Many years ago, there was a march in New York to support the passing of Roe V. Wade, featuring a large group of women, some of them well-known, who were for the first time speaking publicly about their abortions.
We need to do this again.
In the decades since, shame and secrecy have again shrouded this experience, common to so many of us. Our silence has allowed misconceptions to rage and dominate the discourse, primary among them the notion that women regret their choice to terminate a pregnancy. Although a handful of women may have regrets, it has never been true of the general population. Considering the dire causes of some pregnancies, including rape and incest, and the dire results for women denied choice, including death, disability, and a remorseless plunge into poverty, our silence may prove lethal. With our silence, we are promoting, however unintentionally, the Trump administration’s war on women. Fortunately, some progress has been made in this direction, with groups of women speaking out, but we need more displays of this courage.
We all know what is happening around the country with the steadily increasingly speed of all kinds of restrictions, resulting in the closing of many clinics including all but four here in New Mexico. More women will be having babies when they shouldn’t for any number of good reasons.
But talking about choosing abortion means remembering why, before I was married, I didn’t get pregnant.
My memories were sparked by Mary Gaitskill’s excellent essay, “Nice Girls” in this month’s Harper’s—an issue for the archives because of this essay and the extraordinary lead article, “The March on Everywhere: The Ragged Glory of Female Activism”—I have a hunch an editor added that adjective—by Leslie Jamison. This article extinguished the discouragement I felt the last time I wrote.
But first came Gaitskill’s essay, “Nice Girls,” first published in 1994 and, unfortunately, as relevant today as it was more than two decades ago.
Nice girls then as now were defined by the clothes we wore, a too-short skirt in Gaitskill’s case. The connection between the shortness of her skirt and “niceness” was obscure to Gaitskill as a thirteen-year-old, although if she had thought of what a short skirt might reveal, the meaning would have become clear.
Now, she understands that “we could make the struggle” to behave responsibly “less difficult by changing the way we teach responsibility and social conduct. To teach a boy that rape is ‘bad’ is not as effective as teaching him that it is a violation of his own masculine dignity as well as a violation of the raped women.” I wonder how relevant the idea of his dignity is to a teenage boy caught up in the group mindset that allows these rapists to post images of their deed on Facebook.
Be that as it may, my connection to “niceness” was both superficial and conflicted, as must often be the case. I knew to be “nice” meant to scotch some of my most powerful feelings, connected at the root to both sensuality and the growth of my creativity. I sensed that our culture’s aversion to sensuality in all its forms and the liberation it sometimes accompanies, a liberation both of the body and of the imagination, was at the root of the notion of “nice girls.”
There was a big issue of control there, too. My first experiences of sex were inevitably with boys who could never be accused of “niceness,” who were too rough, too poor, too Jewish or too undereducated to be considered appropriate.
But that had nothing to do with why I didn’t get pregnant before I was married, at twenty-one. I didn’t get pregnant because there was no birth control (other than condoms which many males then and now refuse to use) and there was no legal abortion. Many mothers would have welcomed this outcome.
Prohibitions seldom control powerful drives, but in my case, and in the case of the boys I encountered, the threat of pregnancy did stop us cold, short of what was called “going all the way.” Shame, disgrace, the end of our college careers, abandonment by family and friends—could there be a more powerful deterrent?
Later, of course, Roe V. Wade was passed (in 1973) and became the law of the land, and all kinds of contraception were easily available even to unmarried girls.
So it WAS easier, on all levels, not to take precautions. Who WANTS to take precautions, anyway?
At the same time, liberating information about women’s sexuality arrived, first the magnificent Our Bodies, Ourselves (Boston Women’s Health Collective, 1971) still in print in a much later edition today. For the first time, I read information on all aspects of a woman’s body and experience, at best a footnote in other male-centered texts.
Then, in 1972, came a handbook called The Joy of Sex, A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking edited by Alex Comfort. Beautiful line drawings illustrated a variety of sexual positions and practices, revealing in a flash of blinding light what were at least in theory available to all of us.
How astonishingly beautiful this man and woman were, and what a shock it was to see that the man had a beard…
The book with its heterosexual basis may no longer seem relevant, but its vanishing heralded the vanishing of possibilities, for all of us, as the age of repression closed in. The fifties came back in the eighties, grew fierce in the nineties, ravenous and apparently all-consuming today.
The times were changing, or at least appearing to change. And so I eventually got pregnant when I shouldn’t have, twice, between marriages, because I was in love and abortion was legal and available. Both decisions were wise. Being in love with a married man who would never leave his wife and children ensured a miserable motherhood; I had a friend in those days who was struggling to raise her love child alone, and I saw the toll it took. Being pregnant, years later, in a conventional Southern town where marriage was the only excuse for a growing belly would have put me at another kind of risk, the risk of the social exclusion I endured, and profited from, a few years later.
Would I have “gotten myself pregnant,” as my mother called it, if abortion had still been illegal?
Probably not. I do have a sense of and a respect for my own happiness, at least most of the time.
I recently read in an old letter that my mother was afraid I would “get myself pregnant” at college. She was deploring the content of my first published short story, “Winter Term.” She abhorred the painfully ambivalent sexual relationship between the girl and boy I wrote about, even though a close friend, trying to console her, said the two were so unhappy it couldn’t be viewed as an endorsement of premarital sex.
Certainly it could not. I wrote it because the misery we cause each other has always intrigued me.
I was writing from my observation of what was going on around me on campus, not on my own experience, which at that point was limited. But this was when “Write what you know” was advice given to all of us, and which continues to constrict our imaginations (especially for nice girls) today. “Getting myself pregnant,” which sounds like the kind of miracle that occurred to the mother of Jesus, stresses the loneliness of any woman forced to take sole responsibility for her pregnancy.
As I enter the home stretch with Doris Duke: The Invention of the New Woman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, October 2018), I considered the effect of social and legal prohibitions on Doris’ decision to seek an abortion while on her honeymoon. Since she never wrote about her reasons, it leaves room for me to imagine that her developing vision of shaping her life as a collector, philanthropist, and world traveler made the idea of a child unappealing. Years later, with an established life, she was heartbroken at losing, through a miscarriage, the tiny girl she called Arden, but that was when raising a child would have been a culmination rather than an interruption. I hope all women are able to make such worthy decisions, honoring their priorities.
But of course there is always the other side. Doris Duke never had a child; she may have been too old when she finally became pregnant again. I sacrificed any hope of a future with the married man when I had that abortion—but in fact there was no hope. I sacrificed, years later, the possibility of marriage to a man who wanted that pregnancy continued, but for many reasons, the marriage would probably have failed.
We weighed many factors when we made decisions that affect and even change the course of our lives. We are well qualified to do so.
We need to speak out for the sake of our daughters and granddaughters who may face making such decisions in an era of legal and social repression.