'Talking About a Choice'
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For feminism, too, a certain pragmatism was taking hold. Witches were out. Coat hangers were history. But the Roe victory already felt chillingly tenuous. Violence against clinics started right away, and it quickly became clear that abortion rights were going to be not so much a one-time victory as an ongoing struggle.
And so, also around 1980, Faye Wattleton, then president of Planned Parenthood, recalls commissioning a poll to take America's temperature on abortion. What the group discovered, Wattleton says, was that Americans felt abortion, on a certain level, was killing.
"Americans aren't stupid," she says. "They believed that in some cases it was necessary but morally wrong, but they did not want the government to make the decision." Ergo: "If we focused on the issue of whether abortion was moral or not, we forced people to come down on the side that it was immoral, and that was dangerous. The position that would appeal to most people was: We were really talking about a choice."
Thus did choice become the central theme of the reproductive rights or, as it's now often known, the pro-choice movement. The term sprang from a sincere impulse, but it also made for an effective platform not just for the reproductive rights movement but for feminism as a whole. By now, women had gained enough ground to call into question the need for "liberation"; and it was becoming clear, as Wattleton points out, that choice "is a word that appeals to people."
The thing is, choices sometimes clash. If a woman chooses to have an abortion, the child loses any say in the matter. Once Bill Clinton lost his election, Hillary Clinton felt her choice, regarding a last name, was no choice at all. Nor was that the only choice closed off to her. After the difficult conception and birth of their daughter, Chelsea, friends say, she would have liked to have more children, but her hopes were never realized.
As an advocate for children, Hillary already knew some-thing about the zero-sum nature of choice. In her often-misrepresented paper for the Harvard Educational Review (the so-called childhood-equals-slavery argument), she wrote that parents should not always have sole decision-making power over how to raise a child. Or even over whether to raise the child at all. That is, she argued that in difficult custody battles, children not parents should decide whom they wanted to live with, even if that meant adoption by a loving foster parent.
The primacy of a child's well-being is a position she has stuck with. In contrast to her liberal image, she is on record deploring "casual attitudes about divorce," arguing in It Takes a Village as well as her newspaper columns that for the sake of familial stability, divorce should be harder to obtain that once two adults have made a choice to marry, their subsequent choices should be constrained, if necessary, by the state. Addressing her own marriage in a 1996 column, she wrote that she and Bill had learned to "bite our tongues when we need to. And like many other couples, we've learned to confront problems before they've reached irreparable proportions."
It was a cheerful spin on an unpleasant situation. In the 1992 presidential campaign, the emergence of Gennifer Flowers and her tearful allegations of a 12-year affair with the governor (which, by this account, would have been ongoing when Hillary was taking his name, campaigning on his behalf and bearing his child) had forced her to make another decision. She would go on "60 Minutes," confront the womanizing allegations, defend her own decision to stay with Bill, and keep him in the race. "I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette," she said passionately but puzzlingly, raising the still-open question: If she wasn't Tammy Wynette, who was she?
"I think she was talking about blind faith versus making a conscious choice," explains Mandy Grunwald. "I think what she was saying was, this is a conscious choice. I choose to be with this man. I am not stuck here, I am not blindly staying here. I do this with wide-open eyes."
Whether it's always better to make a conscious choice rather than a blind one is not entirely clear. What is clear is that as in her notorious comment that she could have stayed home and baked cookies Hillary Clinton chose to define herself against some presumably lesser woman. At that point, she was not exactly making an egalitarian argument for women's choices. Six years later, in January 1998, she would again go open-eyed on national television, this time with Matt Lauer of the "Today" show, to defend her husband amid allegations about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
After she had assured Lauer that the allegations were untrue, Lauer asked her a hypothetical. If it did emerge that an American president had had an affair in the White House and covered it up, would that be a serious matter?
"If all that were proven true, I think that would be a very serious offense," she replied. "That is not going to be proven true." She did not say true; she said proven true. It was not going to be proven true. What was the purpose of this lawyerly, Clintonesque parsing? Were Hillary's eyes open or closed?
Her staff and friends insist she honestly did not know the truth; that only much later, in August, did she learn that her husband had indeed had an affair with Lewinsky, had lied to her about it, and sent her out to lie to the nation. "He betrayed her," says her former press secretary Neel Lattimore. "He betrayed her personally and professionally."
