January 15, 2013
(Part 1) One week from today, January 22nd, is the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and people are making a justifiably big deal about it. There will be marching, there will be chanting; everyone will have signs. And I will cheer the demonstrators on even as I wonder why, at least since the ‘70s, abortion access has been the only truly reliable mass mobilizing issue for American feminism. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why it’s so crucial, I just don’t understand why it’s so singularly important to the US women’s movement as a theme, as a PR strategy, as a recruitment tool. I mean, is our ability to get unintentionally pregnant really the strongest tie that binds women together? Probably not, but as it happens the abortion issue was tailor-made for American-style feminism, and so it has risen to the top of our priorities list and stayed there. I don’t begrudge the choice issue its prominence, but I do often wonder what’s getting left out of the conversation because of it. If you look at the early days of modern feminism there were all sorts of issues that activists believed were crucially important to women’s equality, ranging from free contraception (as if!) to universal subsidized child care. When was the last time you heard anybody talking about those things? For good and bad, we’ve inherited a feminist movement that’s defined, in large part, by abortion.
I think there are two main reasons why Roe has come to take up so much airtime in our national feminist conversation, one of which is obvious: lawmakers just won’t leave the damn thing alone. Every time you turn around some midwestern legislature is introducing a fetal personhood bill, so a pretty high level of vigilance is needed just to stay on top of that bullshit. And though the right to abortion services has been constitutionally protected since the Roe decision, one of our two major political parties has made the intention to overturn it a requirement for running for national office, so you can’t necessarily count on that. In that context, our preoccupation with abortion makes some sense. But there’s another, subtler reason American feminism keeps returning, like the tide, to Roe’s familiar shores: because that’s the kind of battle it knows how to fight. Public policy reform is what American feminism knows how to do, it’s awesome at it, actually, so it keeps on doing it, often at the expense of focusing on issues that are less readily fixable by legislation. I think this preference for problems that can be fixed by changing laws is the main reasons that in the last 15 years or so, domestic violence has largely been abandoned by mainstream feminism except as a talking point. It’s not that feminism doesn’t want to help end partner violence. It’s just that using its current strategies, it’s already done pretty much all it can do.
So. There are certain things American feminism is really good at, like public policy reform and socio-political analysis. But then there are other things at which it frankly kind of sucks, like understanding and influencing individual psychology. So if you’re working on something—abortion access or wage equity—that’s clearly a matter of law, mainstream feminism will have your back from now til forever. But if you’re concerned with a problem like domestic violence, which has major psychological factors, or a problem that happens in the private spheres of home and family, such as parenting or the distribution of household duties, American feminism is only going to get you so far. I think that’s a problem, not only because it limits the issues the movement takes on, but because overall we’ve come to rely too much on the policy solution to do all the work of social change which, newsflash: it can’t. It’s true that many of the things feminism wants to accomplish have a public policy component, but that’s often only one of many things that have to change in order to get a problem solved. And then there are some issues—remember all the talk after the Newtown massacre about changing the norms of masculinity?—that are extremely urgent but don’t have much to do with policy reform at all. What are we ever going to do about them? The fact is that America’s mainstream feminist movement doesn’t really have the tools, and hasn’t shown a lot of inclination, to go very far beyond its established area of expertise. Personally, I blame all this on President Kennedy. To find out why, check back next week for Part 2.
Speaking of next week, I’ll be on the road promoting “Get Out of My Crotch!,” which comes out on the 22nd to commemorate Roe v. Wade. So I’ll post from Portland (or possibly Lake Tahoe) to give you more thoughts on the limits of American feminism. In the meantime, what do you think? Am I being too hard on the women’s movement? Do you think reproductive rights really should be its main focus? Tell me in the comments, I love to hear from you guys!