Women's March in Raleigh
Sunday, January 29, 2017
I got out of bed shortly after I heard my kids emerge from their room. I had failed, yet again, to get up before them to write, to run, to read. For the past year almost, I have felt defeated, rarely writing, running inconsistently and never reading as much as I probably should be. One day turns into two and two to four and so on and so forth, and the longer I put it off the scarier and harder it becomes. But as I heard my seven year old begin her work on her poster, which she decided would read: "Stand for what's right, even if you're standing alone," I suddenly found a little bit of motivation I didn't previously have. I got up, ignored the messes prevalent in our apartment, poured them their Froot Loops and Life cereal, and got to work on my poster, too. Begin somewhere, right? Even if it feels stupid and pointless and unrelated and hard. Movement leads to more movement.
The posters were for the Women's March on January 21, 2017. I had agonized over whether or not I should make the five hour drive up to attend the D.C. March with my oldest, Evelyn, from North Carolina. In the end, I decided to stay local, attending the sister March in Raleigh with an estimated 17,000 other people, so that all three of my kids could attend and observe, and so that I wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel on the five hour trek back from D.C.
Regardless, I felt it was important to do something, to take some sort of action. Inaction felt like it wasn't an option. And yet, I also couldn't help wondering: are we actually accomplishing anything? Am I only here because I don't want to be accused of being on the wrong side of history or because everyone else is here, because it's what is trending and popular and lots of celebrities are joining in, too? It could be argued that walking throughout one's city in the company of many, many other like minded individuals is not proactive or effectual or even brave, but rather a way to make ourselves feel like activists before getting back to the day in and day out of commuting and coffee, meetings and marketing and for me, motherhood. Follow up action, even if only a vow to keeping ourselves well informed, is crucial. But that day, that moment, I believe it held meaning in and of itself. It did for me. There is something inherently symbolic and powerful and emotional about the collective gathering of millions of people worldwide in a united cause—that cause being that a large swath of the country feels misrepresented by our newest President and wary of the example he sets and fearful of the direction he seems poised to take us in, which can and will have global effects. In spite of that fear, I still felt this collective energy and emotion in my bones and chest and lungs today as we drove into downtown Raleigh, which was hugged by a thick layer of fog as protestors carried their signs and wore their pink hats and held their kids' hands and snaked their way towards Lafayette Street. There were Star Wars themed posters: "This is a rebellion isn't it? I rebel." There were funny ones: "OMG GOP WTF?!" and "We Shall Over Comb" and, "Melania! Blink Twice if You Need Help!" And then there were more sobering messages: "The Kids Are Watching."
As we waited to begin walking, a stranger asked if it was ok to take a picture of Theo and his poster, which had the values of Galatians 5 written on it (love joy peace patience kindness goodness faithfulness gentleness self control). I said sure, and Theo then turned towards the man, smiling, as he held his sign upside down. This tickled Evelyn, who broke into giggles. Sophie just wanted to be held, overwhelmed by the crowd. After standing with said crowd for a few minutes, I noticed something that I initially thought strange: an absence of police. But the gathering was peaceful, joyous even, the lack of a large police presence did not prove to be a problem as far as I could tell.
As we began to move forward a few steps at a time, I became aware of a fringe protest taking place along the edge of the larger protest. A man stood up above the crowd wearing a microphone and holding a bible, while a few others held signs with pictures of baby profiles in vitro on them. The group around me began to chant, drowning out whatever the man with the microphone was trying to say: "My body, my choice! Your body, your choice!" I did not join in, not because I and every other women shouldn't have the right to make decisions about our own bodies, but because when it comes to pregnancy, there are at least two bodies to consider. And yet, there is conflict even within that. There is no doubt in my mind that moments before a woman gives birth, that is a baby in her belly, another body. I am going to assume that most rational people would agree with that statement. But would we consider a zygote a body? Does a single cell have a soul? If not, where do we draw the line? For some, it doesn't matter so much that a zygote is not yet a fully formed body and may not yet have a soul, but that it is the starting point of life and has the potential for a body and a soul, akin to a seed in the ground. For others, it is quite a grey area of when exactly a fetus gains personhood. These are important, weighty and difficult questions, but we have to lean in.
Upon leaning in, I've confirmed what I thought: I'm not ready to write an essay on abortion. I need to read more and think more and learn more about the intersectional, complicated web of factors that go into why unintended pregnancies happen. There are some obvious answers: the horrifying reality of rape/incest and the failure of birth control. But I believe that there are also more nuanced reasons, and I wonder about the effects of simply and merely outlawing abortion without addressing any of the underlying causes. I'm not as interested in the question of should abortion be illegal or not (thought it's an important one), but rather, why do women feel the need to have an abortion in the first place? What factors contribute to this? What can be done to alleviate the stressors that lead women to the conclusion that they need an abortion? Is birth control readily available for those that want it? Are government programs the answer? Part of the answer? Is it the breakdown of the family unit? If so, what is contributing to that? I wonder about the rate at which black men are incarcerated. I wonder why the United States has the least effective and least helpful laws in place amongst developed countries when it comes to maternity (and paternity) leave. I wonder what I would say to the 12 or 13 year old girl who's been raped by her cousin and now carries the reminder of that horror inside of her, literally. Is it the fault of the baby? Of course not. But clearly, this is not a simple, clean and easy issue to consider when it is considered from all angles, now just our own.
