It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of burlesque. I think it’s a boring, overplayed example of what you might call neosexism or retro sexism — meaning that the “vintage” veneer and claims of “subversion,” “irony,” or postfeminism are meant to disguise the fact that it’s just the same old sexism that’s been going on for centuries. When it comes to burlesque, and, for that matter, anything that looks like sexism (see: pole-dancing classes, American Apparel ads, and “feminist pornography”) but is billed as not-sexist-because-women-like-it, the most useful tests to apply are these:
1) Are dudes doing it?
2) Are dudes trying to explain to you that it’s actually feminist?
If dudes aren’t doing it but are simultaneously trying to convince you that it’s liberating, empowering, or progressive, then there is a 99% chance of fuckery.
Having published the odd critique here and there, and, more generally, mushed burlesque in to the sexism-in-disguise category with the assumption that a phenomenon centered around women getting naked on stage doesn’t need all that detailed an explanation of the ways in which these performances still objectify women, even if these women are enthusiastically participating in their own objectification and the objectification of others; what I’ve learned is that it doesn’t actually matter what your critique is and how well you articulate it, because the burlesque community will respond to you in the same way every single time.
As such, I’ve compiled a helpful list of every single response you will definitely get, over and over again, every time you say anything marginally critical of burlesque. I’m not sure what the purpose of this list is except to encourage you to ignore these types of responses because there is not a single thing you can say or do to avoid them, as well as to point out the absolute unwillingness of burlesque defenders to engage in any self-reflection or critique of their fave hobby.
While the arguments can be generally summed up as: “But I like it,” I’ve provided you with more detailed responses as well. Enjoy!
1) You haven’t done enough “research”
I’ve been getting this same response for years. No matter how many burlesque shows I endure, I have never been to enough, so long as I continue to critique the phenomenon. I am told that, either, I have only seen “amateur” performances (and though I have watched plenty of awkward amateurs, I have also seen the professionals, who are equally as boring and objectified), or that I haven’t been to enough “alternative” shows.
What’s the rule here? How many burlesque performaces do we have to sit through before we are allowed to decide that, not only do we never want to sit through another burlesque performance again, but that we have good reason to avoid doing so in the future?
What this argument boils down to is that those who love burlesque refuse to believe that any other human being might not love the thing they love which, to boil it down even further, is to say: “As both the center of the universe and a petulant child, everyone must like what I like. If they don’t like what I like they are wrong and offend me by forcing me to think about the things I like and why I like them, which makes my head feel funny.”
2) You don’t understand
Similar to the “you haven’t done enough research” response, “you don’t understand” stems from an unwillingness to use (or lack of familiarity with using) one’s brain for the purposes of critical thinking. This response translates to: “You don’t agree with me/like the same things I like and I can’t come up with a logical response to your argument.”
“You clearly don’t understand burlesque” is kind of a hilarious response if you think about it, because burlesque really isn’t very complicated. What they really mean is: “You aren’t inside my head/bubble and I don’t care to acknowledge that which exists outside my head/bubble.” Again, it’s that problem of thinking about things when one doesn’t particularly like thinking about things issue.
3) Anything I do that makes ME feel good is feminist! (FUCK YEAH)
I don’t have much to say about this response. It can be easily addressed by repeating this handy mantra: “Just because you like it, doesn’t make it feminist.”
Which is not the same thing as saying you can’t like it. I like all sorts of things that aren’t feminist, despite the fact that I am a feminist. I just don’t pretend like my undereye concealer is some kind of radical movement. Patriarchy does not live in my undereye circles, nor will it go away if I appear less tired/sickly.
4) But there are women in the audience! Women erase sexism!
As we’ve learned from things like “feminist pornography” and pole dancing classes — just because women are doing things that are sexist or rooted in misogynist practices, doesn’t negate the sexism.
Women internalize the male gaze. You probably notice the way you look at women on the street — I do. When we watch things like film, television, and pornography, as well as when we look at ads, we are looking through a male lens. So we all learn to adopt the male gaze. When women’s bodies are objectified on screen or in American Apparel ads, we learn to see women as objects. We do this regardless of whether or not we are men.
The male gaze is still present even when there are women in the audience. Women go to strip clubs too — does that suddenly make strip clubs feminist? Does that mean the women performing at the strip club aren’t being objectified when women are looking?
This argument makes no sense but is brought up again and again with aplomb as though it’s never occurred to us before and will BLOW OUR MINDS into little tiny pieces.
You are welcome to spend an hour trying to explain the male gaze to these people, but at the end of the day I’m not sure they care. If they did they probably wouldn’t be doing burlesque in the first place.
Repeat after me: The exception does not make the rule.
You can reuse this argument in response to classics such as these:
– but women abuse men too
– but men are prostitutes too
– but men post sexy selfies too
– but men do strip shows too
– but women take up too much space on the bus sometimes too
6) Different body types in burlesque = feminism
I appreciate the representation of bodies that aren’t skinny white ones. I really do. BUT women who are not skinny and white are objectified and sexualized too. I find it very odd that people think that, somehow, if you objectify bigger bodies or if you objectify women who aren’t white, this is somehow progressive.
7) If you don’t like burlesque then don’t go to burlesque shows
OK, deal. I promise to never intentionally go to a burlesque show ever again so long as you promise not to objectify women in order to sell your “art.” No deal? How about I don’t have to stare at ass while reading my local paper? Or how about every single lefty or feminist fundrasier ever doesn’t include a burlesque performance? Also no? Aw man. I feel like we’re going to have to keep talking about this then, eh?
