Body Politics: Writing Reproductive Rights and Justice During the War on Women
November 28, 2016 § 1 Comment
Gila Lyons reports from BinderCon:
The third annual BinderCon took place October 28 – 30 when it seemed like Hilary Clinton’s win for the presidency would be imminent. The conference energy was high and celebratory as over 550 women and gender non-conforming writers gathered at NYU’s campus for a conference whose mission is to “empower women and gender non-conforming writers with the tools, connections, and strategies they need to advance their careers.” The conference is an offshoot of Out of the Binders, a women’s writing collective of tens of thousands of women formed in response to Mitt Romney’s gaffe during the 2012 presidential debates that he had “whole binders full of women,” referring to job applicants he’d received as Massachusetts governor. Now that Trump is our president elect, one of the panels, BODY POLITICS: WRITING REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS AND JUSTICE DURING THE WAR ON WOMEN, is more crucial than ever.
Panelists Irin Carmon, Britni de la Cretaz, Steph Herold, and Gloria Malone moderated by, Dr. Cynthia Greenlee, discussed how to write about abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, queer and gender non-conforming identity, and other stigmatized and divisive sexual and reproductive issues, in a political and social landscape that is often hostile to women and marginalized people. They covered the ins and outs of working with editors, protecting oneself when writing personally about such hot-button topics for both online and print publications, and how to convince mainstream editors that they need to cover reproductive and sexual-health issues, and how.
For those who couldn’t attend the conference, or for those who were there but want a refresher, here’s a recap:
Britni de la Cretaz, is a social worker-turned-freelance writer who writes to shatter stigma and amplify marginalized voices. “I decided I’d tackle issues no one wanted to hear about and get them on mainstream platforms,” de la Cretaz said. She writes about having herpes and being STI positive, about addiction, pregnancy, and parenting. She strives to be gender-inclusive not just in the stories she covers but in the language she uses. “We’ve done a good job including the queer community in mainstream media but not so much trans or non-binary people,” she said. “It’s not just women who are getting pregnant or accessing abortion or nursing. Words have a big power and we have to change the way people think by the way we use them.” She suggests that instead of writing “nursing women,” we write “nursing parents,” and instead of “pregnant women,” we use “pregnant people” to include trans and non-binary people. “There is a war on marginalized bodies,” she said, and posited that writers can be allies to marginalized people by using inclusive language and covering their stories. In that vein, she’s written about trans people who nurse in What It’s Like to Chestfeed for The Atlantic, What to Expect When You’re Expecting—with Herpes, for Marie Claire, What’s life like with a transgender grandmother? The Washington Post, and Inside the Misunderstood World of Adult Breastfeeding for Rolling Stone. She shared that she’s had good luck getting stories like these picked up by pegging them to new studies, books, politics, or celebrities. She also stresses the importance of asking subjects and interviewees their pronouns and fighting to get accurate pronouns used in published pieces and not to use “he” or “she” just because it’s default. “That’s sloppy and inaccurate journalism,” she said. “Work with editors to find gender non-conforming pronouns if your interviewees or subjects describe themselves that way.”
Also stressing the importance of thoughtful and accurate semantics was Gloria Malone, writer, speaker, and activist, who shared her story of becoming pregnant at fifteen years old and parenting as a teenager. Instead of “teen mom,” she uses the phrase “pregnant and parenting young person,” to speak with justice and dignity about young people’s right to make their own reproductive choices. She is the co-founder of the #NoTeenShame, a site dedicated to “shame-free LGBTQ-inclusive comprehensive sexuality education and equitable access to resources and support for young families.” She says that pregnant and parenting young people encounter slut shaming, depression, anxiety, and social isolation at a time when they should be especially supported by family and peers. She wants people, no matter their age, to have choices over their own reproductive autonomy. As a consultant she works with nonprofits and local governments to ensure reproductive justice, dignity and respect for non-traditional families. Malone defines reproductive justice as “deciding if, when, and how one choses to raise a child.” She continued, “Harmful narratives have been constructed about pregnant and parenting as a young person; and when you’re black or Latina, as I am, even more so.” Malone feels that every aspect of her existence has been made into a public health issue, which inspires her craft. “I’m not a public health issue,” she said, “this is my life. I write to have my people represented, especially about abortion because it’s criminalized. It’s a fundamental right for people to make decisions about their bodies.” Her writing about the intersections of race, public policy, and lived experiences of black women and girls has appeared in The New York Times, Al Jazeera America, The Huffington Post, and more. Malone cited two organizations she works with that are particularly important for people to know about and support – The Women of Color Sexual Health Network and The National Network of Abortion Funds. She is also a member of Echoing Ida, a writing collective for black women and non-binary individuals.
