Tag Archives: choice

Coat hangers and blood: Imagine a world without abortion

Trigger Warning. This article contains graphic descriptions of illegal abortions. 

15 years ago I had an abortion. It was in London where women have the right to choose – that is as long as two doctors agree with her choice. But what would have happened if just one of those doctors decided that it would have been better for me – someone they’ve just met – to continue with the pregnancy?

I was young so I may not have been strong nor savvy enough to find alternatives. Or too scared to take them forward. Coat hangers can easily be found, but to shove one up your vagina all the way into your uterus takes a brave – and desperate – woman or girl.

It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to work out what the world would be like without abortion. We women have been through it all before. But the vision is more frightening than anything else I can think of.

Backstreet abortions that consist of pumping the uterus full of soapy water, a la Vera Drake (which would often kill instantly) would be one scenario. The infamous (but never to be underestimated in its volume of use) coat hanger; many reputable gynaecologists such as Waldo Felding have stated that they have seen many women turn up to A&E with the hanger still wedged up their vaginal passage. Or, how about a pint and a half of turpentine? Or. throwing yourself down stairs to induce miscarriage? Some women may think that the trusty household hoover may do the trick. I mean, it cleans up everything else, so why not?

We would go back to a time when less reputable newspapers advertised ‘Cures for menstrual blockage’ as advertising revenue would overtake the moral high ground. A high ground where currently the Daily Mail condemns Josie Cunningham for wanting an abortion. These cures were poisonous, and sometime fatal. You would virtually have to kill the mother to destroy the foetus.

Backstreet abortions would be done without local anaesthetic on someone’s dirty kitchen table, with filthy utensils, in a dark room and by women who didn’t really care if they clumsily ripped through your womb.

One women I talked with spoke of waiting on a street corner in 1962. A van turns up, blindfolds and places her in the van where she is given a backstreet abortion and dropped somewhere in the middle of nowhere hours later, with no money or map to get home.

Removing legal abortion does not remove abortion. It never has done. It drives it underground where violent, life-threatening alternatives loiter for those desperate women and girls who don’t want to be pregnant. Abortion becomes a profitable business on the black market and prices out the most desperate and poor – minority groups.

A world without abortion would leave us like Brazil where one fifth of the one million women who have backstreet abortions each year go to hospital with botched procedures. Or Ireland, where Savita Halappanavar died whilst miscarrying her wanted pregnancy; despite that her life would have been saved from a simple abortion.

In January, the Irish Republic further criminalised abortion with 14 year jail term. In Northern Ireland, more than 1,000 women each year travel to have an abortion in other parts of the UK. I’m staggered that we feminists in the rest of the UK are largely unaware of the terrible restrictions Irish women face in their right to choose, a mere few hundred miles away.

It’s an appalling fact that women from Ireland are forced abroad to access a fundamental healthcare service that they should be able to obtain at home. It’s a sad fact that Ireland is a prime example of what the world looks like if abortion is illegal. A world of coat hangers and blood: where women are forced into continuing with unwanted pregnancies that they may be unable to afford or cope with.

Melanie is a NGO-worker, feminist & film-maker. Follow her on twitter @51percentorg

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Fourth-wavers: We still need to fight for abortion.

I’ve had an abortion. Several women I know have had an abortion. Some have had more than one and one friend has had four.

With one in three women having an abortion in their lifetime, why is it that we still can’t talk about it?

I made short film, Break the Taboo, because the shame that people expected me to feel when I mention having an abortion – quite frankly – filled me with frustration.

People would push me to show remorse with sympathetic funeral-like comments whilst looking at me as though I’m a slut who has just lost an arm to leprosy. My usual response is: I’m not sorry.

It’s a circumstance that I wish I had not encountered, but I made the right decision to have a termination. Without it I wouldn’t be who I am today. I wouldn’t have met and be engaged to the most wonderful man. I wouldn’t be working in a career I love. I wouldn’t be surrounded by the loveliest, warmest friends.

Where would I be? Well, taking into account where I was at the time of the abortion, I would probably be single, with no career and no friends that I can truly connect with. Lonely and struggling is probably where I would be.

91 percent of women who have an abortion do so within thirteen weeks and the majority of us chose an abortion not due to some tragic foetal abnormality, not because of rape, and not because our life is in danger. Our stories are neither exciting nor dramatic; they are everyday and sometimes even a little dull.

We choose to have an abortion because the time isn’t right, we want to focus on our career, our financial circumstances are difficult, or because (shock, horror) we just don’t want a child. As a result we continued to be ridiculed and victimized for choosing our future over our fetus.

As someone on Guardian comments put it: “once a woman consents to have sex, she consents to being pregnant.” This made me laugh aloud, whilst simultaneously wailing in fear of society.

When attitudes like this exist, why don’t us feminists speak out louder and tell the world that women have the right to choose? Why isn’t abortion firmly on the fourth waves agenda?

When Big Brother wannabe, Josie Cunningham, chose an abortion in order to pursue her career the social media erupted with hate. She received an avalanche of violent threats that would make a Guantanamo Bay guard take notes.

The right to an abortion is a basic human right that Britain has signed-up to. The 1967 Abortion Act has saved countless women’s lives from backstreet abortions. Why? Because whether abortion is legal or not, the demand will always be there.

Just yesterday I met a woman who had a backstreet abortion in 1965. She told me that ‘everyone had one’ and couldn’t recall anyone who had regretted it. It was a life-threatening procedure that around 40 women a year died from in the UK. For all those who mourn those aborted foetus’, who mourns the women so desperate that they risk death?