8) You are turning me into an object by talking about the objectification of women
This is a tricky one. So, this is the same as telling people who point out racism that they are being racist. In talking about the objectification of women, we are not, in fact, turning anyone into an object. Pointing out that women’s bodies and body parts are treated as and viewed as things which exist to-be-looked-at doesn’t reinforce that phenomenon — rather it is critical of it.
In making this argument (that those who point out objectification are actually doing the objectifying), you are asking people to stop thinking and to stop speaking up about inequality. Which makes you a reinforcer of the status quo. Bad move!
9) I’m not being objectified because I choose to objectify myself
So, everyone makes choices. Sometimes and often those choices are limited by our place in society and the culture and systems that surround us. Choosing to prostitute oneself, for example, does not make prostitution a feminist industry. It also doesn’t mean that you are responsible for patriarchy or men’s sense of entitlement around access to women’s bodies; but simply inserting the word “choice” into a sentence doesn’t actually change the meaning or root of the action or situation. I “choose” to watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (and New Jersey!). Does that mean that I’m subverting patriarchy from my couch? Just as “choosing” to post sexy selfies on Instagram doesn’t amount to a feminist act simply because you’ve decided to objectify yourself. It doesn’t make you a terrible person either. Do you see what I’m getting at here? If not, please refer back to point number three.
10) You have to be on the inside to understand/form a valid critique
OK, so let me get this straight. In order to be critical of anything (and in order for that critique to be legit), you have to actually be the thing you are critiquing? Does this also mean that women who haven’t been abused or raped can’t be critical of abuse and rape? Does it mean white people can’t be critical of racism? Does it mean men can’t say anything negative about prostitution because they themselves aren’t prostitutes? Am I not allowed to say that fast food is bad for you unless I eat a bunch of fast food?
This is the dumbest argument ever. If we left critical conversations only to the people who were actually doing whatever we were being critical of then nobody would get to say anything about anything ever. Ex: “Capitalism sucks!” “SHUT UP, YOU AREN’T A CAPITALIST. YOU DON’T GET IT. YOU’RE NOT ON THE INSIDE.” See what I’m getting at? Stop this crap. It’s illogical and anti-intellectual.
11) You’re a prude and you hate boobs
I also hate sex, men, vaginas, penises and joy. Can we move on?
But seriously. I have little to no interest in engaging with this silliness because it’s an anti-feminist, cheap, meaningless trope. Accusing feminists of being man/sex-haters because they speak against the exploitation of women is what sexist, anti-feminist men do. If you want to participate in that sort of thing, again, why are we talking? We clearly have different goals in life — yours being to ensure equality and freedom is never a thing, and mine to work towards women having “human being” status some day.
As a general rule of thumb you will notice that if you ever bother writing anything remotely critical about burlesque (which I doubt you will because, honestly, does anyone really give two shits about burlesque anymore? I feel like a broken record at this point…), people who like burlesque only like burlesque. They don’t bother engaging with other topics yet suddenly develop a passionate interest in whatever they’ve decided feminism is once someone starts talking about the inherent sexism in taking off one’s clothes and shaking one’s boobs for an audience. Your response should be: If you have no real interest in the feminist movement or in liberating women from patriarchal oppression, why are we talking? And then don’t talk to them anymore unless you get masochistic pleasure from being screamed at by people who once took half a Women’s Studies 101 class and left as soon as they heard the word subjectivity.
Participants in the “Miss Besieged Sarajevo 1993” beauty pageant line up on stage in front of a packed audience in Sarajevo. The 13 contenders held a banner reading: “Don’t Let Them Kill Us”; May 29, 1993
U2 wrote a song about this and performed it with Luciano Pavarotti:
Young Ukrainian boys with wooden clubs chase a battered and bloodied Jewish woman during the Lviv pogroms; ca. 1941
“On June 30, 1941, Lvov was conquered by the Germans. Pogroms against the Jews began that day, carried out by Ukranian civilians and the German Einsatzgruppe C. The Ukrainians were incited by rumors that the Jews had participated in the murders of Ukrainian political prisoners in the Soviet regime’s NKVD (security police) prison. Jews were forced to take the bodies out of the prison, and then the pogroms commenced and continued until July 3. In those few days, some 4,000 Jews were killed.”
Chances are the reason most of these photos are of women, is that their men were already dead.
(A professor once told me that mediocre, normal people are the most dangerous in situations of persecution.
The logic being that a mediocre person is in a situation of unsure status within the system. They do not have any skills which cement them into a position of need or power, nor are they clearly defined as a target of persecution. In order to signal to others that they are a ‘true believer’ and not part of the doubter’s camp or aligned with the ‘enemy’, these mediocre people often rely on exhibiting dramatic and excessive acts of violence against the targeted population.
An interesting example is the Cambodian Communist mass killings and the importance of thought crime to the Khmer regime. The Khmer were obsessed with trying to find physical symptoms to inner states, as thier main ‘enemy’ was not one defined by the ethnic but of political beliefs. Since you can’t tell by looking at someone what ideology they follow, the Khmer relied heavily on semiotics in order to find possible non-believers (soft hands meaning hadn’t worked in agriculture, wears glasses implying education enough to necessitate them to read, et al). In Tuol Sleng, the Khmer’s main torture center, even after a prisoner confessed to being a traitor or harboring negative thoughts about the regime, they weren’t executed right there, however, they were kept imprisoned and continued to be tortured. Why were they kept alive, when the main purpose of TS was to identify and execute traitors? One hypothesis is that, in order to clearly demonstrate their hatred of the ‘enemy’ and signal that they are a ‘true believer’ of the Khmer’s ideals, especially in the context of the Khmer’s paranoia, the perpetrators continued to torture the imprisoned, confessed ‘traitors’, in an outward display of hatred.)
