by Merle Hoffman
The question came at me from left field. It was raining, cold and very early in the morning. I was standing behind a police barricade on East 85th Street in New York City with 50 other pro-choice activists. We were counter demonstrating against “Operation Rescue”, the recent right wing evangelical invasion of this country’s abortion clinics when these words came into my auditory field.
I turned to face my questioner. Middle aged, white male, polyester suit, fetal feet button -in all, a good soldier of the Lord.
“Where are your troops?”
I looked past him towards the small band of feminist activists, chanting and intense; beyond the 500 or so kneeling praying “rescuers”; past the police, the press, the passersby and thought about his question.
Had he read my mind?
Where were my troops? Where were the troops? This was, after all, no armchair intellectual dialogue, no ideological conference, no routine march and rally this was an all out military maneuver – a direct confrontation and I and “my troops” appeared sadly outnumbered.
Eighty fifth Street was a moment frozen in time. The small two story abortion clinic under attack was situated between 3rd and Lexington Avenues. As the drama unfolded, business as usual went on on the avenues. Dogs got walked, some people shopped, some stopped to chat, others rushed on to work. All going about their daily routines as if a war was not happening in front of them. It made me think of those documentaries of the Second World War narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier where two separate realities existed side by side in a surrealistic montage; mass executions in fields filled with gently swaying yellow flowers.
Some passersby did stop to offer support – an older woman and a few youths from a nearby private school; however, to most of them the invasion was just another New York vignette, another “bread and circus”, one more type of street entertainment for the masses.
Being at the barricades during “Operation Rescue” gave new meaning to the words “front lines”.
I certainly was no stranger to theoretical and political battles, but the pressing reality of hundreds of nightsticks, sawhorses being shoved into my face, the mounting tension of the crowds around me and the palpable smell of danger was something quite different from anything I had ever experienced.
“Where are your troops, Hoffman?”
My questioner had verbalized one of my private intellectual dialogues. But really not so private after all, the question of just where the feminist movement is now, where the feminist movement is going and is the feminist movement alive or dead, ad infinitum – has become the intellectual staple, the core issue around which media, feminists, politicians and anyone who feels like it can instantly pontificate.
Of course my “rescuer” had a far more literal interpretation of this question in mind. He was merely counting heads.
Very often the anti choice movement is rightly criticized for being authoritarian, anti egalitarian, regressive, repressive, religious, etc. – All in all, un liberal, unintellectual, and, indeed, their literature summoning people to New York City stated that “Operation Rescue” could be the beginning of a righteous, peaceful uprising of God-fearing people across the country that will ‘inspire’ politicians to correct man’s law, and make ‘child killing’ illegal again. Standing for America’s children means you are ultimately standing for your future, your freedom and the very survival of America.”
In New York, “Operation Rescue” chose as its battlefront small, unprotected doctors’ offices rather than large well known (and well prepared) facilities. Unwilling to face a strong opposition in terms of dealing with the highly secure sites of the major clinics, rescuers belied their strong words with acts of cowardice and attempted to kill flies with cannons. Considering that every day in New York City alone there are thousands of women who terminate their pregnancies at any one of at least 100 providers, “Operation Rescue’s” claim that they “saved hundreds of babies from death” was more than slightly exaggerated.
While the actions of “Operation Rescue” seemed to be geared more at getting favorable media attention (in which they succeeded) rather than waging a truly serious battle for a revolutionary uprising of the righteous, the participants did, in fact, appear to share a transcendent unifying purpose -that of expressing what they believe to be God’s will on earth: fetal rights. For the fanatical anti-choice activists, this included illegally blocking entrances to abortion clinics so that women would be denied access to constitutionally guaranteed medical services and continually harassing patients by verbal attacks such as screaming “Please don’t kill your baby”.
Trying to publicly project the image of a ground-swell of pious people against abortion through the media, “rescuers” stated they were following in the footsteps of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. The “rescuers” attempt at comparing the “right to life movement” (with their agenda of compulsory pregnancy and control over women’s reproductive rights) to the great civil rights struggle seems to be an intellectual anathema at best and an obscenity at worst. Indeed, these “Ghandi disciples” are the people who publicly brag that the rate of abortion complications goes up when there are anti abortion demonstrations outside a facility. Obviously, to “Operation Rescuers”, women play the role of being merely inconvenient civilians who just happen to be incubating the real victims (fetuses) in the Holy War that they have conceptualized and evolved.