It’s time we stopped judging those who terminate their pregnancies and talked about their reasons for wanting an abortion by looking at a woman’s circumstance in its individuality. It’s time at we genuinely accept that a woman has a right to decide what her future looks like. Not the strangers who threatened to throw acid in Ms Cunningham’s face, or told her she should die.

When I speak about my abortion people are shocked because I’m not ashamed.

When Emily Letts posted a video of her experience online she received criticism because she is also unashamed. She shared her story to help make this horrible process easier to suffer which is in itself controversial – abortion mustn’t be an ‘easy’ experience. It must be a terrible and painful procedure to make women ‘learn their lesson’. Yet there’s no evidence that speaking about abortion and making the process more bearable will encourage more abortions.

We need to fight for abortion, because women’s reproductive rights globally are rolling backwards. It’s a devastating scenario that fills me with fear for women now and our future generations.

We need to fight for abortion to let the rest of the world know that, for 51 percent of the population, it is a health procedure and a decision that should be ours to take.

We need to fight for abortion, to tell women that they should not be ashamed. That one in three of us will have one in our lifetime, and it’s OK.

Let’s fight for abortion.

Melanie is a NGO-worker, feminist & film-maker. Follow her on twitter @51percentorg

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#GenderWeek: The delusion of choice

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

Like Charlotte I get irritable when I hear about feminism and freedom and choice, although not for exactly the same reasons. No, I don’t wear stilettos firstly because – quite apart from the fact that they’d hurt my feet and give me painful bunions, just like my mother had – I instantly fall over. Even if I could stay upright, as Charlotte suggests, I’d feel a tad silly wearing my feminist badges while wobbling about in them.

I’m a little more devious, and feminism did encourage me to be somewhat more rebellious in how to dress. I didn’t burn it, but I’ve never worn a bra, even if I know I’ve always chosen to add just a little height to my five foot four inches (platforms will do that nicely) and have routinely worn just a little make-up, trying to look quite as ‘sexy’ and attractive as I can manage  – although not just to please men.

But I don’t feel too strongly about couture – haute, bass, or even crass – and I suspect that once-upon-a-time we women’s liberationists were rather excluding of some more timid souls in imposing a certain type of dress code. Flowered smocks and dungarees were for a long time the favourite attire: forget high-heels, a woman arriving at a feminist meeting in skirt and twin-set might find it hard to relax and fit in.

The issue of ‘choice’ annoys me because most of us, and many women in particular, have so very little of it – and indeed, less all the time. Last year I was asked to discuss ‘the tyranny of choice’, on the supposition that nowadays we suffer from having too much it. Can you believe it? Now that really is infuriating. On every important issue: where to live; what jobs are available; the length of the working day, if we have jobs; how to avoid being the objects of sexist abuse or violence; having the time and resources to choose to have a child, should we wish to; being able to care for our loved ones, when they are young, old, or for any slew of reasons, are in need of care – all these are choices that are so very hard, almost impossible, for the majority of women to make in ways we would like to.

All this is a feminist issue. The very mention of ‘free-choice’ feminism by the likes of Louise Mensch and other ‘Tory feminists’ (who believe that women hold themselves back from the top jobs) is for the most part absurd. Top jobs? Young women coming out of university are very lucky if they can get any job at all. If in work, the precarious nature of most jobs today and the ever-stretching working day, leave almost no time for attending to all the work of caring, loving and building communities we want to live or raise children in.

I am similarly irritated by accusations of feminism’s complicity with neoliberalism, made by certain older feminists such as Nancy Fraser, because of our supposed embrace of ‘choice’. Yes, we did want the right to reproductive choice, and all sorts of other resources for creating more egalitarian and nurturing environments for all. But despite all our campaigning – some of it successful – what we have ended up with, by and large, is the opposite.

Most women, much of the time, have no choice at all over all the important issues in their life; which of course has little to do with either make-up or foot-wear. This lack of choice, especially for women caring for children or other dependents, has left many women much more vulnerable to domestic violence. And, with women still largely doing the caring jobs in society, whether paid or unpaid, it is women above all who are hardest hit by the austerity policies of recent years. A recent Labour Party document on older women reported that unemployment amongst older women has increased by 41 per cent in the last two and a half years, compared with one per cent overall.

The majority of women have much too little choice about how to live our lives. The fetishisation of choice is all about equating the private and privatised with ‘freedom and choice’; the public, the collective, the community, the nationalised, with ‘constraint and imposition’. Yet it is precisely in the private arena, and above all because of the rolling back of welfare and the spending of resources in the public sector, that women today actually have so little choice.

Feminists worth their salt have always known this, yet it is quite extraordinary how successful Thatcher, and all those trailing her legacy, have been in selling people delusion of ‘choice’. Let’s go back to basics. Over two centuries ago, one of our greatest foremothers, Mary Wollstonecraft in a A Vindication of the Rights of Women, knew then that was that it was no good merely talking about rights or freedom of choice. As a woman, she knew that what we need to talk about was not just rights, or choice, but equality, insisting that “the more equality there is established” among us, “the more virtue and happiness will reign in society”.

Choice is an irritating concept without that feminist imagination that tells us more about the societies we want to live in and how best to head towards them. With this government in command, we seem to moving further away from the possibilities for true virtue or happiness every day.

Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.

Photo source.

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What is Feminism? banner

Janet Sparks: Feminism is…

Name: Janet Sparks

Age: 51

Location: Salisbury, Wiltshire

Bio: Married working mother of 2 sons at University

Feminism is making your own choices.

