Elevate Difference

Speaking Truth to Power

Interview with Jennifer Baumgardner

“I’m no longer scared to hear people’s truths, and that has been incredibly liberating,” says feminist writer, filmmaker, and activist Jennifer Baumgardner. Truth-telling has been at the heart of Baumgardner’s work since she left Ms. magazine in the late-90s to become a prominent third wave feminist leader. Since then, she’s published books on young women and feminism (Manifesta, with Amy Richards), feminist activism Grassroots, also with Richards), and bisexuality (Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics)—and created an abortion campaign that literally asked women (in the form of her “I Had an Abortion” T-shirt) to insert the private into the public in the name of reproductive justice. The shirt created some controversy, brought women’s testimonies back into the national dialogue about abortion, and led Baumgardner to create another campaign: “I Was Raped.”

Baumgardner’s recent book, Abortion & Life, is the final part of her “I Had an Abortion” campaign, which also included a documentary film that she co-produced. The book features a history of abortion, portraits by photographer Tara Todras-Whitehill, and testimonies from Ani DiFranco, Barbara Ehrenreich, Gloria Steinem, and others about their own abortions.

Baumgardner recently spoke with Elevate Difference about the genesis of her “I Had an Abortion” campaign, what women tell her about abortion and rape, and how the act of “just listening” has transformed her.

Abortion & Life is part of a larger project you’ve done on abortion that includes the “I Had an Abortion” T-shirt and documentary film. What sparked the idea for this project and—looking back on it now, four years after it began—would you have done any of it differently?

The project had many inspirations. Some were conversations I kept having with second wave feminists on this listserv called History-In-Action, where the women would talk about how infuriating it was that their experiences of abortion—often trauma-free and liberating—were not part of the media presentation or common understanding of the issue. Some were conversations with my frequent writing partner, Amy Richards, who is brave and open about her experiences with abortion. The final inspiration was frustration with how activists (myself included) yell loudly about abortion rights, but rarely place ourselves in the issue. What experiences have pro-choice and pro-life leaders and senators and congresspeople personally had with abortion?

My irritation with the yelling and the lack of personal stakes in reporting on this issue led me to want to approach it only personally—get right to the women and their stories, their faces and their lives, and get away from their political opinions.

What would I have done differently? I don’t know, because the mistakes are helpful, too. The shirt caused a lot of problems, but I so appreciated hearing from the people it upset and the people who were grateful for a tangible way to acknowledge their common secret.

You embarked on the abortion project with basic queries—such as “How do women experience abortion?” What have you learned—how do you think women experience abortion, now that you’ve spoken to, interviewed, and filmed so many of them?

I learned that every woman (and man) experiences abortion differently and that they revise their feelings over the course of their lives as new things happen to them. At the moment of having an abortion, women often feel relief for having made a decision. There is often some sense of sadness around the fact that the relationship they are in that caused the pregnancy isn’t strong enough to bring a baby into it, the fact that they never thought they’d be in this position. (Many people who get abortions nonetheless do not see themselves as someone who would get an abortion.) There’s a fear that they have “sinned” if they are religious. I have met women who feel some sadness or nostalgia at forty for their abortion at sixteen, when they realize that it was their one pregnancy. I have met women who suffered with self-hatred when they got the abortion and found a way not just to make peace with themselves, but to help other women with their abortion feelings.

What has the reception to Abortion & Life been like in both the reproductive justice community and beyond? You mentioned on your book tour that some venues have pulled out of events due to protests or simply because the word “abortion” appears in the book’s title. Did this surprise you?

The response has generally been positive. I attempted to strike a personal, positive, even-handed tone, and I believe I did that reasonably well. It’s a short, to-the-point book, and I think that makes it accessible, but sacrifices some depth.

I wasn’t that surprised that venues pulled out of events. Like I said, I learn a lot from the push-back. One venue in Fargo got protested and received irate phone calls after hosting a book event with me, but the owner of the store took the protest as an opportunity to explain that he had no interest in undermining people’s deeply held beliefs, but that he wanted to make space for people to simply be able to talk about their experiences without fear of judgment.

How do you see activists and academics using Abortion & Life to push the abortion rights movement forward?

I think it is an example of talking about abortion—and we need more space for that. It’s so easy to scream about this issue, yet so hard to simply talk. The book and film are widely used in university and activist (e.g., clinics) settings. I think its appeal is the power of simply telling stories.

You’ve said that you used to be the “George, get your laws off my body—out of my bush!” type of feminist, but now you’ve opened up your ears and eyes to “just listening.” How has that shift transformed you—how has the listening made you evolve?

As a woman who has had two unplanned pregnancies, but no abortions, I have a lot to learn from women who have had abortions that laws and political treatises can’t teach me. I think that before this project I was at least somewhat scared to hear anything negative about the clinic experience or women’s and men’s feelings about the fetus. I’m no longer scared to hear people’s truths, and that has been incredibly liberating.

