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EQUALITY ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives Health Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES

When an Abortionist Dies

Dr. Spencer, 1889–1969: Last Trip to Ashland

One month, to the date, before his death last Tuesday, I was privileged to meet the legendary Dr. Robert Douglas Spencer. The trip to Ashland, which was more in the nature of a pilgrimage than a quest for an interview, had come about through the good graces of Dr. Nathan H. Rappaport. A chance to meet Spencer, and through the entree of another abortionist, was an unusual opportunity. Arrangements were made and carried out on a day’s notice. Rappaport drove us to the Pennsylvania coal country in his Citroen. The other passengers were Carol Kahn, a reporter for Medical World News, and her husband, Ira.

We were a high-spirited group, Carol, Ira, and I, and we must have sorely taxed the ego of our friend during the four-hour drive to the little town near Pottsville, pumping him as we did for details of Spencer’s life. It was a journey to Ashland that, I expect, was quite different from the more than 30,000 other journeys that travelers had made to this village, travelers with a secret, urgent mission.

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Spencer, I knew, was back in business again, at the age of 79. The justifiedly famous doctor had reopened his clinic on Centre Street and was now charging the incredible sum of $200, a concession, as he later told us, to the higher cost of drugs and supplies. At $200, Spencer’s price was still hard to believe, well under the going rate for such things. He was still unique in American history.

I tried to recall during our journey just when it was that Dr. Spencer of Ashland had first come into my consciousness. It was, I determined, about 12 years ago. A friend, a painter, had called one day to report that she was pregnant and desperate and did I know of anyone. The only abortionist I had heard of was one another friend, a model, had told me about. She had been taken to him blindfolded and he had charged her $1000. The model had not seen her doctor’s face without his mask and she did not know his real name. The painter, however, was able to make better arrangements. She called back to say that she had gotten wind of a Spencer in Ashland, Pennsylvania, who was supposed to be great, kind, and medically responsible, and who did abortions for practically nothing because he believed in them. A week later my painter friend came over to see me. Spencer in Ashland was a reality. He was, she reported with wonder, a kindly old man. His clinic was spotless. He had a nurse and an attendant. She had slept over at the clinic and had met some other girls who were in a similar plight. The next day, when she departed, he had given her an assortment of pills to ward off infection and build up her strength. He seemed concerned about her, downright fatherly. He didn’t make her think she had done something wrong. The operation hadn’t caused her much pain, and, the biggest wonder of all, it was only $50.

And so it was that Spencer went into my telephone book, under “A” for abortionist. I am poor at remembering telephone numbers, but Spencer’s old number is still in my memory. It was Ashland 404. I was an aspiring actress in those days, and much taken with Tennessee Williams. I remember once passing along the Spencer number to another friend and saying in my best “Summer and Smoke” voice, “Really, I think of it as the telephone number of God.” Young acting students are all over-dramatic, but there was good cause for such intense language when talking about Spencer. Spencer meant deliverance, it was as simple as that. Going to Spencer meant taking an alternative that the culture was doing its damnedest to hide or distort. The public image of an abortionist, through books, plays, movies, articles, or whatever, was of an evil, leering, drunken, perverted butcher at worst, and a cold, mysterious, money-hungry Park Avenue price-gouger at best. And then there was Spencer with his clinic on the main street of a small American town, who charged $50, who believed in abortions, and who was kind. Knowing about Spencer in Ashland was one irrefutable piece in the logic which led one to the conclusion that the culture was capable of the big lie.

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As the years passed, Spencer’s name would come up from time to time. The price had gone from $50 to $100. Some people remembered when it had been $25, or even $10. There were long stretches when the doctor in Ashland would go into retirement, and there were stories of treks to Ashland only to find the clinic boarded up and silent. There was, we heard, a death on his operating table from a reaction to the anesthesia. There was a trial and there was, miraculously, an acquittal. We heard misinformation, too. Spencer had become an abortionist, the rumor went, because his own daughter had died on the operating table of an abortionist-butcher. This story was untrue, unfortunately popularized in a bad novel based loosely on the life of Spencer by a lady novelist with one of those awkward three-name combinations. Maybe the lady meant it symbolically. Spencer’s real-life daughter, better information had it, was alive and well, and so was his son. Other information I absorbed about Spencer, I was later to learn, was quite accurate. He was a committed atheist and free-thinker who often pressed his literature into the hands of the girls along with the antibiotics and vitamin pills. He had gotten into abortion work during the ’20s through the supplication of the miners’ wives in the Pennsylvania coal country, and his work for the miners — he was a pioneer in the technique of bronchoscopy — won him a heavy workmen’s compensation caseload, and, some said, the protection of the United Mine Workers during the years when the protection of the mine workers was something that counted.

Ashland, Pennsylvania. Principal products: coal, homemade wine, and abortions. The sort of Americana that always evaded the Saturday Evening Post. The town of Ashland is in some parts as narrow as the width of two streets. One of those streets is Centre Street, which is also a state highway. For some romantic reason I’d pictured Spencer’s clinic as a rambling, gabled mansion with a front porch. It was, instead, a very ordinary three-story, brick-face structure, flat, characterless, and attached on both side to similar-looking units. Diagonally across from it was the local movie theatre, which bore the legend, “We Burn Coal.” Most of the private homes and business in Ashland resist installing oil burners, and show their defiance with a printed placard.

Spencer’s home was on South 9th Street, just a few blocks from the clinic. It was a little house with a storm door and no lawn. There was a Christmas wreath in the window. The hour was late when we rang the bell. Spencer’s wife, a tall, big-boned woman, greeted us and led us past the formal parlor to a back room: Spencer’s study.

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And there he was, a tiny wisp of a man, frail, dry as dust, with sharp, thin features and bright eyes. He was wearing a suit of some dark material and it hung on him loosely. Rappaport had told us that Spencer had more or less stopped eating this last year, convinced that his health was irrevocably failing. There were signs of his eating habits about: two opened packages of pistachio nuts. He sat in a rocker, with what looked like a bear rug slung over his knees. He hardly looked capable of the energy required to attend to three or four abortions a day, which was his current schedule. (In his heyday, he had handled 10 to 11 patients.)

We were introduced, and we gravely paid our respects to his reputation, which I think pleased him. The interests of the man were evident in his study. Books of every description, some still in their mail-order wrappings, lined the walls and were stacked on tables, fighting for space with the mementoes of his travels: large chunks of mineral rock, strange and beautiful Indian masks, a blow gun, and a fine collection of rifles. “Douglas likes to go boar hunting. Show them your boar-hunting pictures,” Rappaport said, and Spencer got up and obliged. The snapshots showed the tiny figure with a big, red hunter’s cap on his head, standing in a group with four or five other hunters, towering men, each with his rifle proudly stuck in the ground. Behind the hunting party, 11 large black boars were strung up in a neat row, quite dead. Dr. R. D. Spencer was, he informed us, firmly against gun registration.

Carol or Ira called attention to the microscopes. Several of them were about the room, some with camera attachments and light boxes, and one which Spencer himself had designed. Spencer’s training had been in pathology. Happy to show us the microscopes, he went to one of his cabinets and pulled out some slides. As we took turns at the microscope, intently viewing the various specimens of single-celled life that Spencer had prepared, the man grew increasingly more animated. He was entertaining his guests, and thoroughly enjoying it, and we in turn were thoroughly charmed and engaged, so much so that our friend Rappaport withdrew somewhat testily to the front parlor to converse with Mrs. Spencer.

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Warming to his audience, Spencer brought out further treasures. “This,” he announced of one exhibit, “is the life history of a fly.” And it was, from an insignificant speck to the insect as we know it. “Do you know what this is?” he queried, showing us a small, clear plastic block with something red and curled imprisoned in the center. It was, he told us, the embryo of a pig. We passed it from had to hand, marveling at its tiny perfection, examining it more closely under one of the microscopes. Spencer showed us another red, curled specimen in plastic. “A human embryo,” he announced. “Less than four weeks old.” Unbelievable, but there it was, tiny, more intricate than the pig, with a spot for the eye and the definite tracing of a spinal column. In all, he showed us three tiny human embryos, none more than a thumbnail long, but the third larger and more developed than the first. The only human embryos I had ever seen were those in a big picture layout in Life Magazine. These were in my hand, three-dimensional and real. I took the largest human one and compared it with the pig. A sentence from biology class popped into my head. “Well, ontogeny certainly does recapitulate phylogeny, doesn’t it?”

We were gripped by the human embryos and would have liked to see more, if there were any, but Spencer was digging in his cabinet for other exhibits. He showed us something pitch-black ad vaguely cloth-like in a glass slide. “I’ll give you a hint about this one,” he said, playing a game. “It’s animal and mineral and indigenous to the region.” We were stumped. “Carbon?” I ventured. “That’s the mineral part of it,” he admitted. “Well, a fossilized animal in coal?” I tried again. “This is a piece of a miner’s lung,” he stated simply. “The miner died, obviously.”

We didn’t leave Spencer’s house until close to 1 a.m., and we returned the next day. “He’s been expecting you all morning,” his wife said as she brought us to the rear study. We had thought, Carol and I, that we had better make a stab at a proper interview this time, particularly since Carol’s magazine was paying for her part of the trip. She set up her tape recorder and I reluctantly brought out my notebook. It seemed unfair to ruin a social visit. Spencer apparently though so, too. It was hard to keep him to the subject and several exasperated looks were exchanged among us as our host got involved in anecdote after anecdote, complex stories involving his diagnostic skills, but not at all about abortion.

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Trying our best to pin him down to his very first abortion, we discovered that there really was no such thing as a first abortion, a conscious decision to break the law, with trumpets. He had gotten requests from some local women, and he had obliged. “But why,” I persisted, “did you oblige? Most other doctors don’t. Why were you different? Why did you do abortions for women?” He rocked back and forth in his chair. “Because,” he said slowly, “I could see their point of view.”

For Carol, he attempted to describe his medical procedure. After using the packing method for a couple of years, one day he got a circular in the mail for Leunbach paste, manufactured in Germany. “By golly, it worked,” he told us. Later, when the Leunbach was taken off the market, he began manufacturing his own product in his laboratory, a mild soft-soap solution, which he used to dilate the cervix and loosen the conceptus in the first stage of his procedure. The following day he would complete the curettage. Spencer refined his own technique and he stuck with it for 40 years. The newer methods didn’t interest him.

Spencer told us that he was following with keen interest the recent attempts to liberalize abortion laws in several states. He himself had written Governor Shafer of Pennsylvania. “I told him that most of our laws are from the English,” he said spiritedly, “so why don’t we go to work and copy the one they just passed?” He talked about his letter-writing with the righteousness of an American Legionnaire or a Rotarian, which was not surprising, since he later told us that he was a founder of the Pennsylvania Legion and had been an active Rotarian all his life. His father had been the district attorney of the neighboring country. Did that explain his remarkable record of longevity in a career which is usually marked by the law crashing down on the practitioner’s head? “No,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ve been here since 1919. I daresay I’ve helped out half the town. Even on the abortion end, there is probably one of my patients related to a family in half of the town. I think most of the town would stand up for me.”

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It was 4 p.m. and beginning to snow, and Rappaport was urging us to get going. We said our goodbyes reluctantly. “Please come back and visit again soon,” Spencer urged. I had noticed that among his vast collection of books was a Writer’s Market ’69. Had he been thinking of publishing something, I inquired. Spencer smiled wistfully. Did he want an article about him in a major magazine, with a picture, I pushed. He allowed as how once the New York Times had been interested, but his lawyer had thought that the time wasn’t right. He still had an indictment hanging over his head. References to Spencer had appeared in print, but usually he was “the legendary Dr. S.” Time Magazine, as far as I knew, was the only mass circulation magazine to print his name in full. I told him I thought the time couldn’t be more right for publicity. The idea seemed to appeal to him. Punctiliously he gave me the address and telephone number of his lawyer in Pottsville, and then, special privilege, his own private unlisted number at the house. “We’ll do it for your 80th birthday,” I promised. He had told us that his birth date was March 16, and he was going to celebrate by shutting the clinic for a month and taking his wife on a trip around the world.

Last week I got a call from Dr. Rappaport. Spencer had died that morning at 5 a.m. ❖

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Sisters Under the Skin: Confronting Race and Sex

Recently, at a feminist meeting, a black woman argued that in American society race is a more absolute divi­sion than sex, a more basic determi­nant of social identity. This started an intense discussion: if someone shook us out of a deep sleep and demanded that we define ourselves, what would we blurt out first? The black woman said “black woman.” Most of the white women said “woman”; some said “lesbian.” No one said “white person” or “white woman.”

I’m not sure it makes sense to say that one social division is more absolute than another. I wonder if it isn’t more a matter of different kinds of division. Most blacks and whites live in separate communities, in dif­ferent social, cultural, and economic worlds, while most women and men share each other’s daily, intimate lives and cooperate, even if unequally, in such elemental activities as fucking, procreating, and keeping a household going. On the other hand, a man and a woman can spend their lives to­gether and have such disparate ver­sions of their “common” experience that they might as well live on different planets. Do I feel more distant from black women than from white men? Everything else (class) being equal? (Except that it usually isn’t.) In some ways yes, in some ways no. But whatever the objective truth, my sex feels more basic to my identity than my race. This is not surprising: in a sexist society it’s impossible to take one’s femaleness for granted; in a racist society whiteness is sim­ply generic humanness, entirely un­remarkable. Suppose, though, that a black revolution were to seriously challenge my racial privileges? Suppose I had to confront every day, every hour, the question of which side I’m on?

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Such questions excite and disturb me. Like talk about sexuality, discussions of the racial­-sexual nexus radiate danger and taboo — a sign that the participants are on to some­thing. Lately such discussions, mostly in­itiated by black women, are happening more often. They raise the heartening possibility of connecting, and in the process revitalizing, the unhappily divergent discourses of feminism and black liberation. This could be the first step toward creating a new feminist radicalism, whose interracial, interclass bonds go deeper than lowest-common-denominator coalition politics.

One of the women at the meeting suggested that I read Sally Hemings, Barbara Chase­-Riboud’s controversial historical novel about Thomas Jefferson’s black mistress. I found it a devastating study of the psychology of mas­ters and slaves, the politics of romantic love, the relations between black and white women, and the institution of the family. Much of its power lies in the way the author merges the race and sex of each character into a seamless whole, bringing home the point that to abstract these categories is al­ready to falsify experience. So long as white­ness and maleness remain the norm, white women can think of themselves as “women,” black men as “blacks”; but black women, doubly the Other, must be constantly aware of their dual identity at the same time that they suffer from both racial and sexual in­visibility. In forcing the rest of us to see them, they also present us with new and far less tidy pictures of ourselves.

This suggests that confronting the op­pression of black women means more than taking in new information or taking up new issues. It also means questioning the intellec­tual frameworks that the (male-dominated) black and (white-dominated) feminist move­ments have set up. If race and sex are ex­perientially inseparable, can we (should we) still analyze them separately? If all women are subject to male supremacy yet black and white women play out their relations with men (both inside and outside their own communities) in different ways — do they still have a common core of female experience, a common political oppression as women? Theoretically, the different situations of black women and black men should raise the same sort of question. But in practice black women single out their relation to white women and feminism as the more painful, problematic issue. This subject is now bursting through a decade’s sediment of sloganeer­ing, ritualistic condemnations, and liberal apologies to inform some provocative new writing.

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But first, I feel I have to say something about Angela Davis. Women, Race and Class may have been inspired by all this ferment, but the kindest judgment I can make is that it misses the point. From Davis’s orthodox Marxist perspective (still CP after all these years!), in which economic relations determine all, while sexual relations have no material status and sexism is merely a set of bad attitudes, the question of how racial and sexual politics interact loses its meaning. Da­vis strips racism of its psychocultural dimension and treats it strictly as a form of economic exploitation; she tends to ignore sexism altogether, except when invoking it as an excuse for white bourgeois feminists to undermine the struggles of black and work­ing people. (For instance, she rightly condemns the racism of white suffragists outraged at the prospect that black men would get the vote before white women — but rationalizes the sexism that prompted black men to sell out women of both races by agreeing that the black male vote should have priority. Black men’s “sexist attitudes,” Da­vis argues, were “hardly a sound reason for arresting the progress of the overall struggle for Black liberation” — and never mind the effect on that struggle of denying the vote to half the black population.) Still, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss Davis’s book as an anachronism. In more subtle and am­biguous forms, its brand of left antifeminism continues to influence women’s thinking. Besides, Angela Davis is a public figure, and Women, Race and Class will undoubtedly outsell both the books I’m about to discuss.

Gloria I. Joseph is black; Jill Lewis is white. In Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives, they attempt to explore their separate his­tories, confront misunderstandings, and move toward “collaborative struggle.” The book has the flavor of an open-ended political conversation; for the most part the authors write separate chapters, each commenting from her own perspective on various aspects of sexual politics. The result is uneven, full of intellectual loose ends and contradictions, and both writers have an unfortunate penchant for clotted, obfuscatory prose. But Common Differences does help to clarify touchy areas of black-white conflict. Joseph’s, chapters — which taught me a lot, especially about black mothers and daughters — are a valuable counterweight (and an implicit re­buke) to the tendency of white feminist theo­rists to base their generalizations about the female condition on white women’s experi­ence. In discussing black women’s lives, Jo­seph uses a time-honored feminist method: she records group discussions and individual comments, picks out common themes and contradictions, and tries to draw conclusions. The immediacy of this material exposes white feminist parochialism more effectively than any abstract argument.

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Without denying the movement’s short­comings, Lewis sets out to debunk the stere­otype of the spoiled, elitist “women’s libber.” The feminist movement, she maintains, de­serves recognition as the only social move­ment to challenge the status of women as women. She argues that white feminists have been struggling toward a deeper understand­ing of race and class, and that even those sectors of the movement most narrowly ori­ented to white middle-class concerns “have engaged in and won concrete struggles that potentially open up new terrain for all women.”

In their introduction, Joseph and Lewis agree that “as a political movement, women’s liberation did and does touch on questions which in different ways affect all women’s lives.” But Common Differences is much more about difference than about commonality. In Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism Bell Hooks strides boldly be­yond pluralism to the rockier ground of synthesis. While Hooks also stresses the uniqueness of black women’s experience and the ways it has been discounted, her aim is to enlarge the theoretical framework of feminism. To this end she analyzes black women’s condition in a historical context, tracing the basic patterns of black-female oppression to slavery and developing three intertwined themes: black men’s sexism, white women’s racism, and the effect of white men’s racial-sexual politics on the relations between black and white women. Hooks is a contentious writer, and I don’t always agree with her contentions, but Ain’t I a Woman has an intellectual vitality and daring that should set new standards for the discussion of race and sex.

The central political question these books raise is why the contemporary feminist move­ment has been so white. Most critics of the movement have offered a simple answer: white feminists’ racism has driven black women away. This indictment is true as far as it goes, but it already takes for granted facts that need explaining. Why, in the first place,­was it primarily white women, rather than black women or both groups simultaneously, who felt impelled to mobilize against sexism? And why did so many politically conscious black women reject the movement (in some cases the very idea of feminism) out of hand, rather than insisting that it purge its theory and practice of racism, or organizing groups committed to a nonracist feminist politics? Antifeminist leftists have typically argued that sexual politics are inherently a white middle-class crotchet, irrelevant to women, who are “really” — i.e., economically and racially — oppressed. Or else (this is Angela Da­vis’s main strategy) they redefine feminism to mean women fighting together against ra­cism and capitalism, and conclude that black and white working class women have been the leaders of the real feminist struggle. Ei­ther way they imply that sexism is not a problem for black women, if indeed it is a problem at all.

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Hooks, Joseph, and Lewis reject this idea. They assume that black women have a stake in women’s liberation, and see white feminists’ racism as part of a complex social history that has shaped black women’s politics. Bell Hooks argues that estrangement between black and white women goes all the way back to slavery. The terms of the conflict, as she sees it, were defined by white men who applied racism to a Victorian sexual (and class) ideology that divided women into two categories: good (chaste, delicate, to be pro­tected and idealized) and bad (licentious, unrefined, to be exploited and punished). While the white upper-class southern woman represented the feminine ideal, black female slaves were stigmatized, in schizoid fashion, both as bad women — therefore deserving to be raped and beaten — and as nonwomen: in doing the same work as men, black women threatened the ideology of female inferiority, a contradiction resolved by def ming them as neuter beasts of burden.

At the same time, the white woman’s power to collaborate in oppressing blacks softened and obscured the realism of her own inferior position. She exercised this power most directly over female slaves, whom she often treated with the special viciousness of the insecure. No doubt the degraded status of black women also reminded her, subconsciously at least, of what can happen to any female who provokes men into drop­ping the mask of patriarchal benevolence. As Hooks observes, the manifest cruelty of white women’s own husbands, fathers, and broth­ers “served as a warning of what might be their fate should they not maintain a passive stance. Surely, it must have occurred to white women that were enslaved black women not available to bear the brunt of such intense antiwoman aggression, they themselves might have been the victims.” As a result, the very identification that might have led white women to black women’s defense probably had the opposite effect. White men’s sexual pursuit of black women also exposed white women’s humiliating position: they could neither prevent their husbands’ behavior nor claim a comparable freedom for themselves. Instead they expressed their anger, salvaged their pride, and defended their own good­-woman status by vilifying black women as seducers and sluts.

Hooks shows that what she calls the “dev­aluation of black womanhood” did not end with slavery but remains a potent source of black women’s rage. Her account of how black women are systematically disparaged as whores, castrating matriarchs, and sexless mammies explains a crucial ingredient of black female hostility to the women’s move­ment. Clearly, when white feminists ignored black female experience and in effect equated “woman” with “white woman,” the result had a double meaning for black women: it suggested that we were not only enforcing white supremacy but trying to have it both ways by preserving our mono­poly on femininity and its rewards (respect, status, financial support) while demanding the option of rejecting it. This perception of bad faith fueled the angry denunciations of feminism as “white women’s business.”

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But envying white women’s “femininity” is a trap for black women, as Hooks is well aware. Idealization of the white woman’s status has tended to divert black women from demanding sexual justice to attacking black men for their inability to support stay-at­-home wives. Many black women have en­dorsed black male demands for female subservience in the hope that at last they would get a crack at the pedestal. At the same time, their envy of white women has been mixed with contempt, an emotion that led some black women to insist they didn’t need a movement because they were already liberated. Another illusion in Hooks’s relentless catalogue: strength in adversity and the need to make a living are not the same thing as freedom.

Gloria Joseph emphasizes the painful col­lisions of black and female identity. As she says, “an individual cannot be two separate entities. Yet black women suffer from two modes of oppression and so are implicated, like it or not, in two social movements at once. At best this involves a double burden, at worst a continuing conflict of loyalties and priorities. Joseph shows that deep ambivalences permeate black women’s think­ing — on black men (distrust and antagonism mixed with solidarity, affection, and protectiveness), on sex (“a desirable no-no,’ an ‘attractive nuisance'”), on feminism itself (most of Joseph’s respondents reject the movement but endorse its goals). Her argu­ment suggests that black women have been slow to commit themselves to feminism — especially the more radical aspects of sexual politics — for fear of weakening their ties with the black community and the black struggle. Jill Lewis points out that white middle-class women could focus single-mindedly on feminism because “they did not have the stakes of racial unity or solidarity with White men that the Black women had with Black men” and because their privileges left them “free of the survival struggles that are prior­ities for minority and working-class women.” If anything, class and racial privileges (par­ticularly education) spurred their conscious­ness of sexual injustice by raising expectations that were thwarted purely because they were women.

Ironically, Joseph exemplifies the dilemma she describes: like many other black women who define themselves as feminists, she draws the line at calling black men op­pressors. While Joseph and Lewis agree that black and white women are oppressed as women, they uncritically assume that male supremacy is a product of white culture, and that the concept does not really apply to male-female relations among blacks, except insofar as all white institutions and values shape black life. Lewis asserts that institutionalized sexism in America was imported by European immigrants, as if Native Ameri­can, African, and other nonwhite cultures were free of male dominance. In fact, no anthropologist, feminist or otherwise, has ever come up with convincing evidence of a culture in which some form of male domi­nance does not exist.

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Lewis and Joseph argue that because black men do not have the same worldly power as white men, “Male dominance as a salient problematic factor in male-female sexual re­lationships cannot be considered as a univer­sal trait applicable to all men.” But Joseph’s own descriptions of black women’s attitudes toward sex, men, and marriage — not to men­tion their struggles to bring up children alone — belie this view. Rather, her evidence confirms that despite black men’s economic and social subordination to whites they share with all men certain male supremacist prerogatives, including physical and sexual aggression, the assumption of male superior­ity, and refusal to share responsibility for child rearing and housework. Joseph and Lewis also make the puzzling claim that ex­ist repression is more severe for white women because “Black women can be kept in their places via racism alone.” Does racism alone account for black women’s oppression as mothers, workers (including domestic work­ers), welfare recipients, prostitutes, victims of rape and sexual exploitation?

All this adds up to a bad case of conceptual confusion. You can’t simultaneously agree that black women need feminism and deny the basic premise of feminism — that men have power over women. Women who engage in this form of doublethink still have a toe or two in the camp of left antifeminism; while rejecting crude economism of the Angela Da­vis variety, they assume that sexism is perpetuated not by men in general but by a white capitalist ruling class.

Hooks insists on the reality of black male sexism. Discussing the experience of female slaves, she angrily refute the cliché that “the most cruel and dehumanizing impact of slavery … was that black men were stripped of their masculinity. This idea, she argues, merely reflects the sexist assumption that men’s experience is more important than women’s and that “the worst that can happen to a man is that he be made to assume the social status of woman.” In fact, though all slaves suffered brutal oppression, “black men were allowed to maintain some semblance of their societally defined masculine role.” Not­ing that American blacks came from African patriarchal cultures, Hooks rejects the idea that black men learned sexism from whites and the myth (repeated once again by Angela Davis) that within the slave community men and women were equal. On the contrary, the slaves accepted the concept of male superior­ity, and black families maintained a sexual division of labor, with women doing the cook­ing, cleaning, and child care. Nor did slaveholders assign black men “women’s work.” Black women, however, were forced by their white masters to perform both “masculine” and “feminine” functions, work­ing alongside black men at backbreaking la­bor in the fields, while also serving as house­workers, breeders, and sexual objects.

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Hooks implicitly links what she sees as black women’s false consciousness about sex­ism with their political isolation: while the sexism of black male activists has forced black women to choose between asserting themselves as women and maintaining racial solidarity, the racism of white feminists has reinforced and justified that split. Ain’t I a Woman describes how this combination of pressures undermined black women’s efforts to participate in both 19th and 20th century feminist movements. In dissecting the rhetoric of the contemporary black and women’s movements, Hooks shows how sex­ism has been promoted as a cure for racism, sisterhood as a rationale for ignoring it. Black power advocates, confusing liberation with the assertion of their “manhood,” embraced a white man’s contention that a black matriarchy was the cause of their problems, and called on black women to advance the black cause by being submissive; some even suggested that sexual equality was a white racist idea, indicative of the white man’s effeteness and decadence. Black Muslims tried to reverse the racist Victorian para­digm, defining black women as the feminine ideal and white women as devils (and estab­lishing rigid patriarchal families).

Meanwhile the early radical feminists were claiming that the division between men and women was the most basic social hierarchy, and that since men had ruled every known political system, racism was basically a male problem (“men dominate women, a few men dominate the rest” — Redstockings Man­ifesto). This analysis, which I and most of my political cohorts then subscribed to, has had a good deal of influence on the movement as a whole. It has two erroneous implications: that it’s impossible for white women to op­press black men, and that racial conflict be­tween black women and white women has no objective basis, but is (on both sides) an inauthentic antagonism that only serves the interests of men. Radical feminists under­stood, theoretically, that to build female unity white women had to oppose racism and change their own racist attitudes and behav­ior. We were sharply critical of liberal feminists who defined women’s freedom in terms of professional careers and formal equality within a racist, class-stratified social system. Yet emotionally our belief that sex as a more basic division than race allowed us to evade responsibility for racism. It is tempting to imagine that simply by doing what we wanted most passionately to do — build a radical feminist movement — we would also be fighting racism; tempting, too, to play down how much we benefited from being white. For while feminism seemed a way out of the classic bind of white middle­-class radicals: we no longer had to see ourselves as privileged people wondering where we fit into the revolutionary struggle; we too were part of an oppressed class with a historic destiny.

Hooks’s anger at this refusal to be accountable is well-deserved. But when she gets down to specifics, she tends to oversimplify and at times rewrite history. In her indict­ment of “white upper and middle class feminists” (Abby Rockefeller aside, who are these upper-class feminists I keep hearing about?), the movement becomes a monolith. The political difference between liberals and radicals, the social conditions that al­lowed the former to co-opt snd isolate the latter, the fierce intramovement debates about race and class are ignored or dismissed. White feminists’ main aim, Hooks charges, has been to join the male power structure; the movement has posed no threat to the system.

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This is silly. The women’s movement has been no more or less opportunistic than the black movement, the labor movement, or any other mass movement successful enough to attract power mongers. Feminists have not succeeded in making a revolution (neither, I believe, has the rest of the left), but — as Jill Lewis ably argues — we did create a new polit­ical arena and set a revolutionary process in motion. (Among other things, we established the political context in which a book like Ain’t I a Woman can be written and read.) The best measure of our threat to the system is the virulence of the reaction against us.

Hooks also indulges in overkill when she tries to explain white feminists’ appropria­tion of female experience in term of two different, even contradictory forms of racism. My own view is that the right explanation is the obvious one: we were acting on the un­conscious racist assumption that our experi­ence was representative, along with the im­pulse to gloss over racial specificities so as to keep the “complication” of racism from mar­ring our vision of female unity. Hook makes these points, but she also argues that white feminists have shared the racist/sexist perception of black women as nonwomen. In the process she accuses white feminists of claiming that black women are oppressed only by racism, not sexism, and denying that black men can be oppressive. These charges are, to put it mildly, befuddling. If there was any point radical feminists insisted on it was that all women were oppressed because of their sex, and that all men had the power to oppress women. In response, antifeminist black women (along with black and white male leftists) made the arguments Hooks now puts in our mouths, and denounced us as racists for attributing a “white problem” to black people. Inevitably, many white women have echoed these arguments, but it’s perverse to blame feminists for them.

In fact, white feminists have generally been quite conscious of black women as women; it’s their blackness we’ve had trouble with. Straightforward reactionary racism ex­aggerates differences and denies common­alities; liberal racism, more typical of white feminists, does the opposite. Since the denial of black women’s “femininity” is such a central issue for Hooks, she mistakenly assumes that protecting an exclusive claim to femininity is equally an issue for all white women. On the contrary, white feminists felt free to challenge received definition of femininity because we took for granted our right to be considered women. And it was precisely because our claim to womanhood was not an issue for us that we were in­sensitive to black women’s pain at being de­nied it by racial fiat. Many white feminists recognized that the division between white women and black women had something to do with good girls and bad girls. (Shulamith Firestone, in The Dialectic of Sex, discusses this idea at length.) What we didn’t see was the asymmetry: we could decide to be bad, or play at being bad; black women had no choice.

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Hooks’s misperception of white feminists’ psychology also leads her to argue that their analogies between women and blacks were designed “to evoke in the minds of racist white men an image of white womanhood being degraded” by association with black people, especially black men. Again, the “im­age of white womanhood” had much less resonance than Hooks imagines, either for white feminists or for the white liberal and leftist men who were our immediate targets. The main reason that ’60s feminists relied so heavily on comparisons between sexism and racism is that white male politicos recognized the race issue as morally legitimate, while dismissing feminism as “a bunch of chicks with personal problems.” If anything, we were trying to evoke in these men the same guilt about sexism that they already felt about racism; since we hadn’t yet ex­perienced the drawbacks of liberal guilt, we craved its validation. We also hoped, naively enough, to convince black men to renounce their sexism and identify with the feminist cause.

Hooks takes a hard line on analogies be­tween women and blacks. She argues that they always imply a comparison between white women and black men, that they make black women invisible, obscure the issue of white women’s racial privilege, and divert attention from racism to white women’s problems. Certainly racial-sexual analogies have been misused in all the ways Hooks cites, but I don’t see these misuses as either invariable or necessary. Many feminists have made analogies between women and blacks in full awareness that they are talking about two overlapping groups; what they mean to com­pare is two sets of oppressive relations, male­-female and white-black. And though the dynamics and effects of racism and sexism differ in important ways, the parallels — legal, social, ideological — do exist. Which is why antiracist movements have been so instrumental in stimulating feminist consciousness and revolt.

Hooks refuses to recognize this. Scoffing at the idea that abolitionism inspired the first feminist wave, she says, “No 19th century white woman could grow to maturity without an awareness of institutionalized sexism.” But of course 19th century white women — ­and for that matter my generation of white women — did exactly that. It is the essence of institutionalized sexism to pose as the natu­ral order; to experience male dominance is one thing, to understand that it is political, therefore changeable, is quite another. For me and most feminists I know, that politicizing process was very much influenced by the civil rights and black power movements. Conversely, though feminism was not a mirac­ulous antidote to our racist impulses and illusions, it did increase our understanding of racism.

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Surely, the answer to exploitative com­parisons between women and blacks is not to deny the organic link between antisexist and antiracist politics. Here Hooks, too, gets trapped in contradictory thinking. She ar­gues that the issues of racism and sexism cannot really be separated, yet she re­peatedly singles out racism as an issue that is not only separate from sexism but prior to it. According to Hooks, “American society is one in which racial imperialism supersedes sexual imperialism,” and all black people, black men included, are absolutely lower on the social scale than any white woman. In other words, it is illegitimate for feminists to regard sexism as a category that can, at least theo­retically, be abstracted from (and compared to) racism; but no comparable stricture applies to black liberationists.

Gloria Joseph agrees that “In the end, it is a question of priorities, and given the nature of racism in this country, it should be obvious that the Black liberation struggle claims first priority.” Most black feminists whose views I know about take a similar position. It is easy to see why: because racism is intertwined with, and in part defined by class oppression, black people as a group suffer an excruciating combination of economic hardship and social indignity that white middle-class women and even most white working-class women es­cape. (Of course this does not necessarily hold true for individuals — it can be argued that a middle-class educated black man is a lot better off than a white welfare mother from an Appalachian rural slum.) Besides, as Hooks points out, women without the insula­tion of racial or class privilege are also the most vulnerable to sexist oppression: a white professional woman can buy liberation from housework by hiring a black maid; she can also (for the time being) buy the legal abor­tion Medicaid patients are denied.

Left antifeminists have often used this line of reasoning to suggest that sexual issues should wait until racism and poverty are abolished. Black feminists, by definition, have rejected that idea. But what then does it mean, in practical political terms, to say that despite the irreducibly dual character of black women’s oppression, their sex is less immediate an issue than their race? Specifi­cally, what does this imply for the prospect of an antiracist feminist movement, or, more modestly, “collaborative struggle” between black and white women?

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While Hooks never really focuses on strategic questions, Joseph and Lewis often write as if black and white women are on fundamentally separate tracks. They refer, for instance, to “White feminism,” a concept as self-contradictory as, say, “male socialism”; while one can speak of a feminism limited and flawed by white racist bias, it is feminism only to the extent that it challenges the subjection of women as a group. (The mechanical pluralism underlying the notion of separate-but-equal “White” and “Black” feminisms also impels the authors to capital­ize “White.” Though capitalizing “Black” may make sense as a polemical device for asserting black pride, racial self-assertion by white people is something else again.) But in discussing abortion, Jill Lewis endorses a specific approach to integrating feminism with race and class struggle. The strategy she describes has developed as a response to the abortion backlash, but the basic idea could be applied to almost any feminist issue. Since I think it’s both appealing and fallacious, I want to discuss it in some detail.

Lewis argues that to “isolate” abortion as an issue and defend it in terms of freedom for women betrays a white middle-class bias: since black women suffer not only from being denied safe abortions but from sterilization abuse, inadequate health care, and poverty — ­all of which impinge on their reproductive choices — a radical approach to “reproductive rights” must address all these concerns. The trouble with this logic is that abortion is not just one of many medical or social services being rolled back by Reaganism; nor does the present opposition to abortion stem from the same sources or political motives as pressure toward sterilization. Abortion is first of all the key issue of the new right’s antifeminist campaign, the ground on which a larger bat­tle over the very idea of women’s liberation is being fought. In essence, the antiabortionists are arguing that women who assert their free agency and refuse to be defined by their childbearing capacity are immoral. (In con­trast, no one defends poverty or forced sterilization on principle.) So long as this moral attack on women is gaining ground, present­ing abortion primarily as a health or social welfare measure is ineffective because it evades the underlying issue. Our choice right now is to defend abortion as a pivotal issue of women’s freedom, or lose the battle by de­fault. This is not to belittle the urgency of opposing sterilization abuse (which is, among other things, another expression of contempt for black femaleness) or demanding better health care. Nor is it to deny that all these issues are linked in important ways. My point is only that the reproductive rights strategy does not resolve the touchy question of priorities. Rather, while purporting to cover all bases, it submerges sexual politics in an economic and social welfare program.

Is this good for black women? Gloria Jo­seph points out that on the issue of abortion rights, “Black women have even more at stake, since it is they who suffer more from illegal and abusive abortions.” They also suf­fer more from having unwanted children un­der horrendous conditions. If a sexual-politi­cal strategy offers the only real chance to preserve legal abortion and restore public funding, it is clearly in black women’s inter­est. Since black women are faced with so many urgent problems, they may well have other priorities, but it doesn’t follow that white women who concentrate on abortion are indulging a racist bias. On the contrary, they’re doing a crucial job that will benefit all women in the end.

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All this suggests that the question of whether racism is worse (or more basic, or more pressing) than sexism matters less than the fact that both are intolerable. Not that I agree with the white feminists Bell Hooks castigates for dismissing racial differences on the grounds that “oppression cannot be measured.” It’s clear to me that in demon­strable ways, some oppressed people are worse off than others. But I do question whose interests are really served by the meas­uring. Once it’s established that black women are the most victimized group, and that most black men are more victimized than most white women — then what?

In my experience, this kind of ranking does not lead to a politics of genuine liberation, based on mutual respect and cooperation among oppressed groups, but instead pro­vokes a politics of ressentiment, competition, and guilt. Black men tend to react not by recognizing the sexual oppression of black women but by rationalizing their anti­feminism as a legitimate response to white women’s privilege. White women who are sensitive to the imputation of racism tend to become hesitant and apologetic about assert­ing feminist grievances. As for white women who can’t see beyond their own immediate interests, attempts to demote them in the ranks of the oppressed do nothing but make them feel unjustly attacked and confirmed in their belief that sexual and racial equality are separate, competing causes. The ultimate re­sults are to reinforce left antifeminism, weaken feminist militance, widen the split between the black and feminist movements, and play into the divide and conquer tactics of white men (“We can do something for blacks or for women, but not both, so you folks fight it out”). Black women, caught in the racial-sexual crossfire, stand to lose the most.

Insistence on a hierarchy of oppression never radicalizes people, because the impulse behind it is moralistic. Its object is to get the “lesser victims” to stop being selfish, to agree that their own pain (however deeply they may feel it) is less serious and less deserving of attention (including their own) than some­one else’s. Its appeal is that it allows people at the bottom of social hierarchies to turn the tables and rule over a moral hierarchy of suffering and powerlessness. But whatever the emotional comfort of righteousness, it’s a poor substitute for real change. And we ought to know by now that effective radical move­ments are not based on self-abnegation; rather, they emerge from the understanding that unless we heal the divisions among us, none of us can win.

The logic of competing oppressions does not heal divisions but intensifies them, since it invites endless and absurd extension — for every person who has no shoes, there is al­ways someone who has no feet. (One might ask, by this logic, what Bell Hooks has to complain about next to a woman from a dirt­-poor third world country who was sold to her husband and had her clitoris cut off at age four.) White women will not become com­mitted allies of black women because they’re told that their own suffering is unimportant. What white women must be convinced of is that it’s impossible to have it both ways — ­that the privileges we cling to are an insuperable obstacle to the freedom and equal­ity we long for. We need to learn this lesson again and again. Good books help. ■

WOMEN, RACE AND CLASS
By Angela Davis
Random House, $13.50

COMMON DIFFERENCES: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives
By Gloria I. Joseph & Jill Lewis
Doubleday/Anchor, $8.95 paper 

AIN’T I A WOMAN: Black Women and Feminism
By Bell Hooks
South End Press, $7 paper

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Simone de Beauvoir: Rebel Girl

On May Day, the remnants of my old radical feminist group Redstockings held a memorial for Simone de Beauvoir. I had wanted to go, but couldn’t make it, so I heard about it from a friend: Ti-Grace Atkinson talked about going to de Beauvoir’s funeral, women spoke about her impact on their lives, someone read a message from Shulamith Fire­stone. Listening to this account, it occurred to me that in a way my relationship to de Beauvoir had always been secondhand, mediated and refracted by other feminists. When I first got involved in the women’s liberation movement, I knew de Beauvoir only through The Mandarins, which I’d read, naively, as a novel (a good way to read it, I still main­tain). After joining the movement I dutifully began The Second Sex, but aban­doned it halfway through; it was too detached and distanced, too much the product of a French cultural and philo­sophical framework, to compete with the overpowering immediacy of all the dis­cussion about our lives that permeated those early days of activism. (The woman who recommended it to me had discovered it at a time when America’s idea of a feminist was a little old lady brandishing an umbrella.) Not till years later, when I was able to give the book the attention it deserved, did I fully appreciate de Beau­voir’s impact on the politics of the femi­nists I was closest to — as well as those I most bitterly disagreed with.

Nearly four decades after it was first published in France, despite all the com­mentary the feminist movement has pro­duced in the meantime, dated and paro­chial as it is in many respects, The Second Sex remains the most cogent and thorough book of feminist theory yet written. With its exhaustive portrayal of the ways in which male domination and female subordination penetrate every as­pect of everyday life and shape our cul­tural myths and fantasies, it offers de­tailed evidence for the basic claims of second wave feminism — that male su­premacy is a coherent system of power relations, and that “the personal is political.”

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If de Beauvoir’s existentialist perspective is too innocent (and perhaps too ar­rogant) for a postmodern, poststructuralist era, it’s metaphorically appropriate to her subject. Since the denial of personal autonomy defines women’s oppression — ­and since patriarchal ideology holds that allowing women autonomy would destroy civilization if not the human species it­self — a moral defense of freedom is nec­essarily at the heart of feminism. And for the feminists of my generation, so many of whom were “liberated” — that is, had consciously set out to earn a living, sleep with whom they pleased, and avoid tradi­tional wife-and-motherhood — the collision between our sense of entitlement to freedom and men’s stubborn assumption of dominance was not only a political (and personal) struggle but a grand moral drama. De Beauvoir’s rendering of wom­an as the subject seeking transcendence, only to be forced into the position of other and trapped in immanence, ex­pressed that drama with a clarity that almost made up for her coolness.

De Beauvoir’s influence pervades the early radical feminist critiques of Marx­ism. It was de Beauvoir who first pointed out the reductionism of Engels’s attempt to trace women’s oppression to the for­mation of classes, who insisted that sexu­ality and reproduction had to be primary categories for understanding women’s lives; it was also de Beauvoir who ar­gued — even more problematically from a conventional leftist point of view — that social conditions did not cause oppres­sion; rather, people responded to those conditions by choosing to oppress. “His­torical materialism,” she wrote, “takes for granted facts that call for explana­tion: Engels assumes without discussion the bond of interest which ties man to property; but where does this interest, the source of social institutions, have its own source?”

Engels and other historical materialists did have an implicit answer to this question: interest had its source in the desire for survival and material comfort. But by de Beauvoir’s time it was clear that this common sense approach to the question could not explain the rise of fascism, the failure of revolutionary socialism in west­ern Europe, or the totalitarian perversion of the Russian Revolution. De Beauvoir built her philosophy on the idea that the human subject has an intrinsic impulse toward freedom, but this was if anything less useful than materialism for under­standing the dynamics of domination and submission. Her solution to the problem was blaming oppression on “the imperial­ism of human consciousness,” which, she argued, “included the original category of the Other and an original aspiration to dominate the Other.” Of all her dubious appeals to a priori truths about human nature, this one seems to me the weakest. And I think it’s no coincidence that sub­sequent feminist thinking about the roots of male supremacy has been muddled at best.

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Many radical feminists who considered themselves materialists in the Marxist sense, who saw women as an oppressed class struggling on behalf of their inter­ests (redefined as sexual and emotional in addition to economic), were also deep­ly influenced by The Second Sex. The political formulations that came out of this mix — the dominant tendency in Redstockings — were rich in paradox, like theologians’ explanations of how God’s divine plan is ineluctable but human be­ings have free will. Feminist materialists argued that while men’s sexual class in­terests determined their oppression of women, and in fact all men did oppress women, any individual man could choose not to oppress women. Therefore, each man bore personal moral responsibility for his acts; determinism could never be an excuse for letting men off the hook. Similarly, women submitted to men so long as they had to to avoid punishment, and resisted whenever they felt it was possible: either way, they were acting in their interest. And yet there were always women who (for what mysterious rea­sons?) chose to take risks, to step out there ahead of everyone else. Sometimes others followed, and then you had a movement.

On the question of “where interest has its source,” the feminist materialists sug­gested that the desire for survival, com­fort (including love, sexual pleasure, emotional support), and freedom all played a role. On the surface, their un­derstanding of male supremacy wasn’t much like de Beauvoir’s. In the material­ist view, men’s stake in their power over women was quite practical — it gained them money, leisure time, and domestic service, not to mention love, sexual pleasure, and emotional support on their own terms. But if you looked more closely at this list of goodies, it wasn’t quite so simple. Could you assume, for instance, that sexual dominance was inherently more pleasurable than mutual desire? Or that it made “material” sense to choose love corrupted by the concealed rage of the oppressed over love with an equal partner? Lurking behind the materialist analysis was the de Beauvoirian assumptions that oppressors were attached to power for its own sake.

For other factions of radical feminism, this assumption was quite overt. The New York Radical Feminists’ manifesto, for example, argued that men exercised power over women to satisfy their egos. As they saw it, men did not value their power because it allowed them to demand women’s services, but rather, demanded the services to affirm their pow­er. Ironically, this idea was elaborated in a way that offended de Beauvoir’s most basic beliefs about the artificiality of gen­der: cultural feminists who believed that women’s problem was the ascendancy of “male values” attributed the drive for power not to the imperialism of human consciousness but to the imperialism of the phallus.

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As a Redstocking, I was basically in the materialist camp, but with a difference; I thought the best tool for understanding sexuality and family life, the keys to pa­triarchal culture, was psychoanalysis. The radical feminist movement was, of course, resolutely anti-Freudian; here, too, classical Marxist thinking merged with de Beauvoir’s. Like that other exem­plary female intellectual, Hannah Arendt, whose insistence on evaluating Adolf Eichmann in rational moral terms led her to deny his patent lunacy, de Beauvoir resisted any view of human will that challenged the primacy of deliberate moral choice. Her refusal to admit the potency of unconscious fantasy and conflict not only forced her to assume a pri­mary will to dominate; it also implicitly defined women’s response to their op­pression in highly moralistic terms. In the universe of The Second Sex, the female rebel was the existential heroine. And of course the paradigmatic female rebel was Simone de Beauvoir herself.

For many contemporary feminists, de Beauvoir’s life has been an inspiration as well as her work; indeed, her work — not only The Second Sex but the novels and the memoirs — is, among other things, a testament to a certain kind of life. It’s easy for female rebels to idealize that life, to think of it as liberated without quotation marks. But in fact de Beauvoir was no more able than the most traditional housewife to transcend or circumvent male supremacy; her path involved its own complicated set of sacrifices, tradeoffs, and illusions. Part of the price she paid for being Simone de Beauvoir was to live more in her mind than in her body. De Beauvoir never questioned the patriarchal assumption that human freedom depends on the conquest of nature. Her relationship with Sartre was, judging by her own accounts, far more cerebral than sensual. Like most women who put a high priority on independence she had no children — and while it’s a sexist fic­tion that all women want to be mothers, it’s also a fact that so long as motherhood carries drastic social penalties, the decision to avoid it (and relinquish its erotic pleasures) is not exactly free.

Self-reflection on such matters was not de Beauvoir’s strong point. Seeing herself as freer than she was, she denied the full import of her struggle — just as many of her radical feminist children, seduced by the politics of moral example, imagined they could make the revolution simply by changing their own lives. But de Beauvoir had to struggle alone; when she stepped out there, few were ready to follow. Part­ly because of her groundbreaking work, things are different now. In a sense, rec­ognizing the limitations of that work and of that female rebel’s life, is the best way to honor them.

Categories
From The Archives Health THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Abortionist on the Circuit of Fear

The abortionist is the man hunted by the police and a million desperate women a year.

No city can be without him. Few are.

In almost every town there are quacks and butchers with minimal training. Taxi drivers and pharmacists who improvise. Neighbors whose tools are knitting needles, wire coat hangers, and crude catheters.

Scattered across the country and in the larger cities there are a handful of qualified doctors who because of money or ideals or other circumstances have tried to meet the frantic demand for the abortions the hospitals won’t perform.

These men are the stars of the underground abortion circuit. Women travel to Pennsylvania, Florida, Baltimore, or Washington because of the reduced risk to their lives these men represent. Women pass these doctors’ names along as a gesture of friendship and social amenity. Their names appear on experience-tested and approved lists circulated among college girls. The lists also contain tips like whether or not to let the doctor’s receptionist know why you are calling, whether or not to plan to stay overnight, what the best deals on fees are, and usually end by advising the girls — for her emotional well-being — not to go to the abortionist alone.

These lists are often used as the basis for a non-profit referral service. One 21-year-old girl from Long Island has steered 15 friends and friends of friends three times removed to abortionists in the last year. She has received as many as four calls in one week from girls around the country who did not want to become another statistic among the roughly 5000 who are known to die from illegal abortions each year or to risk sterilization at the hands of an incompetent bungler.

The qualified abortionists who make these lists would be respected members of the medical profession in Sweden or Japan or Hungary.

Nathan Rappaport is part of this medical nether world. He has been performing illegal abortions for almost 40 years. An alumnus of City College, a graduate with honors from the University of Arkansas Medical School, with advanced training at the University of Pennsylvania, he spent nine of the past 15 year in jail. He lost his medical license, his home, his wife, and his children. He has been publicly humiliated and exorcised. Ignored on the street by doctors and people he served in his office. And frequently blackmailed.

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$1000 a Month

Two patrolmen in a community where he worked in pay-offs. Surgical nurses, doctors, and various hospital personnel have been paid not to report to authorities abortion patients who needed hospital facilities.

It was because he refused to pay off a couple of hold-up men who kept making repeat visits that the gangsters tipped the police and he was arrested for the first time, in 1950. When he was arrested again, in Florida, the police, always glad to be of service, gave his instruments to another abortionist who was paying off at a higher rate.

On parole since May from his last two-year sentence, Rappaport is living in a no-color green room in a hotel on West 73rd Street. At 66 he is a round man. Round face, round glasses, a pleasantly rounded body.

In a short-sleeved sport shirt that stayed crisp despite the steam-bath atmosphere of the room, he sat before a small kitchen table piled high with a collection of printed materials, a tape recorder, and long sheets of yellow steno paper covered with an ink scrawl. He is in the process of writing his second book.

The Whole Story

The new book will be called “Man’s Inhumanity to Women.” The title tells the whole story. Men made the abortion laws, women suffer because of them.

“If the women had had any hand in shaping the statutes that were put on the books a hundred years ago we would probably have abortion practically on demand the way they do in many European countries,” he said.

Although his first book “The Abortionist” was published by Doubleday under the alias of Dr. X, Rappaport has decided to bring the new book out under his own name now that he is going to fight actively for more liberal abortion laws.

The laws in 42 states now specifically limit abortions to those cases in which it is necessary to save a life. No provision for abortions for health reasons is stated in the New York penal code.

These laws, which are mainly monuments to political fear, will not be changed in the legislatures, Dr. Rappaport believes. He plans to battle through the courts.

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The Legendary Dr. S.

He is currently organizing abortionists, including the legendary Dr. S. of Pennsylvania, who was recently arrested. Rappaport hopes that either through appealing his own case or that of some other doctor to work his way up to the Supreme Court. He is looking for some abortees or sympathizers who would be willing to adopt some of the tactics of the civil-rights movement and join him in battle.

Speaking of his plans, his experience, the books he had read, or the fourth estate, Nathan Rappaport seems an articulate, warm, comfortable man who would be very much in control of most situations.

“You surely must wonder,” he said during the interview, “why I can’t behave like so many other doctors you’ve known. Even in these sordid surroundings you sense that I am above all a doctor. Why can’t I act like a reasonable, intellectual, and professional man?

“The answer on the simplest level is that I am not a reasonable man. The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.

Almost 40 years ago I helped organize planned parenthood clinics. This type of medical practice was looked up on askance then. I felt then, as I do now, that the needs of my patients in their pursuit of happiness and love was of primary importance to me, their physician, and that the wonder of conception, its regulation, postponement, or interruption is wholly a medical problem. It is not the sphere of influence or interpretation of the moralists, religionists, faddists, legalists, or anybody else.

“I don’t want to be forced by them to be a judge when a woman pleads with me for an abortion. I am a doctor who has been trained to answer the cry of distress. My task is to ease the agony of an anguished mind. And, if I cannot persuade the woman to have the child, I want to at least save her body from the mutilation and torture of an operation without the anesthetics the charlatans do not know how to, or dare not, use.

“My refusing to perform the abortion wouldn’t prevent it. A woman determined to have an abortion will find someone to do it or do it herself,” Rappaport said.

Jackson Heights

This man who has ended his medical career as a criminal began it as a law-abiding doctor in Jackson Heights.

“I always believed that competent abortions were essential, but when I first opened my office in 1926 I never thought I could go outside the law to commit them. I sent all my abortion patients to another doctor.

“Two years after I was in practice a relative begged me to perform one and I finally did it on the kitchen table. Then the Depression came. More and more women asked me for abortions because they could not afford to feed another mouth. The collections from my practice had dwindled to almost nothing. There was pressure from my family to take the abortion money. By 1933 I had let the druggist and other doctors know I was available and made abortion my specialty.

“I tried to quit after I got out of prison the first time and just to do something related to medicine. But, with my license revoked and my jail record, I couldn’t get a job anywhere in the world. I was even turned down for a position as a medical aide in Cambodia,” he said.

Over the years of practice on the fringes of the medical world, the fees for his services rose from the $25 of the Depression to an average of $300.

“Like all doctors from time immemorial, I adjusted fees according to the patient’s ability to pay. I have done many abortions free or for very little money, but when I got an affluent patient I charged extra, not a little, but a lot. The rich patients helped pay the graft which is part of the overhead of the business,” Rappaport said.

Even with an average fee of $300, his rates were low. The going price for an illegal abortion these days is about $500 and along Park and Fifth Avenues it can run into the thousands.

In the case of therapeutic abortions performed in hospitals it is common practice, according to Rappaport, to pay a couple of hundred dollars to each of two psychiatrists so they will testify before the board approving the abortions for the hospital. The magic words that can get the legal abortion are, “this woman will take her life if she has to have the baby.”

Sometimes the boards will stretch and bend the interpreta­tion of the abortion law either for humanitarian reasons or, as Rappaport charges, because one or more board members have gotten a little something to remember the applicant by.

Despite the monetary persua­sions that may be used, avail­able statistics report only 8000 legal hospital-approved abortions of the more than a million that take place each year. There were four times as many legal abortions 25 years ago. While the practice of medicine has advanced in almost all other areas it has gone backward in its approach to abortions. Now that doctors have learned how to bring women with almost any illness including kidney disease and cancer successfully through a pregnancy, most of the real medical reasons for legal hospi­tal abortions and the convenient pretexts have been eliminated. More than 25,000 of the women who have been shut out of the hospitals have found their way to Nathan Rappaport’s office in the years since he made his critical choice.

Over 65 per cent of them were married women.

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First Talk

Some were minors. Their par­ents usually came with them. The shared experience often develop­ed a great bond between the parents and child. In some cases it was the first time they really talked to one another.

There were women trying to rid themselves of the guilt of carrying the wrong man’s child or the child of a marriage that was about to break up. There were victims of the worn-out mother syndrome and of rape. Young girls ignorant of contraceptive devices and sophisticated women who, whatever their emotional or psychological reasons, failed to use them. Women too poor to afford another child and women too rich to be bothered.

“Most of those who came to me,” Rappaport said, acted like the guiltiest of criminals; in their own minds they must have been. Yet, much of the guilt is imposed on them by a society that forces them to skulk down dark alleys looking for a doctor and condemns as criminal what is accepted as common in other countries.

“Their decision to come to me was usually an agonizing one. Who then was I to hand down a flat judgment telling them it’s worse to destroy a baby before it’s born than to let it live life as an unwanted, often unloved and neglected child? Or to tell these women they should have their babies and give them up at the time maternal feelings are the strongest, when, especially if Negro, the child can spend its life in an institution waiting to be adopted.

“Once the women got to my office some were unable to face the operation and fled. Filled with old wives’ tales and horror stories, many feared they were about to die. Those who went through with it often were so terrified no amount of assurance I could give them during the preliminary interview did any good.

“I could empathize with their fear. I still faint in the dentist’s chair every time he injects novocaine into my jaw, my way of dying a coward’s thousand deaths.

“Of those I operated on, the least frightened were teenagers. Perhaps because they have not heard enough to be terrorized.

“The bravest to come my way were the Oriental women who submitted to abortions with or without anesthesia, without flinching, their control a marvel to behold.

“But the most casual patient I ever had was a dancer in the Rockettes. She sauntered in for her abortion, rose blithely from the table when it was over, and did a little dance, still dizzy from the anesthesia. A moment later, while my back was turned, she took out a cigarette and lit it. Her lungs were still full of resid­ual ether fumes. Why an explosion did not occur I still don’t understand.”

These women, whose bond was the life they didn’t want or couldn’t have growing inside them, arrived at Nathan Rappa­port’s office like the trains from New York to Washington sched­uled every hour on the hour. He tried to limit the appointments to five a day, but on some week­ends they arrived in droves. Rap­paport has done as many as 27 abortions in one day, and knows of another abortionist who has done 50.

“The actual abortion,” he said, “took me anywhere from five to 20 minutes; depending on how much fetal tissue had to be re­moved and how readily it could be reached. Occasionally an op­eration would last for an hour or longer.”

For women less than three months pregnant he used the standard abortion technique which is known as dilation and curettage or “D and C.” The operation is performed with a small rake-shaped metal instrument used to scrape the walls of the womb.

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Too Dangerous

This method is generally considered too dangerous if used after three months because as the womb enlarges, its musculature thins, making perforation and internal hemorrhaging more likely.

Pregnancies over three months were refused in the early years of Rappaport’s practice. Then he began to use a method which is new to this country but was known in Eastern Europe for some time. The technique involves injecting a salt solution through the abdomen into the amniotic sac enclosing the fetus. Within 24 hours this induces labor and a miscarriage.

Rappaport believes this is an even safer method than the D and C because instruments do not have to be introduced into the body for any length of time.

Unexpected Problems

He always used anesthesia, although it sometimes cause unexpected problems.

“I gave the wife of a young intern sodium pentathol, which also acts as a kind of truth serum. When she came out of the anesthesia she asked if her husband could sit with her in the recovery room. I permitted him to go in and he hovered solicitously by her bed. Leaning over to kiss his wife he said, ‘Darling, I’m so sorry you had to go through all this.’

“She, still under the effects of the anesthesia, blurted out that she didn’t know what he was so worried about because it wasn’t his kid, anyway.

“I didn’t wait to hear his an­swer. I fled back into my office and told my nurse to call me when they left.

“Women who use alcohol or drugs in any amount and don’t tell me when I ask them in the preliminary interview also caused me problems. They often get a high from the anesthesia. They used to fly all over the table with me chasing them, instruments in hand. In most of these cases it was impossible to operate.

Calculate Risk

“Operating on a person outside a hospital is always a calculated risk, no matter how good the technique,”Rappaport said. “In any surgery complication can arise. In a hospital you’re much better prepared for them. You have immediate access to blood banks, additional professional help, and consultations, and almost all the necessary equip­ment and drugs.”

It is because of the ever pres­ent risk which increases as the skill of the abortionist decreases that Rappaport wants even the best of illegal abortionists put out of business by hospitals given the freedom to deal realistically with abortions and the determined women who insist on having them.

Ideally, he would like to do away with all laws limiting hospital abortions because he considers these laws no more relevant or necessary to a medical problem than laws dictating tonsillectomies.

Practically, he wants the laws in this country liberalized at least to the Swedish or Danish level. And maybe even to see abortions covered by Blue Cross.

In addition to granting abortions for medical reasons such as a threat to the mental or physical health or life of the woman he wants them granted for eugenic reasons.

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Mental Deficiencies

Eugenic abortions would include cases in which there are serious mental deficiencies in the parents or the probability of a congenital disease of malformation in the unborn infant. The Sherri Finkbine abortion was granted on eugenic grounds, but she had to travel to Sweden to get the abortion after learning that the Thalidomide she had taken produced monstrously deformed children.

Little Argument

Rappaport also believes there should be little argument about granting abortions on humanitarian grounds to victims of rape or incest, or to girls less than 15 years old. Abortions for general health reasons such as too many chil­dren or children too close to­gether should be permitted, he said.

There are two other general grounds on which he feels abor­tion should be allowed. One is for social reasons — when a woman feels that bearing a child would have disastrous effects on her life because of the stigma society places on the unwed mother and the illegitimate child.

The other is for psychological reasons, when the woman is emotionally unfit to be a mother, does not want the child, or when there seem to be indications that a child raised by the woman will suffer because of her attitude.

“I want to make it absolutely clear,”‘ Rappaport said, “that in no instance would I ever recom­mend an abortion unless the mother herself wanted it. That would be running Hitler a close second. It would not matter how deformed or how psychotic the baby would prove to be, if the mother wanted to give birth, that would be her choice.”

No Deterrent

He does not believe liberalizing the laws will encourage abortions or that the present laws deter them.

“The complicated reasons that drive a woman or a rebellious girl to become pregnant and then to not want her child have absolutely nothing to do with the existence or nonexistence of laws,” he said.

Yet, punitive laws remain on the books.

These laws sentence at least 5000 women a year to death. Degrade others by forcing them to search from pharmacist to laundrywoman to hotel clerk for the abortionists. And make getting a competent abortion the lucky break of the few who have money or who are tipped by the underground referral service to doctors like Nathan Rappaport.

Categories
Equality From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Women’s Movement Is Still Moving

In his postmortem (Village Voice, November 17) on the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in New York State, Pete Hamill set up his defenses against the expected rebuttals by predicting that some women will complain that no man should be allowed to write about the Women’s Movement.

I agree it would have been better if Pete had not rushed into print. Not because he is a man, but because — despite his friendships with me and other feminists — he doesn’t know beans about the Women’s Movement.

I found astonishing his journalistic arrogance in thinking he could reach his verdict prematurely proclaiming the collapse of a national movement simply on the basis of a touching description of a near-deserted headquarters the morning after; quotes from a half-dozen women, some anonymous; a smattering of untrue gossip; and his judgment that women’s issues are of “minor importance” to the working class and that the ERA campaign “divided the Left on grounds of sex.”

There is a great deal of wishful thinking, but very little truth, in the post-election analyses by the Times, Hamill, and assorted TV programs which transmogrified one setback in a long and continuing campaign into a complete rout of the entire Women’s Movement.

Although the hard analysis of the defeat is still being put together by the ERA coalition, a case can be made that it was the very breadth and diversity of the movement that led to a complacency which in turn led to an inadequate campaign. There were, of course, the problems created by an off-year election that brought only a 24 percent turnout of voters in New York City and a larger turnout upstate where there were electoral contests. But, also, many feminists I have talked to since the referendum have told me that because of the impressively broad coalition of groups supporting ERA, including both the Democratic and Republican parties, they felt there was no urgency to get deeply involved in the campaign.

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Much of that broad support turned out to be tokenism. It did not produce enough money to finance a vigorous campaign, or enough concentration of purpose or troops to mount a get-out-the-vote operation. The danger is that the long-term significance of the defeat will be exaggerated by both friends and enemies of the movement and feed what can be a very ugly and emotional aftermath: an attempt to rescind the legislature’s ratification of the federal Equal Rights Amendment which, although it would not stand up in the courts, would have to be fought. Also likely is a renewed and more highly organized attack on abortion rights.

Most of the post-referendum discussion reveals a total ignorance of past women’s struggles, including the century-long battle for women’s suffrage, which encountered on the way to final victory many defeats far worse than what happened in New York a few weeks ago.

Then, as now, women suffragists discovered that the referenda route in the states could be extremely rocky and nonproductive. For years, the suffragists, having met with little success in getting Congress to pass a suffrage amendment to the U. S. Constitution, tried a state-by-state approach, seeking to win some form of suffrage in the individual states.

The biggest defeat was in New York, where the referendum lost by a margin of 194,984 votes. But two years later, a state referendum won handily, and two years after that, the New York legislature almost routinely ratified the federal amendment, which had finally won Senate approval in June 1919.

Then, as now, the press eagerly reported that many women were opposed to having rights extended to them. Men were always able to find some women to speak and demonstrate against suffrage, to accept nominal leadership of the opposition organizations, and to declare that they would never, never think of voting.

The arguments were familiar. Votes for women would destroy the family, make husbands and wives unhappy, leave children unprotected, threaten the economy, undermine religion, and burden women with responsibilities they neither needed nor wanted. Anti-suffrage propaganda centered on the myth of the happy, privileged homemaker who didn’t want to change a thing.

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Similar 19th-century “happy homemakers” doctrine has been assiduously pushed over TV and radio by Phyllis Schlafly, chief spokeswoman for the right-wing-based campaign to stop ERA, who tells us: “American women are a privileged group…beneficiaries of a tradition of respect for women which dates from the Christian age of chivalry [and] the honor and respect paid to Mary, the mother of Christ.”

No doubt many women are contented and creative and fulfilled in their roles as wives and mothers, especially those lucky enough to have high family incomes. I have never criticized women who choose to stay at home to raise families or to engage in nonpaying occupations, because freedom of choice is the heart of the women’s liberation creed.

In the recent New York campaign, the biggest worry of the presumably happy anti-ERA housewives was that they might lose alimony rights, which raised doubts about just how happy some of them are. One of the illuminating facts that never got across in the welter of lies and distortions peddled by Schlafly, Annette Stern, and others is that under current divorce laws alimony is granted in only about 2 percent of permanent divorce settlements, and according to a study done by the Citizens’ Advisory Council on the Status of Women, child support payments “generally are less than enough to furnish half of the support of the children” and “even these small payments are frequently not adhered to.”

Schlafly’s privileged woman concept also ignores the real problems faced by working women whose low seniority status makes them vulnerable in the current recession; minority women, who get the lowest-paying, dirtiest jobs; working mothers who need and usually don’t have access to low-cost or free nurseries for their six million pre-school-age youngsters; homemakers unfortunate enough to be divorced by their husbands before 20 years of marriage (thus losing out on Social Security benefits); thousands of women who get raped (more women than ever before had that “privilege” last year, according to the Justice Department’s latest crime data); gay women, who have problems in employment, housing, and other facets of daily life; and the multitudes of other women who have encountered a variety of discriminatory practices ranging from the picayune (no drinking at the Plaza men’s bar) to massive legal, social, political, and educational discrimination.

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It is understandable that Schlafly and other anti-ERA propagandists perpetuate myths about the real status of women in America. It is also understandable why many women and men, in the absence of an effective statewide campaign by pro-ERA forces, should have fallen for their arguments, especially in the present negative political climate when fear and economic insecurity are dominant.

But it is less understandable why alleged friends of women’s rights seize on the false arguments of ERA opponents to seek to prove, as Hamill does, that ERA is “something out of time, a leftover,” and that “maybe the movement of the Women’s Movement is over.”

To put ERA in perspective, the federal amendment has been ratified by 34 states and has until 1979 to get the necessary ratification by four other states. Fifteen states have enacted state equal rights provisions or amendments to their own constitutions. In none of these states have any of the horrors conjured up by the anti-ERA forces materialized.

Instead, the amendment is providing the framework and impetus for review and reform of hundreds of existing laws to eliminate unequal treatment that primarily victimizes women but also in some also stands as a barrier against enactment of discriminatory legislation.

Under the attorney general opinions interpreting state ERAs, most states have been extending benefits to the excluded group rather than doing away with the benefits. These include such benefits as the right to support or alimony, the right to receive pension benefits based on the employment record or occupation of one’s spouse, the right to use the surname of one’s choice regardless of marriage, and the right to be protected from forcible sexual assault.

In Washington state, reform of divorce laws by eliminating fault grounds was coordinated with efforts to provide non-sex-based economic protection for the homemaking spouse. In Arizona, this was achieved by ERA-based legislation giving spouses equal powers of management and control over community property, which in practice strengthens the protection of most women.

Far from being a “leftover,” ERA is needed on the federal level for the establishment of uniform, nationwide standards of sexual equality. It would provide a firm constitutional commitment to equal rights, free from the present vagaries of subjective court interpretations.

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But what about the Women’s Movement itself? Has it passed its prime, lost its momentum, and been diverted into irrelevancies and elitism, as Hamill claims? Page one stories in the Times about rifts in NOW accentuate the impression that the Women’s Movement is in trouble. In my view, all it shows is that NOW, whose membership has tripled in the past few years, is in the great American political tradition. I have never heard of any movement (except maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses?) that did not along the way develop conflicts, ideologic rifts, factions, unity moves, spinoffs, et cetera. It would be naive to expect unanimity and uniformity from the great, diverse, free-wheeling, explorative surge of personal, social, political, economic, cultural, and educational activity by millions of American women of all classes that is loosely described as “the movement.” Its achievements are indisputable, its influence worldwide, and its momentum is now pushing it into more directions than casual observers could fathom.

Even after the New York defeat, a national Harris Poll showed a 70 to 15 percent majority of Americans in favor of ERA, with 73 percent of women favoring it, compared with a 68 percent majority of men. Similarly, a Gallup Poll in September reported that 71 percent of Americans feel the country would be governed as well or better with more women in public office, and 73 percent said they would vote for a qualified woman for president. New York voters, while defeating ERA, elected 60 percent of the women who ran for various offices around the state, continuing a national trend that has seen the election of thousands of women to local and state office in the past few years. The trend didn’t just happen. It was in response to the “Win With Women” campaign developed by the multipartisan National Women’s Political Caucus, which has been on the scene only since 1971.

The slogan developed by Karen DeCrow supporters in NOW — “Out of the mainstream into the revolution” — is an acknowledgment that many of the movement’s basic goals have been accepted as the goals of a majority of American women, and that vanguard groups feel a need to press on toward larger goals. How many women I’ve met who ritualistically say, “I’m not for women’s lib,” and then add, “of course, I’m for equal pay and job opportunities and things like that.”

They have not yet made the connection that even though we have equal pay laws, we need a movement to get the laws enforced. More and more women are making the connection.

The Women’s Movement wears many different faces, speaks with many different voices, ranging from Betty Ford in the White House to the most avant-garde groups that see undifferentiated man as the enemy. A magazine like McCall’s, still mostly recipes, fiction, fashions, and titillating gossip about Kennedys and Rockefellers, runs as its lead article, “Just a Housewife,” a serious and lengthy report on a weekend conference and workshops sponsored by the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, at which housewives worried about their legal rights and economic problems. In Oakland, Tish Sommers organizes the Association for Displaced Homemakers, in recognition of the rising number of women who find themselves deserted or divorced in middle age. In the House of Representatives, most of the 19 women members now meet regularly in an informal caucus. We have introduced pioneering legislation to provide Social Security benefits to homemakers in their own right. When Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns tried to issue regulations scuttling the recently won Equal Credit Opportunity Act, forbidding discrimination against women in credit cards, mortgages, and loans, 14 of my women colleagues went with me to confront him, and we forced him to back down. On December 10, the House overwhelmingly passed an Abzug-Mink bill authorizing $5 million for conferences in all the states to discuss women’s issues, culminating in a Bicentennial national women’s conference.

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Within the last two years, feminist organizations of black, Puerto Rican, and other Spanish-speaking women have formed. The Coalition of Labor Union Women, launched at a huge conference in Chicago two years ago, works on programs for the 27 percent of AFL-CIO members who are women. In New York, Margie Albert, a CLUW founder, is busy organizing for District 65 women who work, underpaid and underpromoted, in the big publishing firms. A campaign is also underway to unionize the multitudes of women office workers in our city. Baltimore City Councilwoman Barbara Mikulski, feminist Jan Peterson, Italian-American leader Mary Sansone get together to organize ethnic women, and Peterson finds it easier to communicate with Polish-American women because, as a community poverty worker, she helped lead the Northside fight to save their homes in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint. To say the momentum has gone out of the Women’s Movement is like remarking on how calm the ocean is.

I agree with Hamill that the economic crisis probably had an adverse effect on the ERA vote. Men and nonworking women too often see working women as expendable rather than as individuals who need jobs to survive. Responding to the recession, laid-off women workers are beginning to grapple with seniority problems and share-the-work plans. Although these women would undoubtedly be happy to join with men in a militant campaign for full employment and to save New York, few would share Hamill’s optimism that now is the time for women to disband their organizations and put their faith in a textbook class struggle in which suddenly men and women will be comrades together, sexism gone and forgotten.

Let him tell that to the Committee of Female Police Officers, representing the 400 women who were laid off by the New York City Department along with 3600 men as a result of the fiscal crisis. The 400 were two-thirds of all the women in the police force. When 2000 officers were called back, only 20 to 30 women were returned to work. The women, who have filed discrimination complaints against the department, know realistically that their male colleagues are not going to fight to restore the women’s jobs, although 42 percent of the laid-off women have to support themselves, 87 percent contribute at least half the family income, and 22 percent are heads of households and have children to support. The policewomen know that merging their struggle with the male police officers will, in effect, mean submerging their own needs.

Women and men should not have to compete with each other for jobs. They should be working together for a new kind of society that is organized to take care of the basic needs of all people, to provide jobs for all who can work, to offer everyone an opportunity for a decent life. Our chances of getting that kind of society are better with a strong Women’s Movement than without one, a Women’s Movement that even in its more establishment forms is dominated by humanist values and in its more radical forms seeks to move women into active leadership of the forces seeking real change.

Categories
Equality From The Archives Health International Women's Day THE FRONT ARCHIVES

On Abortion

From March 5, 1979

If propaganda is as central to politics as I think, the opponents of legal abortion have been winning a psychological victory as important as their tangible gains. Two years ago, abortion was almost always discussed in feminist terms — as a political issue affecting the condition of women. Since then, the grounds of the debate have shifted drastically; more and more, the right-to-life movement has succeeded in getting the public and the media to see abortion as an abstract moral issue having solely to do with the rights of fetuses.

Recently, Garry Wills wrote a piece suggesting that liberals who defended the snail-darter’s right to life and opposed the killing in Vietnam should condemn abortion as murder. I found this notion breathtaking in its illogic. Environmentalists were protesting not the “murder” of individual snail-darters but the practice of wiping out entire species of organisms to gain a short-term economic benefit; most people who opposed our involvement in Vietnam did so because they believed the United States was waging an aggressive, unjust war. There was no inconsistency in holding such positions and defending abortion on the grounds that women’s welfare should take precedence over fetal life. To claim that three very different issues, each with its own complicated social and political context, all came down to a simple matter of preserving life was to say that all killing was alike and equally indefensible regardless of circumstance. (Why, I wondered, had Wills left out the destruction of hapless bacteria by penicillin?) But aside from the general mushiness of the argument, I was struck by one peculiar fact: Wills had written an entire article about abortion without mentioning women, feminism, sex, or pregnancy.

Since the feminist argument for abortion rights still carries a good deal of moral and political weight, part of the anti-abortionists’ strategy has been to make an end run around it. Although the mainstream of the right-to-life movement is openly opposed to women’s liberation, it has chosen to make its stand on the abstract “pro-life” argument. That emphasis has been reinforced by the movement’s tiny left wing, which opposes abortion on pacifist grounds and includes women who call themselves “feminists for life.” A minority among pacifists as well as right-to-lifers, this group nevertheless serves the crucial function of making opposition to abortion respectable among liberals, leftists, and moderates disinclined to sympathize with a right-wing crusade. Unlike most right-to-lifers, who are vulnerable to charges that their reverence for life does not apply to convicted criminals or Vietnamese peasants, anti-abortion leftists are in a position to appeal to social conscience — to make analogies, however facile, between abortion and napalm. They explicitly disclaim any opposition to women’s rights, insisting rather that the end cannot justify the means — murder is murder.

Well, isn’t there a genuine moral issue here? If abortion is murder, how can a woman have the right to it? Feminists are often accused of evading this question, but in fact an evasion is built into the question itself. Most people understand “Is abortion murder?” to mean “Is the fetus a person?” But fetal personhood is ultimately as inarguable as the existence of God; either you believe in it or you don’t. Putting the debate on this plane inevitably leads to the nonconclusion that it is a matter of one person’s conscience against another’s. From there, the discussion generally moves on to broader questions: whether laws defining the fetus as a person violate the separation of church and state; or conversely, whether people who believe an act is murder have not only the right but the obligation to prevent it. Unfortunately, amid all this lofty philosophizing, the concrete, human reality of the pregnant woman’s dilemma gets lost. And this dilemma, far from being irrelevant or peripheral to the question of whether abortion is murder, is of the essence.

Murder, as commonly defined, is killing that is unjustified, willful, and malicious. Most people would agree, for example, that killing in defense of one’s life or safety is not murder. And most would accept a concept of self-defense that includes the right to fight a defensive war or revolution in behalf of one’s independence or freedom from oppression. Even pacifists make moral distinctions between defensive violence, however deplorable, and murder; no thoughtful pacifist would equate Hitler’s murder of the Jews with the Warsaw Ghetto rebels’ killing of Nazi troops. The point is that it’s impossible to judge whether an act is murder simply by looking at the act, without considering its context. Which is to say that it makes no sense to discuss whether abortion is murder without considering why women have abortions and what it means to force women to bear children they don’t want.

We live in a society that defines child rearing as the mother’s job; a society in which most women are denied access to work that pays enough to support a family, child-care facilities they can afford, or any relief from the constant, daily burdens of motherhood; a society that forces mothers into dependence on marriage or welfare, and often into permanent poverty; a society that is actively hostile to women’s ambitions for a better life. Under these conditions, the unwillingly pregnant woman faces a terrifying loss of control over her fate. Even if she chooses to give up the baby, unwanted pregnancy is in itself a serious trauma. There is no way a pregnant woman can passively let the fetus live; she must create and nurture it with her own body, in a symbiosis that is often difficult, sometimes dangerous, always uniquely intimate. However gratifying pregnancy may be to a woman who desires it, for the unwilling it is literally an invasion — the closest analogy is to the difference between lovemaking and rape. Nor is there such a thing as foolproof contraception. Clearly, abortion is by normal standards an act of self-defense.

Whenever I make this case to a right-to-lifer, the exchange that follows is always substantially the same:

RTL: If a woman chooses to have sex, she should be willing to take the consequences. We must all be responsible for our actions.
EW: Men have sex, without having to “take the consequences.”
RTL: You can’t help that — it’s biology.
EW: You don’t think a woman has as much right as a man to enjoy sex? Without living in fear that one slip will transform her life?
RTL: She has no right to selfish pleasure at the expense of the unborn.

It would seem, then, that the nitty-gritty issue in the abortion debate is not life but sex. The logic of the right-to-life position is that women’s destiny is properly determined by their reproductive function; that women’s demand for freedom and equality is inherently selfish and immoral. Whatever else one may say of such attitudes, they are surely antifeminist. I’ll elaborate on this next column.

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From April 2, 1979

Years ago, in an interview with Paul Krassner in The Realist, Ken Kesey declared himself against abortion. Krassner asked if his objection applied to victims of rape. Kesey replied — I may not be remembering the exact words, but I will never forget the substance — “Just because another man planted the seed, that’s no reason to destroy the crop.” To this day I have not heard a more eloquent or chilling metaphor for the essential premise of the right-to-life movement: that a woman’s excuse for being is her womb. It is an outrageous irony that anti-abortionists are managing to pass off this profoundly immoral idea as a noble moral cause.

Though every poll shows that most Americans favor legal abortion, it is evident that many nominal supporters of choice are confused and disarmed, if not convinced, but the anti-abortionists’ absolutist fervor. No one likes to be accused of advocating murder. Yet the “pro-life” position is based on a crucial fallacy — that the question of fetal rights can be isolated from the question of women’s rights. As I pointed out last month, the claim that abortion is murder is more than a claim that fetuses are people; implicit in it is the judgment that destroying fetal life cannot be a legitimate act of self-defense against the physical, psychic, social, and economic trauma of unwanted pregnancy and motherhood. But if the fetus is sacrosanct, it follows that women must be continually vulnerable to the invasion of their bodies and loss of their freedom and independence — unless they are willing to resort to the only foolproof contraceptive, abstinence. This is precisely the “solution” right-to-lifers suggest, often in righteous language about taking responsibility for one’s actions, usually with a touch of glee; as Representative Elwood Rudd once put it, “If a woman has a right to control her own body, let her exercise control before she gets pregnant.” A common ploy is to compare fucking to overeating or overdrinking, the idea being that pregnancy is a just punishment, like obesity or cirrhosis.

In 1979, it is depressing to have to insist that sex is not an unnecessary, morally dubious self-indulgence but a basic human need, no less for women than for men. Of course, for heterosexual women giving up sex also means doing without the love and companionship of a mate. (Presumably, married women who have had all the children they want are supposed to divorce their husbands or convince them that celibacy is the only moral alternative.) “Freedom” bought at such a cost is hardly freedom at all, and certainly not equality — no one tells men that if they aspire to some measure of control over their lives they are welcome to neuter themselves and become social isolates. The don’t-have-sex argument is really another version of the familiar antifeminist dictum that autonomy and femaleness — that is, female sexuality — are incompatible; if you choose the first you lose the second. But to pose this choice is not only inhumane; it is as deeply disingenuous as “Let them eat cake.” No one, least of all the anti-abortion movement, expects or wants significant numbers of women to give up sex and marriage. Nor are most right-to-lifers willing to allow abortion for rape victims. When all the cant about “responsibility” is stripped away, what the right-to-life position comes down to is, if the effect of prohibiting abortion is to keep women slaves to their biology, so be it.

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In their zeal to preserve fetal life at all costs, anti-abortionists are ready to grant fetuses more legal protection than people. If a man attacks me and I kill him, I can plead self-defense without having to prove that I was in danger of being killed rather than injured, raped, or kidnapped. But in the annual congressional battle over what if any exceptions to make to the Medicaid abortion ban, the House of Representatives has bitterly opposed the funding of abortions for any reason but to save the pregnant woman’s life. Some right-to-lifers argue that even the danger of death does not justify abortion; others have suggested “safeguards” like requiring two or more doctors to certify that the woman’s life is at least 50 percent threatened. Anti-abortionists are forever worrying that any exception to a total ban on abortion will be used as a “loophole”: better that any number of women should ruin their health or even die than that one woman should get away with not having a child “merely” because she doesn’t want one. Clearly this mentality does not reflect equal concern for all life. Rather, anti-abortionists value the lives of fetuses above the lives and welfare of women, because at bottom they do not concede women the right to an active human existence that transcends their reproductive function. The earth is not supposed to choose which crops it will or will not grow — or to decide that no one is going to walk all over it.

The conservatives who dominate the right-to-life movement have no real problem with the antifeminism inherent in their stand; their evasion of the issue is a matter of public relations. But the politics of the small group of activists who oppose abortion in the name of radical pacifism — including the so-called “feminists for life” — are a study in self-contradiction: in attacking what they see as the violence of abortion, they condone and encourage violence against women. Forced childbearing does violence to a woman’s body and spirit, and it contributes to other kinds of violence: deaths from illegal abortion; the systematic oppression of mothers and women in general; the poverty, neglect, and battering of unwanted children.

Radicals supposedly believe in attacking a problem at its roots. Yet surely it is obvious that restrictive laws do not keep women from seeking abortions; they just create an illicit, dangerous industry. The only way to drastically reduce the number of abortions — and I know of no feminist who would not agree that the fewer abortions needed, the better — is to invent safer, more reliable contraceptives, ensure universal access to all birth control methods, eliminate sexual ignorance and guilt, and change the social and economic conditions that make motherhood a trap. Anyone who is truly committed to fostering life should be fighting for women’s liberation instead of harassing and disrupting abortion clinics (hardly a nonviolent tactic, since it threatens the safety of patients). The “feminists for life” do talk a lot about ending the oppression that drives so many women to abortion; in practice, however, they are devoting all their energy to increasing it.

Despite its numerical insignificance, the anti-abortion left epitomizes the hypocrisy of the right-to-life crusade. Its need to wrap misogyny in the rhetoric of social conscience and even feminism is actually a perverse tribute to the women’s movement; it is no longer acceptable to declare openly that women deserve to suffer for the sin of Eve. I suppose that’s progress — not that it does the victims of the Hyde Amendment much good.

At noon on Saturday, March 31, there will be a march for abortion rights and against sterilization abuse, sponsored by the March 31 Coalition for Reproductive Rights. Marchers will assemble at the UN, walk past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and end up at a rally in Union Square.

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Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES The Harpy

Donald Trump and the Coming War on Women’s Rights

The history of women in America before Roe v. Wade is a history of blood.

When Caroline had an abortion in 1963, she went alone to a “ramshackle little house” in a disreputable neighborhood of Youngstown, Ohio. Later, in her college dormitory, she labored for twelve hours, alone, and began to bleed uncontrollably. “There was more blood than I ever imagined,” she told the Cut. When, at last, she overcame her fear of seeing a doctor for the aftereffects of the abortion, she was told her life had been at risk.

A reader of Ms. recalled his mother telling him that, after an illegal abortion in her teens, she bled so profusely that her boyfriend at the time collected newspapers for her to sit on, as she waited out the pain in a hotel room, unable to seek medical care without facing potential criminal charges. 

In 2018, after decades of erosion, the last levee protecting reproductive rights in the U.S. seems poised to break. The impending retirement of Anthony Kennedy, and his imminent replacement with a Trump-appointed Supreme Court judge, seems to portend the end of Roe v. Wade, which struck down anti-abortion laws in forty-six states and the District of Columbia in 1973.

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The United States government, seeking to restrict women’s reproductive rights, is bucking a global trend, as countries that have criminalized abortion for decades begin to ease their stringent laws in the face of determined feminist outcry.

Just two months ago, across the Atlantic, women all over Ireland rose up in celebration of a hard-won victory: By an overwhelming margin, the country’s 3.2 million registered voters supported a referendum to overturn a 1983 constitutional amendment that effectively outlawed abortion. From as far away as Sydney and Tokyo and Los Angeles, members of the Irish diaspora returned home to vote on May 25 in favor of a woman’s right to choose, detailing their journeys on social media. The voters, arriving to the whoops of supportive crowds, served as a direct parallel to the women who for decades took lonely journeys out of their home country to get abortions.

“We have voted to provide compassion where there was once a cold shoulder, and to offer medical care where once we turned a blind eye,” Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said in a speech the morning the results were announced.

Last month, in Argentina, a bill to decriminalize abortion narrowly passed the lower chamber of that nation’s Congress, and is currently under debate in the Argentinian Senate. The decriminalization campaign was driven by a multiyear wave of feminist activism, in a movement entitled “Ni Una Menos (Not One Less),” that has demanded a stop to the needless deaths of women at the hands of male partners and as a result of unsafe illegal abortions. Argentina’s vote comes just under a year after Chile voted to reverse its absolute prohibition on abortion, despite vehement opposition from Catholic groups in that country.

In Argentina, jubilant crowds of women in city squares celebrated the passage of the decriminalization bill, wearing the signature green bandanas of Argentina’s abortion rights movement; in Ireland, videos of women weeping with joy at the referendum’s outcome flooded social networks.

Here in the United States, the mood among women’s rights advocates is justly somber. With more than 60 percent of the public indicating, in recent polls, that they wish to see the decision remain intact, the coalition in charge of the government seems to be salivating to fully strip women of access to abortion, at which a series of increasingly restrictive state laws has already chipped away. The legal groundwork for a challenge to Roe is already being laid. In Iowa, Louisiana, and Mississippi, state legislatures have advanced strict limits on abortion that could wind up being the instruments in a Supreme Court case — one decided by a conservative majority.

This prospect is the fulfillment of an official promise by the administration. In February, Vice President Mike Pence told the Susan B. Anthony List & Life Issues Institute, an anti-abortion group, that a change to “the center of American law” would happen “in our time.” Now it’s July, and that time seems near at hand.

But a change in the law is only that. It doesn’t change human nature —  or desire, or love, or desperation, or disease, or loss.

There are as many ways to get pregnant as there are to have sex: in bliss, in recklessness, in despair, in traumatic circumstances. The end of legal abortion in states across the country won’t end rape or domestic abuse; it won’t create more money in families’ budgets for more children; it won’t make birth control more effective or affordable. The end of legal abortion doesn’t mean the end of the consumption of alcohol or drugs; it doesn’t mean the end of heated trysts on stairways and in offices and parking lots and narrow, overheated bedrooms. There were extramarital affairs before 1973 and there will be extramarital affairs after Roe is overturned. The end of legal abortion is merely the end of legal abortion. It won’t change the number of wombs yearly inseminated in this country. 

But when Roe is overturned, more women will die.

There will be unwanted pregnancies carried to term with severe complications or postpartum infections. There will be knitting needles and coat hangers and off-label pills. There will be secret decisions, with a bank balance open and a tear in the heart; there will be fledgling careers to preserve, marriages to save, traumas to expunge. There will be herbs, forceful massage, a sudden fall down a flight of stairs. And some of the women who do what they feel they must will die. Every year, across the world, nearly 70,000 women die as a result of complications from unsafe abortions. A country without legal abortion is not a country without abortion. It’s just a country in which more women die.

To know this is to know that what we face is a long walk into the dark, in the cynical, silencing, hideous, hypocritical name of the “sanctity of life.”

And the true cruelty of such laws becomes more clear when you know — as we know, because history is open to us such as it never has been before, a few taps of a keyboard away — that such laws always, always, always spare the wealthy.

There are planes to different states, just a few hundred dollars away. There are other countries with sterile, friendly clinics for the right man’s mistress, the right man’s wife, the right man’s daughter. There will be salvation, for those who can afford it, in the guise of a well-timed vacation to Europe or Canada.

For millions of American women, Roe v. Wade has already been functionally overturned. More than 400 state laws have been passed to restrict abortion since 2010, when a wave of conservative legislators and governors took power. The theoretical existence of a right means little to those who have no ability to act upon it —  those who lack the financial ability or personal flexibility to travel long distances to receive access to abortion care. There is one abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi, for a population of almost 3 million. Mississippi has one of the highest pregnancy-related mortality rates in the United States, and it is rising.

What’s more: Every law in the United States is enforced unevenly across racial lines. Anti-abortion laws won’t buck that trend. What woman is punished and what woman goes free; what woman lives, what woman dies; what woman can feed her children and what woman cannot — in America, little about these answers is incidental.

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It’s difficult to know all this without feeling pure doom; difficult to look at your belly and know that its flesh will be beyond your control, that the soft, yielding, and familiar terrain of your own body will be bound by laws made by men who know their actions might cause you to die, and who do not care.

But all along the long, dark walk we face, there will be those who risk everything to help, in the tradition of those who have battled unjust governance throughout history. There will be women who fight in the streets and in the courts and in state legislatures. There are already networks of abortion funds, some hyper-local, some national, that finance the secret trips and the stays in the motels and the bus tickets and the plane tickets and the journeys home. There are open purses ready to pay the price for a woman not to have a child if she doesn’t want to. There will be women who swap abortifacient recipes; there will be, as there were before Roe, midwives and chiropractors and family doctors who will perform the procedure nearly a quarter of American women have already experienced, in secret, and under legal threat. Perhaps there will be a revival of the secret feminist network that provided underground abortions to the women of Chicago: All you had to do was pick up the phone, dial a certain numberand ask for Jane.

In time, and after many deaths, and irreversible losses; after blood, and pain, and shame, and careers prematurely ended, and women killed for getting pregnant, and women dying in childbirth, the ban — like Ireland’s and Chile’s — will be lifted. Any path to legislative reversal on the subject will be paved with women’s bodies. We know this. The “sanctity of life” touted by opponents of abortion is extended to an embryo but not to the woman who carries it. And that’s why, despite the seeming inevitability of a federal ban on abortion, women and the men who fuck them and love them will fight to the end; and if and when such a ban is imposed, we will claw our way out of that darkness, until we walk in free bodies again.

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Equality NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Iranian Technology, Gays, Women’s Suffrage All Credited With Causing Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy was caused by Iranian technology that’s capable of controlling weather patterns to punish Iran’s enemies and the enemies of its friends. The reason the storm hit New York so hard is because God is punishing the Empire State for defying his word and allowing gay people to get married.

But what really caused the storm was “American arrogance” — it’s just nature’s way of giving the U.S. a “divine slap” for its godless policies, including allowing women to vote.

Those are just a few of the theories laid out on the blogosphere by morons who unfortunately are allowed Internet access.

The Iranian technology theory is provided by a pro-Syria group that claims Iran has “highly advanced technology” that can manipulate weather and create “superstorms” to hurt its enemies.

The best part: The group has “sources.”

“Sources confirmed to us that Hurricane Sandy that is slamming the U.S. was set off by highly advanced technologies developed by the heroic Iranian regime that supports the resistance, with coordination of our resistive Syrian regime,” the News Network of the Syrian Armed Forces posted on its Facebook page this week, according to a CNN translation.

The worst part is some people actually are buying this bullshit.

“Why are you surprised by such a heroic act that our special forces carried out with the help of the Iranian experts?,” one person commented. “Yes this is the great work of the brave lions of Syria in retaliation to the evil conspiracy against our great nation. We will have our victory even if it will take some time.”

As for the gays causing the hurricane, the logic is simple: God is punishing America because if its “pro-homosexual” policies.

“Obama is 100 percent behind the Muslim Brotherhood which has vowed to destroy Israel and take Jerusalem. Both candidates are pro-homosexual and are behind the homosexual agenda. America is under political judgment and the church does not know it!,” religious nutjob/total fucking idiot chaplain John McTernan wrote in a rambling, idiotic blog posted on his website this week.

Of course, if you want the real reason the Northeast was hit with a crushing hurricane, look no further than Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

“The fact that Ohio housewives will determine who should occupy the White House to decide on such weighty issues as dealing with the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear program or U.S. relations with Russia is quite amusing, and revealing,” a blogger for Crescent International — which bills itself as the newsmagazine of the Islamist movement — wrote earlier this week.

“This is what American democracy is all about. But for now, Hurricane Sandy, as a divine slap on the face of arrogance, is smashing its way through the Eastern Coast of the U.S.”

So there you have it — if you were wondering why your car was devoured by the East River, you have no electricity, or why New Jersey is still underwater, the fringe lunatics of the blogosphere have your answer.

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Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Augusta National Finally Allows Female Members: Historic Or Humiliating?

The Augusta National Golf Club joined the 19th century yesterday when it announced that it’s finally admitted two female members to the previously all-male club, which has many applauding the club’s decision to finally end its ban on penis-ly challenged members.

Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore will become the first female members to break through the old-boy barrier. Just so we’re clear, it’s currently 2012.

“This is a joyous occasion,” Augusta National chairman Billy Payne says
in a statement released yesterday. “We are fortunate to consider many
qualified candidates for membership at Augusta National…. It will be a
proud moment when we present Condoleezza and Darla their green jackets
when the club opens this fall. This is a significant and positive time
in our club’s history and, on behalf of our membership, I wanted to take
this opportunity to welcome them and all of our new members into the
Augusta National family.”

While Payne may find the club’s decision to end its “male only” policy “joyous” and “proud,” we find it to be more insulting and humiliating.

Again, it’s 2012. Women have been allowed to vote in this country for nearly 100 years, and have all the same rights as men under the constitution — this isn’t Saudi Arabia. It seriously took some hillbilly golf club more than 80 years to get with the program?

If we were Rice and Moore, we’d take our green jackets, pop a squat directly over them, and tell the boys at Augusta “thanks, but no thanks.”

That’s our opinion, of course — but we want to know what you think: is the club’s allowing women members historic or humiliating?

Cast your vote below.