Email your response to the question “what is feminism?” (in no more than 200 words) to editorial@feministtimes.com, with your name, age, location, a one-sentence bio and a photo of yourself.

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The march backwards: Women’s sexual & reproductive rights at risk

Thilde Knudsen is head of Marie Stopes International’s Europe office.

Spain is about to criminalise abortion; politicians in the UK repeatedly attempt to reduce the 24-week limit; and last week in Brussels, a Parliamentary hearing discussed a European Citizens’ initiative that, if successful, would block European Commission (EC) development funding for maternal health.

Working for sexual and reproductive health charity, Marie Stopes International, I know that every day 800 women die during pregnancy or childbirth, and 99% of these women are from the developing world. This is why the international community identified maternal health as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals and why the European Union (EU) apportions development funding to maternal health each year.

But the ‘One of Us’ initiative, which aims to block EC funding for any activities that involve the destruction of the human embryo, would adversely affect development aid to maternal health projects: projects that enable women in developing countries to make life-saving choices over their fertility; projects that help young women delay pregnancy until they are physically developed to safely deliver; and projects that give mothers time to recover before giving birth to their next child.

Data proves that the initiative is sadly misguided. Restricting safe abortions through similar interventions like the global gag policy in America does not lead to lower abortion rates, it just pushes it underground. The only proven way to reduce the number of abortions is through access to modern contraception and sexuality education, both of which could be adversely affected by the ‘One of Us’ initiative.

Today, it is estimated that roughly half of all women living in developing countries do not have access to adequate basic maternal health care and that 220 million have an unmet need for family planning. The consequences of this include almost 300,000 preventable maternal deaths every year, millions of women affected by debilitating injury such as obstetric fistula, and the perpetuation of poverty and disempowerment as women are unable to delay childbearing or to choose their family size. This is why continued EU support for maternal health and family planning is essential.

The EC currently spends an estimated €121.5 million per year on maternal health and family planning – equivalent to approximately 1.3% of the funding gap to meet the unmet need for maternal health and family planning.

Thankfully, ‘One of Us’ is unlikely to achieve its aims. The initiative, which celebrated its 1.8 million signatures with much fanfare, is in reality just over a quarter of one percent of the population of Europe. Critics have also pointed out that the way European Citizen initiatives are structured give an advantage to large organisations, like the Catholic Church, to mobilise their supporters.

However, this is not a green light for complacency. On the contrary, it should be a warning to everyone who believes in women’s rights that we have been silent too long. In Europe women are often deemed to have achieved equal rights. Since the 60s – when women’s liberation movements stood up and called for sweeping changes to access to equal pay, divorce and abortion – the passionate demonstrations, speeches and rallies have gradually gone quiet, and today many young women would never dream of calling themselves a feminist.

Yet our complacency is proving to be very dangerous, as the hard-won rights our mothers fought for are slowly being chipped away. Who would have predicted that Spain would be bringing in a draconian bill to end women’s rights to safe abortion, making it one of the most restrictive countries in Europe? If Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has his way, abortion will be illegal except in the case of rape or when there’s a risk to the physical and mental health of the mother, and women could soon be resorting to the same dangerous methods they relied on decades ago: seeking out backstreet abortions or attempting to end the pregnancy themselves.

Just outside Europe’s borders in Turkey, where abortion was legalised in 1983 because of the high numbers of deaths by backstreet abortions, a new law just passed that health professionals and human rights activists have warned will make it impossible for women in the country to gain access to legal abortions.

While movements like ‘One of Us’ are attempting to erode women’s rights and mislead European citizens about the importance and value of our development assistance and maternal healthcare, we need to make our voices heard and Make Women Matter. There is an urgent need for the global community to work together in meeting the full funding gap, in order to save and transform the lives of millions who live in poverty. Europe must stand for access to the whole range of sexual and reproductive services – including access to safe abortion when needed – here at home in Europe, and in partnership with other governments around the world.

Marie Stopes International provides millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable women with quality family planning and reproductive healthcare. It has been delivering contraception, safe abortion, and mother and baby care for over thirty years and operates in over 40 countries around the world. By providing high quality services where they are needed the most, it prevents unnecessary deaths and makes a sustainable impact on the lives of millions of people every year.

Photo: Marie Stopes International’s work in India

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Manifesto: Doctors of the World campaign for women to be “Names not Numbers”

Doctors of the World provides essential medical care to excluded people at home and abroad while fighting for equal access to healthcare worldwide. We are part of the Medecins du Monde global network, which delivers over 300 projects in more than 70 countries.

Whether it’s providing mental healthcare to Syrian refugees, vaccinating children in Mali, or delivering babies in the DRC we meet the health needs of vulnerable people across the planet. And where possible, we share our skills and training locally so communities stay strong in the long term. We also work with the most marginalised to report on violence, injustice and healthcare barriers wherever we see them.

Recently…

Our work with women in the UK

  • We run a clinic and advocacy programme in east London staffed by volunteers who provide care to excluded people such as vulnerable migrants, sex workers and people with no fixed address.
  • We have a team of doctors, nurses, and support workers who endeavour to help everyone who comes to see us with medical care, information and practical support.
  • We see heavily pregnant women who have received no antenatal care and children who have been denied basic healthcare after being de-registered by a GP.
  • We help these women find the care they deserve with GP’s and hospitals, ensuring that they are not at risk of further harm.