An 18 year old Conchita Cintrón, perhaps the most famous female matador in history, Mexico; ca. 1940
Concepción Cintrón Verrill, also known as Conchita Cintrón or La Diosa de Oro (‘The Golden Goddess’)  (August 9, 1922 in Antofagasta – February 17, 2009 in Lisbon), was a Peruvian torera (female bullfighter), perhaps the most famous in the history of bullfighting. In the ring Cintrón was said to display particular grace, style and bravado, a combination known as duende. (From Wikipedia)
The Supreme Court ruling on BURWELL, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, ET AL. v. HOBBY LOBBY STORES, INC. has now opened up the precedent (ignoring how narrowly tailored the ruling was to only contraception) that under the RFRA, even if its a compelling government interest, the state cannot mandate any firm with sincere religious beliefs to carry out a requirement, so long as the government can pick up the slack? It seems like the least restrictive means will always be making the government do it instead and not restrict at all anyone’s religious beliefs.
On page 46 of the opinion, Alito writes: “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.”
This certainly leaves open the possibility that the Court could rule differently on the “least restrictive means” issue in the future, but his language in section V-B, which discusses the “least restrictive means” test, seems to indicate that it is a difficult standard to pass. On page 41 of the opinion, he indicates that “the most straightforward way of [meeting the least restrictive means test] would be for the Government to assume the cost.” He also says that “HHS has not shown … that this is not a viable alternative.” This seems to indicate that if such a challenge were to come up regarding vaccination or blood transfusions, or whatever else, the burden would be on the Department of Health and Human Services to show that it would be impractical for the Government to cover the cost. That would be quite the burden for the Government to prove.
Ginsberg seems to agree with that reading in her dissent. On page 29 on the dissent, she writes, “And where is the stopping point to the ‘let the government pay’ alternative? Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, … or according women equal pay for substantially similar work…? Does it rank as a less restrictive alternative to require the government to provide the money or benefit to which the employer has a religion-based objection?” In addition to indicating that the Court’s logic could prove problematic in the future, she asserts that it is flawed at present, saying, “In sum, in view of what Congress sought to accomplish, i.e., comprehensive preventive care for women furnished through employer-based health plans, none of the proffered alternatives would satisfactorily serve the compelling interests to which Congress responded.”
I agree with Justice Ginsberg on many points here, especially the last few pages of her dissent. Justice Alito attempts to narrow his ruling as much as possible, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered as to the basis for his narrow ruling. To me, the most compelling arguments come from sections III-4 and IV (pages 27-35) of Ginsberg’s dissent. She basically asserts that the Court’s ruling has much broader implications than it intends, and poses quite a few questions about the basis for the narrow ruling.
I am also inclined to agree with her reasoning that the Court should have no business in determining which religious views are legitimate and which are not, and that religious exemptions from generally applicable law should be reserved for groups that are organized “for a religious purpose” and/or “engaged primarily in carrying out that religious purpose”.
The Supreme Court ruling can be found here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-354_olp1.pdf
Justice Ginsburg’s dissent here: http://www.scribd.com/mobile/doc/231974154
This picture was taken August 4, 1948, and published in a Chicago newspaper. After the picture appeared in papers throughout the US, offers of jobs, homes and financial assistance poured in. The mother, Lucille Chalifoux, was shielding her eyes from the camera, not sobbing as I first thought, according to the newspaper reports from the time, but then how do we really know. She was 24, married to an unemployed man 16 years older, and pregnant with her fifth child in six years at the time of the photo. Who’s to judge her true feelings?
What Happened Next
No one knows how long the sign stood in the yard. Apparently shortly thereafter the father abandoned the family, and records show he had a criminal record. Lucille went on governmental assistance. A fifth child, David, was born in 1949. The story line is not complete, but David was either removed from the home or relinquished in July 1950. He was covered in bed bug bites and in rough shape. He was adopted by a loving by strict home and ran away at 16, spent 20 years in the military, and has been a truck driver ever since. Rae says that she was “sold for $2 [in Aug. 1950] so her mother could have bingo money and because the man her mother was dating did not want anything to do with the children.” Milton was standing nearby crying, so the family took him too. Sadly, their new father was horribly abusive. Rae ran away at 17. Milton was removed from the home due to abuse (unclear at what age) and eventually ended up in a mental hospital diagnosed with “schizophrenia and having fits of rage”. He was released in 1967 at age 23. He eventually married, moved to Arizona, and is now divorced. No one knows what happened to Lana, other than she died of cancer in 1998. SueEllen was adopted, but I’ve not been able to find out any additional information other than she had two sons. She told her children that she was sold by her mother.
What The Kids Have To Say
Pictures tell a story, and this picture tells a mighty sad story– a story that left a lasting impact. The scars run deep… something always worth remembering when we speak of adoption dissolutions and disruptions. SueEllen: Dying of lung disease said, “[My mother] needs to be in hell burning.” Milton: “My birth mother, she never did love me. She didn’t apologize for selling me. She hated me so much that she didn’t care.” David: “[Our mother] got rid of all us children, married someone else, had four more daughters. She kept them. She didn’t keep us. … We’re all human beings. We all make mistakes. She could’ve been thinking about the children. Didn’t want them to die.”
Mass rapes, summary executions, torture, mutilation. Looting and pillaging. The officer corps largely turned a blind eye to it (or actively participated). Those who did speak out were often silenced, and official reports ignored or fudged. Soviet propaganda had been painting Germans as beasts and urging its soldiers on to gorge themselves in violence against the enemy for months, perhaps without thinking through the inevitable consequences. Revenge was a particularly ubiquitous theme throughout the propaganda posters:
“Open fire on murderers of our wives and children!”