But regardless of what she may or may not have known or suspected, what choice did she have? Her interview had been scheduled before the Lewinsky scandal broke. Her only choice was whether to cancel or not.
"To cancel," Grunwald says, "would have been politically deadly."
In other words: Given who she was, and where she was, and what had happened, at that moment she had no choice at all.
Not if the Clintons wanted to remain, to use a familiar phrase, politically viable.
"She sings a woman's song our song choice is a complex matter," says Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, introducing the first lady a few days after the State of the Union speech. "A right both profound and personal, but a right nonetheless."
On stage this day, the paths of Hillary Clinton and the paths of the women's movement or one important wing of it are once again crossing, more than a generation after they both got their public start. The first lady is the keynote speaker at a glitzy Omni Shoreham luncheon to celebrate the 30th anniversary of NARAL.
"The greatest of American freedoms is choice," says a new NARAL television ad campaign. The ad is being shown on huge television screens to women who are sitting at tables, wearing long skirts or short skirts or medium-length skirts or slacks; wearing bras or not wearing bras; long flowing hair or straight short hair or dreadlocked hair or plain gray hair or radically dyed white hair; boots or sensible pumps or clunky platforms. The only fashion item about which there is not limitless choice is, apparently, shoe color. Whatever style, it seems, the shoes must be black.
In the hotel lobby is a man who volunteers for Voters for Choice, because men, too, can favor choice. So can Republicans. The first speaker is Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt, who describes herself pointedly as a "pro-choice Republican who speaks for millions of other pro-choice Republicans."
Who here would speak against choice? Nobody, not even the family of Barnett Slepian, the Upstate New York doctor murdered because he made the difficult choice to do what he saw as his job, which consisted not only of delivering babies but also performing abortions. Slepian's wife is here, but too grief-stricken to take the stage to receive a posthumous award for her husband. After a moment of silence, there are speeches by, among others, Dana Delany, star of "Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story." Then Hillary Clinton, who takes the stage to characteristically thunderous applause.
Today, she's announcing that the administration has asked for $4.5 million for defending vulnerable abortion clinics against attacks. In addition, she outlines what Michelman describes as the first "comprehensive integrated reproductive health framework" any administration has ever presented.
Which is to say, she talks not about abortion but about choice. "Being pro-choice is not being pro-abortion," asserts the first lady, who helped coin the administration's stated goal of making abortion "safe, legal and rare."
Choice can indeed mean choosing to have an abortion, her message runs, but it can also mean choosing to use contraception, choosing not to have sex, choosing to have a whole gaggle of kids. All of these are choices the administration supports. In addition to the money to defend clinics, she cites proposals as specific as forcing insurance plans to pay for contraception and increasing money for international family planning, and efforts as vague as filling teenager's lives with "meaningful activities" instead of sex.
Hillary Clinton has always shared a "broader understanding of what it means to be pro-choice," says Michelman. When she said the first lady embodies the complexity of choice, she explains, she was talking not about her marriage but about her support for abortion, family planning and families. "There may have been those who thought that in the early stage of the contemporary women's movement, the choice to be at home with your family and to be a wife and mother ... was somehow not as worthy a choice," says Michelman. "[But] the very purpose of the women's movement was to expand choices. To respect choices. I have always been concerned that women across the country, and men as well, understand that the choices women make are equal in value."
The choices are equal in value. The important thing is to have one. What the women's movement wanted, Michelman and other leaders emphasize, was to make sure women don't feel stuck. That they don't feel choiceless because of poverty or dependence. Or even by their own physiology: "I tended to be very fertile," Michelman recalls, and as a result she suffered through a pre-Roe abortion and almost died from taking the Pill early on, when the levels of hormones were far higher. Raising three young daughters, alone, after her husband left her for another woman, she learned what stuck feels like. "I'm just old enough," she says, "not to have had the choices."
Hillary, she thinks, does have choices. "She's chosen to stay with her husband ... when clearly there have been times, in addition to the current one, that have been so painful. I don't think we should be judging that choice ... You have to be able to allow for the personal choices people make that are really embedded in their own moral and ethical value structures."
So that's where we are. Personal choices are embedded in the individual's own moral and ethical value structure. Given this, are there any choices she would not salute?
Michelman hesitates. There is domestic violence. She wouldn't salute a woman staying with a physically abusive husband. And there is something else. "I, for instance, wouldn't salute a woman leaving her family. And yet I had a friend I struggled with this I had a friend who left her family because she couldn't be a mother. She just couldn't. She had two children and made the decision to leave her family, leave her marriage ... That was one of the hardest things for me to cope with: trying to understand how a woman could leave her children."
