That well-worn feminist slogan "the personal is
political" has taken on a new, exclusive meaning in the past several
years. The personal, it seems, is all that's political anymore.
Feminism--on college campuses, in the media and even in Washington--has
become overwhelmingly personal at the expense of political action.
While the economic chasm between rich and poor widens, why have
many feminist sources repeatedly trumpeted Monica and masturbation,
confessionals, Kegel exercises and Courtney Love?
The one big feminist political issue of the '90s
was abortion. Feminists have obsessed over Roe v. Wade and
championed Clinton and Gore for defending the right to choose. But
at the same time, most women in this country have watched their
ability to obtain an abortion disappear. As Miranda Kennedy points
out in "Access Denied," 85 percent of counties nationwide have no
abortion provider. It's still true that women with money can always
access abortion, but women with less cannot.
From health care to the workplace, one important
question has been lost: What about women who still lack the basic
rights middle- and upper-class women now take for granted? In this
issue, In These Times looks at a few of the problems facing
those left behind in the feminist revolution. As Barbara Ehrenreich
wrote last year in these pages, "While middle-class women gained
MBAs, working-class women won the right to not be called 'honey'--and
not a whole lot more than that."
It's time to move on to a "fourth wave" of feminism.
It's goal should be to close the class gap and extend feminism's
gains to all women. Old-time "women's lib" feminists and my generation's
riot grrrls need to get busy and get radical. Instead of sticking
up for politicians, we need to get in their faces and demand greater
economic equality and, in turn, greater freedom for all women.
When Mary Burns (not her real name) discovered she
was pregnant, she was afraid to tell her mother. She knew that if
her stepfather found out, he would "beat me within an inch of my
life." She was only 16, and there was no room to raise a child in
her parents' trailer.
Burns wanted an abortion, but was shocked by the few
choices she had. In South Carolina, where she lives, minors are
required to get the written consent of one parent before they can
have the procedure. South Carolina does offer a judicial bypass,
but this option was moot because no judge in the state would hear
her case. The clock was ticking. Abortions can be legally performed
in South Carolina up to the sixth month of pregnancy, but no clinic
in the state will perform an abortion after the first three months.
By the time Burns traveled to Atlanta, secured an out-of-state judicial
bypass and set up an appointment, she was almost 20 weeks pregnant,
raising both the cost and the risks.
Paying for an abortion is not usually a problem for
middle- and upper-class women.
For teen-agers like Burns, however, a lack of financial resources,
parental consent laws, and the scarcity of clinics and cooperative
judges make abortion nearly inaccessible. And that's not all: According
to legislation that passed the House of Representatives last year,
Burns' boyfriend and his grandmother could be prosecuted for transporting
her across the state line to get an abortion. The so-called Child
Custody Protection Act would make it a crime for anyone other than
a parent to assist a young woman in getting an out-of-state abortion
if she has not fulfilled her home state's parental notification requirement.
JAMAL A. WILSON/NEWSMAKERS
Even though Roe v. Wade is still intact, women
across the country are realizing that their access to abortion has
diminished. Legislation is stacking up to block young, poor and
rural women from obtaining abortions. Anti-choice groups long ago
identified providers as the "weak link" to abortion rights, and
launched a stealth attack on doctors and clinic staff through the
courts and Congress. Mark Crutcher's influential 1992 underground
manual, Firestorm: A Guerrilla Strategy for a Pro-life America,
lays out strategies to sabotage and harass doctors and women through
what he calls "guerrilla legislation": passing "pro-life laws" and
promoting malpractice litigation against abortion doctors. Crutcher
envisions "an America where abortion may indeed be perfectly legal,
but no one can get one."
To this end, Crutcher founded the Denton, Texas-based
Life Dynamics, which sends
out direct mail to 450,000 providers and 30,000 medical students nationwide.
The mailers include fake business cards and posters titled "Serving
Your Baby Killer's Needs," emblazoned with a provider's photo, name
and address. They also publish graphic books of crude, racist jokes
that make abortion providers "the laughing stock of the medical community."
Crutcher also helped form a law firm to litigate abortion malpractice
cases; the firm has recruited 600 lawyers and 500 expert witnesses
to help make malpractice suits commonplace.
Due to the work of such anti-choice groups, guerrilla
legislation is thriving. In the past six years, 157 federal anti-choice
bills were proposed in Congress and all but 24 passed (most were
later vetoed). In that period, more than 400 anti-choice measures
were introduced in state legislatures, an increase of 300 percent
since 1995. So-called "partial-birth abortion" bans passed in more
than 30 states before the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional
At the state level, access to abortion has been restricted
in countless ways. Thirty states have laws requiring clinic personnel
to read to their patients graphic, government-produced scripts that
promote childbearing before they can schedule an abortion. In 32
states, young women must obtain the consent of one or both parents
before they can have an abortion. Many states also impose mandatory
waiting periods, requiring a woman to wait from eight to 72 hours
between her first appointment and the abortion procedure. The American
Medical Association has concluded that waiting periods "increase
the gestational age at which the induced pregnancy termination occurs,
thereby also increasing the risk associated with the procedure."
