by Merle Hoffman
November, 1985 did not come quietly for me. It was a month of immersion in violence and conferences. It was also a month for Quiet Heroines.
The first two days find me in Amherst, Massachusetts at the First Annual Nursing Conference on Violence Against Women” presenting a workshop on Abortion: The Politics of Violence.”
The opening session of the conference sets the tone for two days to come. The audience is hushed and silent, the room dark. Familiar images rush past on the screen – click-click – a breast – a crotch – leather – guns – knives – little girls – sex and violence – Playboy and Hustler one after another. It goes on for almost an hour – the presenters’ voice overriding – calling our attention to the subliminal and not so subliminal sexism in the cartoon images. Seeing this for the first time, the woman behind me moans and groans audibly. Later, she makes it a point tell me she has two small children and from now on will be ever vigilant, ever careful – insuring her children’s eyes be protected. For myself, I had seen this show many times before. It could be a pornography workshop, battery, rape, child abuse – take your pick. It could actually fit in just about anywhere in a feminist conference.
At lunch, I make it a point to tell the two academic women beside me that I had recently purchased Hustler and Playboy. They are aghast. “You mean you actually bought those things?” I recount the story. It occurred in a small delicatessen beside a picturesque country road in upstate New York. They sold homemade lasagna, luncheon meats, detergents, cigarettes and newspapers. A little country store, open till 10 p.m. to give the houses nearby access to necessities. The magazines were kept behind the counter. You could just make out their titles. The cashier was blonde, young, and nervous. I bought three magazines – he could barely conceal his blushes. He started to put them in a brown paper bag. “That won be necessary”, I said, as I picked them up along with my newspaper. “Have fun tonight” he murmured as I walked out.
Going through those magazines was an adventure – something akin to reading Popular Mechanics. No real sensuality or sexuality – merely descriptions of events, orifices and mailing addresses. It occurred to me that this expression of sexuality was a particular genre of male mentality – didactic, dualistic and mechanistic. SEXUALITY AS CONSUMERISM WRIT LARGE.
The evening conference entertainment is a showing of issue films. There are only about eight women attending – mostly 50 and older- they sit quietly, watching shadows of young girls describing molestations – no comment, very engrossing. One of the videos doesn fly. It depicts two women arguing while a man lies quietly on the couch seemingly impervious to them. The audience’s impatience grows “When is he going to get off the couch and do something?” Change the tape not enough action.” This becomes extremely disturbing to me. It seems as if even in the study of violence and its devastation there is an underlying sense of excitement.
A particular image remains in my mind. It is the final day of the conference and I am standing in a long hallway. There is a T.V. camera and a reporter interviewing a woman. She is somewhat nervous. “Do I look all right? This is the first time I’ll be on television. Don ask me hard questions.” He is reassuring. The assistant helps fix her hair. “Roll Cameras.” Question. “Why are you attending this conference on violence? Answer I’m here because I’m working in the field and I wanted to network with other professionals to find out what everyone else was doing.” Question Is it successful?” Answer “Yes, so much so that I hope there will be one next year and the year after that.”
I feel myself getting that familiar anxiety in my stomach the anxiety I get when my reality directly conflicts with the collectives. Now, I thought, violence against women will be thoroughly institutionalized academically and professionally. There will be university programs, Ph.D.s in violence, and a new professional journal to house increasing research on the issue. There is, it seems an unspoken assumption that violence against women will continue, is an accepted part of our social reality and will be here today and for many tomorrows.
It comes to me that the women’s movement is in therapy. The constant verbal and literary analysis that pervades much of the politics of the current feminist movement can be dangerous in its seductiveness. There is a possibility that the consistent collective expression of our oppression in prose and verse may obviate our individual responsibility for changing it. Anger, frustration and rage turned inward becomes depression. There is a pervasive sense of helplessness – augmented by media propaganda proclaiming the death of the women’s movement that seems to permeate women’s consciousness. The comeback of tight dresses, high heels, the touting of a “style wars” as if it really mattered. The inescapable reality of the long duration and difficulty of the struggle. The realization that things may never change in your lifetime, the fear of growth, the anxiety of change, the loss of dependency, the challenge of responsibility, the pain of knowing you are alone. The coming of age and aging, the lack of concrete answers and the monotony of the same questions results in the movement too often reflecting on itself and diffusing its own energy.