"Yet," she says, "I have enormous respect for the fact that there might be circumstances where you would have to."
"We don't push any choice on anyone," stresses Cherien Dabis, a 22-year-old staff member of the Feminist Majority Foundation, an Arlington-based organization that skews younger than other mainstream feminist groups. Together with three twentysomething colleagues, Dabis is sitting in a cybercafe on Wilson Boulevard, talking about feminism and about Hillary Clinton, who, they all think, totally rocks.
"She keeps moving forward," says Niyati Shah, who, like the rest, watched the first lady admiringly at the NARAL event.
"She's made a choice in which she feels empowered," says Dabis.
"That's what feminism is about," says Sarah Boonin. "It's about access to choices."
"I think she knows she has certain choices to make," says Summer Damon, "especially if she wants to go into politics in the future. She's able to separate the personal from the political."
She's able to separate the personal from the political. Truly, we've come a long way, baby. For these younger, third-wave feminists, Hillary Clinton represents what could be called the supermarket theory of feminism, or, alternatively, the lipstick-is-okay-and-no-lipstick-is-okay-too theory of feminism. The I'm-okay-you're-okay theory of feminism. A theory in which any choice or way of life is okay as long as it doesn't involve judging other choices or ways of life. As Boonin puts it, "Feminism is about the interconnection between sexism, racism, classism and homophobia.
"The isms," she acknowledges with a grin, "and the phobias."
Boonin was on the team that devised the foundation's new "Choices" campaign, an effort that, as much as anything, shows how "choice" has broadened as a feminist concept to embrace not only reproductive rights but all of a woman's life. Part of the Choices campaign is devoted to defending abortion clinics against vigilantes. But the other part aims to awaken young women to the possibilities open to them in life. One Choices project, for example, sends college women to high schools to coach girls in career options. Actually, the real idea is to open them to progressive career options they teach them how to write a "progressive resume" but even so, any choice would be okay.
Like, say, if a high school girl told her Choices counselor that she wanted to pursue a career in cosmetology? That would be okay, from a feminist point of view?
"That's a choice she's making," says Damon. She could do their hair, the women joke.
If a young girl wanted to make a fortune on Wall Street?
"We need to be all over the place," says Dabis.
What if a young girl wanted to drop out of school and have kids?
"It happens," says Damon.
What if a young girl decided she wanted to join the antiabortion group Operation Rescue?
"That would make me wonder," says Shah, "how informed is this decision."
Because that's the goal: giving girls information about what they can do. Information is access. Information is power. Hillary Clinton, they feel, is informed about her options and so any choice she makes is okay. If she's staying in her marriage now in order to keep open the possibility of a Senate campaign as Damon, for one, suspects that makes sense. She wants to maximize her choices. After all, she's able to separate the political from the personal. The political matters. Ideologically, the personal doesn't. "I don't know if adultery is a feminist issue," says Damon.
And so naturally, when these women are asked what they sit around and worry about when they sit around and worry about their lives, it isn't personal lives. It isn't homes. It isn't boyfriends. It isn't kids. It isn't who does the dishes. It isn't balancing work and family.
It's glass ceilings and lack of access to power. "We all want," they say sincerely, with the hope and terror of the young, "to do so much."
But when asked why they are feminists, they all cite personal reasons. Familial reasons. For Sarah Boonin, her feminism started in what she acknowledges is a laughable way: Once, when she was a kid, she wasn't allowed to go to the circus, and her brother was allowed to go, and she thought this was sexist so she put a placard on a popsicle stick and "picketed dinner." Summer Damon, who was raised with her siblings by a single mom, remembers being a really good baseball player not softball but baseball and trying to play with boys who ridiculed her. Niyati Shah's family is from India, though she grew up in the United States, and she remembers having her own consciousness raised when she went to India and met many women who had suffered sexual abuse.
And Cherien Dabis is Christian Arab, she explains. Her mom is Jordanian, her dad Palestinian. She has four sisters. She always felt, growing up, that her father was disappointed by having all these girls. It was something her mother and father fought over. "He always called her ultra-feminist," she remembers. It wasn't a compliment.
"It ended bitterly," she says matter-of-factly, "in a divorce."
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