“The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.” -John E. E. Dalberg, The History of Freedom in Antiquity, (1877).
This is an Emergency! is a print portfolio project centered on reproductive rights and gender justice. There hasn’t been a safe time for women, gay or non-gender conforming people in North America since Europeans invaded this continent.The forms of oppression shift over time and while some aspects of life improve, we don’t have full justice and equality in the United States.This is evident in everything from our legislation to the culture at large; exampled in the hundreds of laws which detail and inform us on the exact circumstances under which we are allowed to have an abortion, to Rush Limbaugh’s hateful comments surrounding birth control, or former Senator and Republican Presidential nominee Rick Santorum’s horrendous comments regarding homosexuality.A society which had evolved to exist with full equality and justice would not create such legislation nor ferment such hateful cultural speech.
Instead of being a society which has evolved, the United States suffers from having a cultural and legal system dominated by a very small group of conservatives whose actions are driven by fear; fear of losing power which has been attained and maintained through exploitation and corruption.Those of us who do not conform to the narrow standard of conservatism outlined by this group find ourselves in a constant state of war.We exert our energy, time, money and resources in countering each legislative measure or cultural attack meant to control us.We find ourselves constantly on the defensive, as conservatives tend to succeed in the initial framing of issues through the creation and manipulation of language with words like “pro-life,” “slut,” and “dyke.”Sometimes we reclaim these words, but what if we refused to engage within their paradigm?The narrative they work within is a world of extremes; good versus bad, man versus woman, gay versus straight.Working within such a framework assumes there is only one right answer.It’s time to shift the narrative and focus on creating an alternate world view based on a spectrum instead.
The beauty of a spectrum is that it allows for an infinite range of possibility and nuance.Alfred Kinsey created a spectrum around the fluidity of sexuality.However, it’s not simply our sexuality which is nuanced and complicated.Our identities, beliefs and lives can shift over time and we can liberate our minds and bodies if we begin to think of ourselves as fluid rather than static beings.What if this spectrum is a circle, where two seemingly opposing ideas are in fact next to one another rather than at two opposite points of a line?All parts of a circle work together to create a whole. Artistically this idea is beautifully demonstrated in the circular power of our planet, sun, and moon.I believe justice and liberation can also be achieved by taking a holistic and circular approach.
What do I mean by that? Instead of falling into the “us” versus “them” mentality, we need to reframe the discussion.What if when we are called “sluts” we don’t simply deny or reclaim that word, but instead demand to live in a sex positive culture where we don’t judge one another for our sexuality?Instead of debating who has a ‘legal’ right to live in our country, what if we shift the argument to be that no person should be required to have identity papers to live anywhere in the world, and that all people deserve access to free healthcare and social services wherever they live?What would it mean to be in a community where everyone who has had an abortion (which is 1 in 3 women) would be supported by their community rather than feel they had to hide their experience or be judged?How much freer would our culture be if people did not make assumptions about the gender or identity of others, and our genitals did not define who we are from the moment of birth?How would our experience of love shift if the state and church were not granted the power to define or validate the meaning of our relationships?We need to start asking ourselves what we want our world to look like in order that we can create it into existence and demand that it be protected. All social justice measures must ensure the health and well being of all, not just provide justice for some at the expense of others.
In the 1820’s Henri de Saint- Simon dreamed that artists, scientists, and industrialists would work together to invent, analyze, and create all social initiatives. These words still have power two hundred years later.Artists can work with grassroots organizations to work for the creation of social justice initiatives.We can use art to communicate about the problems with the current realities, to demand justice and to dream up utopia.
This project you hold in your hands is a collaboration of over two dozen voices. These are people who have experienced gender and reproductive injustice and were moved to dream together. Stories, images and multigenerational interviews combine here to give a range of perspectives on how our lives are impacted by our ability (or lack there of) to experience equality.There is no way an endeavor of this nature could be comprehensive; instead it’s meant to be a small glimpse of some of the complex emotions, ideas and perspectives of people dealing with these issues.I hope this project will inspire dialog and communication.The intent is that it be used along with other organizing efforts to shift culture and provide historical perspectives about how these issues impact our lives in the early 21st century.