However, it is important to note that during the reign of Reagan, “double-think” became the accepted form of social and political reality. Nuclear missiles were “peacekeepers”, ketchup was “a vegetable” and all Americans were “better off than they were” some time in the past. This “Kafkaesque” tactic of obscuring truth with pseudo truth was actively appropriated by much of the local and national press which gave “Operation Rescue” and its participants a great deal of coverage and, sometimes, positive reviews. James Buchanan, a dedicated Reagan propagandist, went so far as to describe Joan Andrews, an imprisoned terrorist “rescuer”, as a “Prisoner of conscience” (N.Y. Post, July 2, 1988). Reagan himself has shown his disregard of the laws of this country by meeting personally with Joseph Scheidler, the strategic architect of “Operation Rescue”, and publicly praising the activities of the “right to life” movement.
The New York City Police, many of whom seemed to be naturally inclined to “Operation Rescue’s” philosophy, were also caught up in the fantasy. Pursuing a policy of “selective enforcement”, police treated the blockaders with kid gloves, including the use of stretchers to take protesters away gently (as opposed to dragging them as they have civil rights and women’s rights activists), issuing desk tickets and releasing “Operation Rescue” “prisoners of war” soon afterwards, allowing them to return to the blockade site once again.
This treatment was in marked contrast to that given pro-choice activists who were pushed, pummelled and herded into small areas behind barricades, and especially to the rough handling of two pro-choice men who were arrested. Unlike “O.R.” participants, the pro-choice activists were booked, put through the system and held in jail overnight. It took an intense and pressured meeting with Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward to publicly shame the police into upholding the law and insuring women’s access to constitutionally protected medical treatment.
The conduct of the New York City Police was typical of what has happened across the country where the police have not enforced the law -have not protected women’s constitutional rights but, instead, have allied with and supported the anti-abortionists as part of “just doing their job”.
Given the reality of the central strategic importance of reproductive freedom in women’s lives and in an overall feminist agenda, and considering the reality of the increasingly dangerous and violent activities of the anti choice movement (along with the increasing numbers of their apologists in the press and supporters among the police) it becomes obvious that feminists must wage their battles in the unreal, illusory world of the electronic and print media as well as the real world of the courts and streets.
These battles must also be fought within ourselves as we struggle to differentiate objective reality from a media created world.
Sociologist Gaye Tuchman has used the term “symbolic annihilation” to describe the general treatment of women in the media. Expressions of this treatment include women being projected into images that are evil, manipulative, stupid and stereotypic. The most insidious type of annihilation takes the form of “absencing”, the phenomenon of attempting to totally obliterate the female presence in the mass media.
This “absencing” phenomenon was very much in place during “Operation Rescue”, where the organized, concentrated and effective activities of the pro-choicers were either totally ignored or given short shrift in all the main stream (including “Liberal”) press. In New York, Newsday was the only paper that attempted, and often succeeded in, giving the pro-choice participants fair and accurate coverage.
“Operation Rescue” had succeeded in abstracting and masculinizing the struggle -noble, pious men trying to save unborn babies’ lives while pro-choice forces became the generic “female” -dangerous, assertive, selfish, shrill -forces that had to be eliminated (annihilated) if only, at this point, by paper tigers in the press.
“Representation of the world” writes Simone de Beauvoir, “like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view which they confuse with absolute truth.”
This can be translated into the old saying that “if it’s not in the New York Times it doesn’t exist” or the Times’ own slogan in which they say they print “all the news that’s fit to print”.
De Beauvoir’s is a central truth; however she neglects to extrapolate to the extraordinary effects of cultural conditioning that give rise to women who describe themselves as feminists, yet buy into the male point of view and see the world through male glasses. This phenomenon is its own type of “symbolic annihilation”. A case in point:
The New York Times published an article in their Sunday Magazine entitled “When Feminism Failed” by Mary Anne Dolan (June 26, 1988). “fait a compli” of the title alone alerted more potential negative propaganda. I was disappointed.
