If feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression, and depriving females of reproductive rights is a form of sexist oppression, then one cannot be anti-choice and be feminist. A woman can insist she would never choose to have an abortion while affirming her support of the right of women to choose and still be an advocate of feminist politics. She cannot be anti-abortion and an advocate of feminism.
bell hooks (b. 1952) is an American feminist activist, writer and educator. Born Gloria Jean Watkins, she’s best known by her pen name which she borrowed from her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. hooks’ writing primarily focuses on the intersections of race, class, and gender, in history, art, education, social activism and much more.
This quotation is taken from chapter 1 of her concise, straightforward feminist handbook Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000), which she says she wrote because she “kept waiting for it to appear, and it did not.” Other influential works (there are 30 in total!) include:
Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (1981)
All About Love: New Visions (2000)
Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (1981), Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), All About Love: New Visions (2000), and We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004).
Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.
British actor and pioneer of the UN’s HeForShe campaign, Emma Watson has faced criticism for the publication of a photo in which her breasts are partially exposed. The image is one of a series taken by acclaimed fashion photographer Tim Walker, with styling by Jessica Diehl. It accompanied Watson’s recent cover story interview for Vanity Fair. Of the shoot and images Watson has said:
It felt incredibly artistic. I’ve been so creatively involved and engaged with Tim and I’m so thrilled about how interesting and beautiful the photographs were.
As the UN Global Goodwill Ambassador, Watson promotes gender equality while maintaining her career as an internationally renowned actress. She’s a major role model for women, young and old, worldwide.
Watson’s critics argued that by posing for this revealing photo, she betrayed her feminist ideals. Rather than apologise, Watson came back at her critics with a simple explanation of what feminism really means:
Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it.
Feminism is about empowering women to make their own choices. Equality means women have the freedom to choose how their bodies are treated and viewed, in both public and private spheres. This issue is up there with the right to education, the right to equal pay and the right not to be sexually harassed and abused.
Watson’s critics, whether or not they’re aware of it, reinforce the case of people denying women access to reproductive healthcare. The argument against giving women access to abortion and other essential healthcare stems from a misogynistic view that women do not deserve control over their bodies. Access to reproductive healthcare is about allowing women to choose how their body is treated and viewed, in both public and private spheres.
A little glimpse of boob might seem like a drop in an ocean of all the things feminist women have been fighting for for hundreds of years. It might seem like a single image from a fashion shoot is hardly worth all this conjecture. But it is our reactions to these seemingly small issues that snowball until we have an entire woman-shaming culture: by opposing a single woman’s consensual decision to bare her body, we become complicit in preventing hundreds of thousands of women from life-saving healthcare.
As Watson put it, this criticism is synonymous with:
saying that I couldn’t be a feminist and… and have boobs.
Social taboos restrict essential elements of healthcare. Sex education, contraception, and abortion are not available from official institutions like schools and hospitals. Most families are unable to discuss such things, assuming such knowledge is unnecessary until learnt within a marriage. Young people must teach themselves about sex, turning to simple pamphlets for education and unofficial clinics for healthcare. Misconceptions about contraception and diseases prevail, and young women lie to doctors about medical issues resulting from botched back-street abortions. This is sex and marriage in contemporary Burma (Myanmar) from May Thant’s perspective.
Is sex education available before marriage?
Yes. Not at school but outside, from medical centres. Some girls don’t know about sex exactly, and some girls read a lot and they know about it. These girls find the information in books we have about it in our language [Burmese], published by medical centres. We can buy them easily, at the bookshop. But most Myanmar girls are too shy to talk about sex.
Do parents talk about sex with their daughters or sons?
Here that would be very strange. That’s like an open type of relationship between parents and their children. But most Myanmar children don’t talk about this with their parents. They would never ask them about it. The thing is [there is no need to learn about sex before marriage because] we will know after we are married.
Is there pressure to get married?
Here, people usually get married under thirty. Some girls over thirty don’t get married, they just live with their parents and they don’t get married. There are women who never get married, who never know about sex, never have children.
They will live with their parents or family until old age.