“This is an Emergency!” was made possible through the input, love, and financial support of over 80 people who supported this project though a crowd funding effort. This project was also made possible with generous funding from The Puffin Foundation. We are indebted to the grassroots and larger scale organizations which provide continuous support and services through the crucial work they do. These organizations build movements and provide services, advocacy, visibility and legal support. Over two dozen organizations will be receiving a free copy of this portfolio. These organizations can utilize this project for exhibition purposes, use the graphics in their campaigns, sell the portfolio at a fundraiser or in any other way they determine to be useful. “This is an Emergency!” will be made available online. If you own a copy of this project display it on the walls of organizations, schools, galleries and other community spaces. This project is meant to be touched, held and interacted with.Thank you to all who have worked on and supported this project, and interact with it in the future.
With love, Meredith Stern
“It is we, the artists, that will serve as your avant- garde; the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and the fastest.We have weapons of all sorts: when we want to spread new ideas among people, we carve them in marble or paint them on canvas; we popularize them by means of poetry and music…the song, history or the novel; the theatre stage is open to us, and it is mostly from there that our influence exerts itself electrically, victoriously.We address ourselves to the imagination and feelings of people; we are therefore supposed to achieve the most vivid and decisive kind of action; and if today we seem to play no role or at best a very secondary one, that has been the result of the arts’ lacking a common drive and a general idea, which are essential to their energy and success.”- Olinde Rodrigues (1825)
Meredith: Hey mom, I’d love to interview you about your experiences growing up, and how that influenced the way you communicated with me about birth control. There is so much stigma, fear, and complicated feelings around talking to your kids about sex and birth control.So, I thought it could be interesting for us to have an open talk about them. I remember how we openly talked about all these issues in our household and I didn’t even ever date anyone until after going to college, but my best friend Sadie, whose mom used to show us anti-abortion propaganda and tell us we were going to go to hell if we had sex, got pregnant while we were still in high school.She literally had a shotgun wedding.When we were 17 her dad stood on the porch of his trailer with a shotgun and told her boyfriend (who already had a wife and kids) that he had to get a divorce and marry Sadie.They did get married, and last time I talked to her, she had just had her sixth kid.That always stands out to me as proof that “talking about sex” to your kid doesn’t mean they are going to have it, but trying to scare your kids out of it can have the reverse affect.
Judy: Hey Meredith, I’d be happy to have this discussion with you. I hope I can be helpful. One thing I can remember off hand that might be interesting or a good story is that I had a friend who was 2 years older than I, and I showed her the book my parents gave me about reproduction. I don’t think they ever talked about sex with me, but gave me the book.It was an illustrated book that explained the reproduction systems, sex, pregnancy and birth. I was 8 yrs when my parents gave me the book and she was 10 or 11 when she saw it, and her parents had an absolute fit.They were very angry at my parents for letting me have a book like that and allowing her to see it. She, like Sadie, got pregnant in high school, and I didn’t.We had a similar book lying around for you and Michael since you were infants, there for you to read whenever you felt like it. I know you were young because you were still scribbling in your books, and scribbled in that one, too. We sent you and your brother off to college with condoms. “Don’t forget these!” “Oh, mommmm” was the reply.
Meredith: You mention that your parents gave you a book when you were a young kid. Did they ever talk to you when you were in high school about birth control or pregnancy? Were you or your friends able to get birth control and if so, how difficult was it? Do you know if anyone in our family ever had an abortion while it was illegal, or anyone you went to high school with? Was there a stigma around talking about these issues?
Judy: My parents didn’t really talk about birth control, etc. One or the other of them tried to talk to me, basically asked if I had questions, but it was awkward. I wish I remember it better, but I don’t. Condoms were available in all drug stores. There was some discussion about whether “the pill” would become legal. It did, but I don’t recall any of the politics around it. There was definitely stigma about abortion; and sex. When I was a teenager, people didn’t talk about sex: it was understood you weren’t supposed to do it unless you were married. Girls would get a “bad reputation” if it got out that they had sex so no one would talk about it if they did it. That is, until later, with the “sexual revolution” and then they could talk retrospectively. That automatically made talking about abortion a big “no no” also. I don’t know anyone who had an illegal abortion, but I remember people had to go to another state to have one.
Meredith: I remember that we had to write a paper in English class in 9th grade where we had to take a side on a heated issue in the media. I decided to write the paper about abortion, and I took a pro-choice stance in the paper. You helped me with research in the library. I remember the reaction from my teacher was really negative, and I got the sense that she was pro-life and didn’t like my perspective on the issue. I also have a memory from around that time of you telling me that if I was going to have sex that you wanted me to be using condoms, but that if I got pregnant you wanted me to tell you. I remember you mentioned abortion as one of the options I could consider if that happened.