It is a measure of the times and the social reality that makes for Quiet Heroines. She says she is 24 years old – very small, short dark hair worn in a punkish style – she had sat silently during the two hours of my presentation on abortion clinic violence; meeting my eyes for short intense moments. When she speaks, she is barely audible. The story she tells is not unique. She was 19 years old when she found herself pregnant, living in a small Catholic town – no one knew – not her parents, not her lover and certainly not the priest. Alone, all alone, she made an appointment at the nearest abortion clinic. She had no transportation, no support, no “significant other”. After her abortion she had to walk alone for 10 miles to get back to her house. Alone, afraid, but not pregnant. She walked. And today at Amherst, in this small classroom -here with 15 other women – she speaks about it for the first time. She speaks, and I listen. Listen as her words break the silence. A Quiet Heroine – enough courage to put her life on the line – enough guts to go through the abortion alone. Walking through darkness, but unable to speak about it. Unable till this moment to say the words “I had an abortion.” As if the words verify the act – as if not speaking about it makes it go away.
Abortion, such a major part of my life for so long, so politically comfortable, yet still having the power to amaze me. Today at Amherst, this woman faced herself and the reality of her choice. I had helped make that happen, had been a catalyst, enabling her four year secret to be told safely in this room among women -among peers. Hearing herself speak must have given her some measure of comfort, for her voice became stronger as her story unfolded. Nothing new here, the terror of the abortion itself, the sense of depersonalization, the medicalization of choosing, the profound relief. I had heard all of it many times before, but her telling made it special.
Quiet Heroines. Another voice. She had been a prostitute, on welfare – doing sex to get by after her second marriage. All screwed up, falling back on the only skill she did not have to learn or practice. She tells me this as we walk the quiet campus. Her eyes do not move from the road – her voice betrays no change in theme from politics to life. Matter of fact, on welfare – prostituting. I react inside and say nothing. Just listen. She says she is 40 but looks much older. Her life had left messages on her face for anyone who could read to see. Feminists are made not born, churned and hewed in the fire, radicalized by life, not theory. Now she is political and bourgeoise. Her son will make something of himself, “respect women.” As for her, she sits on approximately four boards of directors – pillar of the community, blue skirt, blouse with a neck ruffle and tie. Sex for her now is politics. Not something that one does to survive, but something to be analyzed for the struggle. She, too, has had abortions. But hers were more of a type – an occupational hazard to be expected. Looking and listening to her I feel a sense of awe and wonder.
On the plane to San Francisco. Going to the 70th Annual American medical Women’s Association Conference entitled: “Violence DxRx.” Physicians also now studying and analyzing violence against women. I pick up the New York Times and see Betty Friedan’s “How To Get The Women’s Movement Moving Again?” and it occurs to me that I often experience the movement in black and white – the colors of depression, a kind of bloodless passion that kindles itself on small flames. A world of dualisms – of politically correct and incorrect behavior, of good girls and bad, of homo and hetero, of feminine and feminist. My consciousness exists in prisms – I am bound by a natural necessity to see events through multiple reflections, eventually allowing for even an understanding of my enemies.
The ultimate passivity of women finds its apex in the act of abortion without its acknowledgment. 1.5 million women have abortions every year. How many of them speak about it? How many keep this reality inside themselves like some dark bloody secret; something to be hidden, to be ashamed of? How many women defy their post abortion instructions not to have intercourse for at least three weeks because their lover or partner knows nothing about it? How many submit to infection to keep their secret? Keeping quiet, like keeping your legs together, is a major part of the mythology of being a “good girl”. Quiet Heroines – careful not to be too abrasive, too strident, too aggressive.