Our work with women overseas

  • Women and children living in developing countries lack access to obstetric healthcare services, resulting in high rates of morbidity and mortality.
  • Many of Doctors of the World’s women and child health programmes are based in rural areas, where affordable pre and post-natal health services are unavailable.
  • Globally, over 300,000 women die every year during pregnancy or childbirth, with 56% of these in sub-Saharan Africa. Most maternal and infant deaths are caused by infections that could have been easily prevented.
  • Doctors of the World works to combat high rates of maternal and infant mortality by improving access to basic healthcare services in areas where women and children have no means of receiving care.

Women’s right to choose

  • We support the universal access to modern methods of contraception and the abolition of all legislative barriers which limit it, and access to quality sexual and reproductive health services that are underpinned by a woman’s right to choose.
  • We believe that it is every woman’s right to choose to access safe, legal abortion services by decriminalising terminations and reducing unsafe abortion-related deaths and complications.
  • We recognize that 300,000 women die every year from complications during pregnancy or unsafe abortions, which could be avoided through straightforward access to family planning.
  • We have started an advocacy campaign, Names not Numbers, to raise awareness of the legislative changes necessary to prevent further senseless deaths.
  • We consider that governments should put the following in place to protect women’s health and their right to choose:
      1. To guarantee universal access to contraceptive methods
      2. To consider illegal abortion as a public health issue
      3. To cater for post-abortion complications

Find out more at doctorsoftheworld.org.uk or follow @DOTW_UK

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Happy 40th Birthday, free contraception!

From 1 April 1974 all contraceptive advice and supplies became free on the NHS, and available to all women. 40 years on, bpas (the British Pregnancy Advisory Service) celebrate the anniversary of free contraception in the UK and call for the next step forward.

The contraceptive pill was first licensed in 1961, yet initially restricted to those deemed wise enough to use it, and worthy of its privileges – those bastions of moral responsibility who are older married women. So hoorah for the less celebrated year of 1974, when contraception became free of charge for all women, regardless of age or marital status.

It’s hard to think of a development which has brought about such a monumental change in women’s lives, their role in society, and their relationships with men as free access to contraception.

The Pill enabled women to take control of their biology. Family sizes shrunk, motherhood was delayed, and women began to occupy those spaces that had previously been the sole domain of their male counterparts. Alongside access to safe, legal abortion, women could start to make genuine reproductive choices.

Yet while we can celebrate the 40th anniversary of free access to this revolutionary pill, this birthday is also the occasion to reflect on what we want from contraception over the next four decades – and ideally before we reach the last half of the 21st Century.

We should be asking why we are not seeing the investment, effort or drive to develop new methods of contraception that actually meet women’s needs. There seems to be a prevailing sense of “job done” when it comes to contraception, and ongoing barriers to technological advances in this field. While we have seen a few new methods enter the market over the last decade of so, these are by and large variations on the dose and delivery of the same medication.

Hormonal contraception should be celebrated for the huge advances it has brought, but it’s not for everyone. While there are women who will swear by their contraceptive implant, there are others who find themselves begging the doctor to remove it. We need new methods
without the side effects such as irregular bleeding, weight gain, nausea or lower libido. We need a greater choice of non-hormonal methods for those women who do not wish to use hormones or who cannot.

We need methods better suited to the reality of women’s lives and an acceptance that some women don’t want to use barrier methods like condoms or diaghrams but also don’t feel they are having sex regularly enough to warrant remembering a daily pill or having a long acting IUD or implant inserted. A pericoital pill, which could be taken at the time of sex, would represent a huge breakthrough for those women.

And we need to take politics out of pills. Researchers have noted that one of the major barriers to contraceptive development is the fear of controversy – so, for example, it would be possible to create a monthly pill that would either stop a fertilised egg implanting or detach it from the lining of the womb, yet concerns about the reactions from those who would see this as an abortion have put the kybosh on its development. Some women may well have their own personal position on whether this method is right for them – but shouldn’t that be their choice to make?

And lastly, we need methods for men. Men need something in between the two extremes of condoms and vasectomies, and the argument that most women wouldn’t trust men with their birth control is insulting to the many men who we know are keen to share the burden of contraception with their partner.

So hooray for free contraception. Thank you 1974. But it’s 2014 now – and women deserve more.

bpas is a reproductive healthcare charity, providing counselling and abortion care, contraception and STI testing on a not-for-profit basis. Follow them @bpas1968

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A Womb With A View: The anti-medicine brigade

Blissful, perfect, glorious pregnancy. A woman who is pregnant by choice, rather than chance, floats along like a princess on a cloud. Her child is the centre of everything, the reason for her existence. She is a happy, gracious vessel to the angel growing inside her.

That’s not the Daily Mail approach to childbearing, but the prevailing attitude to modern motherhood – or so it seems to me, experiencing it long-term for the first time. This is my second pregnancy after an early miscarriage a year ago and, 30 weeks in, I can reliably say it’s a messy whirlwind of emotions. There’s excitement and happiness, yes, but also terror and fear, and the people who exacerbate the latter, more than anyone else, are the ones who say they’re there to make it all better – the anti-medicine brigade.

To illustrate this, I’ll begin my first column with a personal, Dickensian story. This Christmas I got ill. A sniffle became a head cold, then a great, gurgly swamp in my chest. Every time I breathed I sounded like a human accordion, but with extra crackle and rattle at the end of each chord.

