As the campaign in Ireland to Repeal the 8th reaches its climax, here’s a guide to some movements from the US that are combining feminist tactics, social media and political strategies to challenge abortion stigma.
Abortion Stigma: From a Whisper to a Shout
This is an edited extract from From a Whisper to a Shout: Abortion Activism and Social Media, out now from Repeater.
Abortion. Can we finally stop whispering about it?
Abortion has been around almost as long as pregnancy. Historical records show separate references to abortion techniques as long ago as 3000 years BCE in Egypt, Greece, and China, and major world religions did not forbid it. Even the Catholic Church permitted abortion until the moment of ensoulment, believed to occur at the time of quickening, the first time the pregnant person can feel movement of the fetus. No one before the nineteenth century believed abortion was taking a human life. Traditional Hebrew religious law did not consider a woman pregnant until forty days after conception, allowing a window in which abortion was morally acceptable. Some classical interpretations of the Quran permitted abortion before ensoulment, defined here as the moment when an angel breathes the spirit into the fetus at 120 days, while other interpretations approved abortion conditionally for valid reasons. Still other schools of Islam forbade abortion entirely.
As a secular society, the US history of abortion is mostly the history of its regulation. Pregnancy termination was widely practiced but completely unregulated in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. An induced abortion before quickening wasn’t even considered an abortion but a pregnancy that had “slipped away”. The earliest regulations, such as Connecticut’s 1821 law, the first on record, were legislated to protect women from being poisoned by dangerous abortifacient drugs sold by unscrupulous vendors. These early laws were poison-control measures, not abortion restrictions, and they did not challenge the concept of quickening or women’s right to make decisions about their pregnancies. Their autonomy over their bodies was preserved by what the law omitted. By the mid-nineteenth century, the emerging medical profession sought to restrict abortion to take control of the procedure — and everything else related to pregnancy — away from women and midwives.
The American Medical Association (AMA) was formed in 1847 and provided physicians with an infrastructure from which to organize an anti-abortion campaign. The basis of the campaign was professional issues, as the organization moved to medicalize pregnancy and childbirth; but from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, racist and anti-feminist messages are easy to read in some early anti-abortion campaigns. Dr Horatio R. Storer, a prominent advocate of banning abortion, expressed anxiety about Mexicans, Chinese, Blacks, Indians, or Catholics spreading into the American West instead of native-born white Americans. He was opposed as well to the concurrent push from women to enter medical school. Storer also took issue with quickening: he argued that it is not a fact or a medical diagnosis, “but a sensation” based on women’s bodily sensations, leaving doctors dependent on women’s judgment and self-understanding.
By 1890 abortion was criminalized in every state, although it wasn’t treated exactly the same in each. In some places it was permitted only when necessary to save the life of the woman, while in other areas women could receive an abortion in a doctor’s office or even at home. The latter practice ended in the mid-twentieth century as new methods of controlling abortion were implemented by medical and legal authorities. By this point in the 1950s, somewhere between 200,000 and 1.2 million illegal, unsafe abortions were performed every year, according to Dr David Grimes, a former chief of the Abortion Surveillance Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was also mid-twentieth century when activists began to work for the repeal of abortion laws and restrictions. This grassroots movement pre-dates what is now known as second-wave feminism.
The first activists to advocate for abortion access in terms of women’s rights, Patricia Maginnis, Lana Phelan, and Rowena Gurner, came together in California in the early 1960s — first Maginnis and Gurner in 1961, with Phelan joining in 1965. The group they formed, the Society for Humane Abortion (SHA), worked tirelessly for more than a decade to educate the public about the issues. They delivered presentations about abortion at conferences and in classes, and in 1969 published the satirical guide The Abortion Handbook for Responsible Women. To maintain SHA’s tax-exempt status, they created a second group, Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (ARAL), which eventually grew into the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). After the 1973 US Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, the group’s new leadership shifted its focus to keeping abortion “safe and legal” and changed its name to National Abortion Rights Action League (still NARAL). In 2003, the organization changed its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America, stating that they faced a hostile political climate for abortion and the new name “underscore[s] that our country is pro-choice”, according to then-president Kate Michelman. It’s surely no coincidence that the new name completely omitted the word abortion.
Several US states revoked criminalization of abortion and allowed termination of pregnancy before twenty weeks in 1970: first Hawaii, then New York, Alaska, and Washington. Also in 1970, a young, impoverished Texas woman named Norma McCorvey found herself unintentionally pregnant for the third time and challenged the state law prohibiting abortion. Texas laws were then the most restrictive in the nation. Because both abortion and unmarried pregnancy were considered so shameful, she was referred to in court documents as Jane Roe to protect her privacy. By the time the US Supreme Court ruled in her favor, on January 22, 1973, it was too late for her to abort, but Roe v. Wade made it legal for every pregnant person in the country to make a decision to end a pregnancy in the first two trimesters, for any reason.
It must be recognized, however, that Roe was decided on the basis of the right to privacy, grounded in the Fourteenth Amendment and judicial precedent, not on the basis of equality. Numerous critics, including current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have commented on how the decision “is as much about the doctor’s right to recommend to his patient what he thinks his patient needs. It’s always about the woman in consultation with her physician and not the woman standing alone in that case.”
Abortion opponents soon began working to limit abortion access, and in 1976 Congress passed Illinois representative Henry Hyde’s proposed prohibition of Medicaid funds for abortion for indigent women. The constitutionality of the Hyde Amendment has been upheld repeatedly, even its prohibition of medically necessary abortion. Activists working today from a reproductive justice framework note that while the right to privacy is now well established, it is essentially a negative right; that is, a right to be left alone. No positive right to abortion is established, making it functionally accessible only to those who can afford it.