Todos Santos, California. I am to be the keynote speaker at a professional women’s conference. The topic is “Women, Power and Choice.” They told me this was heavy stuff for the West Coast – so much so that the main newspaper in the area refused to interview me or carry the fact that I was speaking. Fears of pickets and violent protests in front of the hotel do not materialize. I am ready. These women are hungry for inspiration. They came to their feminism the hard way – not on college campuses or in consciousness raising groups but through marriages. Most of them are divorced. I am a lightening rod for these women – I “put my life on the line” after all. I get a subliminal message that they love and fear me for it at the same time -know they have to be awakened, need to hear the message, but some part of them wants to keep sleeping.
One woman has driven an hour to hear me speak. About 35, she is thin, pale, with eyes that seem restless. She has been in the struggle almost 15 years and like me does not really remember when she hasn been involved. She has been – still is – an executive in an abortion facility. Very matter of factly almost abstractly, she tells me her car had been torched two weeks before by anti choice fanatics. She doesn seem terribly upset, not proud, simply accepting this fact as a “given” as if coming home and finding your car in ashes is just something to be expected for a front line fighter. For a Quiet Heroine.
Dinner is a typical Californian vegetarian meal. I speak to them about abortion. Yes, I have had an abortion. Yes it was difficult. And to my left, a woman gets up and begins: “I’ve never told anyone about it, but five years ago I got pregnant and…” I love every minute of it. I am into the politics and the power – the small awakenings and profound beginnings. THE PERSONAL IS THE POLITICAL.
Afterwards, I stand at the lectern, taking questions. They ask me how I deal with my opposition and the direct attacks. I respond by saying that I have come to judge my accomplishments more by the strength of my enemies than the force of my supporters.
Make no mistake, I tell them, abortion is the buzz word, the banner, the visible cue for all who would oppose women’s equality. Abortion is the fundamental freedom for women. The right to choose whether or not to be a mother, whether or not to bring a child into the world is the non plus ultra for the women’s movement. Without reproductive freedom and access to safe legal abortion, any discussion of equality for women is groundless.
I am bringing the issue to life. I am the physical and political representation of the theory. By speaking, by testifying, I become. The others -the silent ones – are also heroines but cannot be counted in the ranks or the struggle, for they make no representation, demand no response, create no anxiety. The movement must challenge and create conflict otherwise it exists only in dialogue.
Another voice breaks the silence – It was such a difficult choice for me to make. The mother in me wanted so much to have it, to love it, to see it grow. The other part knew it was impossible.” The “other” part, I thought. It occurred to me how very male defined our definition of mother has become – selfless and self sacrificing. But I knew the truth – that abortion – the act of choosing whether or not to have a child—is in and of itself a mother’s act.. Abortion is so often an act of love – love for oneself, one’s family, for the children one has. An act of love and survival.
The next morning, I am on my way to a radio interview. The white limo moves smoothly throughout the Napa Valley – pastoral scenes- cows, horses, vineyards. The driver is quick to point out the likeness to Falcon Crest. I, dressed in white, sit in the back readying myself for the adventure – a kind of feminist lone ranger riding into town to lay my raps. She is about 28, a stockbroker, bright, attractive, intelligent – came to her feminism through an independent hard life. She is supporting her newly married husband in his studies. She will be my guide to Northern California. The radio station is expecting me. Heads snap up as we walk in. The D.J. is real tough. He has my literature in front of him – it looks well worn and well read. He thrusts the mike in front of me and we are on the air.
Well Ms. Hoffman, how are the Mets doing?” They’re some kind of ball team aren’t they,” I counter. He is completely nonplussed and can only respond with a question concerning whether or not Geraldine Ferraro had made promises to me in return for that he thought was my heavy financial contribution to her campaign. It is truly Reagan’s Amerika. His questions are not new nor is his attitude. Aren women really being selfish? After all, they are killing babies for their own reasons.”
The last few minutes of the program I take calls. A woman describes herself as a young 70.” Her question echoes in my mind. Why are all these women getting pregnant in the first place?”
December, 1985 did not come quietly, either. The first week brought with it letter bombs in Portland, Oregon sending messages of hate and destruction to clinic personal – More Quiet Heroines. December brought a violent bomb attack against a New York City abortion facility. The bomber made three hate calls alerting staff to evacuate. The bathroom, waiting room and equipment were damaged.
It gets closer.
Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.