by Mary Lou Singleton
I’ll never forget the excitement I felt the day I came home and found a note from my husband saying, “Joan from Stop Patriarchy called.” Before this, I had no idea that a group called Stop Patriarchy existed, but I did know immediately that I wanted to talk to these people. Earlier in the year I had signed my name to an online statement of support for abortion on demand and without apology. Stop Patriarchy was the group behind this statement and they were now calling to tell me about their other efforts. I put down the pile of work I had brought home from work, picked up the phone and called Joan from Stop Patriarchy. I proceeded to have the most refreshing feminist conversation I had had in many years. At one point in the conversation, I lamented that President Obama had done little to nothing to stop the erosion of abortion rights happening all over the country. Joan replied that Obama was a very patriarchal politician and gave examples from his speeches and behaviors. Still operating from a mode of believing that the Democratic party could save women from this mess, I made another comment about how much I missed the Clintons, who I had perceived to be much more vocally supportive of abortion rights than the current administration. Joan explained to me how much moral ground had been ceded to the anti-abortion forces when Bill Clinton began declaring that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare. Before talking to Joan from Stop Patriarchy, I had never heard someone from an abortion rights group speak about the need to stop apologizing about abortion. That conversation changed me. I moved from thinking that I needed to follow the leadership of the professional pro-choice lobby, continuing to be meek and apologetic when talking about abortion, to understanding that without the right to abortion on demand, women are not free. The fight for abortion rights is a fight for the fundamental liberation of women from patriarchal control and under the guidance of the Democratic Party and the professional left, women are losing this fight.
My second encounter with the name Stop Patriarchy came in the form of another phone call, again from someone named Joan. This Joan was calling on behalf of the Albuquerque professional pro-choice coalition to warn me about a dangerous group coming to town. She was calling to tell me to stay away from Stop Patriarchy.
Some background to this phone call may be in order. Last year, Operation Rescue and its affiliate misogynist groups descended on my town and were terrorizing doctors and midwives. The Operation Rescue children’s auxiliary, who call themselves the Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, spent an entire day harassing the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum of New Mexico, blocking the entrance, occupying the museum, and asserting that they would not leave until the museum agreed to include a permanent display equating women’s personal health decisions with the attempted extermination of the Jewish people. These same children, who sincerely believe they are fighting a religious war, proceeded the next day to a local birth center. Under the guidance of their adult Operation Rescue mentors, the children chanted “baby killer” megaphones at the entrance of the birth center. Two terrified women were laboring inside the building while this was happening. Why were these groups targeting midwives? Midwives, who understand the complicated reality of actual women’s lives, tend to be pro-choice. Midwives also understand that forcing a woman to endure pregnancy and childbirth against her will is barbaric and wrong. These particular midwives were under attack because their back-up doctor includes abortion services in his full scope women’s health practice. The children and their leaders warned the birth center staff that they would continue to stage these protests until the midwives renounced their relationship with their back up doctor. The day after my midwifery colleagues and the women in their care were terrorized in this way, I got a frantic call from a good friend telling me that Operation Rescue was in front of our friends’ home and the family was trapped, petrified, inside. I immediately went there to show solidarity for this family and to help in whatever way I could. Operation Rescue and their teenage army were holding enormous signs on the street in front of the home with arrows and words saying that a baby killer lived here. They were shouting “baby killer” from megaphones. At one point they prayed through their megaphones that this Jewish family would accept Jesus Christ into their hearts. It was one of the most disturbing and frightening scenes I have ever witnessed.
In response to these attacks, my friend and I decided to hold a rally to denounce Operation Rescue, Project Defending Life, and the Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. We felt strongly that the people of Albuquerque needed to know that these groups that had taken up residence in our town have been implicated in clinic bombings and the murders of abortion providers. Albuquerque needed to know that these forces were intentionally marking our doctors for assassination. We wanted everyone to remember what happened in Wichita, where Operation Rescue started off with the kind of tactics we were already seeing in Albuquerque, and escalated and escalated, and did not stop until the doctor they were targeting was murdered. With the help of the midwifery and Jewish communities, we organized a very successful rally denouncing the terror tactics of the anti-abortion forces and calling on the community to refuse to tolerate harassment of doctors, midwives, and the Jewish community.
While my co-organizer and I had a healthy fear of the anti-abortion zealots and were aware of the attacks from the right that we could expect from our actions, We had no idea about the hornet’s nest of politics we were walking into on the left. The day we announced our intention to hold a rally, several leaders in the local pro-choice political coalition told us very strongly not to do so. When it became clear that we were proceeding with the rally against their will, they began working very hard to gain control of the rally. At every planning meeting, a representative from the professional pro-choice coalition showed up to tell us what we could and couldn’t say. They grew more and more exasperated with us as we repeatedly told them we would take their recommendations under advisement but we weren’t relinquishing control of the event to them. Momentum for the rally grew very quickly, and it was clear that the coalition would be forced to participate in an event that did not follow their standard talking points and public event guidelines. Without prior knowledge of these talking points and guidelines, my friend and I did not realize that we were “going rogue.” We were acting out of our belief that the women of our town and their health care providers were under attack and we had a moral imperative to do something about it.