In the forty-four years since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling, individual states have enacted 1,074 abortion restrictions. Of these, 353 (27%) have been enacted just since 2010. Restrictions include mandating medically inaccurate or misleading counselling prior to the procedure; requiring a waiting period after abortion counselling, thus necessitating at least two trips to the facility; mandating a medically unnecessary ultrasound exam before an abortion; banning Medicaid funding of abortion (except in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest); restricting abortion coverage in private health-insurance plans; requiring onerous and unnecessary regulations on abortion facilities; imposing medically inappropriate restrictions on medication abortion; and imposing an unconstitutional ban on abortion before viability or limits on abortion after viability. In this climate, talking about abortion is ever more important — to break abortion stigma and to keep abortion safe, legal, and accessible, abortion must be visible. Instead, abortion has been increasingly stigmatized and shamed since Roe v. Wade was decided.
Organizational/structural stigmas include such examples as the way abortion is physically separated from other healthcare, including gynecological and obstetric care, and inconsistent training available in medical schools. The community level of stigma includes the risk of being labelled promiscuous or careless or worse, another illustration of how abortion is highly stigmatized in the US. Individual-level stigma may be the most variable, as personal experience varies; the discourses of stigma in the community, organizations, government/structures, and media frequently influence individual psyches and experiences. All of these are discursive; that is, created and maintained through language and communication. This discursivity is integral to how they work.
For instance, consider the idea that abortion is stigmatized because it contradicts “ideals of womanhood”. Kumar et al. identify three archetypes that characterize the so-called essential nature of woman in the popular imaginary: a sexuality focused on procreation rather than pleasure; the inevitability of motherhood; and a nurturing instinct. When a woman voluntarily terminates a pregnancy, she is believed to be rejecting all of those archetypes — even though a majority of women who have abortions (59%) are already mothers and the most common reasons cited for seeking abortion are about family responsibilities. Yet voluntarily terminating a pregnancy challenges the moral order of patriarchal culture. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, named other beliefs about women that abortion decisions and access challenge: “There’s this thought that women are just too scattered, we’re too impulsive, we are too hormonal, we can’t make good decisions for ourselves”.
Most central, according to theories of abortion stigma, is the implicit tension about female sexuality: when, why, how, with whom. Did she use contraception? (That means she intended to have sex!) Is she too young? (She’s not ready to make this decision!) Did she choose the wrong man? (Perhaps someone others think is wrong for her.) And so on. Legislation regulating abortion is the most overt example of language that judges women for deviance from these feminine archetypes and further stigmatizes abortion with the lingering stain of criminality.
This is not to suggest that women are themselves ashamed of sex or sexuality, or even that all women feel stigma about abortion. Those who have terminated pregnancies are a heterogeneous group — in no small part because they are a large group. More than one million women in the US have abortions each year and estimates are that by age forty-five one-third of women will have had an abortion. It is also believed by demographers that abortion in the US is underreported. But abortion secrecy rules are well documented: two of three abortion patients anticipate experiencing stigma and a similar number (58%) feel the need to keep their decision from friends and family — an unfortunate trend, as social support is a mitigating factor in experiencing stigma. The pressure to keep abortion secret is strong enough that even when the procedure is covered by private insurance (about 30% of cases) two-thirds of those patients will pay out-of-pocket rather than have it appear on their medical and insurance records. This may be another factor in heightened stigma in the US; anecdotal evidence suggests that abortion is less stigmatized in the UK, where it is covered by the National Health Service.
Norris et al. (2011) suggest that additional reasons for abortion stigma may lie in the discourse of personhood attributed to the fetus. Advances in fetal medicine, such as 3D fetal photography and advanced fetal surgery, have facilitated this, as has the proliferation of anti-abortion legislation.
Morality and medicine, like fact and fiction, are entangled in many of these state laws enacted to restrict access to abortion. The Guttmacher Institute (2016), a research and policy organization focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights, reports that at least half of the fifty states have imposed regulations designed to deter women, such as mandatory counselling, required waiting periods, required parental involvement for minors, mandatory ultrasound imaging, and prohibitions on the use of Medicaid funds. A separate report documents the proliferation of regulations known as TRAP laws (Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers), which focus specifically on clinics and providers, mandating clinic requirements in such categories as corridor widths, distance from hospitals, admitting privileges for providers, and more. A 2016 US Supreme Court decision (Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt) struck down the latter type of regulations. The state law in question had already closed nearly two dozen clinics in Texas since 2013. In the three years since the law took effect, an estimated 100,000 Texas women have self-induced abortions. The number could be more than twice that, depending on how it is calculated. The court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt concluded “that neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes. Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion [and] each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access”, as well as being violations of the Constitution.
Many state regulations seem frankly designed to shame and stigmatize, as well as impose additional burdens on the process. Some regulations appear intended to influence women against abortion with bad science. For example, six states require abortion providers to advise women that the procedure can result in severe mental health consequences, despite repeated research showing this is not true. Yet no state requires that pregnant people be informed of the research linking unintended pregnancy and childbearing with adverse mental health outcomes. Kansas, Texas, South Dakota, and Arizona require that the pre-abortion counselling session include a statement that abortion may harm their ability to conceive in the future. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has affirmed that “that one abortion does not affect your ability to get pregnant or the risk of future pregnancy complications”. Five states still mandate that materials or counselling be provided informing women of a potential link between abortion and breast cancer — a link that was debunked almost fifteen years ago when the National Cancer Institute convened a workshop of more than a hundred of the world’s experts on the subject, who concluded that abortion does not increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. This finding has been affirmed by ACOG and the American Cancer Society, as well as a panel convened by the British government in 2004.