It being Christmas, and surgeries and chemists being shut, I scurried online for advice from various pregnancy forums. Most of it followed a theme: don’t take any drugs. Try steam inhalation. Concoct a hot drink from lemon, chilli and ginger. I did both, but still sounded like a French cafe busker every time I exhaled. Out of desperation one night, I doused a pillow with Olbas Oil, then looked online the next morning and dissolved into a wreck. Anything could harm your baby, went the chorus. Mum must suffer instead.

I ended up at an NHS walk-in clinic after my third night propped up on three pillows to open up my chest, my third night weeping in bed because I could barely draw breath. A week later, after a course of amoxycillin to treat my chest infection, I was right as rain… but judgement day arrived a few days after that. I made the mistake of telling my yoga teacher that I had been ill (yep, I’m not that un-alternative – my back’s always been dodgy and I’ll try anything to make it not hurt). “How did you treat yourself?” she asked. “Antibiotics,” I replied. Her facial expression suggested I’d said I’d been mainlining heroin.

“What about steam?” she railed. “Oils?” I wasn’t allowed an answer. My teacher moved on to another woman instead, who was anaemic and praised for treating her iron deficiency not through drugs but through diet (my iron’s low too, and you know what – I do both). The night continued from there. I carried on trying to make my dodgy back better while sneers wafted around me – not the most relaxing night ever for someone wanting to make her pregnancy better.

And that’s the rub. This isn’t just a rant about my yoga teacher and her irritation at me being desperate to, you know, simply breathe… but about the anti-medicine brigade and the effects they really have on other pregnant women. You’ll find them in newspapers, on chatboards, in antenatal classes, and constantly in your head. To me, the brigade seem more interested in policing women’s behaviour than improving their situations. Hey, don’t do that. Or do this. Your own needs? Forget them. Call me glib, but isn’t this basically the rhetoric of the right-wing press? Aren’t you, the woman carrying this baby, the one giving them life? As a consequence, shouldn’t you be allowed to exist as comfortably as possible?

I understand why some people don’t want to rely too heavily on conventional medicine, of course. Antibiotics shouldn’t be dished out for every little cold. Big pharmaceutical companies aren’t the greatest businesses on earth. The psychological legacy of the thalidomide has lingered long in our collective consciousness too – but that was half a century ago, and regulation has tightened and hardened like hell. Back then our mothers didn’t worry about every single sip of alcohol and pill they took, but we must. Is this progress?

These days, pregnant women are encouraged to deny decades of regulated, monitored science and behave like martyrs. I ask again: how exactly is it progress for women to deny progress? Because, you know, doctors are bad, girls. And we understand our own bodies, after all. But here’s the biggest thing I’ve discovered about pregnancy: we really, really don’t. Pregnancy is one long trek into the unknown. And the scariest thing about it, I’ve found, is the lack of control that you have – something I’ve experienced first-hand having gone through a miscarriage. Last time round, I ate healthily, rested and didn’t take drugs… in short, I did everything ‘right’, and still it went wrong. This time round, I’ve taken medicine that’s long been approved not to cause harm during pregnancy. It allowed me to breathe, rest and simply be – and surely that’s good for both me and my baby.

After all, before the progress of medicine changed the wellbeing of Western women forever, women ailed, women struggled, women died. This woman wants to be relieved, wants to prosper, wants to live life to the fullest – for both her precious baby, and for herself.

Jude Rogers is a writer, broadcaster, journalist, romantic, Welsh woman and geek. Follow her here @juderogers

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Cate Blanchett, choice and complicity on the red carpet

We all know that the world of showbiz is sexist, hence any woman who involves herself in it will be complicit in whatever objectification she suffers. This seems to be the message of Lynden Barber’s gentlemanly trashing of Cate Blanchett, published in this Wednesday’s Guardian. Rather than celebrate Blanchett’s questioning of double standards (demonstrated by her asking a red carpet photographer whether his camera lens scanned male actors in the same manner), Barber calls out the actress for daring to bite the hand that feeds her:

“I can understand why an actor might be totally over the whole red carpet thing. But Cate, if you don’t want your dress to be photographed so that viewers and readers can admire the whole thing, then perhaps you could try turning up to the next awards nights in jeans and a T-shirt.”

Yeah, Cate. Live by the stylist, die by the stylist. You knew what you were getting into.

To a certain extent, I think Barber has a point. Blanchett – a tall, thin, white woman following the dress codes of an industry that objectifies tall, thin, white women – gains from her own objectification. You can’t get to where she has without a degree of compromise. But is it reasonable to play the system and then claim the moral high ground? For Barber it’s a definite no; I, on the other hand, would ask what else a woman is meant to do. What level of purity must she achieve before she’s entitled to speak out? And by the time she has achieved such purity, won’t she be backed into a corner so that no one can hear her words?

We’re not all Hollywood actresses but every single one of us is complicit in our own oppression and that of others. There are degrees of complicity, but every choice we make – every interaction, every utterance – takes place within a context of gender stereotyping, cultural conditioning and inequality. In order to forge any path of our own we work with the options we’re given. Unlike Blanchett, we may not be “the face of SK-II” but none of our choices take place in a vacuum. Sometimes these choices will benefit us to the detriment of other women. Often we won’t even know it.

Judging other women on the basis of this complicity is, I think, one of the reasons for deep cultural divisions within feminism. While as feminists we are critical of our own culture, our own personal practices will always feel defensible in a way that those of others do not. We know our own balance sheet but not that of anyone else. Hence your dress code demeans women while mine is an everyday compromise. When you choose to do that job you’re selling out, but when I choose to do mine I’m just feeding my family. There’s not a lot of time for empathy when you’re constantly repositioning yourself around double standards.