The author, a past editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, writes about her pain and disappointment with feminism that sprang from her experience of working with a group of women who she had hired and groomed as managers. Dolan writes that she expected the “promise” of the Women’s Movement to be fulfilled at work. The “promise” included “the joint belonging to us, being a family”, generating “respect between male and female” which would, in turn, create an environment where “we would have honest conflict and competition, but also compromise and consensus and therefore success”.
Mary Anne Dolan, in fact, found only the woman that she appointed was able to achieve the “heights” that Betty Friedan wrote about in Second Stage where she described the point where women learned to “compete, not as a woman nor a man, but as a human being”. Apparently feminism is now being defined as a state where women are the ultimate competitors. Dolan goes on to describe how women in power positions took on the very worst attributes of the men power.
Reading this piece, I became acutely aware of a particular brand of intellectual analysis reflects a masculinized sensibility parading feminism. I was also aware that the author was alone in her convictions. Indeed, I have been privy and part of many conversations, at both political meetings and cocktail parties, which focused on how really terrible these women in power become -how difficult it was to work with them, how women couldn’t work together, how there is a rising and increasingly obvious problem with women’s inhumanity to women etc., etc.
Personally, I am acutely aware of problems facing women in power on a practical, political, personal level – problems with politics, with theory and practice, with personal growth and with managing the tension that comes from wanting to succeed in the marketplace while being politically correct and psychologically healthy at the same time. The tension that comes from balancing one’s inner reality with the socially controlled and defiant one set out for us…
However, it is a grave error to judge the success or failure of the feminist movement by the standards of the workplace or the personalities of specific individuals within it. In order even to begin to analyze whether or not a particular movement or social vision has succeeded or failed it has to exist as a living phenomenon in the real world, merely as an intellectual or political abstraction. It cannot assume that anything approximating a feminist social or political reality exists. In a real sense, feminists today -in this time and place -are exiles, exiles from a vision of whatever dream a feminist society should be.
And there is a vision out there, a transcendent purpose and dream that makes up the stuff of what feminism really is. The edges may be a little cloudy, as all visions are, and individual feminists may be hard put to collectively articulate it, but it does not exist. This feminist vision includes a non-diminished reality -one that does not define success or power purely in cognitive or behavioral terms. One that envisions a world beyond the pages of the New York Times. One that does not use “tokenism” as a measure of feminism.
The problem with the vision is that it is obscured by stereotypic individual and corporate definitions of success.
Feminists today live in an intellectual and spiritual diaspora, recognizing each other in the book review pages, in intellectual journals, on the streets, at marches and rallies and in the eyes of the troops.
Who are the troops?
Coming out of the Reagan years there are many weary warriors. Veterans of the continuing abortion wars, the battered, raped, bruised, alienated, repressed, enraged and those who search for meaning. Then, there are also the more competitive arrogant seekers of power, the determined, the “successful”, the disengaged buyers of the “me first and only” ideology. In a world where children are bought and sold, animals are patented and the rights of the individual to achieve self-actualization elevated to a level of near-religious absolutism, expecting secular feminism and feminists themselves to be radically different, above and beyond the norm, is not only unrealistic -it is dangerously foolhardy and gives rise to a politic of symbolic self annihilation”.
The conditioning of the competitive American marketplace, with which we all have been inculcated, has money, status and power as the transcendent unifying values. In fact, the primal bureaucratic gender separation of the pink and blue blankets in the hospital is truly secondary to the unifying and supremely egalitarian God of Profit that men and women alike must serve. The terms of this service are explicit and powerful. They can be found in every major social institution from schools to churches and are expanded and continually developed through the images in the media. We are taught very early and carefully just what is important in life. Indeed, these lessons are far from lost in women, for it is through much of our role as teacher and mother that the lessons are passed on from generation to generation.
Women cannot be expected to be exempt from the cultural norms of plenty, prosperity, competitiveness, individuality and material success. Indeed, we are often more heavily conditioned to conform to them, either through the traditional vehicle of marriage or, more recently, as players in the big leagues of Corporate America. To insist that individual women are totally responsible for their political shortcomings or lack of revolutionary perfection is to dismiss and/or deny the continuing and massive impact of the conditioning of the dominant culture on all our lives. Once women attain positions of power, is it reasonable to expect them to immediately transcend all they have been taught and conditioned to be as “good girls” and “good Americans”? Is it reasonable to assume that they will, on an individual and collective basis, discard everything they have been taught to work for and desire as what society considers a measure of success?