Equally egregious and insulting are the mandatory waiting periods, required in twenty-seven states. These “cooling-off periods” range from eighteen hours to three days after pre-abortion counselling before patients can receive an abortion, and usually exclude weekends and holidays. These regulations are based on the belief that women choose impulsively to terminate an unintended pregnancy, or perhaps have not considered the full impact of their choice; that is, that upon termination, they will no longer be pregnant. State legislators presume that women cannot make good decisions. Research has shown that women are actually less conflicted in abortion decisions than people making decisions about other medical procedures. A recent study of Utah’s seventy-two-hour waiting period found that most clients (91%) were just as certain after the three-day wait; 17% reported that waiting made them more certain. Previously published studies by the same researchers have shown that waiting periods increase the cost of the abortion and cause logistical hardships for patients. Civil rights lawyer Danielle Lang (2016) writes, “The argument goes as follows: Women, whose natural role is mother, would never in their right mind seek to terminate a pregnancy. Their choice therefore must be a result of bad influence, coercion or undue pressure.” Fifteen states even require pre-abortion counselling to inform the woman that she cannot be coerced into obtaining an abortion. It’s difficult to imagine other medical procedures being treated in this fashion, such as a three-day waiting period to have an aching tooth pulled or gaping wound stitched up, with a warning that no one can compel you to have those stitches. In his recently published memoir, abortion provider Dr Willie Parker extends the comparison to cancer, writing:
A woman who decides not to pursue treatment and to shorten her life in order to be clear-minded for as long as possible is considered “brave”. A woman who decides to take radical action, to undergo surgeries and try every experimental drug in the pipeline is a “warrior”. Even patients with lung cancer are not blamed and judged for smoking in the same way that women who seek abortions are blamed for having sex.
These regulations may individually seem minor, but their impact and reach are significant. Gold and Nash (2017) point out that seventeen states have at least five types of these restrictions that flout scientific evidence, and 30% of US women of reproductive age live in those states. Their review examines ten categories of restrictions; 53% of US women live in a state that has at least two of these restrictions.
In addition, abortion stigma has been effectively weaponized by anti-abortion activists. Protestors have used shaming and insulting language — such as calling patients “murderer” and “slut” as they enter clinics — and created overt barriers at clinics across the country. Despite the FACE Act (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) and the presence of volunteer escorts, anti-abortion zealots regularly show up at clinics to engage in prayer vigils and so-called sidewalk counselling, as well as to mob the cars and taxis of clinic patients and their companions and to photograph patients and providers without permission. “Sidewalk counselling” often consists of repeated interrogation about whether the patient has Jesus in her life, or slut shaming. A 2017 mini-documentary about clinic protestors produced by Rewire News shows anti-abortion activists acknowledging that they write down license plate numbers of clinic staff, which prompts anxiety and fear among clinic employees.
Abortion stigma reaches beyond those who have the procedure: abortion providers and clinic workers also experience it, albeit of a somewhat different nature. This has to do in part with structural forces of current medical practice. For instance, most abortions occur in women’s health clinics, which increases their isolation from the rest of healthcare. This was initially a strategic choice by proponents to maintain sensitive and women-controlled care of patients. Today it has made providers easy targets – literally and metaphorically – for abortion opponents. They are subject to harassment and violence and their clinics are singled out for regulations that other kind of outpatient medical facilities are not. The scarcity of abortion providers today results in some doctors becoming de facto abortion specialists (which is not inherently troublesome, as many physicians and surgeons develop expertise in particular procedures). The stigma is greater if they perform second-trimester abortions. Although providers experience these sources of abortion stigma on a continual basis, they can counter them with belief in the value and necessity of their work. On the other hand, unwillingness to disclose their work in public or social settings can increase the perception that abortion work is unusual or deviant, and reinforce the stigma. Family and friends of the patient may also experience abortion stigma. Male partners have reported ambivalence, guilt, sadness, anxiety, powerlessness — the same range of emotions felt by women who seek abortions.
Kumar has cautioned researchers to avoid “conceptual inflation” in defining abortion stigma, noting the importance of separating stigma analytically from prejudice and discrimination as it is both a cause and a consequence of inequality. To understand the power dynamics, the concept must be narrowly defined. When abortion is highly politicized, as in the US, “greater conceptual clarity is needed on the power differentials that create and maintain abortion stigma such as those related to race, age, and class”.
The precise nature of abortion stigma comes into clearer focus upon examination of women’s stories of abortion experience. Two documentary films released in 2005 featured personal stories of abortion: I Had an Abortion by Jennifer Baumgardner and The Abortion Diaries by Penny Lane. Both films had the explicit purpose of making abortion narratives public, widely shared, and without shame. Both films feature individuals stating that the shame of unintended pregnancy is greater than the shame of abortion. Joh in The Abortion Diaries tells her interviewer it was upsetting to her “that somebody knew that I’d messed up. ’Cause that’s what it was considered, that if you got pregnant, you messed up.” Baumgardner reports a male friend who has been part of more than one abortion (not uncommon for an urban, single, heterosexual dude approaching forty) who says it’s not the abortion that’s shameful, it’s the pregnancy. A 2016 HBO film, Abortion: Stories Women Tell by Tracy Droz Tragos, shows little change in the intervening decade. While the new film differs from those from 2005 in that it includes stories of women who elected to continue their pregnancies and stories of abortion protestors as well as abortion stories, the theme of abortion stigma is still strong. In a Newsweek interview, Tragos references all the women she spoke with who could not tell their stories on camera, fearing repercussions at work or at home, saying they found “some solace in even talking about [it] and being heard”.
Smith et al.’s recent interview study of reproductive decisions among young women in the American South found stigma attached to both pregnancy and abortion. Within their Alabama communities, “young women faced with an unintended pregnancy were often deemed ‘fast’ and labelled ‘heathens’ or ‘whores.’ Participants described how women can be the target of accusations and gossip regardless of their pregnancy decision”. A few participants reported losing friends when others, especially parents of their friends, learned of their pregnancies. Interview studies of adult women have also found women reporting disapproving attitudes from friends and family members, as well as loss of friends and boyfriends over abortion decisions. Reproductive justice activist Loretta J. Ross (2016) suggests that respectability politics today leads to more abortion shaming in our era of accessible birth control and legal abortion because now women are seen as both moral and intellectual failures for not using contraception, whereas a previous generation of young women with few options might be chastised only for their risky abortions.