But when, as Blanchett did, you call out the double standards that you’ve played along with, you will be accused of hypocrisy. Do the same to another woman and it starts to look more like a personal attack. It should be neither of these things. We should be able to accept that in order to survive patriarchy, women have to have dealings with its rules and regulations within different cultural settings. This shouldn’t undermine any challenge. On the contrary, knowing the conditions of oppression should make us more forgiving of ourselves, each other and of those who oppress us.

The man who photographed Blanchett was only playing by the same rules as Blanchett. They’re rules which, to a greater or lesser extent, I play along with when I decide what to wear, how to speak, how best to get what I need. No one has to challenge these rules – and usually it’s easiest not to — but when anyone does, we should see it as a gain. If we aspire to a pure, untainted feminism we will only deny all women the space in which to breathe.

VJD Smith (Glosswitch) is a lifelong feminist and mother of two who edits language books when she’s not tied up with parenting, blogging and ranting.  Find out more @Glosswitch or glosswatch.com

Photo: Siebbi

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Comeback: #feministheels

Responses to Charlotte Raven’s editorial on high heels.

To date Charlotte’s editorial, posted yesterday, on her personal view of high heels and feminism has received 6193 views.
It’s been shared 4497 times.
With around a half a dozen personal blog responses, one spawning the hashtag feministheels.
So far this hashtag has been used 690 times.

We weren’t expecting a response this high.

To clarify for some Tweeters who assumed we get paid per click, we don’t. We have no PR or advertising on our site. We are funded purely by members. Which is why we can afford to run a piece on Afghan Women’s Rights today, which so far has received 8 views and been shared 14 times.

Putting these clicks or views into perspective.
In the 10 weeks Feminist Times has existed we have published 186 articles. 21 articles have been explicitly about violence against women and girls. The highest amount of views any of the 21 stories received was Nimko Ali’s profile, A Year as the Face of FGM which received 591 views. That’s less than 10% of the views Charlotte’s personal editorial on high heels as a patriarchal and cultural form of violence against women received.

Below is a broad selection of responses we received.

Tweets:

Facebook:

Facebookcomments

Comments:

response1

response2

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Emails:

Mihira Sood – gender rights lawyer:

Charlotte starts off by telling us that she finds it irritating when people ask her whether you can be a feminist and wear high heels. I gather she finds this question irrelevant, and offensive in its irrelevance. I agree. What people wear should be completely irrelevant to how they relate to feminism, it’s about what you put in your head, not on your feet (unless of course, your shoes have “Feminism is Stupid” written on them). Yet the rest of her post demonstrates the opposite. Instead of telling us why people’s sartorial choices should not be considered as relevant to anything other than their sartorial choices, she tells us exactly how high heels bear such a close relationship with feminism, and therefore what a relevant question it is.

Let’s leave aside for now, the remarkable display of cognitive dissonance here, and focus then on the merits of her argument. In her post, she identifies two reasons why the feminists-can-wear-high-heels brigade is wrong: one, it is a form of self-harm, akin to domestic violence; and two, their arguments are premised on the political correctness of not offending a high heel wearing minority, a consideration that other political actors aren’t saddled with.

On the first point, I agree that high heels are a form of self-harm, and that we as a society, do discourage certain forms of self-harm. However, since this needs to be balanced with individual liberty and expression, the discouragement is not uniform across the entire spectrum of self-harm. There is tolerating criminal activity like domestic violence at one end (though even there, I would argue that society’s role is to be supportive and provide her with options, rather than telling her what to do) and there are things like unhealthy eating habits, cigarette-smoking, excessive use of hair dryers and the like at one. For some inexplicable reason, Charlotte seems to lump high heel wearing at the higher end of the spectrum, warranting greater interference with individual liberty, an interpretation most reasonable people would find illogical.

Her second point is that feminists should be allowed to be as sanctimonious as politicians. Given that feminism is about removing the shackles of sanctimonious oppression, this is a peculiar position to take.

The explanation may lie in what her definition of feminism is. She says “Feminism emphatically isn’t about making women feel comfortable with bad or harmful decisions or choices. We have the right to do stupid things but feminism is there to try and stop us before we hurt ourselves, physically or psychically.”

And here I thought feminism was a movement to end sexism in all its manifestations, including sexist oppression, exploitation and stereotyping. Instead, Charlotte’s arguments do precisely that, seek to oppress women’s choices, exploit their bodies and appearances for her own cause (which, whatever it is, certainly isn’t feminism), and stereotype women who make choices different from hers (“stripper heels” – need I say more?)

It is frightening how “feminists” like Charlotte fail to see how their extreme arguments don’t, in a linear model, take us away from patriarchy, but rather follow a circular route, bringing us right back to where we started – people telling women what to do. We haven’t struggled against a puritanical paternalistic system all these years so that we can be ruled by a preachy, maternalistic one. One that feeds right into the very notions of patriarchy that feminism needs to combat – that women can be either Madonnas or whores, feminists or strippers, that the only liberation we can imagine from one is its extreme opposite, that women’s bodies and their sexuality are the vehicles through which battles are fought and worldviews imposed.

Kara Woo:

Today’s editorial, “A Feminist in High Heels is Like Dawkins in a Rosary“, is absurd and offensive on several levels. How long have feminists fought to be judged based on more than just what we wear? And how long have we challenged the stereotype that feminists are a monolithic band of braless women in flannel and jeans? Not that there’s anything wrong with flannel and jeans–but is it really that important that we as feminists enforce these stereotypes on each other? Is this the most pressing feminist issue of today?