Judy: I don’t remember talking particularly about abortion, but I don’t think I would have pushed you in that direction. My memory would be just that you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable coming to us, that we would help you think about options and we’d support your decision.
Meredith: Another thing I really remember was how you wanted to make it perfectly clear to us (my brother and I) that if we were gay that we could tell you and you would love us no matter who we fell in love with. Do you remember what was prompting you to have these discussions with us?
(Note: my mom divorced my biological father when I was 4 and remarried when I was 8 and he is my Dad.)
Judy: Being gay was still a stigma while you guys were growing up. I did have a fear that your biological father would make you feel bad about being gay (if you were gay), so I might have emphasized that there is no reason to feel bad about it.We have gay friends who have been together a long time and lived through the trauma of telling their parents and hiding their partner. Your Dad and I didn’t want you to feel you had to hide in the closet if you were gay.
Meredith: Aunt Fannie, who is our oldest living relative, was always very open with us about having miscarried. Was our family always open with each other about sex, pregnancy, and death? A lot of my friends tell me that their family refuses to talk about any of these issues. Why do you think our family talks about these things?
Judy: I don’t know why.Perhaps it was that my parents were more liberal than theirs, and that carried down the line.
In the early 2000’s, our country entered a problematic period of “abstinence only” programs in high schools which were funded by the Bush Administration.As of 2010, President Obama cut funding to abstinence only programs, and has dedicated funding of sex education programs that effectively reduce teen pregnancy.According to the Guttmacher Institute, “There is no evidence to date that abstinence-only-until-marriage education delays teen sexual activity. Moreover, research shows that abstinence-only strategies may deter contraceptive use among sexually active teens, increasing their risk of unintended pregnancy and STIs. Further, a 2007 congressionally mandated study found that federally-funded abstinence-only programs have no beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior. Strong evidence suggests that comprehensive approaches to sex education help young people both to withstand the pressures to have sex too soon and to have healthy, responsible and mutually protective relationships when they do become sexually active.”http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/FB-Teen-Sex-Ed.html
Where to begin?Today I am both discouraged and encouraged.I started college a dozen years before Roe.I had a close friend who traveled to Mexico to have an abortion and came back unable to bear children.I wore a button emblazoned with “Legalize Abortion” over a simple wire hanger.I was surprised and reminded of its iconic power when 46 years later a college student used that image in a poster to protest the Pence Amendment, which would have banned Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funds.After college, I worked in New York.All the women I knew went to the same wonderful ob/gyn, a man sympathetic to every woman’s right to decision making.When I called to tell him I thought I was pregnant he asked, “Do you want to be?”When I said “yes” his enthusiasm could be felt over the phone just as I know his support would have been had I given a different answer.He delivered my daughter Samantha, pre Roe while we lived in NY, and my son Peter, post Roe when we lived in NJ because I refused to go to any other doctor.
I don’t remember my reaction to Roe but I vividly remember the reaction of others when I ran a campaign for Congress a year later.Despite exhortations by consultants, my candidate was straightforward.He supported Roe no wiggling ifs, ands or buts.Pictures of fetuses were left on the steps in front of our house.Catholic supporters risked being called out by their Church.An amazing set of nuns had begun a group called “Network” that measured candidates based on 10 issues.Candidates who agreed on nine of the ten were endorsed.My candidate was endorsed by Network and it became a staple of our campaign materials.Today women are being forced to see pictures not unlike those left on my doorstep and the socially conscious nuns of Network, most of whom are now in their 70’s, are being attacked by their Church.
In 1985 I founded a firm called Martin and Glantz that specialized in grassroots organizing and communications strategies.Our first client was the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).The organization remained a client for almost ten years.In 1989 during the Supreme Court deliberations on the Webster case, which had the potential to reverse Roe, our firm organized an amicus brief signed by Governors and State Legislators.I remember that the first signatory (by fax for those who remember the time before the internet) was Lowell Weicker, the Republican Governor of Connecticut.The response was extraordinary.At the time, the amicus had the most support from elected officials than any in the history of the Supreme Court.Today, we have the most anti-choice bills introduced into state legislatures than ever before.