Let me give you a brief list of what we were told by the mainstream pro-choice leadership not to say at our rally.
1. The word abortion. It was explained to us in painfully convoluted detail that we needed to talk about abortion without actually using the word abortion. Acceptable phrases were: “choice,” “safe”, “legal”, “rare”, “it’s complicated,” and “difficult but personal decision.”
2. Terrorism. We were told that this word had been so badly abused by the Bush administration, that any use of it would be damaging to the Islamic community. I and other healthcare providers in town were receiving death threats from forces that had a history of assassinating doctors and bombing clinics, our offices and homes were under attack by these extremists, but in the interest of political correctness we were not allowed to call what was happening terrorism. In fact, we were told to just ignore Operation Rescue and its affiliates and not draw any attention to their presence in our town. We were also warned that our use of the word terrorism would be publicly denounced as Islamophobia, even though the groups we were naming as domestic terrorists were universally Christian and/or Catholic and primarily white.
3. Patriarchy. I will never forget the sign-making party for the rally where a representative from Planned Parenthood came to tell us what slogans we should and should not use. At one point she dropped her script and said, I know it’s hard, but these are the messages that work. There are so many things I wish I could say. I wish I could talk publicly about the patriarchy.
So, back to that second phone call on the morning of the rally. Joan from the pro-choice coalition, who had tried repeatedly to convince me not to hold a rally, sounded panicked. She had heard that members of Stop Patriarchy were driving all night from Texas to attend our rally. She wanted to know if I could contact them and tell them not to come. I told her that I was excited to meet these activists and that I would never ask any supporters of women’s liberation to stay away from an event I was hosting. She then asked me to tell the Stop Patriarchy activists not to display their banners and signs, saying that the messaging of Stop Patriarchy was dangerous to the cause of women’s rights and too extreme. I laughed and told her that a group of women calling themselves Stop Patriarchy would not be easily swayed by paternalistic arguments and that I was not going to tell anyone to censor themselves. I proceeded to get an earful about the dangerous nature of Stop Patriarchy. They were a front group for communists. They didn’t cooperate with the rest of the pro-choice movement and just did what they felt like doing. They would turn the whole town against the pro-choice cause and this would result in us losing an upcoming anti-abortion ballot initiative which would criminalize all abortions after 20 weeks in Albuquerque. The women of Stop Patriarchy were bad, bad influences.
The rally was a huge success, attracting hundreds of women’s rights supporters to the center of town. The Abortion Rights Freedom Riders of Stop Patriarchy arrived toward the end of the scheduled speeches. I watched them cross the plaza carrying a huge banner declaring “Abortion on Demand and Without Apology”. The energy they brought was strong and bold and women flocked to be near them. This, I thought. This is the energy that the abortion rights movement needs right now. Unapologetic and unafraid.
I didn’t stay away from Stop Patriarchy. Like so many other women, I was thrilled to be in the presence of an organized group of activists encouraging me to speak the truth about abortion rights. I felt nothing but admiration for the Stop Patriarchy members I met. They were intelligent, respectful, and willing to tell the truth about the war on women. While the pro-choice coalition forces held events in secret locations out of fear of attracting anti-abortion foes, Stop Patriarchy walked right up to members of Operation Rescue and engaged them in conversation. More importantly, they walked the streets and campuses, they went to low-income neighborhoods, and they talked to real people who donâ€™t identify as activists about the reality of the war on women. I watched some of these conversations and was blown away by the fact that people who started the conversation stating that abortion was murder would walk away displaying stickers declaring that abortion providers are heroes. The activists of Stop Patriarchy were effectively changing the terms of the debate. Many people shifted from a point of view that abortion is a “necessary evil” supporting abortion on demand and without apology. After years of shame-soaked talking points about abortion on the left, people were ready for the message. All it took was respectful conversation and posing the right question, â€œIf you think abortion on demand and without apology is too extreme, which women should be forced to give birth against their wills and which women should be made to feel guilty about abortion?
The presence of Stop Patriarchy in Albuquerque did not lead to success for the Operation Rescue sponsored abortion ban. The anti-abortion ballot initiative was defeated by a wide margin. Stop Patriarchy did, however, radicalize many women’s rights supporters in Albuquerque and helped us understand the need for an uncompromising resistance to the current abortion rights emergency in the United States. Now I’m watching the same organized forces who told us to stay away from Stop Patriarchy in Albuquerque using the same strong-arm bullying tactics to defame Stop Patriarchy in Texas. A group called Texans for Reproductive Justice issued a public statement denouncing Stop Patriarchy which echoed all of the accusations made last year in Albuquerque. Again, we are told that naming the tactics used by anti-abortion activists against women and doctors as what they are, domestic terrorism, is somehow Islamophobic. When I attempted to engage a signer of the Texans for Reproductive Justice statement on this issue, I was told that the word terrorism is extreme hyperbole. As someone who has had the FBI on speed dial due to death threats from anti-abortion activists who belong to a movement with a history of killing health care providers, I’ll just say that I respectfully disagree and will continue to call what is happening to abortion providers domestic terrorism.