Shame and secrecy surround nearly every reproductive health event; menstruation and menstrual disorders, miscarriage, and breastfeeding all follow widespread cultural norms of concealment and secrecy. For instance, Seear (2009) reported average diagnostic delays of eight years in the UK and eleven years in the US for endometriosis, due largely to stigma that normalizes menstrual pain and enforces silence. Miscarriage is also difficult to discuss and widely misunderstood, yet common: it occurs in about one-fourth of pregnancies in the US but 55% of Americans believe that it is rare. A national survey about miscarriage found that while most respondents knew that genetic malformation is a possible cause of miscarriage, substantial numbers agreed with the following incorrect causes: lifting heavy objects (64%), having had a sexually transmitted disease in the past (41%), past use of an IUD (28%), past use of oral contraception (22%), or getting into an argument (21%). Among survey respondents who had experienced miscarriages, 47% reported feeling guilty, 41% reported feeling that they did something wrong, 41% reported feeling alone, and 28% reported feeling ashamed.
This reproductive secrecy imposes a norm of silence around any reproductive experience that does not meet patriarchal ideals of femininity, such as adhering to the roles of good wife and good mother; in other words, there is no acceptable social discussion of miscarriages, abortions, or the decision to be childless by choice. The invisibility of these common experiences belies how normal they are. For example, many women in Gelman et al.’s study did not learn how common abortion is until they had one. They told researchers how surprised they were at the packed waiting rooms, expecting that “it would be me and maybe like one or two other people”, as one informant said.
Ellison suggests that this “cultural censorship of an experience shared by so many women reinforces an inflexible tension between cultural ideals and women’s lived realities”. This can be seen easily among Smith et al.’s young informants, who report that unintended pregnancy is both shamed and a common occurrence in their communities. These young women learn to regard abortion as even more shameful, reporting that they’ve been told abortion is irresponsible, immoral, selfish, and “you’ll get sick”, making abortion invisible in these communities. The women told the researchers stories of friends and family members who had obtained secret abortions and of miscarriages that they suspected were “hidden” abortions.
While the rate of unintended pregnancy has declined considerably over the last decade, it is still a common occurrence everywhere in the US, at 45% of all pregnancies. Twenty-one percent of all pregnancies end in abortion, leading to an annual total of more than one million pregnancy terminations. Both abortion and unintended pregnancy show a downward trend, with the most likely explanation “a change in the frequency and type of contraceptive use over time”, especially long-acting hormonal methods such as IUDs. At current rates, one of every four American women is likely to have an abortion by age thirty, and one in three by age forty-five.
But abortion stigma and shaming of women who seek abortions, their supporters, and abortion providers shows little decline. There is, however, a bold new movement of feminist activists challenging and resisting abortion stigma. These groups rely heavily on the internet and social media platforms to share stories and inform others about pending legislation and judicial decisions, as well as to promote participation in traditional activism, such as protests, meetings, and rallies. One of their shared goals is to normalize abortion by talking about it. These groups include #ShoutYourAbortion, Lady Parts Justice, We Testify, The Abortion Diary, 1 in 3 Campaign, Sea Change, Shift (affiliated with Whole Woman’s Health Alliance), My Abortion My Life (a project of PreTerm clinics of Ohio), Rewire, URGE (Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality, which uses the hashtag #AbortionPositive), Abortion Story Project, Project Voice, and probably many more. In the interest of time and space, I will focus here on #ShoutYourAbortion, Lady Parts Justice, We Testify, The Abortion Diary, and 1 in 3 Campaign. These five were selected partly for convenience, but also because they are among the most visible of these groups and they represent use of diverse social media channels: Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, websites, and podcasts.
#ShoutYourAbortion (SYA) is, according to their website, a “decentralized network of individuals talking about abortion on their own terms and creating space for others to do the same”. The SYA slogan says, “Abortion is normal. Our stories are ours to tell. This is not a debate.” The hashtag emerged in 2015, from a Twitter conversation between Amelia Bonow and Lindy West, in response to a congressional vote to defund Planned Parenthood. Bonow wrote on Facebook about how grateful she was to have had abortion accessible at her local Planned Parenthood affiliate when she needed one the previous year, and with her permission, West shared her story on Twitter, with the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion.
Lady Parts Justice (LPJ) was founded by comic Lizz Winstead, filmmaker Arun Chaudhary, and marketing CEO Scott Goodstein. LPJ and their sister organization, Lady Parts Justice League (LPJL), produce satirical, informative videos about anti-reproductive rights legislation, including parodies of popular songs and television shows re-worked with messages related to current abortion legislation. LPJL provides USO-style support to independent clinics all over the country, performing comedy shows that serve as entertainment for clinic employees and as fundraisers for clinic needs, often in regions that seldom see popular comedy performers tour. LPJL has also helped escort patients, planted a protective prickly bush in a fencing gap to block protesters, painted fences, counter-protested anti-choice activists, and thrown dance parties in parking lots for escorts and staff.
We Testify, a program initiated by the National Network of Abortion Funds, “is dedicated to increasing the spectrum of abortion storytellers in the public sphere and shifting the way the media understands the context and complexity of accessing abortion care”. It is a leadership program designed to support people of color in building their power and telling their stories. Renee Bracey Sherman, We Testify Program Manager, is the author of a resource guide for public abortion storytelling published by Sea Change.
The Abortion Diary podcast was started by Melissa Madera in the summer of 2013, after Madera had kept her abortion experience secret for thirteen years and seen the impact that finally telling her story had on her family, her friends, and herself. She chose the platform of podcasting to create a safe space for sharing stories “because, more than anything else, I wanted to listen”. By the beginning of 2017, she had collected more than two hundred abortion stories.