The most concerning part of the article, however, is not the idea that instead of listening to what the patriarchy tells us to wear we should listen to what you tell us to wear. Rather, it is the deeply disturbing and offensive equation of wearing high heels to staying in an abusive relationship.
Vanessa Pelz-Sharpe (@sarcastathon):

When I think about the feminist things I want to argue with strangers about they are the huge things that ruin women’s lives: the pay gap, violence against women, the intersectional structural oppressions that marginalised people face, not the slight things like chivalry.

There is a sentiment amongst mainstream feminists that the ‘gender war’ has been won and that these things have been dealt with. They focus mainly on consumerist issues like gendered products, female representation in the media and what women wear.

This is not to say those things don’t form a part of feminist cultural criticism. Even the most radical feminist acknowledges that these constant microaggressions hold women back and need to be stopped. However where mainstream and outsider feminists differ is in the level of importance placed upon them.

For us the big issues are ones that are palpably holding us back from living our fullest lives. Who cares what kind of shoes you wear when you live with the constant threat of violence hanging over your head simply because you are a trans woman? What does it matter that Lego have produced gendered play sets when the police are raiding your home due to the fact that you are a migrant sex worker? Who can become enraged by Lady Gaga’s latest gaffe when you are living in a homeless shelter?

Those in power don’t want us to change the world because it would mean relinquishing the privileges they have and acknowledging their implicit involvement in the subjugation of others. Examining your own status and the benefits it gives you is a painful thing for those of us in more comfortable positions, but it is a necessary step in order to help others around us. By focusing on smaller issues, such as shoes and toys, we take up space that needs to be given to those who do not have media platforms.

When the gender war is almost won, I think there will be time to talk about how our clothing impacts the way people people perceive us, and break down those prejudices. However until that point I will let the women who wear high heels because it plays into the conventional idea of attractiveness, because they feel like they ‘should’ for work, or because they simply adore them, slide by. And I will continue to take that seat on the tube, because I want to be well rested and ready to keep fighting the good fight.

Image courtesy of Andrea Rinaldi

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London Feminist Film Festival: Body Politics

Alisha Rouse attended last week’s London Feminist Film Festival at the Hackney Picturehouse for us. In the first of three short blog posts, she reports back on the opening session, Body Politics.

It’s been 40 years since Our Bodies, Ourselves came out and caused a right raucous by suggesting that body image, transgender issues and abortion were things women could claim ownership of.

Down here in the 21st century, and the Sunday before last, in fact, ‘Body Politics’ was the premiere session at the second ever London Feminist Film Festival.

A great, week-long film fest based at the Hackney Picturehouse, the opening session featured three feminist documentaries dealing with women’s ownership and power over their bodies.

The Cut was a deeply upsetting film documenting FGM in east Africa, where girls are circumcised from as young as six. FGM is an extreme but very real example of body politics for women living in these communities, and for many women in our own.

The politics of body ownership are still hugely up for debate. More women, like Texan senator Wendy Davis, are standing up (albeit not for as long as Wendy did, bless her) and trying to gain the most basic rights to self-determine the life of their torso and its inners.

I’ve asked some of my friends about this, and as expected, the responses were pleasing and generic.

“So, who owns a woman’s body?”

“The woman, obviously!”

“Do you think a woman has a right to choose what happens with her body?”

“Of course!”

“Good! Well done, right thinking individual.”

“No problem, Alisha!”

But when push comes to sexist shove, the packaging of body politics may have changed, but the product is just the same. While the majority of right-thinking men, women and politicians (a breed of their own) consistently state that a woman has the right to govern her own body, it’s rare that insinuations of male or societal ownership don’t come creeping through.

Still Fighting: The Story of Clinic Escorts showed women and men abusing people on their way into abortion clinics in America – and in liberal-thinking New York state, no less.

In the style of Shirley Phelps and the far-holier-than-thou Westboro Baptist Church, there were placards and Hail Marys, as pretty amazing volunteers escorted women into the clinic, surrounded by vile and unfaltering hatred.

Being in a north-eastern state, the documentary was even more frightening. With Davis filibustering for what felt like days to make sure abortions in Texas weren’t restricted, while still refusing to mention the A word in her political leaflets, the US seem to have no visible heroes for the self-determination of women’s bodies, except these amazing ladies in hi-visibility jackets.

Back in the UK, Blank Canvas, a short but sweet documentary, gave us all hope. A woman suffering from cancer and going through chemotherapy, opted to henna her bald head rather than getting a wig, using the canvas as self-expression: expression that she needn’t pretend all is fine; needn’t look a way that makes non-sufferers feel more comfortable; and needn’t suffer from the lack of control cancer gives you over your body.

She took control, and we all need to learn something from that.

Alisha Rouse is a Newspaper Journalism MA student at City University, desperately missing the north and praying for a job. Find out more @alisharouse.

If you enjoyed this article and want to meet other feminists like, and unlike, yourself, join Feminist Times as a Member. Join us and support the building of an incredible feminist organisation and resources like this website.

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Obituary

Obituary: Post-Feminism

Writing an obituary for ‘post-feminism’ is difficult. I never loved, nor even accepted, the creature in the first place. In its different dis/guises, from Girl Power to Tory feminism, it was always a slippery, shape-shifting thing. In life, Mark Twain was declared dead twice over, quipping the first time that his death was exaggerated. In its ongoing life, feminism has been declared dead many times over, keeping its eager obituary writers always busy. Post-feminism should be easier to bury, though perhaps harder to keep safely interred.