“Revenge for the people’s misery!”
Soldiers were encouraged from on high to personally commit acts of revenge for every crime they had witnessed (or heard about) from the Germans. Command wanted to instill hatred into the conscript army as a primary motivator. And it worked; the Red Army was practically frothing at the mouth by the time it entered East Prussia. It succeeded to the point where command had to start backpedaling and trying (with varying degrees of success) to rein in the troops, as the regular atrocities were starting to seriously impact discipline.
Some quotes from historians on how bad things were at the start.
•Max Hastings, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany:
[Five days after the capture of Nemmersdorf], hardly one civilian inhabitant survived. Women had been nailed to barn doors and farm carts, or been crushed by tanks after being raped. Their children had been killed. Forty French prisoners of war working on on local farms had been shot, likewise avowed German communists. The Red Army’s behavior reflected not casual brutality, but systematic sadism rivaling that of the Nazis.
•Richard Overy, Russia’s War:
“In the first villages they occupied in October 1944 the soldiers slaughtered the population, raping and torturing the women, old and young. Refugees were shelled and bombed and crushed beneath the tracks of advancing tanks.”
Things got worse from there.
Officially, rape was a capital crime if a soldier was caught at it. In practice, it was ignored. Men and women who tried to save their children or families from being gang-raped in front of them were killed or mutilated, and then the children were shot or, in the worst cases, left crucified against a wall or door when the troops moved on. When Stalin was informed of the behavior of the soldiers he shrugged, saying:
“Imagine a man who has fought over thousands of kilometres of his own devastated land, across the dead bodies of his comrades and dearest ones? What is so awful in his having fun with a woman, after such horrors? The Red Army is not ideal, nor can it be. The important thing is that it fights Germans.”
The Soviets had ample cause for revanchism. Over the past few years they had lost, at a low estimate, twenty million people. Twenty million. Those who had fought and lived had survived against a foe who would offer them no quarter, who were reported to have committed atrocities against mass numbers of civilians. And these reports were starting to be borne out as the first of the death camps were being liberated. It seemed to the Red Army that the propaganda was almost downplaying what the Nazis were. The Germans were, in their eyes, monsters – civilians and soldiers alike.
What’s more, they were monsters who did not seem to have had any need to invade Russia in the first place. Houses in the German heartlands were filled with foods and goods that the Communist peasant soldier had never seen even before the outbreak of war, let alone what they had been living on for the past few years. I read a fairly amusing anecdote a while back about a unit who stumbled across a cache of a mysteriously oily white substance. The commander guesses that it might be lubricant for farm machinery. After two days, a private works up the nerve to try eating some of it, praying silently that it’s not poison (or just poisoned). When he wakes up the next day, he goes to the commander and says “I think I’ve heard about this stuff – it’s called ‘margarine’.” Whereupon the whole unit feasts on pancakes. My point is that it would be one thing if the Germans were desperate and looking for “Russian riches”. But these people were, comparatively speaking, living in the lap of luxury before they began slaughtering everyone to the east of them. When the Red Army discovered the truth of this for themselves, it just added more fuel to the fires of envy and rage.
The German forces also inadvertently made it worse for the civilian population by leaving behind large untouched caches of hard liquor. The thought was that a drunk soldier is a soldier easily killed. Unfortunately, an angry drunk soldier is all the more likely to join in the gang rape of the wives and daughters of the men who had invaded and killed their own families.
The Russians were also constantly exhorted to be on the look out for partisans, irregular troops who might attack the supply lines once the front moved past them. Which made for a handy excuse when looking to kill whoever they wanted to. And it was an excuse they often fell back upon, especially after the first of the death camps were liberated and it became clear just what had been going on even in the German homeland.
I don’t want to downplay the fact that everything the Soviets did to Germany had already been done ten-fold by Germans in Russia. And the people “returning the favor” were not the same troops who had started the war. Those were, by and large, already dead. By the time the Red Army arrived in Germany, a sizable portion of it was made up of violent prisoners released as an emergency measure, or prisoners of war who had felt brutality at the hands of the Germans themselves, or foreigners “recruited” at gunpoint with no reason to reflect well upon their unit and with resentment against both sides. But, regardless of any excuses or mitigating circumstances, it was still a horrific sequence of events.
A Feltmadras (girl who was sleeping with a German soldier during the WW2 occupation) has her hair cut off in Aarhus, Denmark after the liberation. (1945)
I’ve come to believe that the people most driven to abuse and humiliate these women were deflecting from the guilt of their own collaboration, as individuals or institutionally.
Yes, there were women who slept with German soldiers for purely opportunistic reasons, but there were also women who did what they needed to do to so they wouldn’t starve, and there were also women who had genuinely fallen in love with members of the enemy.
(A little old lady from Denmark told me once (and I paraphrase): “The occupying Germans weren’t all that bad- they were quite nice! Until the SS in the black uniforms showed up. They were nasty.”)
The following is an excerpt from the “Abortion” chapter of Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century.
HISTORY OF ABORTION
Over several centuries and in different cultures, there is a rich history of women helping each other to abort. Until the late 1800s, women healers in Western Europe and the U.S. provided abortions and trained other women to do so, without legal prohibitions.
The State didn’t prohibit abortion until the 19th century, nor did the Church lead in this new repression. In 1803, Britain first passed antiabortion laws, which then became stricter throughout the century. The U.S. followed as individual states began to outlaw abortion. By 1880, most abortions were illegal in the U.S., except those “necessary to save the life of the woman.” But the tradition of women’s right to early abortion was rooted in U.S. society by then; abortionists continued to practice openly with public support, and juries refused to convict them.