Interestingly, Texans for Reproductive Justice also present the anti-pornography stance of Stop Patriarchy as evidence of the group’s evil nature. I never thought I would live to see the day when mainstream feminist groups demonize women for their opposition to pornography. The issue of the role of pornography in women’s oppression is far from settled, and many women have grave concerns about a multi-billion dollar industry that encourages men to become aroused and ejaculate to images of us being choked, slapped, and otherwise sexually abused. Mainstream pornography has become increasingly misogynist and violent and increasingly popular. Rather than shutting down dialog, let’s invite further discussion and debate.
The statement against Stop Patriarchy also accuses the group of racism due to the Stop Patriarchy’s slogan, Forced Motherhood is Female Enslavement. The signers assert that this slogan does grave disservice to the memory of those wronged by actual slavery. As a midwife and lifelong feminist, I disagree. Criminalizing abortion strips women of their right to their own lives and turns women into the property of the state. Treating people as property is the very definition of slavery. Forcing a woman to gestate and give birth against her will is a horrible human rights abuse. It in no way diminishes the pain of previously and currently enslaved people around the world to point out that without birth control and abortion on demand, women are enslaved to their reproduction. The global system of patriarchy oppresses and controls women in different forms, but universally refuses to grant women full autonomy over their lives. Comparing the oppression of women taking place in the United States with forms of women’s oppression around the world is not racist or anti-religious or ethnocentric. All forms of patriarchal oppression must be dismantled in order for the female half of the human race to gain full participation in society.
Now, on to the juiciest part of the accusations against Stop Patriarchy. Stop Patriarchy was founded by communists! Many of the group’s leaders and members are communists! When I read the statement against Stop Patriarchy from Texans for Reproductive Justice, I wondered if the Communist Control Act of 1954 would be cited at the bottom as a reference. While it would take an enormous and coordinated PR campaign to nationally re-brand communism after the atrocities that took place during the McCarthy era and that continue to echo today, I did not expect those on the left to resort to overt red-baiting. For the record, let me attest that I am not now and have never been a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. I, however, do not mind that many members of Stop Patriarchy are communists. Stop Patriarchy welcomes the participation of anyone who wants to fight for the liberation of women, no loyalty oaths are required. As I talk to people within the pro-choice establishment about Stop Patriarchy, this accusation of communism comes up again and again. I find it extremely paternalistic (one might even say patriarchal) that the self-declared experts on women’s rights believe that women are too stupid to realize that a group of people who are very up front about being communists are actually communists. Like many other women’s liberation activists and abortion providers, I judge Stop Patriarchy by their actions, not their party affiliation. In the words of Diane Derzis, owner of the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, who grew to love and support Stop Patriarchy when the group helped defend her clinic against Operation Rescue during last year “Abortion Rights Freedom Ride,” We became far too reliant upon courts to maintain the status quo while our enemy is in the trenches with these churches raising money, raising time, electing people. Am I a communist? Absolutely not. Do I care whether someone else is? No.
I encourage everyone to avoid blindly following the leadership of the mainstream left, and make up your own mind about Stop Patriarchy. Read the Abortion on Demand and Without Apology statement. Talk to members of the group yourself. Attend a speak out, rally, or people’s hearing with an open mind. Like me, you might decide that Stop Patriarchy is a very hopeful development in the abortion rights struggle. After decades of losing ground, feeling muzzled by talking points, and ceding the moral high ground to the forces that want to turn back the clock on women’s rights, we find ourselves with the current reality that safe abortion is already illegal/inaccessible for the poor (and a plane ride away for the rich) for the majority of women in large swaths of our country. This is not the time for infighting, blacklisting, and lock-step groupthink. This is an emergency.
Stop Patriarchy is out in the trenches fighting against the war on women. Stop Patriarchy is changing the terms of this debate. Instead letting the other side pose the questions about when a fetus become a person, we need to be asking. “At what point does a woman stop being a person and turn into a state-regulated incubator?” Instead of engaging in meaningless debates about the morality of abortion, we need to let the world know that it is immoral, brutal, and barbaric to force women to endure the threats to their emotional and physical health inherent in term pregnancy and childbirth. A baby should never be a state-mandated punishment for having sex.
Mary Lou Singleton is a midwife and family nurse practitioner who lives and practices in Albuquerque, NM. She is a life-long women’s rights activist and the founder of Personhood for Women.