The Moment I Became a Feminist
at the kitchen sink
they never tell
Last week, I was a guest at a meeting of abortion providers in the Intermountain West, where the first rule of business on the agenda was the rule of no disclosure: absolutely no identification of those who were in attendance. The level of concern for both their safety and their capacity to continue their vital work as health care providers for women—be it as a doctor, a nurse, or a volunteer—was stirring. As a writer, out of respect, I put away my pencil and notebook and listened. As a human being, I was grateful for their courage and commitment to do what fewer and fewer individuals want to do: honor a woman’s right to choose whether or not she will give birth to a child.
What I heard that night will not be shared. But what I felt as a woman is what I wish to say: The defunding of Planned Parenthood by the House of Representatives on February 18 cuts into the fabric of basic human rights and the dignity of each of us to follow the path of our own destiny.
As women, we are quiet about our personal lives, especially when it comes to sex. We are quiet because there is a history of abuse and violence and harm committed to those who tell the truth of their lives. Marriages are shattered. Families are broken. Judgments are rendered. The woman stands alone. Our stories live underground. I think of the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who asked this question: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
The world is splitting open.
On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first family planning and birth control center on 46 Amboy Street in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. Nine days later, it was raided by police. Sanger, the leader of the modern-day birth control movement, spent thirty days in prison. She would be arrested seven more times in her eighty-seven years of living for speaking out on behalf of a woman’s right to birth control and the privacy of her own body.
H. G. Wells stated at a 1931 dinner speech in Margaret Sanger’s honor, where she was awarded the medal of the American Woman’s Association: “The movement she started will grow to be, a hundred years from now, the most influential of all time in controlling man’s destiny on Earth.”
Tell this to Congressman Mike Pence, Republican from Indiana, and former talk show host, who was the prevailing voice in the newly elected right-leaning House of Representatives.
The Pence Amendment to HR 1 called for the elimination of Planned Parenthood’s entire $317 million program for family planning known as Title X. HR 1 also would ban Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal funding, putting contraception for five million low-income women at risk. This legislation with the Pence Amendment passed in the “People’s House” 240 to 185.
The National Right to Life Committee’s legislative director, Douglas Johnson, said, “This landmark vote demonstrates that most House members now recognize Planned Parenthood is a hyper-political, under-regulated, out-of-control mega-marketer of abortion as a method of birth control.”
“Cheap twaddle,” Margaret Sanger often said to the men who mocked her advocacy on behalf of women’s reproductive health and sovereignty.
Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat from California, addressed her colleagues, specifically Congressman Christopher Smith from New Jersey, who had just denounced second-term abortions. “You know, I had really planned to speak about something else,” she said, “but the gentleman from New Jersey has just put my stomach in knots because I’m one of those women he spoke about just now. I had a procedure at seventeen weeks, pregnant with a child that had moved from the vagina into the cervix, and the procedure that you just talked about was a procedure I endured. I lost a baby.” Congresswoman Speier added: “For you to stand on this floor and to suggest as you have that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous.”
Speier defended Planned Parenthood. “Last time you checked, abortion was legal in this country. Now you may not like Planned Parenthood, so be it. There are many on our side of the aisle that don’t like Halliburton . . . but you don’t see us filing amendments to wipe out their funding. No, because frankly that would be irresponsible.”
Irresponsible is the key word that makes my heart race as a woman watching this debate on the floor of Congress. The activist Republicans, mainly men who are driving these bills to punish abortion providers, ironically will be creating a situation where more abortions will occur. By pulling the funding for family planning, which will affect every town and county in America, contraception will be harder to obtain, thus creating a rise in unplanned pregnancies.
Someone needs to tell Smith and Pence that even in a bad economy, people are still having sex, and it is not only safe sex. There will be consequences.
Birth control is perhaps the only thing in my life where I have been utterly responsible. My husband and I chose not to become pregnant. We are “childless by choice.” I have never had an abortion, but I was always grateful I had that choice if I found myself in a situation where I needed to make that decision. I was a senior at Highland High School in 1973 when the landmark case Roe v. Wade was passed in the Supreme Court. It was my vote of confidence as a young woman entering sexual maturity that I had control over my body.