The panel was moderated by a fellow Echoing Ida member, Dr. Cynthia Greenlee. Greenlee is an historian of the African-American experience and the law, and a senior editor at Rewire News, a site devoted to reproductive and sexual health rights and justice. She has written for American Prospect, Dissent, EBONY.com and Rolling Stone, among other publications. Greenlee laments how ahistorical journalism can be, and encourages writers to include a historical context for the stories they’re covering. “Even when covering something extremely timely,” she suggested, “look for scholarly articles on the subject and then seek out those authors to interview.”
Steph Herold, is a social scientist and activist with a background in abortion care and abortion funds. Herold is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of The Sea Change Program, whose mission is to “transform the culture of stigma around abortion and other stigmatized reproductive experiences.” She has served on the boards of the New York Abortion Access Fund and the ACCESS Women’s Health Justice board, and founded IAmDrTiller.com a site of stories of individuals who have dedicated their lives to making abortion safe, legal, healthy, and accessible to women and girls. Herold and her team partnered with the Berkeley Media Studies Group to look at 3000 articles in top 10 media outlets in 2014 – 2015 to investigate 1) How does abortion stigma manifest in news media, and 2) Why do journalists report on abortion and what difficulties do they encounter?
Some of their findings:
- 36% of news articles contained quotes that frame abortion as murder and immoral
- 21% of news articles contained quotes that portrayed abortion as harmful to women, either physically or emotionally
- 15% of articles contained quotes that portrayed abortion providers as greedy, profiteering, and unscrupulous
- 6% reported on the safety of abortion
- 3% cited statistics about public support of abortion
- 3% statistics related to the prevalence of abortion
- 8% included a personal experience of abortion from a named or unnamed person
- 4% mentioned the fact that most women who have abortions are mothers
- 4% mentioned the historical presence of abortion in society
This study will be released in more detail in January 2017 at seachangeprogram.org
Herold urged, “Anti-abortion talking points are a problem…but our lack of affirming abortion and connecting it to American values in our own talking points is a bigger problem.” She argues that we need to “embrace opportunities to talk about abortion as public health experience, and to bring voices of people who’ve had abortions to the forefront.” Some barriers she acknowledged to placing these types of pieces are institutional (getting editors to assign and champion the stories), related to journalist harassment (writers covering the issue have been trolled and threatened by anti-abortion advocates), and monotony of the issue (how to talk about abortion and related issues in a new way). But she reminded the audience of how important it is to keep trying. “News shapes public policy,” she wrote in her power point, “who is quoted in the news and what they say has an impact on how abortion is viewed and regulated.”
Irin Carmon is the co-author of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and MSNBC digital and TV reporter on gender, politics, and the law, with a special emphasis on reproductive rights and the Supreme Court. Carmon described the importance of transparency, integrity and fairness as a journalist and sticking assiduously to reporting the facts and peoples’ first hand accounts. She showcased a recent project with MSNBC, Shuttered: The End of Abortion Access in Red America, which is a feat of interactive long-form journalism with written narrative, photography, sound recordings, video, and charts and graphs.
Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, Cosmopolitan, Vox, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, Ploughshares, Brevity, Tablet, Fusion, and other publications. She holds an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University, teaches college writing and literature, and is at work on a memoir about seeking a natural cure for anxiety and panic disorder but falling prey to the underbelly of the alternative health movement. Links to published work can be found at www.gilalyons.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons