because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Changing The Things I Cannot Accept: Time To Fight For Feminism, Ladies

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Feminism in Buffalo, New York, circa 1992. I am, of course, the one in the hat.  

In 1991, I landed my first job, teaching 3rd grade English as a Second Language. Kathy, the teacher with whom I worked, was smart, generous, kind, and warmhearted. She treated every child equally. She arranged the desks in neighborhoods and talked about community responsibilities. She bedazzled her bulletin boards and spent a lot of time doing little things she believed mattered to her students.

In the spring of 1992, as the debate over Roe v. Wade heated up, an event was planned in front of Buffalo’s GYN/Women Services. My friends and I agreed it was our obligation to ensure that women were able to make their appointments free from harassment from the notorious rabble-rousers who were coming to town. After all, GYN/Women Services provided prenatal care and regular obstetrics appointments for its many patients. It was not a killing field. It was a medical office that mainly provided routine office procedures like breast exams and pap smears in addition to providing legal abortions.

I attended the rally with two friends.

People screamed at each other from both sides of the street, on both sides of the issue. I didn’t like the things the Pro-Choice people were chanting: things like “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries,” and offensive rhymes which dragged religion into the issue. My friends and I didn’t have a problem with anyone’s religious practices, and we didn’t want to be associated with all that noise.

So we walked across the street to CVS and bought electrical tape, and we taped our mouths shut.

Reporters and photographers were busy looking for that one cool angle, that one interesting image.

Their camera lenses landed on us.

When our picture was published in LIFE magazine, I brought a copy to school to show Kathy, my teacher-friend. I wanted to talk to her about the caption, which read “Women tape their mouths shut to represent the Silent Majority who favor safe, legal abortion” — and explain how that didn’t quite capture the whole story. I wanted to tell her how — at the end of the day — when the news vans with their giant satellite dishes had driven away, I felt used, like a pawn in someone else’s chess game. How it had occurred to me everyone had an agenda and we, women, had been pitted one against the other by religious leaders and politicians, by media spokespeople who encouraged participants from both sides of the street to shout louder when their cameras were rolling.

Kathy squinted at me coolly.

“We were on different sides of the street that day,” she said.

Kathy and I worked side by side for the rest of the year, but our interactions were different. I learned so much from her: how to treat children with dignity, how to walk the fine line between friend and disciplinarian, how to integrate non-native speakers of English into the larger class: so many things. I wanted to make things right.

I tried to talk to her about her feelings regarding reproductive rights — I believed we could find some middle ground — but Kathy held up her hand.

“We’ll have to agree to disagree,” she said, shutting down my attempts at dialogue.

I never realized an issue could be so divisive that it could destroy a friendship.

Lately, when I watch the news I feel like I’m back in the 1990’s.

Issues and rights I thought long settled are being challenged again.

But this time around, it’s not only reproductive rights that are being challenged.

This time, the rhetoric is more ominous as basic human rights are being challenged.

As a feminist, I believe in reproductive freedom, and I will never accept federal, state or local rollbacks/cuts or restrictions to our access to quality healthcare services, birth control, HIV/AIDS care and prevention, or medically accurate sexuality education.

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I may be older, but my core values remain the same in 2017. 

I believe all women are free and able to care for and nurture themselves and their families, however they are formed, in safe and healthy environments. I believe women deserve to live full and healthy lives, free from all forms of violence against our bodies.

I believe it is our obligation to protect the rights of all people, including our gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender or gender non-conforming brothers and sisters.

I believe in an economy governed by transparency, accountability, security and equity; that all workers must be paid equitably with access to affordable childcare, sick days, healthcare, healthy work environments, and paid family leave. I believe civil rights are our birthrights. This includes voting rights, freedom to worship without fear of intimidation, harassment, freedom of speech for all citizens regardless of race, gender, age or disability.

I believe every person and every community has the right to clean water, clean air, and access to and enjoyment of public lands. I believe our climate must be protected, that our land and natural resources cannot be exploited for gain or greed, especially at the risk of public safety and health.

Twenty-five years ago, people kept their politics pretty quiet. But, with the advent of social media, people have become much more open about their political leanings.

I’ve taken the electrical tape off my mouth.

Now is not the time to be silent, friends.

Decades of polite silence has created a divided country.

We have to start having these uncomfortable conversations if we ever hope to move forward as a country.

I’m fortunate to have nurturing relationships with women of every race, class, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, and religious practice. My life is enriched daily by the interactions that I have with these women. We laugh and cry together. We share food and we share stories. We celebrate each other’s successes and hold each up during dark times.

Why wouldn’t I want everyone to have the same inalienable rights that I enjoy?

Who would have thought that twenty-five years later the personal would be so political… again?

Have your relationships changed as a result of political differences? If not, how have you managed to make it through the election season without any shift in friendships?

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