The 1 in 3 Campaign is the oldest abortion story project on the internet, and features the largest set of abortion stories published online, and the only bilingual collection, with stories published in English and in Spanish. More than a storytelling platform, 1 in 3 is also an organizing hub for college students working on reproductive justice issues on their campuses. It was created in 2011 by Advocates for Youth, an organization dedicated to supporting sexual and reproductive rights for young people.
Each has unique strengths and emphases. For instance, #ShoutYourAbortion centers visibility and politics of recognition, while Lady Parts Justice uses feminist humor as a tool of political analysis, and We Testify and the 1 in 3 Campaign use story-sharing to politicize themselves and others. All are working to normalize abortion, as they politicize supporters through narrative, online outreach, activism, and consciousness raising. For imagining a world without abortion stigma does not require that we celebrate abortion, only that we acknowledge it openly and without shame. A world without abortion stigma is also a world in which women can experience a vibrant sexuality, including access to comprehensive birth control and reproductive health services without shame, and one in which talking about those experiences is neither forbidden nor required.
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In May we’ll be publishing Lesley-Ann Brown’s Decolonial Daughter: Letters from a Black Woman to her European Son, a book which explores, through the lens of motherhood, issues such as migration, identity, nationhood and how it relates to land, forced migrations, imprisonment and genocide for Black and Indigenous people.
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You can read more about Lesley-Ann and her work in the Huffington Post:
Trailblazing Blogger Lesley-Ann Brown Has Been Laying the Foundations for a Literary Renaissance for over Two Decades – God is a Trini and She Lives High, All the Way Up, in Copenhagen
Poet and English Teacher in Copenhagen Denmark Sows Seeds with Fire and Reaps the Whirlwind – The Galactic Resistance is Real
In an extract from her recent book Lean Out, Dawn Foster explores the limits of self-proclaimed feminist Theresa May’s solidarity with women.
The notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre was opened in 2001, under the last Labour government, and management was outsourced to private company Serco in 2007. Poor conditions in the centre and protests against the 400-capacity facility have intensified in recent years, coming to a head in 2015. Reports of sexual abuse and mistreatment in the compound became increasingly common, and self-harm was rife among the women, who comprised of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation, imprisoned despite committing no crime. A Channel 4 investigation obtained footage of the systemic mistreatment of women detained in the centre, included a guard shouting “Headbutt the bitch. I’d beat her up.”
Rashida Manjoo, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on violence against women, was barred from Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office in April 2014 when she tried to investigate complaints as part of her fact-finding mission into violence against women in the UK. Cameras have never been allowed in. In April 2015, in the same week as a woman died in Yarl’s Wood and a guard with a history of sexually inappropriate behaviour was￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ suspended pending investigation for a revenge assault, Cristel Amiss, of the Black Women’s Rape Action Project, told The Guardian: “We’ve been supporting women in Yarl’s Wood for over a decade and have heard consistent reports from brave whistleblowers exposing abusive treatment and sexually predatory behaviour by guards.”
After the Channel 4 investigation, Theresa May refused to come to the House of Commons to answer an urgent question from the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, on the treatment of detainees, called amongst other abusive names “black bitch”, “animals”, “beasties”, and “evil”. Cooper said, “There is no point in ministers pretending to be shocked at news of abuse. This is not news. Even now, the ministers have not set up an independent inquiry. This is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the Home Secretary’s watch and it needs to end now.”
Despite May’s assertions that she believes in women’s empowerment, there is a distinct limit to her solidarity, which depends on how your race, country of birth, and economic wealth intersect. As Home Secretary, May is in a position rarely occupied by women, and rarely occupied by anyone for so long. Home Secretaries tend to be hit by scandals and forced to resign with wearying regularity. But whilst in office, May has overseen some of the most draconian immigration legislation for decades, defending immigration detention, renewing contracts with Serco despite sexual violence reports, and introducing rules that mean low income families are split up and British people split up from their partners and children if they don’t earn over a soon-to-be-raised income threshold.
May sits in a cabinet with many other powerful women, especially after criticism of Cameron’s disproportionately male and Etonian cabinet refused to die down until a reshuffle. The policies that trickle down from that cabinet harm women disproportionately. Despite launching a campaign titled “Theresa May for Equal Pay” in 2008, May has endorsed an austerity regime ￼￼￼￼that saw the gender pay-gap increase, and been a stalwart of a government that introduced cuts that affected four times as many women as men.
Meanwhile, there is a burgeoning crisis in the women’s sector: provision of domestic violence services and rape crisis centres and helplines has been reduced due to austerity cuts. Headline figures on cuts to UK domestic violence services often mask the full impact of government cuts on people fleeing abuse at home. Women across the UK have been hardest hit by austerity and attendant spending cuts. Charities in the sector speak out about the problems they’re seeing: Women’s Aid has warned that services are “at breaking point”, with a third of women turned away from refuges due to lack of space, and the total number of refuges falling from 187 to 155 between 2010 and 2014. But for many of the women escaping violence, moving to a refuge is only the first step on the journey to safe, independent living.
The housing crisis, especially in the south east and London, is one of the biggest factors affecting women trying to move on. Most women spend between six to nine months in refuges, where they’re assigned a support worker who offers counselling, signposts services and advocates for the women, helping them build independent living skills, and getting them into education and training. The move to independence after surviving violence is crucial, as without support and safeguards put in place, the risk of returning home to violence and abuse is heightened.