What anti-abortion activists within Congress or those standing outside health clinics intimidating women and their doctors fail to acknowledge is that no woman wants to terminate a pregnancy. No one who has ever felt the life inside them move can negate that power. It is never a decision made lightly, without love or pain or a prayer toward forgiveness.
Because what every woman knows each month when she bleeds is that I am not pregnant.
Because what every woman understands each time she makes love is that life could be in the making now.
Which is why when a woman allows a man to enter her, it is not just a physical act, but an act of surrendering to the possibility that her life may no longer be hers, alone.
Because until she bleeds, she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life.
Because until she bleeds, she wonders if her life will be one or two or three.
Because until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do.
Because until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds.
If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently.
No, I have never had an abortion, but I know the tenderness of many women who have. It is a much more common procedure than we care to admit. We have gone underground. This is the conversation we are not having. The abortions that we have experienced as women are a huge part of who we are and who we have become. And it is deeply private. So much so, that I just learned this week that three of my closest friends all had abortions and we had never discussed it. One involved a genetic disease, another was a situation that would have imperiled their marriage, and another was a pregnancy in college that would have changed the course of her life. Abortion cuts through class and age and race. We take responsibility for our own fertility, but it is never 100 percent, and so when birth control fails us and passion enters in and suddenly we face the responsibility of a life, we make a choice. This is our spiritual and legal right in the United States of America. And we deserve to make this choice without the judgments of others.
Our voices arise from the blood truth of the Moon, where we are reminded of the cyclic nature of life. There is nothing abstract about giving birth. There is nothing more sobering than for a woman to place her hands on her belly and wonder what is the right thing to do. It is always about love. It is never done lightly. And there is nothing more demeaning to us, as women, than to have a man, especially a man we don’t know, define the laws that will govern our milk and blood. No one should be able to legislate a woman’s heart. To tell us not only how we should feel, but what we should feel, and what is at stake is a hostile and aggressive act. We know exactly what is at stake each time we pick up our children who are sick, and comfort them when they are crying, or put food on the table when they are hungry, as millions of women do, and wonder how they will pay for the food for their next meal. The lives of women are the lives that nurture, lead, and sustain our communities. We have a right to decide what we need in order to care for ourselves so that we might care more fully for others.
Looking back, it is hard to both imagine and appreciate that it wasn’t until 1965 that the Supreme Court upheld the Griswold v. Connecticut decision that legalized birth control for married couples.
And I remember more than a decade ago, hearing Donna Shalala talk about her resolve as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton to legalize “the morning after pill.” Each one of these steps has been hard fought. Each affirmed the love of women and the dignity of women, who deserve the power of choice, which honors life. This is not selfish. This is the survival of our species.
And here we are, once again, almost 100 years later, having to endure a group of conservative men masquerading as caring about women, so much so that their pontifications within the halls of Congress are now putting five million low-income women at risk who get their contraception and reproductive health services from Planned Parenthood.
“They don’t care if we do one abortion or one million,” says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood. “They just want to stop us. It doesn’t matter about the other 97 percent of the services we provide.”
Who is “they”? This is always my question. If we follow the money, are the Koch brothers behind this, too? Or was it the steam generated by Ralph Reed when he started the Christian Coalition? This is not new. The collision between a secular understanding of our Constitution and a religious one is as old as our Founding Fathers and Mothers.
Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers, writes, “The religious right does not believe in separation of church and state. . . . What they believe in is that their religious principles are the ones that ought to dominate government policy.”
And affect the safety of personal lives. How else can we begin to understand bills introduced in state legislatures like South Dakota and Nebraska that are a civic invitation to murder abortion providers? What kind of mind views this as a “justifiable homicide”? The kind of mind that murdered Dr. George Tiller on May 31, 2009, while he was attending church in Wichita, Kansas. Or Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was shot by a sniper in his home in Buffalo, New York, in 1998.