During the 1989 Supreme Court deliberations, my 75 year old mother (I was 46) haltingly told me her personal story.Three years after I was born she became pregnant again.Her doctor told her that she would die if she carried the pregnancy to term.He also told her that he would not perform an abortion.She and my father struggled with the decision.My father made the argument that her two children, myself and my older brother, needed her and he couldn’t bear the thought of losing her.Asking around she found out about a doctor who would “take care of her.”Somehow he managed to find her a hospital bed probably by saying she needed a D & C (dilation and curettage).My mother described being put in a room down a corridor with no other patients.Her meals were left outside her room rather than brought to her bedside.Only her doctor cared for her while she was hospitalized.She felt humiliated and so demeaned that she was incapable of telling her activist daughter about this circumstance until she knew she was close to dying.I was filled with anger and resolve.My mother and I never had a particularly close relationship.She was demanding and we were of the 1950’s style “avoid difficult conversations” mother-daughter generation.Nevertheless, I credit her with infusing her values in me when I was growing up and again, when I was 46, powerfully influencing my attitudes and actions.
Not long after, I helped design and organize the 1992 Women’s March on Washington in response to another Supreme Court case.As much of an activist as I am, I have never been much of a marcher but that day in April, my husband Ron, Peter and I were joined by Samantha who came to Washington from college.We stood among the throngs, mostly unable to hear the speakers but definitely able to feel the energy.1992 turned out to be the Year of the Woman at the ballot box.Samantha called me after the election when she had the opportunity to vote for two women for the US Senate, a woman for Congress and a woman for the state legislature.She said, prophetically, “I know it’s great mom but I also know it’s not enough.”How true.
The reproductive rights movement over the past twenty years seems to have become a bit complacent.Core activists – mostly my age – were vigilant.Abortion was more of a voting issue for those who opposed it than for those who supported the right.Medical advances made the issue more complicated.And, of course, Roe was considered settled law.
Today we are facing a crisis of unimaginable proportions.Abortion has always been a lightning rod for legislative attack.The number and sophistication of proposed restrictive legislation is unprecedented.1000 plus bills that restrict access to reproductive health and rights have been introduced in state legislatures this year.80 restrictions have been passed by one house.10 have been enacted.Women stopped legislation requiring vaginal probes in VA but could not stop the legislation in TX.States like Pennsylvania passed sonogram laws with the Governor saying women could “just close their eyes” if they didn’t want to look at the sonograms that are required to be placed virtually up against their eyeballs.Legislation to ban funding of Planned Parenthood has been signed into law in a number of states and is being argued in the courts.Planned Parenthood clinics are being forced to close down.
The fact that contraception has become a flash point is scary.I feel as though I am living somewhere in a world squeezed between the Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale.The impunity with which Rush Limbaugh could call a young woman a “slut” with no comment from the Republican nominee and silent agreement by the Catholic Church is alarming.It is unnerving that members of Congress voted for an amendment to allow Catholic Hospitals, Charities and Colleges to deny coverage of contraception and then were surprised when their constituents reacted in horror.
The current gender gap in the Presidential contest is not about any one legislative vote or widely reported comments.It is about the din of disrespect for women unlike anything I have witnessed.Sure, I have lived through a lot of discrimination – was my being fired from a job when it became apparent I was pregnant just a coincidence?; how many times when I was pregnant and running a Congressman’s office was I asked if I were his secretary?; what was the pay differential between my jobs in advertising and politics and the men along side me?; and, so on.There were no anti-discrimination laws until after my first pregnancy and we only now have some semblance of equal pay requirements.What distinguishes the current environment is the outspoken pride with which some of the attacks on women are taking place and the seemingly coordinated legislative attacks on reproductive health.
I don’t think a renewed effort around an Equal Rights Amendment is valuable.We don’t have time, shouldn’t spend the dollars and could well not win.We need a revolution by young people.I can’t stand that I have stood for women’s rights for my entire adult life (if you measure from age 18 that would be over 50 years) and still need to fight.I am not without energy.I am simply becoming beaten down.No amount of progress can substitute for the emerging national demeaning of women.
I remember when Samantha led an amazing revolt against an anti-women dictum at a Jewish summer leadership camp she attended.I remember when Peter refused to buy Dominos Pizza in high school because its owner was virulently anti-choice and the owner put his money where he mouth was; and when Peter wrote a paper about Roe.Both my children generously gave part of the very small inheritance they received from their grandmother to have a room named after her at a local Planned Parenthood.Both are stalwarts to this day.
However we need to get beyond those with these issues in their DNA.From my perch as Chair of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund I was able to watch and be encouraged by the outpouring of support for the organization during the Pence Amendment debate and when Komen for the Cure announced its decision to stop making grants to local Planned Parenthood affiliates.Much of the support came from young people.The average age of Planned Parenthood supporters dropped precipitously.
