Monday, April 25, 2005

"Cowardly Lion" Feminism

A recent column by Katha Pollitt on the late Andrea Dworkin has this important paragraph:

These days, feminism is all sexy uplift, a cross between a workout and a makeover. Go for it, girls--breast implants, botox, face-lifts, corsets, knitting, boxing, prostitution. Whatever floats your self-esteem! Meanwhile, the public face of organizational feminism is perched atop a power suit and frozen in a deferential smile. Perhaps some childcare? Insurance coverage for contraception? Legal abortion, tragic though it surely is? Or maybe not so much legal abortion--when I ran into Naomi Wolf the other day, she had just finished an article calling for the banning of abortion after the first trimester. Cream and sugar with that abortion ban, sir?

Feminism like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz would practise it. Or feminism in the old-fashioned way women's power has been wielded for so long: by subterfuge, compromise and the application of personal charm. These are the ways the weak use power, of course, and have nothing inherently female about them. But Pollitt sure is right about their re-emergence in recent years.

I'm dreadfully drawn by the Cowardly Lion role model. It fits my basic desire to be seen as a sane, intelligent and kind goddess who never makes hurtful or unconsidered comments. Oh, how I want to be adored as the goddess in the best power suit, with the most frozen grin on my botox-fixed face! I want to go and drink with the boys. I do so like to be liked, yes. If I needed it I'd get artificial tits, too, probably. But us goddesses are rather well-endowed in some ways. In fact, now I feel guilty for not being a donor of breast tissue.

And why did I blurt out this horrible confession? Because there is truth in it. The coming-to-terms with oneself can be a slow and hard road for some of us, and for women it has its own very particular hurdles, many of them created by popular culture, others by church and yet others by tradition and general societal consensus. To be a Good Woman (in some universal sense) is impossible, but this is a secret most of us have to learn on our own, even in these communication times.

Once we get this basic enlightenment life is just as it was before, but none of it looks the same and it can take a lot of thinking to decide which values to use instead of the mad dogmas which make us chase physical beauty or the reputation of the most self-sacrificing martyr that ever lived or the honorable title of a Pseudo-Man. This thinking is hard work, so George Bush is lucky not to have to face it.

Because it is such hard work I often don my lion outfit and go around begging for approval. On better days I face the monsters in my head straight on and even tame a few of them. Some are still rampaging around fairly untamed, and one of them is the question of abortion.

I am pro-choice. Viscerally so. But every time I try to write about abortion I go into so many twists and turns that I give up on the attempt. The Cowardly Lion rears its ugly head. It rationalizes not writing about abortion by pointing out how tedious the debate always turns to be, how I have already heard every single argument there is to present about the topic and how unpleasant it would be to have lots of trolls on the blog. Or the Lion mutters that others do this stuff so much better, like Amanda on Pandagon or BitchPhD, so nothing is missed if one tiny voice is silenced, voluntarily.

All true. But I lose something by taking the cowardly way out. Thus, here is a very condensed take on my position on abortion:

First, I don't believe in the personhood of embryos or early fetuses. The pro-life view argues that a person is created at the point when the sperm fertilizes an egg. Why at this particular point and not earlier or later? Both the egg and the sperm are living things, after all, and roughly one half of fertilized eggs never attach to the uterine lining. They are flushed out of the woman's body and she never knows of their existence. Should the pro-lifers cry over all these deaths? Probably, if they are to be faithful to their beliefs. But all they are are beliefs, not something based on scientific facts.

At what point then would Echidne regard a fetus as a person, you might ask. I don't know the exact point and nobody else does, either. Many people have decided on one point or another but the truth is that the process of change is gradual. Right now some use the test of viability outside the woman's body to determine such a point. Something more precise may become available in the future but I doubt it. There will always be disagreement on this question.

Second, even if the fetus were regarded as a person as the pro-lifers do, it is still true that it is a person in another person's body. This is different from any other case where concepts such as murder are bandied about. The extreme pro-life view would give the woman no rights to abort a pregnancy, even in the case of rape or when the woman's own life is threatened. She is therefore accorded a lower value than the fetus, even a fetus which exists because of forceful violence. I find this repugnant.

Third, it is the pregnant woman whose body is being used to house the fetus, to feed it and to ultimately give it birth with some pain, discomfort and risk to her health and life. No other person is asked to make such sacrifices in order to avoid "murdering" someone. Even the parents of (after-birth) children are not asked to donate an organ to a child that needs it to live. We may disapprove of parents who refuse to give such a gift but we are not trying to make it illegal for them to refuse. It is only in the case of pregnant women that we use much more stringent criteria.

For these reasons I want to privilege the pregnant woman over other members of the society. It is her body that is being used, her life which is going to be affected and her value as a person which to me appears ultimately under questioning here.

It's still a cowardly stance, isn't it? I'm not saying much about men's rights in this case or the question whether abortion should have more limits than it does today. Maybe I gather more courage to tackle all that in the future. I might even talk about the interesting asymmetries involved in the abortion debate: how the role of men is pretty much ignored when it comes to getting someone pregnant, how the problem is framed as one about women alone and how, on the other hand, so many of the debaters on the pro-life side seem to be men who will never have the opportunity of facing the basic dilemmas in their own bodies. I might even write about that old tired saw: how better contraception would be a great idea, in some parallel universe with fewer wingnuts. Or goddess help, maybe I'll even write about how to make this society more child-friendly so that more people can afford to carry desired pregnancies to term. Nah, let's not go that far.

Ok. Time to get into my pin-stripes and to paint a smile on. That is, if nobody minds?