In other countries, you can live alone when you are over 18. But here, we cannot live alone before we are married. After we are married, it is okay if we live by ourselves. But if we never get married, we have to live with our parents.
It is the same for boys and girls. Right now, I live with my aunt. My parents are in my hometown. If I didn’t have any family in Yangon I would have to live in a hostel, or rent an apartment with friends. Many people rent an apartment with friends, but only if there is no family to stay with.
What kind of relationships do people have before marriage?
Right now, the cities have many [young] couples, and many couples have sex before they are married. We are facing a problem because young adults don’t know how to use condoms, so they don’t use [protection] and the girls get pregnant. They [usually] don’t want to have children before they are married.
For example, in our society, if I got pregnant [or had] children before I got married, then I would get shame. How can I say it? I would get shame, and my parents wouldn’t call me their daughter. I would be cut off from everyone, everything, and it could affect my job too. Maybe I would get fired from my job. But most of the girls [in this situation] don’t want to have the baby, so they have an abortion.
Is it easy to get an abortion?
Yes, very easy. You don’t have to go to the hospital for it. In most of the hospitals here, they don’t perform abortions. At the hospital you have to register and things like that. But there are some places you don’t have to register and it is easy to have an abortion. Some [of these] places are not safe for your health.
The places are not like clinics. It is just… how can I say? Just a house, just a nurse doing abortions for money. [They go to] a nurse’s house, with a nurse who is not working anymore – like a retired nurse, or the nurse’s daughter [who] the nurse is teaching how to make an abortion. Something like this. They don’t always know what they’re doing.
But girls get an abortion from [these places] outside, and if it is not good for their health, like there is too much bleeding, and they go to the hospital. The doctors will scold them and ask: “why did you do this?” but they don’t perform abortions [at the hospital].
The patient won’t tell the doctor she had an abortion. The patient will just say, “I have this problem.”
Do women tell anyone if they have an abortion?
They don’t find out. She doesn’t tell anyone. It can be very dangerous. But mostly, her mother will know. [Young women] are scared of their father, and they talk about everything with their mother. Most girls talk to their mother every day; they talk about everything together. Some mothers help their daughters to have an abortion because it affects your reputation [if people find out about the pregnancy or abortion] and the mother worries that the daughter could be poor if it affects her reputation.
Women can talk about an abortion with their mother, but they won’t talk about sex.
When do married couples usually have children?
They don’t have to. [Usually] they don’t want children for one or two years after marriage. After two years, they start to have babies. Some marriages [happen] to have a baby. For example, if a girl had sex with her boyfriend and got pregnant, then her house[hold] know she got pregnant, and they talk to her boyfriend’s house[hold] or mother, like this. They get married so they [can] have the baby after the marriage. About thirty to forty percent of marriages start like this in our country.
[May laughs when I explain the phrase ‘shotgun wedding’.]
Is contraception available for couples who don’t want to have a baby?
Condoms and pills are easy to buy and easy to get. But I think some boys don’t like to use condoms, and some girls won’t take the pills after sex, because they forget or they don’t want to.
Traditionally, the wife’s role is to make the husband’s life easy. Is that true?
Men are taught that women are for sex and cooking and children. Women think they cannot find money for their family, and they obey their husband like a king for finding money to support the family.
Men always want to be higher than their wives or their children. But women are more intelligent than men or boys. Women always treat their husband like a king, and men are proud to be themselves.
For example, my grandmother treated my grandfather like a king. For breakfast, she will ask what time he wants it, and she will make sure it is ready for him when he wants. At lunchtime, it will be ready for him when he asked for it. It is the same for many other things. They make sure everything is ready for the man.
Now, some educated women don’t think like this. They can do anything like a man and it is the same for them as a woman.
Some men will not allow their wives to use contraception because they believe contraceptives have dangerous side effects.
Yes. In our country we don’t have enough knowledge about sex. Here we’re a cultural country. Many religious people don’t know about [contraception]. Some educated people will give them knowledge of sex, but they won’t accept it. They say, “it’s a very personal problem and you don’t need to talk about it in public.” Even now, it is like this.