In terms of my evolution, I used to think you could not be pro-life and feminist and that speaking of the fetus in human terms was the height of emotional manipulation. I now believe that being a pro-life feminist has tremendous potential and can be done—must be done—in a way that doesn’t sacrifice women’s access to controlling their bodies and lives. I also believe that the fetus has value, and its value increases as it develops gestationally—thus, the costs of abortion, in every sense of the word, increase as fetal development increases. A lot of people I respect are possibly rolling their eyes at both statements, but it is where I am. I am confident I will continue to evolve my positions and I’m eager to have more clarity.

Why do you think the abortion rights movement has been stuck in the binary dogmatism of “pro-life” versus “pro-choice”?

I don’t know. I guess because humans are more comfortable with simplicity than complexity? My beef is that there is such policing of language–“Say ‘pro-choice’ and ‘anti-choice’! Say ‘so-called partial birth abortion!’ Say ‘fetus, not baby’!” It’s fruitless.

You write that the national conversation about abortion has shifted its focus—from “Keep your laws off my body!” to “Let’s talk about feelings and whether fetal life has value”—and that that shift has been tough for the pro-choice movement to acknowledge. Will you explain more about this shift and why it’s been so hard for the movement?

To simplify, I think it is a hard rhetorical shift because, legally, the pro-abortion rights argument is based, in part, on the fetus not being nearly as important as a person/woman, so to begin ascribing value at all seems to be undermining the legal principle. Roe, too, is based on enshrining a woman control over her own body up through the first two trimesters, although you can restrict after one. Women are still getting comfortable with having that right.

Also, it was different emotionally when the choice was “abortion: legal vs. illegal.” Women who knew a time when abortion was illegal understandably felt pretty clear-cut and unambivalent about abortion decisions. Women today have been raised with much more access to sex education, birth control, and a belief that they are agents of their own destinies. I think that makes it easier to blame oneself for getting pregnant and needing an abortion.

Who do you think is getting it right in the reproductive justice movement?

Sistersong, the collective of women of color who came up with the Reproductive Justice framework; Marlene Gerber Fried, cofounder of the National Network of Abortion Funds and director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College; Aspen Baker and the rest of Exhale; Peg Johnston and the rest of the Abortion Conversation Project. Countless others!

You recently created a new project—the “I Was Raped” T-shirt and documentary film—whose framework resembles the “I Had an Abortion” campaign, but is different in that it asks survivors to disclose an experience they did not control. What do you hear from people wearing the shirts, and how do you think this project has shifted discourse about rape?

I’m not sure there has been much impact yet as I have only launched the shirts and am midway though making the film. Still, I have heard from TONS of people. Any speech I make where I mention I am working on this project, at least three people come up after the talk with personal stories of sexual assault.

The people who have worn the shirts have said that they feel unbelievably vulnerable and judged. There was an article [about the shirt] in the Times and Christen Clifford, the woman who wore the shirt, said that even though she has made art about her rape experience, wearing the shirt was scary—even though nothing happened to her. The reporter, on the other hand, was totally freaked out because Christen wore it to go pick up her son at pre-K, and the reporter thought: “People are going to think she is so crazy—both because we think rape victims are damaged and because she would wear a shirt like this.” I think it challenges the wearer, for sure, but it really challenges the viewer.

I know that the shirt, like the abortion shirt—which also made people feel vulnerable and judged, not least by themselves!—is shocking. I think owning and getting to the point of wearing it is a journey wherein, ideally, one confronts all the stigma and shame and blame that oneself feels.

You’ve documented countless stories in both the abortion and rape projects—is there one particular story that’s impacted you the most?

Hmmmm. I cry the hardest when I hear from the women who had terrifying illegal abortions in some garage by a guy who then molested them, or the 20-year-old Vassar junior who held the hand of the thirteen-year-old Albany girl sent down to D.C. alone by her parents for an abortion in 1965 and wondered if they were just lambs to the slaughter. The risk and humiliation that many women went through pre-Roe astonished me. Again, I always knew the general contours, but when you hear someone tell their story, it’s different.

Having said that, I learned more from the women who had legal abortions. Illegal abortion is so clearly fucked up, but legal abortion is really complicated with room for improvement, too.

Right now, in the rape project, I’m very struck by a young woman, Annie, who tells of her dad incesting her. She kind of laughs throughout its telling, and her embarrassment and nervousness and how raw her story is convey to me how lifelong of a process dealing with sexual abuse is or can be. She’s very together, yet also just barely dealing with what happened to her (or so it seems to me). Her bravery in confronting a big taboo is striking to me, too.

You’ve been a feminist organizer for fifteen years and have spoken to countless women and men across the country. What do you continue to find remarkable about the feminist landscape in our country?

I am amazed by how many people are out there living feminist lives, but not calling it feminism, either because they haven’t had an entry point to the movement or philosophy or because they see it as redundant. (If you’re liberated, you don’t need to say you’re liberated to make it true.) I see sexism and misogyny all over the place, of course—in fact, I’m still reeling from how people responded to Hillary Clinton last year, and [Sarah] Palin!—but I love how much feminism and resistance I see. I feel really hopeful. I hope I’m not deluded.

Written by: Ellen Papazian, January 10th 2009

As usual, Ellen hits it out of the park. Wonderful interview.