Abortion became a crime and a sin for several reasons. A trend of humanitarian reform in the mid-19th century broadened liberal support for criminalization, because at that time abortion was a dangerous procedure done with crude methods, few antiseptics, and high mortality rates. But this alone cannot explain the attack on abortion. For instance, other risky surgical techniques were considered necessary for people’s health and welfare and were not prohibited. “Protecting” women from the dangers of abortion was actually meant to control them and restrict them to their traditional child-bearing role. Antiabortion legislation was part of an antifeminist backlash to the growing movements for suffrage, voluntary motherhood, and other women’s rights in the 19th century. *For more information, see Linda Gordon’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1990).
At the same time, male doctors were tightening their control over the medical profession. Doctors considered midwives, who attended births and performed abortions as part of their regular practice, a threat to their own economic and social power. The medical establishment actively took up the antiabortion cause in the second half of the 19th century as part of its effort to eliminate midwives.
Finally, with the declining birth rate among whites in the late 1800s, the U.S. government and the eugenics movement warned against the danger of “race suicide” and urged white, native-born women to reproduce. Budding industrial capitalism relied on women to be unpaid household workers, low-paid menial workers, reproducers, and socializers of the next generation of workers. Without legal abortion, women found it more difficult to resist the limitations of these roles.
Then, as now, making abortion illegal neither eliminated the need for abortion nor prevented its practice. In the 1890s, doctors estimated that there were two million abortions a year in the U.S. (compared with one and a half million today). Women who are determined not to carry an unwanted pregnancy have always found some way to try to abort. All too often, they have resorted to dangerous, sometimes deadly methods, such as inserting knitting needles or coat hangers into the vagina and uterus, douching with dangerous solutions like lye, or swallowing strong drugs or chemicals. The coat hanger has become a symbol of the desperation of millions of women who have risked death to end a pregnancy. When these attempts harmed them, it was hard for women to obtain medical treatment; when these methods failed, women still had to find an abortionist.
Many of us do not know what it was like to need an abortion before legalization. Women who could afford to pay skilled doctors or go to another country had the safest and easiest abortions. Most women found it difficult if not impossible to arrange and pay for abortions in medical settings.
With one exception, the doctors whom I asked for an abortion treated me with contempt, their attitudes ranging from hostile to insulting. One said to me, “You tramps like to break the rules, but when you get caught you all come crawling for help in the same way.”
The secret world of illegal abortion was mostly frightening and expensive. Although there were skilled and dedicated laywomen and doctors who performed safe, illegal abortions, most illegal abortionists, doctors, and those who claimed to be doctors cared only about being well rewarded for their trouble. In the 1960s, abortionists often turned women away if they could not pay $1,000 or more in cash. Some male abortionists insisted on having sexual relations before the abortion.
Abortionists emphasized speed and their own protection. They often didn’t use anesthesia because it took too long for women to recover, and they wanted women out of the office as quickly as possible. Some abortionists were rough and sadistic. Almost no one took adequate precautions against hemorrhage or infection.
Typically, the abortionist would forbid the woman to contact him or her again. Often she wouldn’t know his or her real name. If a complication occurred, harassment by the law was a frightening possibility. The need for secrecy isolated women having abortions and those providing them.
In the 1950s, about a million illegal abortions a year were performed in the U.S., and over a thousand women died each year as a result. Women who were victims of botched or unsanitary abortions came in desperation to hospital emergency wards, where some died of widespread abdominal infections. Many women who recovered from such infections found themselves sterile or chronically and painfully ill. The enormous emotional stress often lasted a long time.
Poor women and women of color ran the greatest risks with illegal abortions. In 1969, 75% of the women who died from abortions (most of them illegal) were women of color. Of all legal abortions in that year, 90% were performed on white private patients.
The Push for Legal Abortion
In the 1960s, inspired by the civil rights and antiwar movements, women began to fight more actively for their rights. The fast-growing women’s movement took the taboo subject of abortion to the public. Rage, pain, and fear burst out in demonstrations and speakouts as women burdened by years of secrecy got up in front of strangers to talk about their illegal abortions. Women marched and rallied and lobbied for abortion on demand. Civil liberties groups and liberal clergy joined in these efforts to support women.
Reform came gradually. A few states liberalized abortion laws, allowing women abortions in certain circumstances (e.g., pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, being under 15 years of age) but leaving the decision up to doctors and hospitals. Costs were still high and few women actually benefited.
In 1970, New York State went further, with a law that allowed abortion on demand through the 24th week from the LMP if it was done in a medical facility by a doctor. A few other states passed similar laws. Women who could afford it flocked to the few places where abortions were legal. Feminist networks offered support, loans, and referrals and fought to keep prices down. But for every woman who managed to get to New York, many others with limited financial resources or mobility did not. Illegal abortion was still common. The fight continued; several cases before the Supreme Court urged the repeal of all restrictive state laws.
On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the famous Roe v. Wadedecision, stated that the “right of privacy…founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty…is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” The Court held that through the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, only a pregnant woman and her doctor have the legal right to make the decision about an abortion. States can restrict second-trimester abortions only in the interest of the woman’s safety. Protection of a “viable fetus” (able to survive outside the womb) is allowed only during the third trimester. If a pregnant woman’s life or health is endangered, she cannot be forced to continue the pregnancy.
Abortion After Legalization
Though Roe v. Wade left a lot of power to doctors and to government, it was an important victory for women. Although the decision did not guarantee that women would be able to get abortions when they wanted to, legalization and the growing consciousness of women’s needs brought better, safer abortion services. For the women who had access to legal abortions, severe infections, fever, and hemorrhaging from illegal or self- induced abortions became a thing of the past. Women health care workers improved their abortion techniques. Some commercial clinics hired feminist abortion activists to do counseling. Local women’s groups set up public referral services, and women in some areas organized women-controlled nonprofit abortion facilities. These efforts turned out to be just the beginning of a longer struggle to preserve legal abortion and to make it accessible to all women.