The Eagle Forum is now protesting once again in front of Utah’s Planned Parenthood affiliate with members wearing their iconic gold fetus feet pins on the lapels of their heavy coats.
The Wyoming State Legislature introduced a bill to regulate women’s health care. The bill, which ultimately was defeated, would have required doctors to offer “abortion seekers an ultrasound of her ‘unborn child’ and prohibit abortions after rape, incest, or to preserve a patient’s health.” The bill would have also required a doctor to “deliver a government-written script” to a woman seeking an abortion and then mandate a twenty-four-hour waiting period. This in a rural state where a woman often must travel more than fifty miles to the nearest abortion provider. In the State of Wyoming, there are two, both in Teton County. There are 7 abortion providers in Utah, compared with 522 doctors who will perform abortions in California.
I find it ironic that this women’s health care bill had been approved by the Wyoming Senate’s Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee. Chattel is the word that comes to mind: women as the movable property of men; something to be owned, controlled, and manipulated. Follow chattel with cattle and maybe this is how women’s reproductive health gets corralled into the agriculture committee of the Cowboy State.
What a woman knows she knows through her body and it is hers alone. There are sixty million women in the childbearing years of fifteen to forty-four in the United States. Three million use no contraception, accounting for 47 percent of unplanned pregnancies. The truth is one out of three women will have an abortion by the time she is forty-five. And one out of five women will visit a Planned Parenthood clinic in her lifetime. Planned Parenthood provides close to eleven million services annually to women, from contraception to testing for sexually transmitted disease to cancer screening. Defunding Planned Parenthood will begin the systematic collapse of women’s reproductive health care in this country.
I would like to ask these abortion colonialists, these zygote zealots: What are they afraid of?
Shortly after the publication of my book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, I was called into the office of one of the General Authorities of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City. I was young and unsure of what he wanted to discuss. I feared I might be excommunicated for what I had written, which ran contrary to Mormon doctrine.
But what troubled this church leader was not that I had mentioned a Mother in Heaven alongside a Heavenly Father, or asked the question, “If there is a Godhead, where is the Motherbody?” Or that my mother and I had given each other blessings without holding the priesthood reserved only for men. What disturbed him most was that my husband and I had chosen not to have children. This was the threat I posed. I had a voice. He asked me if I realized that by not becoming a mother, I, too, would become an endangered species leading future generations of spirit-children down the path of extinction just like the wild birds I so loved and championed.
The phrase that my religious leader uttered that I have never been able to forget was this: “Just as a mother bird has no choice whether or not she will lay her eggs, she must, God insists. So the eggs you possess, over which your husband presides, must also come forth. Will you choose to become a Mother of Zion, or will you allow your womb to become empty and barren, defying the faith of the women who came before you?”
In that moment, I became a feminist. In that moment, I realized that to control a woman’s body and deny her the choice over her own reproductive health is to silence her individual voice and rob her of her innate power, which is the power to choose her own life’s path. To control women is another way of controlling nature.
And in this moment before Congress, I see the assault and defunding of Planned Parenthood as an assault on the health and well-being of all women. We have a right to our future, however uncertain it may be.
We have all been the beneficiaries of family planning. This is not a conservative issue or a progressive one; it is a human rights issue. What is good for women is good for humanity. The world’s population is rising as the Earth’s resources are being depleted. This is the conversation we need to engage. Tending to women’s reproductive health is tending to the health of the planet.
May we stand up and speak.
May we stand up and cry foul.
May we stand up and support Planned Parenthood and demand funding be restored to Title X in the U.S. Senate.
And may we show our power through our individual and collective voices by not remaining silent.
May we send a blizzard of postcards to the representatives who voted against our bodies that reads: “Cheap twaddle.” “Preposterous.” “You have shamed your Mother.”
And then may Congress finally treat us as full human beings, women who refuse to be controlled as chattel, as cattle, as egg-laying birds.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the recipient of the 2010 David R. Brower Conservation Award for activism.
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