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights
research organization, during the first five months of Mississippi's
waiting period law, the number of abortions dropped 22 percent.
Conservative politicians have made abortions even
less accessible for poor women. Since 1976, the Hyde Amendment (named
for Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde) has banned the use of federal funds
for covering abortions for women on Medicaid. Only 15 states and
the District of Columbia provide funding for poor women to obtain
abortions. The cost of a first or second trimester outpatient abortion
ranges from $200 to $400, but later abortions are much more complicated
and usually cost thousands of dollars.
Rhona Johnson (not her real name) of Lewisville, Texas
was 26 weeks pregnant when the fetus she was carrying was diagnosed
with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, spinal and neural conditions
that usually lead to permanent brain damage. Doctors told her the
fetus would either die in utero or live less than a year. Giving
birth would have required major surgery, risking Johnson's own life.
Johnson learned that only two doctors in the country
were qualified to perform the type of late-term abortion she needed.
Her insurance did not cover the procedure, so she and her husband
scraped and borrowed to come up with the $4,000 needed for the abortion
and for travel expenses to Dr. George Tiller's clinic in Wichita,
Kansas. Tiller's clinic is a prime target of the anti-choice movement:
In 1993, he was shot and wounded by an anti-abortion extremist.
"They told us there would be protesters," Johnson says, "but there
were crowds videotaping me and calling me a murderer."
Johnson's experience outside the clinic was so horrific,
and her experience inside so positive, that she became staunchly
pro-choice. "People don't want to talk about sex or its consequences,"
she adds, "but the saddest part is that pro-lifers do not trust
women to make their own decisions."
Meanwhile, violence and legal intimidation have fueled
a dramatic drop in the number of doctors and clinics. Over the past
seven years, seven abortion doctors and clinic workers have been
murdered and 12 others injured in attacks by anti-abortion terrorists
in North America. Threats of bioterrorism, primarily anthrax hoaxes,
and other forms of harassment continue to disrupt clinics. Eighty-four
percent of counties nationwide have no abortion provider.
Another Firestorm-inspired tactic is putting
abortion providers out of business by not renewing leases, placing
onerous regulations on abortion facilities, or seeking to bankrupt
providers through malpractice charges. In the case of Florida abortion
provider Dr. James Pendergraft, such tactics have translated into
serious federal charges against him. Pendergraft, a highly credentialed
African-American doctor, publicly advertises that he performs late-term
abortions. He practices in five clinics in a state where two doctors
have been murdered and wears a bulletproof vest on his rounds. Three
years ago Pendergraft tried to open a facility in the conservative
central Florida city of Ocala (where the last abortion clinic was
destroyed by arson in 1989), and was informed in a letter from the
chairman of the Marion County Board of Commissioners that he was
not welcome there. Pendergraft ignored the letter and opened the
clinic. But his patients and staff received constant threats of
violence and were besieged with protesters. He was denied permission
by the city to hire off-duty police officers as security guards.
In 1998, Pendergraft won an injunction against the city in federal
court, on the grounds that Ocala and Marion County failed to protect
the clinic from harassment.
But Pendergraft's problems continued. In June, during
the injunction negotiations, Pendergraft was indicted for attempted
extortion of the county. The charge stems from an alleged conversation
between Pendergraft and his attorney about settling the case. Pendergraft
and his supporters claim he is innocent and that the charges are
just another attempt to keep him from offering abortion services.
His trial begins on December 11; he faces a possible 30 years in
prison, loss of his medical license and a fine of more than $1 million.
Even if Pendergraft wins, the time and money he has spent defending
himself have sapped much-needed resources from his medical practice,
which some say is the real goal of the case.
Pro-choice advocates emphasize that they have been
forced on the defensive in response to legislation proposed by the
right, and that the threat is not going away. "Most people don't
believe that it is possible to overturn Roe, but it certainly is,"
says Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion
Federation. "And we need to be very concerned that the Justice Department
under a Republican administration will not discourage violence against
Several campaigns have been launched recently to
improve the reproductive options of all women. The Campaign for
Access and Reproductive Equity, for instance, is alerting the public
to legislation that undermines the reproductive health of young
women, low-income women and women of color. Another group, Medical
Students for Choice, aims to reverse the stigma against abortion
providers and increase their numbers. The group now has more than
4,000 members on 100 college campuses. If only half of them include
abortion services when they enter private practice, the number of
abortion providers nationwide would double.
Pro-choice activist Rosemary Candelario believes the
movement could learn a little about aggressive organizing from the
right. "We need to return to the radical roots of activism," she
says, "and force politicians to work on our issues."
Miranda Kennedy is research editor at Ms.
magazine and a reporter at WBAI, New York's Pacifica radio station.