Although legalization greatly lowered the cost of abortion, it still left millions of women in the U.S., especially women of color and young, rural women, and/or women with low incomes, without access to safe, affordable abortions. State regulations and funding have varied widely, and second-trimester abortions are costly. Even when federal Medicaid funds paid for abortions, fewer than 20% of all public county and city hospitals actually provided them. This meant that about 40% of U.S. women never benefited from liberalized abortion laws.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, feminist health centers around the country provided low-cost abortions that emphasized quality of care, and they maintained political involvement in the reproductive rights movement. Competition from other abortion providers, harassment by the IRS, and a profit- oriented economy made their survival difficult. By the early 1990s, only 20 to 30 of these centers remained.
Eroding Abortion Rights: After Roe v. Wade
When the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, the antiabortion forces, led initially by the Catholic Church hierarchy, began a serious mobilization using a variety of political tactics including pastoral plans, political lobbying, campaigning, public relations, papal encyclicals, and picketing abortion clinics. The Church hierarchy does not truly represent the views of U.S. Catholics on this issue or the practice of Catholic women, who have abortions at a rate slightly higher than the national average for all women.
Other religious groups, like the Mormons and some representatives of Jewish orthodoxy, have traditionally opposed abortion. In the 1980s, rapidly growing fundamentalist Christian groups, which overlap with the New Right and “right- to-life” organizations, were among the most visible boosters of the antiabortion movement. These antiabortion groups talk as if all truly religious and moral people disapprove of abortion. This is not true now and never has been.
The long-range goal of the antiabortion movement is to outlaw abortion. Their short-range strategy has been to attack access to abortion, and they have had successes. The most vulnerable women–young women; women with low incomes, of whom a disproportionate number are women of color; all women who depend on the government for their health care–have borne the brunt of these attacks on abortion rights.
The antiabortion movement’s first victory, a major setback to abortion rights, came in July 1976, when Congress passed the Hyde Amendment banning Medicaid funding for abortion unless a woman’s life was in danger. Following the federal government, many states stopped funding “medically unnecessary” abortions. The result was immediate in terms of harm and discrimination against women living in poverty. In October 1977, Rosie Jimeaanez, a Texas woman, died from an illegal abortion in Mexico, after Texas stopped funding Medicaid abortions.
It is impossible to count the number of women who have been harmed by the Hyde Amendment, but before Hyde, one-third of all abortions were Medicaid funded: 294,000 women per year. (Another 133,000 Medicaid-eligible women who needed abortions were unable to gain access to public funding for the procedure.) Without state funding, many women with unwanted pregnancies are forced to have babies, be sterilized, or have abortions using money needed for food, rent, clothing, and other necessities.
Although a broad spectrum of groups fought against the Hyde Amendment, countering this attack on women who lack financial resources was not a priority of the pro-choice movement. There was no mass mobilization or public outcry. In the long run, this hurt the pro-choice movement, as the attack on Medicaid funding was the first victory in the antiabortion movement’s campaign to deny access to abortion for all women.
Young women’s rights have been a particular target of the antiabortion movement. About 40% of the one million teens who become pregnant annually choose abortion. Parental involvement laws, requiring that minors seeking abortions either notify their parents or receive parental consent, affect millions of young women. As of early 1997, 35 states have these laws; 23 states enforce them. In some states, a physician is required to notify at least one parent either in person, by phone, or in writing. Health care providers face loss of license and sometimes criminal penalties for failure to comply.
Antiabortion forces have also used illegal and increasingly violent tactics, including harassment, terrorism, violence, and murder. Since the early 1980s, clinics and providers have been targets of violence. Over 80% of all abortion providers have been picketed or seriously harassed. Doctors and other workers have been the object of death threats, and clinics have been subject to chemical attacks (for example, butyric acid), arson, bomb threats, invasions, and blockades. In the late 1980s, a group called Operation Rescue initiated a strategy of civil disobedience by blockading clinic entrances and getting arrested. There were thousands of arrests nationwide as clinics increasingly became political battlefields.
In the 1990s, antiabortionists increasingly turned to harassment of individual doctors and their families, picketing their homes, following them, and circulating “Wanted” posters. Over 200 clinics have been bombed. After 1992, the violence became deadly. The murder of two doctors and an escort at a clinic in Pensacola, Florida, was followed by the murder of two women receptionists at clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts. A health care provider spoke about the impact of the violence:
The fear of violence has become part of the lives of every abortion provider in the country. As doctors, we are being warned not to open big envelopes with no return addresses in case a mail bomb is enclosed. I know colleagues who have had their homes picketed and their children threatened. Some wear bullet-proof vests and have remote starters for their cars. Even going to work and facing the disapproving looks from co-workers–isolation and marginalization from colleagues is part of it.
The antiabortion movement continues to mount new campaigns on many fronts. Most recently, it has aggressively put out the idea that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. In January 1997, the results of a Danish study, the largest to date (involving one and a half million women), showed that there is no connection.s3 Unlike previous studies, this one did not rely on interviews and women’s reports but instead used data obtained from population registries about both abortion and breast cancer. Despite the lack of medical evidence and the fact that the scientific community does not recognize any link, the antiabortion movement continues to stir up fears about abortion and breast cancer.