I believe only greater engagement of women at all levels of power will create change.It is the women in Congress who force public discussion of the issues before the body.It is women in the workplace who will need to stand for their own and their colleagues’ rights.It is women using the web to tell their stories, to create awareness and to offer opportunities to become part of the social media fabric of activism.It is the socially engaged artists who will use their art to spread their views.It is women not defined by party but by gender who will have to respond.I am encouraged by my sense that young women are willing to be part of this revolution.I worry that they may mostly exist within my “bubble.”But, I don’t have time to worry.I must use my time – as you must use yours in keeping with the old adage, “don’t mourn, organize.”
If there was an ABC list or a primer on understanding abortion in a practical manner, particularly for a woman facing that decision, I suspect a large portion of Peg Johnston’s essays would be there.Refer to We Have Met the Enemy, and She/He is Us for a quick and straight forward overview on addressing the stigma of abortion. Lose the Adjective helped me describe tiny changes in perception that could go a long way in addressing that stigma.In Opting out of the Abortion War she addresses a major issue in the arena of politicizing abortion.She states, “After battling ‘the anti’s’ all these years, it came as a revelation to me that abortion politics is only a peripheral annoyance to women who are trying to decide what’s best for their lives. But only after getting “unbound” from the battle could I find a way to write something useful for people facing this decision.” And that’s what she did.As part of her work, Peg has created a series of workbooks for those facing pregnancy and questioning. The Pregnancy Option Workbooks (http://www.pregnancyoptions.info/) are available in English and Spanish. These workbooks are used by tens of thousands, in print, at clinics and online.
A funny thing happened after reading Peg Johnston’s writing. I related to her feelings, emotions, thoughts and concerns.I also discovered that she had laid out some very practical terms to better understand the Abortion debate, to help women who have had to make that decision and for people who wish to provide support for those women.Practical! It’s amazing what abortion becomes outside of the framework of a rhetorical battle.In other terms it can be framed as a difficult choice, a chance for a serious evaluation of your life and your relationships.Like a major illness, accident or life event.After being inspired to get in contact with her, I was lucky to have her graciously agree to talk to me personally and intently.
Peg Johnston and I spoke at length about my abortion and her history supporting those who had abortions.She commented, “I see a lot of young women who come in and their relationship with their boyfriend is that they’re kind of pals until the abortion. The physiological differences really put them in a different place, and an abortion brings your attention to that.”
When I ask what she thinks about the current political push against abortion with measures in Congress, she replies, “I think it’s kind of a last push.It’s our feeling that if everybody had free speech on this issue, so to speak, a lot of this craziness around abortion would disappear. There would be a lot of opinions out there, instead of just the one opinion that the anti-abortion people are pushing.”
Her opinion is a soft and reasoned one. When I asked of her experiences growing up and of the level of openness around birth control, she said “there wasn’t any.”Even though her mother worked at Planned Parenthood, they had limited conversations or openness about birth control between them.I see her voice helping to carry the abortion movement forward towards becoming a place for women to come into their own and feel empowered to make decisions without feeling ashamed.
When explaining work at her current office she tells me there are two different types of abortion providers; the kind that treat it as a medical procedure, and the kind that treat the whole person including their emotional experience. We talked about the importance and significance of the abortion experience. She clarifies for me “What the procedure does is just empty the uterus but the significance comes in the whole experience that women and their loved ones bring to it as well as whatever the provider offers.”Peg encourages women to feel lucky about having an opportunity for contemplation.
While not everyone may have the personally gratifying conversation I had with Peg Johnston, a truly well spoken and gracious soul, anyone who is touched by abortion can benefit greatly from her wealth of knowledge and the resources she has created. I strongly urge you to explore her resources whether you are looking to have an abortion, deal with an abortion you’ve had, or just to have a conversation around it.Personally, having spoken with her has changed my life. She has helped me feel not only less ashamed, but also proud to be open about my abortion experience.
Peg Johnston has been director of an abortion facility in Binghamton, NY since 1981 and has been active on the national stage in her efforts to provide compassionate abortion care for women. She is a past president of the Abortion Care Network, the Abortion Conversation Project, and the National Coalition of Abortion Providers.Peg is the primary author of several patient aides, notably the Pregnancy Options Workbook, Healthy Coping After An Abortion, Mom, Dad, I’m Pregnant… and Especially for Men. She has also written several influential essays including: Opting Out of the Abortion Wars, We Have Met the Enemy and S/he is Us and Lose the Adjective.