But times are changing. In a big town like Yangon, Mandalay, and places like this, most teenagers have enough knowledge of sex and they can accept [education]. But in a small place they don’t have enough knowledge of sex. There they look down on people who have HIV and AIDS, and [doctors] will not treat these patients. They don’t have enough knowledge of the disease to know it can be contracted by other’s blood. Most people think it is only about sex, so they look down upon it.
What would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?
The answer is clear – menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much. Boys would mark the onset of menses, that longed-for proof of manhood, with religious ritual and stag parties. Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.
– Gloria Steinem, extracted from her 1978 essay If Men Could Menstruate, first published Ms. magazine.
“Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
– Gloria Steinem, in 1996 HBO film If These Walls Could Talk
I’m a Lenny subscriber. So I’m treated to intelligent, witty, Feminist writing at the end of every week, when I need it most. Lenny’s weekly letter picks me up just as my Friday evening is setting in (I’m 13 hours ahead of NYC). On the way home on the Beijing subway after 7 hours of teaching last Friday, I scrolled through my emails with one hand, the other gripping the bar overhead and my bag sat on the floor as I overheated in the crush of people.
I was sufficiently distracted from the morass of warm bodies around me that I almost missed my stop.
The first piece last week was Sarah Silverman’s interview for Lenny, by Lena Dunham. Silverman is awesome. As is Lena (I’m going to call her Lena because I want to be her Bee-Eff-Eff. Lena’s the reason I signed up for Lenny, but I’ve stayed for the content). Silverman’s comment, “I lead with my thighs” has stuck with me for days as I strutted around feeling powerful in tall leather boots this weekend.
The big recommendation I took from Silverman was a mention of Lady Parts Justice:
L: What is a moment of overcoming the patriarchy that you have witnessed or taken part in this week?
SS: Lizz Winstead, who started Lady Parts Justice (and the Lady Parts Justice League), made an app called Hinder that looks like Tinder but presents/exposes politicians who are anti-choice. It’s satirical and informative and brilliant. She is an unsung hero of feminism who works tirelessly, and I love her.
Yes, these interviews are parodies (just listen to the names of the businesses), but that doesn’t mean this kind of thing isn’t actually happening in employee healthcare plans across America. Women’s reproductive rights have long been under fire, but since the Hobby Lobby decision, a woman’s body is all too often subject to her employer’s religious beliefs. The combination of humour and political issues simply makes it even more potent.
The front page gives you 5 reasons to join Lady Parts Justice (LPJ):
Because women decide elections and if we get together, blow this shit up in a smart and funny way, we just may be able to get folks to sit up, take action and reverse this erosion of rights.
Because neanderthal politicians are spending all their time making laws that put YOUR body squarely into THEIR hands.
Because extremist goon squads exist in EVERY statehouse in America and are sneaking in tons of creepy legislation. We’re staying on top of this shit so you can stay on top this shit.
Because you use birth control.
Because you like sex and it’s not all about having babies. Think about it, if it were there would be no room to stand.
If that’s not enough to convince you, try this:
Sarah Silverman’s got it down! Again, humour and politics combined with just a hint of satire. I genuinely think LPJ could make a huge difference to the lives of American women, and, later, women around the world.
As Silverman mentioned in interview with Lenny, Lizz Winstead and LPJ have just released Hinder – an app that looks like Tinder that exposes American politicians who are anti-choice. Check it out:
So, of course, I immediately downloaded Hinder. Unsurprisingly, Hinder hasn’t branched out into Chinese politics just yet… but if I weren’t already excited about my first trip to the US this summer, this has got me bouncing in my seat. I can’t wait to use it.
‘If You Got a Big Ol’ Butt? Shake It!’… But You’ll Be Damned for Taking Charge of Your Own Body
News of Nicki Minaj’s abortion was used by the media as anti-choice propaganda
Nicki Minaj had a massive year in 2014. With everyone talking about her big ol’ butt (her words), which was in full view – literally – across the media, it was pretty hard to ignore her.
She’s been on my radar for several years now (that brilliant voice, those insane lyrics, y’know?), but until last year, I hadn’t given Minaj herself much thought – as a person, a woman, and an icon.
