I can’t even talk about Alabama because, if I do, if I even start thinking about it, I’ll start hating on people and that’s contrary to where I want to go with my life at this point since I’ve resolved to stop making people I differ with my enemies and to start finding common ground with them but there is no common ground to be found with people, men and women, who would force a younger me to have a stranger use a wire to end a pregnancy that I couldn’t have a doctor end because he would be breaking the law and so I had to take my life in my hands because that was less terrifying than what would lie ahead if I continued to be pregnant, and that’s what I’ll think about if I think about Alabama, that they wouldn’t care about the wire, it wouldn’t mean anything to them, but it could have killed me.
It wasn’t exactly a secret. I just very carefully picked the places where I talked about it. I had to trust that people I told would have a good reaction. Even after decades passed, I couldn’t risk criticism and I really couldn’t gamble on someone asking me why.
I told my husbands but not always the boyfriends in between. I told a few women friends but I never told my family. I never breathed a word of it to my older sister or brother and I would have sooner died than tell my parents. They never knew. If they were alive today, I wouldn’t tell them.
Then one late afternoon in August 2012, after I’d heard yet another news report attacking women’s rights, I sat down at this computer and I wrote the story of the illegal abortion I had in 1967. The essay wrote itself, poured on to the…
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Tomorrow night I am going to the campus of the small state university where, as a sophomore 47 years ago, I discovered that I was pregnant and agreed reluctantly to have an illegal and unsafe abortion, the effects of which hung on me for years like a wretched, filthy grey sweater.
I look back at that time, the winter of 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade, and I just thank God I survived. Many women didn’t. The coat hanger that has become the universal symbol of the risk of illegal abortion? It’s not hyperbole. It was really used. In my case, it was a wire. Small difference. Same outcome.
As they should, young woman regard that time as prehistoric. Why would an American woman with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy use a coat hanger or a wire, drink lye, or douche with turpentine? This answer is this and remember it, it’s important. They did these things because they had no choice. No choice.
Of all the things I wish I could tell the college students who will come to the Abortion Speak-Out tomorrow night and politely listen to a woman who could be their grandmother, there are five things I need them to know about life before Roe v. Wade.
First, when I was a young woman, women were off the hook. Beyond marrying well, expectations were low. It’s hard to describe now how low expectations were imprisoning. You’d think a woman would feel liberated being out from under expectations of career, success, and accomplishments. It felt like a small pretty pasture with a barbed wire fence.
Second, when I was a young woman, women were waiting. They were always waiting for the phone to ring, to be asked out, to be told how to act, to be given permission, to do the next thing they were supposed to do. Oh, there were permutations. Some women were more traditional, Betty Crockers on their way to embroidered aprons. Others were hippies. Each did their waiting in their own way but they were all waiting on men.
Third, when I was a young woman, women were expected to be virgins until they were married. I look at that statement as I write it to make myself remember how it was. A woman who had sex was deflowered, no longer pure, shouldn’t wear white on her wedding day. ‘No man will want you if you’re not a virgin,’ said everymother to everydaughter. This caution was not reversed, however. It was expected that men would have ‘experience’ before getting married, with whom it wasn’t clear.
Fourth, when I was a young woman, women were always to blame. Curious, since woman’s power was so circumscribed, but women were to blame for being a tease, getting men into states where they couldn’t control themselves, and, of course, women were to blame for the biggest mistake of all, getting pregnant. If a woman became pregnant, it was her problem to solve. She was alone at that point. He could leave.
Fifth, when I was a young woman, women learned to be angry. They learned to be ferocious, unforgiving, humorless, insistent, and profane. They learned to be fearless. They learned not to wait. They learned to place blame where it belonged. They learned that they didn’t need a man to tell them who they were. They learned that loving a man didn’t mean having to stand behind him. They learned the most important thing of all: That no woman is free until all of us can control what happens to our own bodies.
The five things young woman should know about life before Roe v. Wade have largely been forgotten. There are now things of the past – women’s obedience and deference, the expectation of virginity, the blaming – and I am glad for that.
But one of the forgotten things is women’s anger. Women’s beautiful, righteous, powerful anger. It’s the only thing I miss about those times so long ago. The only thing I wish we could bring back. It’s been replaced by resignation and cynicism, a sophisticated powerlessness, a throwing up of our collective hands, the belief that nothing can be done to turn the steady tide of anti-choice laws across the country. We’ve forgotten the anger women had when I was a young woman. It’s caricatured into small frames of women with wild hair burning their bras.
It wasn’t a cartoon, the true women’s movement. Our anger was fierce and beautiful.
When we were angry, we were rising. We need to rise again.
The anti-choice folks have been genius at the fine art of shaming. I have to hand it to them. It’s impressive how the shame of having gotten an illegal abortion has morphed into shame of getting a legal abortion, the distinction seemingly lost on folks. It doesn’t matter if it’s legal, if you get an abortion, you have something to be ashamed of. It’s not something to discuss, to claim, to share, to educate, to support, to empower. It’s to be a secret. A shameful secret.
That’s why when the topic of reproductive freedom and the right to choose an abortion comes up, the argument proceeds with one side holding up the half-true pictures of dead fetuses and the other side hugging the Constitution. Abortion rights has no face right now because all of us who have had abortions are wearing burqas.
The 1 in 3 Campaign maintains that one in three women have had an abortion. But I’m betting that if I took a bullhorn to downtown Milwaukee and asked women to line up on Wisconsin Avenue and asked those who have had abortions to please take two steps forward that no more than four or five would step forward. The shame machine has been that powerful.
My sense is that women are silent because they are afraid of being judged. They think that the reason for their abortion won’t be accepted and that they’ll be disparaged for being selfish or callous. No one these days seems to have a good enough reason to have an abortion. Raped? Serious birth defects? Fatal risk to the mother? No one’s reason is good enough. That’s what the shame machine has brought us.
The really tricky thing about shaming and what makes it so elegant as a political strategy is that you just have to flip the switch and women do the rest themselves. In other words, women who have had abortions are so vulnerable to the second-guessing and moralizing of others who were not in their shoes and will probably never be in their shoes, that they clamp their own hands over their own mouths. They do it to themselves. It doesn’t even have to be done to them.
Now that is a true shame.
The secret becomes silence. The silence becomes shame. The shame becomes oppression.
That’s where we are right now. Being silent, being ashamed, and being oppressed.
The truth shall make you free. That’s where we are now as a nation of women. It’s our faces that need to be representing reproductive freedom and our stories that form the reality of choice in this country.
I told my story last year in an essay called The Wire that was read by thousands of people across the country yet my own still thick layer of shame kept me from sharing it widely in my own home town.
I urge other women – when the time is right and your story will have power – tell your story. Put your face on reproductive freedom. Burn the burqa and be strong. I’ll be right there with you.