Over sixty years ago, commencing the iconic text of second-wave feminism, Simone de Beauvoir apologized for reviving a topic that was perhaps dead: ‘Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it’. Within days, the ink she spilled sold 22,000 copies and The Second Sex has kept selling ever since. Twenty years later, second-wave feminism could hardly have emerged with more clamour, quickly spreading the message that women’s collective efforts would change the world. ‘Goodbye to All That’, Robyn Morgan declared in 1968, when a group of young women occupied the offices of a radical left publication in New York, joined together to protest the Miss America pageant and founded the radical feminist group W.I.T.C.H. That same year, her fellow American poet Adrienne Rich was similarly celebrating the awesome collectivity of women: ‘A woman in the shape of a monster/ a monster in the shape of a woman/ the skies are full of them’.

No wonder its critics waited impatiently to bury this new force, which did indeed usher in a decade of dramatic legislative, social and cultural change. Wherever it grew, it opened doors previously closed to women. It gave women more control than ever before over our bodies and sexuality, made us – when united – more assertive in the home, the workplace and the world at large, everywhere stressing women’s disadvantage and discrimination, including the frequency of men’s violence against and sexual abuse of women and girls. It was the successful spread of feminism that itself heightened recognition of and conflicts over the divisions between women, with newly emerging voices proclaiming their distinct forms of cultural and economic disadvantage and disparagement.

Finally, the era that would be labeled ‘post-feminism’ kicked off in the 1990s, after economic crises had brought the Right into power in Britain, the USA and beyond: rolling back welfare, attacking unions and other sites of resistance, increasing workplace insecurity, above all, ubiquitously popularizing notions of ‘free choice’ as beneficial for all; collectivity as tedious and constraining when not serving market forces The speedy rise and fall of the Spice Girls in the late 1990s epitomized this putative ‘postfeminism’. Directly produced by the record-industry, these self-proclaimed ‘feminists’ crystallized the essence of ‘girl-power’, as their ostentatious quest for individual success and their return to conventional ‘feminine’ wiles dominated the airwaves: ‘Wannabe’; ‘Spice Up Your Life’; ‘Never Give Up on the Good Times’.

This lavishly layable Lady– ‘Get Down with Me’; ‘Let Love the Lead the Way’– suggested one form of female-empowerment (however fleeting); Margaret Thatcher personified another. Out the window went gritty resistance to the increasing disruptions and strains caused by shifting gender relations in a world in which, symbolically, and for the most part materially, men still held sway over women. At the very same time, the immense appeal of Bridget Jones Diary, depicting one woman’s search for her man, or the equally popular Carrie Bradshaw, busily recording the affluent, home-buying, successful lives of four female friends dining out in New York in the stylish sit-com Sex and the City, were instances of the same phenomena. Never mind the familiar sexual hazards facing adolescent girls, the resentful failures and uncertainties of many boys and men, the overwork of countless married women, the impoverishment of lone mothers and their children, the heightening global inequalities, these ‘new’ women (real and imagined) had financial independence, sexual freedom, immense consumer choice, while pursuing the affluent men of their dreams.

Some feminist writers, especially those prominent in the media, including Naomi Wolf and Natasha Water, at first applauded what they saw as a new form of ‘power feminism’, hoping that some women’s growing professional success would increase their ability to empower others. Yet, both were aware of the multiple problems most women still faced, as Walter called for more change to enable all women to find a place ‘in the corridors of power’.  Meanwhile, older feminists, myself included, mostly rejected both this ‘new feminism’, while criticizing the very idea of ‘post-feminism’.

Times change, and militant feminism is once more on the move. Young women especially are taking to the streets, writing blogs, organizing conferences, stressing above all the collective power of women, not just to change themselves and enter the corridors of power, but to beat back violence in all its forms, asserting the value of caring and interdependence in pursuit of social transformation. Deploying new forms of communication, activism and aesthetic expression, feminist horizons broaden and deepen. They encompass the economics of globalization, as some women are shuttled around the world to survive, but also include the future of the planet itself, even while attending closely to the immensely differing, often contradictory, details of women’s lives near and far.

As I bury post-feminism, and the absurdity of imagining that any feminism worthy of the name could begin simply from notions of individual ‘free-choice’, self-assertion or glamour (much as we may delight in these things), I am deepening the hole I have been frantically digging for over forty years. Goodbye post-feminism; hello feminism.

 

Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. Her forthcoming book Out Of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing is published by Verso on 7th November.

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Taboo corner

Taboo Corner: response

Taboo Corner is a small space on Feminist Times for women to be open about uncomfortable thoughts they have and the personal reasons behind them, helping uncover disconcerting female truths that are normally repressed and opening them up for honest debate. Feminist Times is different to other magazines in that it won’t airbrush your frown lines or your emotions… Submit your own Taboo Corner piece in no more than 300 words: editorial@feministtimes.com 

The response to our first Taboo Corner has been overwhelming.  

The whole point of being a crowd-funded membership organisation is that we listen to our members and respond to feedback. Our members have been in touch and said that this subject was unsuitable for Taboo Corner. We’ve taken that on board and removed the piece. We will be commissioning a response from one of the many people who’ve been in touch with us.

To clarify, Feminist Times was absolutely not condoning forced sterilisation, which our whole team considers violence against women. We sought some of our readers’ most shocking thoughts and feelings that clash with their feminist politics, to highlight controversial but personal inner battles between deeply held feminist principles and reactive emotions based on an intimate experience. In this instance, we got it wrong and we want to apologise.

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