My younger brother (who admires Minaj but is too young to recognise the Sir Mix-a-lot sample she uses in Anaconda) watched our sister and I watch the Anaconda video, insisting he wanted our opinions. I wasn’t sure how to react. Should I be shocked? Why shouldn’t she show off her mindbendingly awesome (mostly plastic) body? Finally we agreed she’s pretty awesome – to feel able to rap about her sexual relationships in a way society normally associates with male artists is pretty out-there.
Thus began my ever-growing admiration for Nicki Minaj. She is honest, hilarious and bloody-minded. Where other celebrities are defensive about their appearance (particularly when it comes to plastic surgery), she is relentlessly loud and proud. Her laughter is infectious. Her songs are bold, unique and articulate.
“I stand for girls wanting to be sexy and dance, but also having a strong sense of themselves. If you got a big ol’ butt? Shake it! Who cares? That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be graduating from college.” (Minaj in Rolling Stone interview)
Her self-awareness and ownership of her mind and body makes her an inspirational role model for young women – she reassures us that we can be sexy and smart. She appears to have no guilt, no regrets, and no second thoughts.
That’s why I was shocked when the headlines reported Minaj was ‘haunted’ by a teenage abortion.
Actually reading the Rolling Stone article, I soon discovered Minaj wasn’t ‘haunted’ by her abortion – she didn’t regret terminating the baby. She was 100% open about the difficulty of a teenage pregnancy for any young woman: “I thought I was going to die,” she stated. “I was a teenager. It was the hardest thing I’d ever gone through.” But that doesn’t mean she’s torn up about the abortion – not by far. Knowing she “didn’t have anything to offer a child”, Minaj still fully supports the decision she made then, and is still pro-choice.
She was – as always – refreshingly honest about her abortion. Despite – or perhaps because of – her honesty (it’s not like anyone need go looking for revealing images of her), her private life has not come into the public sphere very much before – which is absolutely her prerogative. Now though, with the recent break-up of her long-term relationship, her private life is becoming more and more public.
On the album she built up to for the entirety of 2014, The Pinkprint, her personal life is taking the main stage: “One of my goals was to give people a glimpse into my personal life, because it’s something I’ve kept very private,” she told Rolling Stone.
In line with her usual bolshy personality, she is unashamedly upfront about it all: “I struggled with ‘Do I express these feelings?’ And I decided there’s no reason for me to hide. I’m a vulnerable woman, and I’m proud of that.” Minaj is ever more the multi-faceted, open woman she has been to date.
Even more admirable? She’s aware of the role she plays as a female icon, knows her influence and isn’t afraid to use it for greater good. She knows how much her records will get played, she’s aware of every move, every word: “Millions of people are gonna hear it. And you gotta watch everything you say — people find an issue with every fucking thing.”
Which is why she should be applauded for speaking out about her abortion, both in interview and in a song on The Pinkprint:
“It’d be contradictory if I said I wasn’t pro-choice. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have anything to offer a child.”
But how did the media react to Minaj’s open, honest admittance of having an abortion (and knowing it was the right decision for her)? ‘Nope, we can’t cope with that. We’ll have to make out like she wishes she’d chosen the delights of teen motherhood over her insanely successful career as Hip-Hop’s Killer Diva.’ Instead of Minaj’s statements being let alone to stand for themselves (as they well should), the headlines took all the autonomy out of her statements and twisted her words into anti-choice propaganda. Now, why would they want to do that?
The anti-choice movement will use any means possible to prove abortion is bad for women.
Minaj’s case, like many others, has been taken up by the anti-choice movement – with the mainstream media along for the ride – to demonstrate that women will not only feel reticent about the circumstances of their unwanted or accidental pregnancy (eg. Minaj was a teenage girl with an older boyfriend), but that they will feel genuine regret about aborting the baby and wish they had kept it.
I can’t say it any better than Ms. writer Amanda Marcotte already has:
The anti-choice movement’s relentless propaganda about “abortion regret” has done some real damage when it comes to women being able to tell their abortion stories in the public sphere… In this current political climate, talking about reproductive decisions in a nuanced, personal fashion seems impossible to do without feeding the machine that suggests that any feelings of regret whatsoever means that abortion is bad for women.