Because consciousness raising did not produce the ultimate androgynous manager -is this the failure of feminism? The question, of course, remains whether or not the goals of feminism itself (egalitarian, humanistic, revolutionary, visionary, empathetic) are antithetical to any corporately defined idea and/or ideal of success. This is not to say that great things should not be asked and demanded of feminists and the feminist movement, only that we must recognize personal and political limitations, and have the wisdom to appreciate reality as a process.
Dolan goes on in her article to quote Mary Fleming who, at a conference at the University of Southern California, poses the question: “We talk a lot about women gaining access to the male world’s money -is that what we want? Didn’t we want to redefine the terrain, figure out a way to help man to be more genteel, more gentle? What I worry about is that along with making the breakthroughs we are acceeding to the styles of male behaviour.”
Fleming’s and Dolan’s shared concerns were – are- that women were just not being the good, nurturant girls that all the notions of collectivity and sisterhood should have produced.
Dolan’s viewpoint incorporates an insidious sexism, the kind that is akin to old style racism, where Blacks were told that if they reached positions of power they better be “good niggers” because their performances reflected on the entire Black community. Similarly, because Dolan’s experience with female managers was less than optimum, she concludes that this reflected the failure of an entire Movement.
Dolan is right to be concerned about the level of male behaviour patterns in executive women, but she is wrong to conclude from this that feminism per se has failed. Do we judge the success or failure of other revolutionary or progressive movements by the attitudes and behavior patterns of its participants in a work environment? Dolan goes even further and questions the “legacy” of the Women’s Movement. To use this work is to assume as a matter of fact that the Movement is dead. This is not only a prime example of symbolic annihilation -it is pure and unadulterated gynecide -but in this case it is the entire Women’s Movement itself that is being killed.
Feminism is not a popularity contest, nor is it a style of management. In its purely ideological form it deals with the transformation of society, which is a monumental task, and one that will take many committed generations to accomplish.
It is a movement and a vision in its inception -burgeoning, growing, forming and formulating it is slowly coming into the light. Dolan’s pronouncement is not only an obituary, it is an attempt at political and spiritual infanticide.
Fortunately, real ideas and truths don’t die that easily, as many dictatorships and repressive ideologies continue to find out.
I contend that by putting out unrealistic, basically unachievable goals, the feminist movement is first defined, then judged, improperly -and the reason why it is continually pronounced as failing or dead may be because the wrong questions are being asked based on the wrong assumptions.
Both Dolan and the questioning “Rescuer” play the same game of symbolic annihilation based on the premises of “double think”. The “Rescuer’s” entire political, philosophical and religious orientation leads him to “absence” women as anything but incubators for fetuses, while Dolan’s vision is clouded by the set of glasses she has put on.
Looking through the “Rescuer’s” eyes we might agree that the pro-choice forces were outnumbered that the right wing was winning -that is, you might think that if you didn’t remember that my “troops” could be numbered in the millions in this particular battle.
Every year, there are hundreds of thousands of women who make the decision of abortion and act on it -they make this decision in the context of their families and friends and they continually vote in the millions for political candidates that express the pro-choice position.
Every year polls are taken that prove the vast majority of Americans believe in a woman’s right to choose.
And, throughout this country, every time there is a demonstration against a clinic, there are people -mainly women, but some men too -who attempt to guard the doors, who guide and protect the women going inside, who put their own lives on the line with no vested interest but their own dedication and conviction that women have the moral and constitutional right to choose whether or not to be mothers.
Looking through the eyes of Mary Dolan, we are mourners at a funeral lamenting the death of a movement, the death of a dream…
We would indeed all be in black, that is if we hadn’t seen the light -the flashes of hope and anxiety that come with beginnings and the births of visions. The light of recognition in millions of women’s eyes when they begin to see their way clear to becoming part of that light.
These then are the troops in this battle. They are everywhere, and they are far from outnumbered!
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.