At one refuge in London last year, run by the charity Hestia, the service manager Louise Dickerson told me: “It’s really difficult in the climate now. Because social housing is pretty much abolished, local authorities discharge their duty through private rented accommodation now most often, which is maybe on a yearly license or tenancy.” Housing waiting lists in the UK’s local councils, who have a legal duty to help homeless and vulnerable people, are at an all-time high. With so much pressure on counc￼￼￼￼￼ils, domestic violence survivors can struggle to convince council employees they are a priority. Women have even spoken of being disbelieved when they disclose their need to flee because of violence. Moving to privately rented flats means the women and families are offered less security and are liable for far higher rents: most private housing offers tenancy agreements of no longer than a year, and Hestia report more women are being asked to have a financial guarantor, who agrees to be financially liable for rent arrears. For women fleeing violence, who’ve often cut all ties to their wider family and friendship groups, this is an impossibility and an insult after their ordeal.
Even when women do find a home to move on to, the cuts mean they face even more hardship. In the raft of public-spending cuts in the last few years, many of the financial assistance schemes councils offered have been slashed. The crisis loan fund, which provided a total of £180m in hardship loans to people in extreme financial need, has now been scrapped. Economic control is a commonly used tool of domestic violence perpetrators when preventing women from leaving: removing financial help for such vulnerable women and children puts lives at risk. This money was previously a lifeline for people in extreme distress and very vulnerable situations, and losing it puts even more pressure on domestic violence services. As Dickerson explains:
They’ve taken away the crisis loan, and women relied on that for resettlement. So women will leave without a mattress to sleep on, and some of them have young families. One woman was self-harming recently, living in a shelter that was not homely. It’s very challenging for our workers. We work really hard just to make sure the women can survive.
Other lifelines of financial support are also being slowly eroded. The Discretionary Housing Payment funding, which provide payments of up to a year for people facing difficulty paying their accommodation costs, is to be slashed by 24% from 2015.
In a speech to Women’s Aid’s annual conference in 2010 in the early days of the coalition, May told the audience that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would reverse the decline in rape crisis centres, but tentatively refused to make any funding commitments to the women’s sector in the face of looming local authority cuts. “Your problem is my problem”, May said, adding, “Success for us will not mean we’ve spent more of the money we don’t have. It will mean more women have been helped, more abusers have been brought to justice and more attitudes have been changed.”
It’s not precisely clear how May and the government expect rape crisis centres to continue to provide an identical service with less money, which perhaps explains why she is not chancellor, but does little to comfort the women in need who find their service threatened with closure. Violence against women is a problem for all of society, and without accepting that all services must be welcoming and accessible for women fleeing violence and crucially that they must be adequately funded, more women will find their lives in danger.
The benefit of having women in the cabinet remains to be seen for migrant, low-paid, or abused women. For now, it seems as though there is no difference: the powerful look after the powerful, with gender as an afterthought, or a bargaining chip when trying to deflect criticism for cuts that harm women.
“There’s no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard.”—Arundhati Roy
Post-crash, countless studies have shown that the impact of cuts and austerity has been borne predominately by women. A Fawcett Society study on the impact of cuts doled out by the coalition government in the UK stated that 75% of all cuts hit women. Women with disabilities, black women, working-class women, and single mothers were the hardest hit.
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission warn that 2010–2020 will be the first decade since records began that sees a rise in absolute poverty in the UK, with the gulf between the rich and poor as irreparable. When the economy tanks, it is predictably women who suffer. The fight for women’s rights is less a long, slow march, and more like a climbing wall: it is possible to climb as well as fall, so vigilance is essential at all times. The clawing back of the welfare state is a direct attack on women’s rights, but boardroom quotas make a tidier headline, based on the assumption that certain rights have already been won.
In reaction to the argument that “there is no alternative” to cuts and austerity, with Labour and the Conservatives in the UK singing from the same hymn sheets, women’s grassroots groups have started to fight back. The Focus E15 campaign grew in Newham in response initially to Newham’s “social cleansing” of the poorest households in the borough, targeting single mothers and forcing them to relocate to cities and towns hundreds of miles away from their children’s schools, families and support networks. In 2013, a group of 29 young single mothers, many of whom were teenagers, were served with eviction notices from their specialist hostel in east London. The Focus E15 foyer provided one-bedroom apartments for the women to live in with their children, or whilst pregnant, after being made homeless, and provided targeted skills training, literacy teaching, and specialist support to help the women back into work or training. Many of the women in the £125-a-week rooms were studying, or in part-time work in the area, and one mother said she was applying for universities in London.
The funding of Supporting People, designed to help vulnerable people live independently, was slashed in England and the foyer said that without funding for specialist support, the hostel would cease to be an appropriate environment for young mothers and children. Newham Council, tasked with rehousing the women, told them they should expect to be placed outside the borough and city. A change to Newham’s housing policy meant working families and people who had served in the armed forces received priority over single mothers like the Focus E15 residents.
Rather than accept their fate, the women took action. Starting from a weekly street stall in Stratford city centre, the women explained their predicament and soon rallied around supporters and other activists. This culminated in September 2014 with an attention-grabbing protest a few minutes’ walk away next to Stratford station. Coinciding with London’s Open House weekend, where iconic and listed buildings are opened to public tours, the Focus E15 campaigners, now comprising the mothers, locals, and seasoned campaigners, broke into two empty flats.
The flats, in the Carpenters Estate, had lain empty for years. Walking around the estate, it was remarkable how many windows were boarded up, so close to the 2012 Olympic site, which had promised regeneration and wealth for a poor area. Members of the Tenant Management Organisation, responsible for managing the site, told me Newham Council had refused to allow them to let properties that became empty if families moved out, slowly turning the red-brick estate into a ghost town.
Once in, the campaigners decorated the properties with toys, soft furnishings, banners and posters and declared their own Open House. Outside, green fabric banners decorated with the slogans “These Homes Need People: These People Need Homes” were unfurled, a simple message underlining the absurdity of the situation the mothers and other homeless families in the borough were faced with. On a sunny Saturday, the flats were thronged with visitors. One room I went into was being used as an impromptu crèche: babies were happily being entertained by two locals in a former bedroom. The living room was a campaign centre, with media phone numbers tacked to the wall, alongside lists of what was needed to make the occupation work.
