There were many disadvantages to being brought up in a restrictive part of the country in the 40’s and 50’s, even if you were white and middle class. In my mother’s New England, in the broken land and stunning autumn months and soft spring times of my childhood, I was told, in words and gestures from both teachers and parents that I had only a limited role to fill in this world. In my privileged home, oldest of five children, it was assumed that marriage would define me and that it was indeed unseemly of me to want more. I was not denied the chance to explore the world around me, to go on those long hikes I have written about or swim in dangerous water. At the same time I was expected to settle down, and to content myself raising a large family. My mother did not work. I would not work.
And then the sixties hit. And affirmative action followed and women’s rights groups formed, and according to my parents, I was out of control. My brothers and sisters challenged my parents too, one settling on a commune, one working for civil rights as I did. The last two did not protest as much, yet the country had changed enough that they had high expectations for themselves. My parents were flummoxed and enraged at times.
Yet here’s the thing: all the time we struggled with my parents over femininism, or racism, or anti war work, my mother was working for Planned Parenthood. All the time we sat around the table and argued Viet Nam or Selma Montgomery or Gloria Steinem, my mother worked for a woman’s right to have control over her body, to limit the size of her family, to space out her babies over the years or even to have no children at all. And this right was never a topic of contention, not on the part of my father or even my grandmother who lived with us for many years. Despite the restrictions they wanted me to live with, despite the limitations they believed were healthy for me because I was a woman, there was one bedrock faith and strong belief: that I and every woman, poor or rich, black or white, must have the power to decide when and how often she would give birth.
So I find it remarkable that now, in 2014, we are fighting for universal contraceptive rights. Folks, it was sixty years ago that my mother first worked for this organization. This was my mother’s battle, or so I thought. Even Doris Marie Boies Guyton, conservative republican married to a republican, Boone Tarleton Guyton, firmly held that it was oppressive for women or girls to be forced to deal with unwanted pregnancy after unwanted pregnancy. Planned Parenthood in Connecticut was formed in 1923 with the work of Audrey Hepburn’s mother. Not the famous actress, who died in 1963, just over 50 years ago, but her mother.
Because I watched a friend go through a horrible illegal abortion in 1966 I know the cost of unwanted pregnancy and the desperation it can cause and the tragic consequences. It seems to me almost ludicrous that we are at this point as a result of the Hobby Lobby case, or the religious college case or the cases that will now be brought one after the other, where we are going to fight for something my dear yet right wing mother assumed was just and good. And given this, and given the seeming intractable problem of rape in the military and rape on college campuses across the country, we have to wonder what is happening to the rights of women in general here. In my conspiratorial moments I feel the gut churning fear I felt upon being assaulted so long ago: that there would be no one to understand the experience and that there would be blame and shame heaped on me. Is there, under this attempt to limit women’s right to choice in pregnancy ( I am not talking here about abortion but trying to keep this on the subject of contraception) a strong crazy male cadre out there along with their female allies, who truly do not want to see women as full and equal citizens to their male counterparts?
Because this is how it feels some days, that women and men who believe in the common sense of a universal right of a woman to have power over her body, are outnumbered. We are outnumbered by powerful men on the Supreme court and by those who have limitless millions to pour into the coffers of those who are fighting against such a right.
I have been thinking about shame lately, about the internal feeling you have when you do something very wrong and cannot undo it; or the kind of shame where the weight of your upbringing and those around you, convince you of a being at fault when you were powerless to fight. Somehow it was your actions that caused the rape, the beating, the bullying. There is also a more abstract shame and that is the shame in one’s country. I have experienced the first two and I know how paralyzing they can be. Now I am feeling the shame of living in a country that not only wants to deny women their full rights as autonomous beings, but is proving to be cold and unfeeling toward children as well. I am not sure if there is a connection here, but when policies and actions negatively affect women and children, when we see a nation that wreaks havoc upon the land and ignores the plight of those in poverty, I can’t help but wonder if we have lost our standing as a good and just nation entirely, if we ever had it.
At one timeI believed that women had a more compassionate and open mind when it came to children, to the earth. While I am not sure this is so true and at the very least is a huge generalization, I do find that our policies, our selfish and cruel outbursts, our ignorance of women’s history, have combined these past weeks to convince me we are a country that in ignoring the pleas of six year old Hondurans on our shores and the simple demand for human rights by our women, is a place that has lost its integrity and worse, its humanity.
We have witnessed this before: in genocide of Native Americans and African Americans. We witnessed it when we turned away the boatload of Jewish children during WWII who had escaped the holocaust, forcing it to go back to Europe where those children eventually died in Auschwitz. In our arrogance, be it toward women and their bodies, toward children and their desperation, we don’t learn. My mother would be horrified.