It’s More than a Safety Pin

I’m not an ally. I’m a fellow citizen. It’s not a safety pin. It’s something bigger than that.

The “Dear White People” messages that tell me that my pledge to stand up for American values is flimsy and theatrical are condescending and unkind. Those scoldings are dripping with assumption and disdain about my motivation as an American citizen.

Oh, you’re going to wear a safety pin. Aren’t you precious? 

Don’t you understand how meaningless that is? It’s just something to soothe your white conscience.

As an older feminist, I finally learned not to discount support coming from men. Sometimes, I have been in disbelief that a man actually, genuinely, shared the view that men and women are equal, and more disbelieving when that man actually showed through his actions – small and large – that the belief was real. You don’t find men who are feminists on every street corner but there are more than we think. Many more. So I learned to link arms with those men, to trust them.

I know what it means for a man to be openly feminist. Everyone doubts him. They doubt him because the current of sexism in our world is so deep and strong as to be genetically defined. So there is a great disbelief in the genuineness of his feminist declaration and as great a suspicion that, when push comes to shove, the male feminist will desert us. That might be true but I take that chance.

So wearing a safety pin says what about me?

Maybe it’s a message to other people that I am a supporter, that I will do whatever I can to intervene in mistreatment. It’s easy to discount the safety pin business when you think of it this way, like it’s a tiny secret symbol to the oppressed that you’re ready to save them. It’s a notion ripe for denigration.

Oh right, Jan, someone being threatened by a racist bully is going to seek you out of a crowd to defend them.

Probably not. But we are in a situation now and going forward where individual reckoning with one’s principles and integrity is more likely than theoretical.  Married to a Jewish man for 32 years, there have been many discussions about what I, as a non-Jewish woman, would do to protect him if ‘they’ came for him. We joke about this but it is uneasy joking. At his core, he wonders about me. How far would I go to save him?

And I wonder about myself. What would be my limit? Would I have a limit? Would I be brave? Or would I find an excuse to be a coward? It’s sickening talk and still abstract but for how long? Many things we thought could never happen in the United States are, this minute, happening.

So maybe the safety pin is to remind me that I am obligated to live the words that I say. I can’t tell my husband I love him if I wouldn’t do everything in my power to protect him. I can’t say I believe in equal rights for everyone if I’m not willing to speak up, intervene, and put myself between someone intending harm and the person for whom harm is intended.

What does this mean, though, in a practical sense? I’m not sure. I don’t think there is a recipe for what comes next if you are an American opposed to racism and sexism. We can support the extraordinary organizations and institutions that fight for our rights but beyond that, I think we are winging it on a day to day basis. Perhaps the function of the safety pin is to remind us that we are capable of being braver than we ever envisioned.

Which of the people you know would be the heroic rescuers of Jewish children and families during the Holocaust? Would it have been someone you rode on the bus with one day or would it have been you who protected Ann Frank’s family or secreted Jewish children out of the country with fake passports and middle of the night passage? Do you think the people who stepped forward planned it all along? Or did they just believe they had no choice but to do the right thing?

Maybe the safety pin isn’t for others who see it. Maybe it’s for those who wear it. So we remember that we need to be the heroes. Even if we are weak and small and doubt ourselves, we need to find our own bravery and not wait for it to be delivered by people stronger and wise. I think about the prospects of throwing my 68-year old self in harm’s way and I love the part of me that thinks, yes, they will have to go through this old broad to do something terrible to someone else. I want to be that person.

I want to be brave. Even if I have to wear a safety pin to remind me.

They’re Just Getting Started

In a move that surprised almost no one, the Supreme Court decided today that Hobby Lobby, a corporate entity, can somehow claim that paying for contraception for its employees violates its (the corporation’s) religious sensibilities. This comes on top of last week’s Supreme Court decision to strike down the Massachusetts law that kept abortion protesters a decent distance from patients entering and leaving abortion clinics.

People who value reproductive rights which should include every woman who has thought two seconds about if and when she wants to have a baby and all the partners of said women need to stop gaping with their mouths hanging open at every new headline. “Golly, did that just happen? Can Hobby Lobby really exclude birth control from its benefits?” “Wow, you mean that protesters can get right up in someone’s face and scream at them when they’re trying to get from their car to the abortion clinic’s front door?”

Yes, it’s astonishing. It makes you blink twice. Did I really see that naked man running across the baseball field? Well, yes, I did. And I shouldn’t be surprised because he’s been standing without a shirt and waving his arms in the front row for the past hour. It wasn’t enough for him. He needed to go further. He needed to take off his damn pants and run, swinging, across the outfield.

Here’s the headache, friends and neighbors. They are just getting started. What happened today and last week isn’t the end of the story, the culmination of years of erosion of women’s reproductive freedom. It’s the beginning.

What else can happen? Plenty. There are a lot more items on the right to lifers checklist. When they’re done, we’ll be rolling our own condoms out of goat intestines. You wait.

It’s time to go underground. It’s time to create a whole new subterranean infrastructure of women’s reproductive health care that would include the provision of free birth control and abortion services. Stop asking institutions which are increasingly cracked at the seams and driven by maniacal corporate hard-ons to do what’s right and just do it ourselves.

Oh wait! This has been done.

Anyone possibly remember Our Bodies Ourselves? The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective? The subversive 1970’s group that told women how to do their own gynecological exams or how to have parties and do each other’s; the same one that walked a newly pregnant reader step by step through pregnancy and delivery; the book that told pregnant women that, no, they didn’t have to go into a hospital, lay on their backs with the feet in stirrups to have their babies delivered by forceps because their doctor (male) couldn’t be bothered to wait for the natural course of things? Yeah, them.

Employers and insurers and corporations aren’t going to save us; the less they can pay for, the happier they are. Politicians aren’t going to save us because they can’t stay focused on one issue long enough to get any traction. Today, while the Supreme Court’s decision was being announced, President Obama was talking about immigration. I get it. Our immigration policy is a nightmare and it needs to change. But could we just get one type of human right in the bag before flitting off to another one?

The message today, in my mind, was this. Women can’t rely on anyone but ourselves (and our allies, I guess). If we want dependable access to birth control and safe abortion, we have to create it. We have to remember and rejuvenate words like collective and cooperative. We just cannot tolerate another instance of being told what we can and can’t do as if we are babies not ready to chew real food.

Someone asked me today, what’s the next step? Of course, it’s working to elect smarter people with a sense of core human rights. But it’s also cultivating and stoking the deep, deep sense of resentment every woman in this country should have right now for the insult leveled at her and every woman. You’ve been waiting for the real deal to get mad? It’s the real deal.


24/100: 24th in a series of 100 essays in 100 days.