What was striking about the flats was their state of repair. Curious visitors who popped in after hearing of the occupation via social media and news coverage were genuinely shocked at how immaculate the decor and fittings were. Wandering around, I noticed the wallpaper looked as good as new, and the kitchen was far better than many I had seen in my own rented flats over the years. The TMO said most flats were the same: perfectly liveable, but empty by command of the council. The campaigners pointed out that it would be far easier to move women into these small family homes than ship them miles from their own families, disrupting young children’s lives.
The campaign garnered a huge amount of media and local attention, initially through social media, before being picked up by The Guardian and The Financial Times. In The Guardian, one of the mothers, Jasmin Stone, wrote:
“We wanted to participate in Open House to show how many houses sit empty in London and what an easy solution there is to the housing crisis. This crisis, as it is usually covered in the newspapers, is one experienced by the middle classes, whose steady march from private renting to home ownership has been stopped in its tracks by the hugely inflated market. For members of the working class, however, the crisis is much more virulent. It involves not only the prospect of annual rent increases, the impossibility of home ownership and poor-quality housing, but also removal and displacement from the place in which you were born, leading to isolation in a place where you know nobody and opportunities for jobs are non-existent.”
The campaign, built up over years and still fighting homelessness and gentrification in Newham, meant that a process that usually happens to women silently was brought to public attention. Individually, families facing homelessness, often single mothers because they comprise the lowest-paid and most vulnerable households, are turned away from council housing offices and left to fend for themselves, or placed in unsuitable hostels miles away from their home. Focus E15 challenged this silencing and directly linked it to the rapid development of London due to unsustainably fast house-price growth tempting investors in to make a quick buck. Councils, with slashed budgets from central government, abdicate responsibility to vulnerable residents in lieu of making some quick cash from land sales, in the process (they hope) tempting in more financially flush tenants.
This exact scenario was relayed to me in 2010, when a Newham councillor asked me what I thought the biggest problem facing Newham was (I worked as a student welfare advisor in a university in the Borough). With students, predominantly women, coming in every day complaining about homelessness, poor conditions, or that they were experiencing domes- tic violence but couldn’t afford to move out, I replied that the biggest issue was the need for more social housing. “Oh no”, he said. “That just encourages undesirables.” Instead, they needed to build more new, metropolitan flats, the kind springing up around Stratford Station and the under-development Westfield Shopping Centre. The kind that attracted bankers from nearby Canary Wharf, not the sort of people who lived and worked in Newham already.
But “undesirables” have to live somewhere, and it sticks in the craw of the rich when these “undesirables” live in an area deemed desirable by the wealthy. The New Era estate in Hoxton was bought out in May 2014 by American property develop- ment company Westbrook Partners. Letters sent following the takeover informed the 93 families living on the estate that they faced a four-fold increase in rent. For the majority of the residents, this amounted to an eviction notice: few residents, some who had lived on the estate for as many as 70 years, could afford to pay those sums even if their only outgoing was rent.
Three women took charge of the fight to keep the residents in their homes: Lindsey Garrett, Danielle Molinari and Lynsay Spiteri rallied tenants and got word out about the conditions of the takeover. That the Benyon Estate, the family business of the country’s richest MP, Richard Benyon, had a 10% stake in the estate made it easier to argue their case. The women contacted The Daily Mirror, then other papers, organised a demonstration outside Westbrook Partners’ UK offices, and presented a 300,000-signature petition to Downing St.
After months of work, the campaign had won vocal and public support from politicians across the political divide, including the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the Mayor of Hackney, the borough the estate resides in. For the investors, the level of attention and the volume of bad publicity made their plans untenable: shortly before Christmas, the Benyon Estate pulled out, quickly followed by Westbrook Partners. The estate was sold to Dolphin Square, a charity that is committed to providing low-cost homes to people on low incomes, and ten- ants were told not to expect rent increases.
Recovering from celebrations, Molinari told the BBC: “They underestimated us three women, but also all the residents on the estate, the community spirit and what Hoxton is all about”. Garrett, currently an NHS worker, is now planning to run for London Mayor in the 2016 elections, and has been elected chair of the New Era Tenants’ Association.
The 3Cosas campaign have campaigned for better rights for cleaners (predominantly women) and fought gender discrimination and unfair dismissal cases when Unite the Union refused to recognise casual staff.
In 2013, the Home Office introduced a billboard van that drove around with the message “Here illegally? GO HOME” with a number listed for undocumented migrants to call. What the government termed the “Immigration Enforcement Campaign” quickly gained a new, more commonly used name: the “racist van”. The glory of social media is that, as with the bedroom tax, you have little control over what people describe campaigns and policies as. Once the general public insists, by virtue of sheer wilful numbers, that they are going to use one term, your more strategic title is binned by most media outlets. One young woman, who writes pseudonymously as “Pukkah Punjabi”, called the number, left a voicemail, then toyed with the Home Office operator who called her back, saying she was just after a lift back to Willesden, as that was her home. Social-media agitators continued to deluge the hotline with similar calls, until the campaign looked less Judge Dredd, more Benny Hill. Southall Black Sisters have campaigned for women for years and again hit the headlines on August 1st 2013, when they were holding a women’s advice centre. Word reached the group of an immigration raid happening close by: the women gathered and drove the van away from their centre, before intercepting and surrounding the vans with supporters and megaphones as they attempted to carry out an immigration raid. “We were all so enraged by it that we emerged from our building and followed the vehicles around Southall
shouting ‘this is racist’,” Southall Black Sisters wrote on their site. “Many of the women have escaped domestic violence and have felt trapped by their immigration status to stay in abusive marriages.” Other groups have also worked to stop raids, notably the Anti-Raids Network, and often local communities act organically to attempt to stop raids, such as in south London in June 2015, when a UKBA van was surrounded, rocked, and had its tyres slashed by locals outraged at the attack on their community and neighbours.