Legal but Out of Reach for Many Women
We have learned that legalization is not enough to ensure that abortions will be available to all women who want and need them. In addition to a lack of facilities and trained providers, burdensome legal restrictions, including parental consent or notification laws for minors and mandatory waiting periods, create significant obstacles. A minor who has been refused consent by a parent may have to go through an intimidating and time-consuming judicial hearing. Mandatory waiting periods may require a woman to miss extra days of work because she must go to the clinic not once, but twice, to obtain an abortion. If travel is required, this can make the whole procedure unaffordable. In other words, for millions of women, youth, race, and economic circumstances together with the lack of accessible services–especially for later abortions–translate into daunting barriers, forcing some women to resort to unsafe and illegal abortions and self-abortions.
WEAKENING THE CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTION FOR ABORTION
When in 1980 the Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment, it began eroding the constitutional protection for abortion rights. Since then, there have been other severe blows. In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), the Court opened the door to new state restrictions on abortion. In Hodgson v. Minnesota (1990), the Court upheld one of the strictest parental notification laws in the country.
These trends were further codified in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 decision upholding a highly restrictive Pennsylvania law that included mandatory waiting periods and mandatory biased counseling. Two frightening themes emerged in the Casey decision. First, the Court sanctioned the view that government may regulate the health care of pregnant women to protect fetal life from the moment of conception so long as it does not “unduly burden” access to an abortion. Second, the Court showed little concern for the severe impact of state restrictions on women with few financial resources.
In the aftermath of Casey, many states have passed similar restrictions, which have the effect of limiting access to abortion, especially for women with low incomes, teenage women, and women of color.
These infringements on abortion access have curtailed the abortion rights of millions of women. In the face of the unrelenting efforts of the antiabortion movement, those of us who believe that women should make their own reproductive decisions will have to become involved in the ongoing struggle to preserve and expand abortion rights.
REPRODUCTIVE FREEDOM VS. POPULATION CONTROL
While most women’s health groups see the fight for abortion rights in the context of defending the rights of all women to make their own decisions about reproduction, not all advocates of abortion rights share this understanding. Some view legal abortion and contraception as tools of population control.
Advocates of population control blame overpopulation for a range of problems, from global poverty to ethnic conflict and environmental degradation. Historically, this type of thinking has led to a range of coercive fertility control policies that target Third World women. These include sterilization without a woman’s knowledge or consent; the use of economic incentives to “encourage” sterilization, a practice that undermines the very notion of reproductive choice; the distribution and sometimes coercive or unsafe use of contraceptive methods, often without appropriate information; the denial of abortion services; and sometimes coercive abortion. For example, HIV-positive women in the U.S. (who are overwhelmingly women of color) are often pressured to have abortions, though only 20 to 25% of their children will be HIV-positive and new treatments during pregnancy have reduced the likelihood even further.
Women with few economic resources, especially women of color in the U.S. and throughout the world, have been the primary targets of population control policies. For example, although abortion has become increasingly less accessible in the U.S., sterilization remains all too available for women of color. The federal government stopped funding abortions in 1977, but it continues to pay for sterilizations. During the 1970s, women’s health activists exposed various forms of sterilization abuse (see section on sterilization in chapter 13, Birth Control). Since the 1980s, advocates have fought against new policies that coerce women with low incomes into using Norplant, a long-term hormonal contraceptive.
In the Third World, in addition to the widespread unavailability of desired contraceptives, there is a long history of coercive fertility control, primarily funded and inspired by developed countries, especially the U.S. (see chapter 26, The Global Politics of Women and Health, for the international dimensions of population control).
The right to abortion is part of every woman’s right to control her reproductive choices and her own life. We must reject all efforts to coerce women’s reproductive decisions. The goals of reproductive rights activists must encompass the right to have children as well as the right not to.
ABORTION ACCESS IN THE U.S.
- It is conservatively estimated that one in five Medicaid-eligible women who want an abortion cannot obtain one.
- In the U.S., 84% of all counties have no abortion services; of rural counties, 95% have no services.
- Nine in ten abortion providers are located in metropolitan areas.
- Only 17 states fund abortions.
- Only 12% of OB/GYN residency programs train in first-trimester abortions; only 7% in second-trimester abortions.
- Abortion is the most common OB/GYN surgical procedure; yet, almost half of graduating OB/GYN residents have never performed a first-trimester abortion.
- Thirty-nine states have parental involvement laws requiring minors to notify and/or obtain the consent of their parents in order to obtain an abortion.
- Twenty-one states require state-directed counseling before a woman may obtain an abortion. (This is often called “informed consent”; some critics call it a “biased information requirement.”)
- Many states require women seeking abortions to receive scripted lectures on fetal development, prenatal care, and adoption.
- Twelve states currently enforce mandatory waiting periods following state- directed counseling; this can result in long delays and higher costs.
- (Seven more states have delay laws which are enjoined–i.e., not enforced due to court action at the federal or state level.)
Note: for sources on these statistics, please consult the book’s notes at the end of this chapter.
Unsafe abortion is a major cause of death and health complications for women of child-bearing age. Whether or not an abortion is safe is determined in part by the legal status and restrictions, but also by medical practice, administrative requirements, the availability of trained practitioners, and facilities, funding, and public attitudes.
While it is difficult to get reliable data on illegal and unsafe abortion, several well-known organizations and researchers, including the World Health Organization, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, and Family Health International, make the following estimates:
- Worldwide, 20 million unsafe abortions are performed annually. This equals one unsafe abortion for every ten pregnancies and one unsafe abortion for every seven births.
- Ninety percent of unsafe abortions are in developing countries.
- One-third of all abortions worldwide are illegal. More than two-thirds of countries in the Southern Hemisphere have no access to safe, legal abortion.