What I thought I knew, is not necessarily so, on both sides of the argument. For example, in a study run by the Lancet Medical Journal in May of 2016 that studied abortion incidence between 1990 and 2014, it states that: "Abortion rates are not substantially different across groups of countries classified according to the grounds under which abortion is legally allowed. The level of unmet need for contraception is higher in countries with the more restrictive abortion laws than in countries with the most liberal laws, and this contributes to the incidence of abortion in countries with restrictive laws." The conclusion seems simple: less restrictions and more access to birth control. But then I read this in the New York Times by Ross Douthat, in which he's replying to a question about if and how illegal abortion can be prevented: "Abortion cannot be absolutely prevented, no. But there are good reasons to think that restrictions and bans, do, in fact, reduce the abortion rate much more substantially than you suggest. The comparison you make to Brazil, like other comparisons between the developed and developing worlds, actually tells us very little about what abortion restrictions would look like in a society like the United States. (Brazil's murder rate is more than five times as high as ours, but that doesn't prove that laws against homicide can't reduce murder rates.) AsI've argued many time before, if you compare like to like—wealthy countries to wealthy countries, U.S. states to U.S. states—there's plenty of evidence that abortion restrictions do, in fact, lead to considerably lower abortion rates overall. To take only the most obvious example: the country with the second-lowest abortion rate in Europe is Ireland, which has an outright ban, and that low rate includes the Irish women who go the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe for abortions; even then, the Irish abortion rate is one-fifth the rate in Sweden, and one-fourth the rate in the U.K."
Still, that being said, I tend to think that slapping a restriction on someone without making sure they have the tools needed to function under that restriction is like planting flowers on top of weeds in an effort to forget about the weeds and just hope that the flowers fend for themselves. It is short-sighted, lazy and fails to get the crux of the dilemma. Despite all the questions, I can say two things for certain: first, in the case where the mother's life is in danger, I believe that conversation should be between her and her doctors, as two lives are in jeopardy; and second, both sides of the argument could benefit from taking some time to listen to the other viewpoint if we want any progress to happen. Pro-lifers screaming about how pro-choicers are murderers isn't helping anything, and pro-choicers condescendingly referring to pro-lifers as anti-women is also falling on deaf ears. The extreme polarization has to stop.
As I thought through all of this, I felt the tension rise up in me, reminding me that this was part of the reason I felt conflicted in the first place about attending at all. Yet the tension is where the story lives and where growth happens, if we would just dig into rather than resist it, ignore it, bury it, yell over it. Evelyn's sign felt more relevant all of the sudden: "Stand for what's right, even if you're standing alone."
And still…what is right? What is truth? Can we say: you live your truth and I'll live mine, and leave it at that, ignoring that doing so undermines the whole premise of what truth is supposed to be: universal. Yet, it is also true that some truths change depending on the setting, the situation, the circumstances, the intent. Sometimes kindness towards my kids is soft and fun and takes the form of ice cream for dinner, but other times kindness looks like tears as I send them to time out. Killing does not always equate with murder, depending on circumstances and intent. It feels like almost everything is a shade of something on the spectrum of good, bad, right and wrong. I don't have the answers, but that's not the point of writing this, or the reason why I marched. The point is to keep pushing, keep talking, keep learning, keep reading, keep challenging our own ideas about what is right and wrong.
The Women's March was not and is not a perfect cause, simply because it is made up of impassioned but imperfect human beings, as is the case with every beating heart. There is certainly tension in the cause, just like there was tension and deep contradiction within the cause for liberty in 1776. The very men who were demanding and fighting for freedom from England failed to see the cruel irony and their own hypocrisy—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness only applied to white men. Stephen Ambrose writes: "Washington, Jefferson, Clark among them [owned slaves] but not Adams. They failed to rise above their time and place, though Washington (but not Jefferson) freed his slaves. But history abounds with ironies. These men, the founding fathers and brothers, established a system of government that, after much struggle, and the terrible violence of the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement led by black Americans, did lead to legal freedom for all Americans and a movement toward equality." Movement leads to more movement.
Though imperfect and contradictory even, perhaps what the Women's March represents is a continuation of the likewise flawed but necessary Revolution of 1776—a honing of the ideals as to what life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness means and looks like. I would argue that this battle is harder in some senses, because in the eyes of the law, we are all equal (except, of course, refugees and ultimately, I would argue—those still in the womb). Slavery is now no longer legal, but the repercussions still reverberate. And yes, I can now vote, but by virtue of what is between my legs, my opinion is worthless. Just the other day, when discussing immigration and the wall and refugees, I was appealing to one's sense of compassion and empathy (human traits, by the way), and was promptly dismissed as being too emotional and incapable of seeing and understanding reason. I call bullshit. That little exchange is not unique, and I know I am not alone. And so that is why I marched. If I am not seen as equal to those in power, how can I adequately fight and speak up for those who have even less of a voice than myself? I marched because we are fighting ideas and attitudes rooted in fear and judgment, lacking any and all nuance. We are pushing back against a leader that does not realize that humility and compassion are signs of strength, not weakness, and one that does not value freedom of expression, indeed he wants to snuff it out unless it lines up with his version of reality. I marched because we are fighting a president that views women as commodities at best and disposable at worst, one that does not view different as equal, but dangerous and less than. We are challenging a president that does not read and is not thoughtful, but rather, wants to be entertained.
Yes, we have come far from the days of 1776, but no, the work is not over. Far from it. We need to rise up, wise up, get our eyes up.