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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Do you trust women?

posted by bitchphd
Cleis points to an essay by Katha Pollitt that mentions in passing that apparently Naomi Wolf has written an article "calling for the banning of abortion after the first trimester."


Here is the issue. Recently, elsewhere, there was a very long discussion in which someone argued that I had said men had no right to an opinion about abortion, and that men who object to abortion do so only out of a desire to control women. Now, I never said either of those things, but the beliefs I do have could be interpreted that way, by an unsubtle or defensive auditor. Naomi Wolf gives me a good opportunity to explain, precisely because she is a feminist (though not my kind of feminist), and a woman.

The bottom line about abortion is this. Do you trust women to make their own moral judgments? If you are anti-abortion, then no. You do not. You have an absolute moral position that you don't trust anyone to question, and therefore you think that abortion should be illegal. But the second you start making exceptions for rape or incest, you are indicating that your moral position is not absolute. That moral judgment is involved. And that right there is where I start to get angry and frustrated, because unless you have an absolute position that all human life (arguably, all life period, but that isn't the argument I'm engaging with right now) are equally valuable (in which case, no exceptions for the death penalty, and I expect you to agonize over women who die trying to abort, and I also expect you to work your ass off making this a more just world in which women don't have to choose abortions, but this is also not the argument I'm engaging right now), then there is no ground whatsoever for saying that there should be laws or limitations on abortion other than that you do not trust women. I am completely serious about this.

Let me unpack a bit, because I know this sounds polemical, since I am clearly stating a bottom line. When pro-choice feminists like Wolf, or liberal men, or a lot of women, even, say things like, "I'm pro-choice, but I am uncomfortable with... [third-trimester abortion / sex-selection / women who have multiple abortions / women who have abortions for "convenience" / etc.]" then what you are saying is that your discomfort matters more than an individual woman's ability to assess her own circumstances. That you don't think that women who have abortions think through the very questions that you, sitting there in your easy chair, can come up with. That a woman who is contemplating an invasive, expensive, and uncomfortable medical procedure doesn't think it through first. In short, that your judgment is better than hers.

Think about the hubris of that. Your judgment of some hypothetical scenario is more reliable than some woman's judgment about her own, very real, life situation?

And you think that's not sexist? That that doesn't demonstrate, at bottom, a distrust of women? A blindness to their equality? A reluctance to give up control over someone else's decision?

Because if you cannot see that, then I don't care who you are. Male, female, feminist, reactionary asshole. You are acting as a conduit for a social distrust of women so strong that it's almost invisible, that it gets read as "normal." The fact that abortion is even a debate in this country demonstrates that we do not trust women.


A second, related point. Pollitt mentions Wolf in the following context:

the public face of organizational feminism is perched atop a power suit and frozen in a deferential smile. Perhaps some childcare? Insurance coverage for contraception? Legal abortion, tragic though it surely is? Or maybe not so much legal abortion--when I ran into Naomi Wolf the other day, she had just finished an article calling for the banning of abortion after the first trimester. Cream and sugar with that abortion ban, sir?

This, I think, is a real problem, and like Pollitt, I've found that Dworkin's death has crystallized a lot of things. As Bitch has gotten bigger--and particularly because a lot of its recent growth has come about because of some pretty pissed-off ranting directed at supposedly well-meaning men--I've started getting more troll behavior, more nasty emails, and I've seen some fair to serious bitch-bashing. This, of course, is the price of fame, even ridiculous bloggy fame. It's not like I didn't know that there were people out there who hate feminism, feminists, children, and so on. And it's not like I didn't know--and this is more important--that there are people out there who don't hate women, but who do feel acutely uncomfortable around "bitchy" women. That is, women who don't ask for permission before speaking; women who don't just state their opinion and then back off to let you decide if you want to hear it or not, but who insist on having their arguments acknowledged; women who feel entitled to be angry; women who want to be heard more than they want to be liked. Hell, one reason this blog is anonymous is because I have a hard time with that myself, sometimes: I can be just as ranty in person, but no, I don't generally take people on to their face. Here, though, I can and do.

Am tempted to duck away from the self-invovlement of that last paragraph (and have deleted a couple of abortive attempts at a self-involved follow-up to it), but no. I was talking not long ago to a friend of mine, a man, who is a great teacher. And he said, "I'm a great teacher." And I said, "wow, no woman would say that," and--though hyperbolic--I think that's largely true. I know that when pseudonymous kid brags, Mr. B. and I usually agree with him: "yes, you are very smart"--and I know that when my sister and I used to brag as children, my mom would say, "showoffs always fall on their ass." And I sure as hell know that when a man talks about his qualifications, people generally listen, and when a woman does, people often think she's being insufferable. So I'll leave that paragraph, but still, I want to make a broader point with it.

In some ways, this Dworkin/anger/bitch thing is, like abortion, a bottom-line issue. How do you react to women's political anger? Is it okay for a woman to have strong opinions as long as she doesn't make anyone uncomfortable? If she sounds angry, does that automatically invalidate what she's saying? Do you think that feminists would be more effective if they were nicer? If there's a disagreement between a woman and a man, do you instinctiively see "his side"? Do you mistake strong convinctions for personal attacks? Do you value civility over fairness? Because if so, then that, too, is a kind of distrust, hubris, a reluctance to cede control.

I am not advocating a free-for-all; and I think that considering the rhetorical effect of one's words matters; and I value good manners as much as anyone. There is an important difference between private anger and public anger, and it is the latter I am talking about. It is important to recognize that the ability to remain "civil" about injustice is a demonstration of power, and, arguably, is itself a kind of violence--more subtle than yelling, and for that reason, far more damaging. Because it is easy to isolate the angry woman, to shun her because of her anger. Many people will not see past the anger, and therefore many people will find it justified; she is, after all, being "unreasonable." After all, just as with abortion, women are not supposed to make people "uncomfortable." But when that happens, that amounts to denying women the right to public speech: the angry woman's anger is taken personally, as an indictment of her character, rather than as a legitimate political expression. (And then, of course, men say things like "women don't feel comfortable arguing.")

If you're pro-choice, you have to give up the right to have a "say" in someone else's choice. If you're pro-feminist, you have to give up the right to expect your personal feelings to be more important than women's public rights--including the right to be unpleasant, if, in her judgement, unpleasantness is called for.
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