- Estimates of the number of women who die worldwide from unsafe abortions each year range from 70,000 to 200,000. This means that between 13 and 20% of all maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortion–in some areas of the world, half of all maternal deaths. Of these deaths, 99% are in the developing world, and most are preventable.
- Half of all abortions take place outside the health care system.
- One-third of women seeking care for abortion complications are under the age of 20.
- About 40% of the world’s population has access to legal abortion (almost all in Europe, the former Soviet Union, and North America), although laws often require the consent of parents, state committees, or physicians.
- Worldwide, 21% of women may obtain legal abortions for social or economic reasons.
- Sixteen percent of women have access only when a woman’s health is at risk or in cases of rape, incest, or fetal defects.
- Five percent have access only in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.
- Eighteen percent have access only for life endangerment.
A new study shows that despite what you see on reality TV, plural marriage isn’t very good for society.
(Re-posted from here.)
These are boom times for memoirs about growing up in, marrying into or escaping from polygamous families. Sister wives appear as minor celebrities in the pages of People, piggybacking on their popular reality TV show. And oh yes, we have a presidential candidate whose great-grandfather was an actual bona fide polygamist.
Americans are fixated these days on polygamy, and it’s fair to say we don’t know how to feel about it. Polygamy evokes both fascination and revulsion—the former when Chloe Sevigny is involved, and the latter when it is practiced by patently evil men like Osama Bin Laden and Warren Jeffs, the fundamentalist Mormon leader who had a thing for underage wives. At the same time, the practice of plural marriage is so outside mainstream American culture, so far in the past for many Westerners, that it has come to be regarded as almost quaint. What’s so wrong with it, if it works for some people? In counterculture circles, the practice of polyamory, or open partnerships, is supposed to be having some sort of moment. All of which explains why, in response to the argument by conservatives like Rick Santorum and Antonin Scalia that gay marriage could be a slippery slope leading to polygamy, some feminists, lefties, and libertarians have wondered aloud whether plural marriage is really so bad.
History suggests that it is. A new study out of the University of British Columbia documents how societies have systematically evolved away from polygamy because of the social problems it causes. The Canadian researchers are really talking about polygyny, which is the term for one man with multiple wives, and which is by far the most common expression of polygamy. Women are usually thought of as the primary victims of polygynous marriages, but as cultural anthropologist Joe Henrich documents, the institution also causes problems for the young, low-status males denied wives by older, wealthy men who have hoarded all the women. And those young men create problems for everybody.
She was sent to prison for the murder of her husband. From Wikipedia: “Her distaste for her husband apparently began when he insisted on hanging a picture of his late fiancée, Jessie Guishard, on the wall of their first home, and also named his boat after her. Guishard, whom Albert described to Ruth as “the finest woman I have ever met,” had been dead for 10 years.”
Roza Shanina, a female Soviet sniper who fought in World War II and got 54 confirmed hits. Allied newspapers called her, “the unseen terror of East Prussia.”
“The essence of my happiness is fighting for the happiness of others. It’s strange, why is it that in grammar, the word “happiness” can only be singular? That is counter to its meaning, after all. … If it turns necessary to die for the common happiness, then I’m ready to.” -Roza Shanina
Roza Shanina was a Soviet sniper during World War II, credited with fifty-four confirmed hits, including twelve soldiers during the Battle of Vilnius. Praised for her shooting accuracy, Shanina was capable of precisely hitting moving enemy personnel and making doublets (two target hits by two rounds fired in quick succession). She volunteered to serve as a marksman on the front line.
Allied newspapers described Shanina as “the unseen terror of East Prussia”. She became the first Soviet female sniper to be awarded the Order of Glory and was the first servicewoman of the 3rd Belorussian Front to receive it. Shanina was killed in action during the East Prussian Offensive while shielding the severely wounded commander of an artillery unit.
She was, as the Russians say, a terrifying Nazi slaughtering badass.
Women’s experience during the siege of Leningrad: Leningrad’s women, 16-45, were mobilized by the thousands. Women were the majority of the half-million civilians who dug anti-tank ditches and defense fortifications and1,500 women were mobilized to work in peat bogs to provide the city with fuel.
The long-suffering women of Leningrad suddenly realized that on them lay the fate not only of their family, but of their city, even of the entire country. Aware of the burden placed upon them to protect their city, able-bodied Leningradian women between 16- and 45-years-old were mobilized in numbers reaching the hundreds of thousands. Women formed the vast majority of the approximately half-million civilians assembled to build anti-tank ditches and defense fortifications along the Pskov-Ostrov and Luga rivers, and 1,500 women were mobilized to work in peat bogs to provide the city with fuel.
The death of men in Leningrad during the war made the siege of Leningrad a woman’s experience. In the face of the men’s absence, women were expected to replace men in the factories, prepare defense fortifications, and protect the city from incendiary bombs, among many other traditionally male duties. All the while, women also fulfilled their traditional responsibilities, such as maintaining home and hearth and preserving societal morality, all increasingly difficult tasks during the severe conditions of the siege. Women managed to assume both roles, all while suffering from starvation, the disintegration of relationships, and alienation from their own bodies. Their experience of the siege illustrates how the ideology of the “new Soviet woman” — woman as man’s professional equal, fulltime worker, loyal Communist citizen, and devoted mother and wife — persisted in the darkest days of the siege of Leningrad.
There are a ton of survivor testimonials on the siege of Leningrad on YouTube.
- The siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days. Civilians in the city suffered from extreme starvation. 750 000 people died, which represented between quarter and a third of the city’s pre-siege population. It was the greatest loss of life experienced by a modern city.
I got 2 minutes into this one before I couldn’t take any more.