These groups have secured victories and publicity, not by leaning in, behaving and striving individually, but by adopting very specific strategies. Direct action is key to each movement: while petitions and lobbying of local and national politicians have complemented each campaign, it is direct action that has put the cat amongst the pigeons, and allowed the women to fully expose the horror and unfairness of the causes they are highlighting and fighting for. If housing is your issue, why not occupy empty homes to show the claim there is nowhere for vulnerable women to go is a lie? If your community is being raided and your neighbours are being bundled into a van for deportation by state thugs, why let the UK Border Agency do so quietly? Show the world what is going on every day under their noses.
Social media has been a huge force in both mobilising and publicising campaigns and injustices. While a lot has been said about the abuse prominent women receive on the internet, the ability to get online and connect with potentially millions of people who would care about your cause if they heard about it is revolutionary. For women, the democratising potential of social media networks has helped bring attention to campaigns and causes that previously would have buckled without press attention. People speaking in real time, and consistently shar- ing information, has sustained and bolstered many campaigns. Politicians are still wary of social media: some have lost jobs over unwise outbursts, but there’s also a fear of the unpredict- able networks revealing actions (such as in Newham) that tradi- tionally would have passed without outside notice or comment.
Mutual support and solidarity between neighbours and networks have been integral to many of these campaigns. Housing activists in different boroughs in London regularly disseminate email call-outs for more bodies and supplies for ongoing occupations around the capital. Actions against the UK Border Agency’s immigration raids are only made possible by communities fighting back and refusing to see someone who lives or works alongside them dragged into a van only to disappear once deported. Again, social media allows bedroom-tax campaigners to discuss tactics and loopholes nationally and provide emotional support throughout fights to keep their home.
Media attention is still integral to a successful campaign, but has changed tack in recent years. Social media now drives much news —I’ve sat in many commissioning meetings where editors have been unenthused by a story, but journalists have pointed out it’s all anyone is really discussing on social media, so choosing not to cover it looks politically motivated. A successful campaign thereby forces coverage, and coverage is the final stage in cementing victory. Politicians and forces will push not to recog- nise campaigns even when they’re attracting mass attention, but the esteem for traditional media is still far higher, and often once newspapers or TV channels get involved, victory is not far away, as the New Era Estate campaign showed.
Sisters Uncut, Southall Black Sisters, and the bulk of housing and bedroom-tax campaigners are now women, and usually working-class women, often on benefits. They are at the van- guard of anti-austerity campaigning, refusing to accept the cuts that affect women disproportionately. While austerity may be temporary (though the Conservatives and Labour seem happy to accept that it is now ideologically permanent), the effect of austerity on women and children lasts a lifetime.
In her book on class and music culture in the Nineties, Clampdown, Rhian E Jones notes that class is an endemic problem in contemporary feminism:
In mainstream politics and media, there remains a tendency for working-class women themselves to appear in feminist discourse as objects to be seen rather than heard, expected to rely on middle-class activists to articulate demands in their behalf but considered too inarticulate or otherwise “rough” to be directly engaged with.
Will that change? Who knows. But the drive towards direct action by many groups run by women should be recognised as a constructive feminist movement, and will be by anyone sensible who recognises that gender is but one part of oppression.
By occupying, withdrawing labour, and refusing to be complicit in the state’s violence against the most vulnerable in society, they show that “leaning out” of the capitalist model is far more effective at securing attention, provoking change, and ensuring demands are met than “leaning in”. Few people ever get anything radical accomplished by continuing to play the game. The women on the frontline of the new feminist campaigning accept that capitalism and the political and power elites are no friend of women, and that to have a stab at a life that can support you and your children, the answer isn’t to internalise the hatred society casts your way, but to fight to reveal injustice and refuse to participate.
Lean Out is out now, available from all good bookshops & online.
We’re cross-posting (with permission) this great piece by desiredxthings on the demise of Page 3 — T.S.
A FEW THOUGHTS ON THE DEMISE OF PAGE 3
Well, the tits are gone and now all of our lives are meaningless. Wherever will feminism go now the patriarchy is crushed?
The No More Page 3 campaign has been a mess from the beginning – it was the online milieu of the middle class, white feminists who have been stomping all over minorities for decades. Anti slut-shaming has become trendy, so rather than telling other women not to get their breasts out in the first place, mainstream feminism is dictating how and when to get your breasts out – and evidently getting your breasts out for payment is verboten. But this is okay, of course.
It initially came across as a fairly benign campaign, to keep boobs out of a family paper. We can’t have kiddies staring at norks, can we? But… to try and position The Sun as a family newspaper, a main argument of NMP3, is laughable. If you want your children to have access to misogyny, homophobia, racism, antagonism towards those on state welfare, ableism, xenophobia, whorephobia and a whole host of other oppressive bullshit, that’s your own bad parenting; but don’t call it a family newspaper.
Let’s get this straight, I don’t really care about the titillation of men and I’m not even going to trouble myself analysing this as a free speech issue – those aren’t what I’m concerned about. I’m concerned as a sex-worker in a time where the well-funded face of feminism sees us, at best, as an inconvenience on the journey to the gender equal utopia and, at worst, despicable gender traitors. No More Page 3 has tried to deny claims that they are opposed to sex workers or nudity; that’s all well and good, but why does what they do completely counteract that? Their claim is that other glamour modelling opportunities exist; but they either fail to grasp or completely ignore the importance of page 3 to a glamour model. The Sun is the most popular publication in the country and high circulation means higher exposure. One photo in The Sun can lead to countless other opportunities. NMP3 have removed a stepping stone for many glamour models (many of which do not have agents and have to navigate the industry alone) and hacked away at a career route.