state legislatures throughout the country. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading advocate for reproductive rights, 22 states passed restrictive abortion measures last year; these restrictions included bans before women would know they are pregnant (typically 6 week bans), increased regulation of the doctors and clinics that provide the procedure (such as unnecessary ultrasounds, doctors needing hospital admitting privileges nearby, and waiting periods), limits on the use of medication abortions, and insurance coverage bans on the procedure. 43 state abortion restrictions were passed in 2012 and 92 were passed in 2011.

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Texas has been leading the way in eliminating women’s access to abortion care. In spite of Wendy Davis’ famous filibuster that ultimately launched her gubernatorial bid, legislation banning abortions after 20 weeks and requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals became law. Currently, there are just 24 abortion clinics in Texas, down from 44 in 2011; when the law takes full effect in September there will be just 6 clinics providing abortion in the entire state of Texas. 

The situation is more dire in Mississippi as the fate of the last remaining abortion clinic will be determined by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Jackson Women’s Health Organization has two doctors fly in from out of state to provide abortion care. Like Texas, Mississippi law requires providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. So far, the two doctors have been denied privileges at 13 hospitals.

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Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clininc in Jackson, MS (image via NPR)

Proponents of legislation requiring abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic say it is in the interest of the patients. The truth of the matter is that, statistically speaking, abortions are safer than carrying a pregnancy to term. A 2012 study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology revealed the maternal mortality rate of a full-term pregnancy to be 8.8 per 100,000. The risk of death connected to abortion was found to be 0.6 deaths per 100,000 women. In other words, a woman is 14 times more likely to die by carrying a pregnancy to term than having an abortion. This is not pro-life.

Other states have been much more ambitious in limiting abortion access. Several states are fans of using outdated FDA regulations from when abortion was first approved. Unsurprisingly, Texas is one of these states. 14 states mandate a patient can only take medication abortion in a doctor’s office in the presence of the physician. This restriction disproportionately affects rural and impoverished women, those most in need of uninhibited access to abortion. North Dakota successfully passed a “fetal heartbeat” bill that banned abortions starting at 6 weeks, before the majority of women know they are pregnant. This law was struck down by the U.S. District Court, ruling, “A woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before viability has been recognized by the United States Supreme Court for more than 40 years. The United States Supreme Court has clearly determined the dispositive issue presented in this lawsuit.”

On the national level, the GOP-controlled House has tried repeatedly to ban federal funding for abortion since 2010. The infamous “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” would have banned all insurance plans in the Affordable Care Act marketplace from covering abortion, force small businesses to pay extra taxes for offering health insurance that included abortion coverage to their employees, and eliminate the ability to charge abortion as a medical expense under IRS codes unless in cases of rape, incest, or maternal health. Essentially, the IRS would get to determine what constituted rape and incest by auditing victims for potential tax fraud.

Let’s be clear. Just because women have the anatomy to have children doesn’t mean we want to or have to have them. We should be cautious not to create a hierarchy of humanity based on who does and doesn’t reproduce. 52% of Americans support at least some form of legal abortion. As Jessica Valenti rightly puts it, “what anti-choicers don’t understand – and almost never reflect in their policy or prose – is that pregnancy, abortion and birth are too complicated for assigning strict moral designations, let alone to legislate.”

The hypocrisy in this “pro-life” movement is that they are not always pro-life; they are pro-birth. Opponents of abortion tend to oppose contraception access and comprehensive sexual education in schools, two policies that would decrease the abortion rate. They rail against the killing of unborn babies, but are curiously silent when the baby is born. The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not provide mothers with paid maternity leave; instead employers can legally fire women for being pregnant.

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Image via Huffington Post

So long as pro-lifers are going to force women to have these children, we must have the economic mechanisms in place so they are not relegated to a life of poverty. If anti-abortion activists truly were pro-life, there would be more widespread support for Senator Tom Harkin’s Fair Minimum Wage Act to raise the rate to $10.10/hour, as women comprise nearly two-thirds of the minimum wage workforce. If anti-abortion activists truly were pro-life, there would be overwhelming support for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s comprehensive Opportunity Plan to provide paid family leave, raise the minimum wage, provide universal pre-K, affordable child care, and equal pay for women.

If men were the ones giving birth, would we really still be having this debate 41 years later? If you don’t think voting matters, just remember this wave of attacks on women’s reproductive rights began after the surge of Tea Party candidates won in 2010, and we can vote them out in November.