A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the rhetoric that we use around women’s rights and their autonomy in terms of their own bodies. In particular, I focused on women’s health, and how the dialogue around women’s health tended to have two modes: “this is serious, debilitating, and tragic” or “A WOMAN DID SOMETHING WITH HER OWN BODY WOOHOO!” I believe that this type of dichotomy exists in all sorts of places in women’s lives, and that it doesn’t do women any good. When we are talking about women’s lives, almost nothing exists in the black and white places of life. More often than not, there is a dialectic. Something can be empowering and good while also being thoughtful or difficult. To look at a particular example from my own life: my attempts at recovering from an eating disorder are clearly a form of taking my own empowerment in hand and standing up to many of the expectations of women in my life. However at the same time it is something that comes with a great deal of pain, a great deal of stress and anguish and difficulty, and a great deal of thought and reflection. Most of the empowering things in our lives come only after deliberation and reflection.
Because of the role of oppression in women’s lives, we need to be extremely careful about understanding how the personal and the communal interplay in any individual decision that a woman makes. For example, I am all for applauding when a woman exercises her rights over her body, but having some empathy for the fact that it might have been a hard or confusing or thought-filled decision is probably a good idea. Societally, when a woman takes control of her own body and does something like have an abortion or have a mastectomy, she is helping to break down patriarchal values and oppression for everyone around her, including herself. However personally, these may be decisions that required some thought, that were painful or uncomfortable, or that just were not fun. We are allowed to both praise something and show sympathy for whatever toll it might have taken on the individual who enacted it.
Having empathy about the experiences that women go through while they are exercising their rights allows us to hear the individual experiences, something that has always been hugely important to the women’s movement. We cannot try to improve women’s experiences unless we actually take the time to hear what those experiences are.
Particularly in the realm of women’s health, we can both applaud someone for the fact that they have done something bold in their personal choices, while also recognizing that most health decisions and procedures come with some price and that we should be aware of that. We should recognize and celebrate that women go through complex thought processes surrounding their mental health. We should make it HARD for conservatives to view us as stupid little womens who don’t know anything about their own health and who just frivolously run around cutting pieces of ourselves off. We should respect each other enough to make thoughtfulness (without tragedy) part of the dialogue about women’s health. It’s something that is often missing. More often we hear about morality, or about rights, or about access, or about money. Rarely do we stop and listen to deliberations that women have to go through in order to make their healthcare decisions, particularly when they are in oppressive situations that limit their access. When thoughtfulness does come into the dialogue, it’s often as a way of casting women’s healthcare and health choices as something tragic, difficult, or heartbreaking in a way that men’s health is not (few people talk about how thought-filled the decision to get a vasectomy is, despite the fact that people probably put a great deal of thought into it).
Indeed the idea that “thoughtful” necessarily means difficult is simply wrong and unhelpful. We are thoughtful about many things. Sometimes they’re difficult and also positive (deciding where to go to college), sometimes they’re difficult and heartbreaking (whether to pull the plug on a dying relative) sometimes they’re not difficult at all and they’re just great (like trying to decide which flavor of cupcake to buy…that takes a lot of thought let me tell you) and sometimes they’re not difficult but they kind of suck anyway (like choosing to get a pap smear, which I always think about and always know what I’m going to answer and always hate the answer to anyway). We think about all kinds of things and we make decisions based on thought processes all the time. Saying that something requires thought or reflection doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t know what we’re going to answer or that it will hurt us or that it will have a negative consequence. It just means we wanted to make sure it was the right decision.
We need to create space for the ways that women actively navigate their lives, and the balance that they must constantly keep between their personal needs, their personal decision making, and the societal pressures around them. We need to keep in mind that while a woman might have really loved getting that abortion because it was exactly the right thing in her life, there are social repercussions and we should be empathetic to that. We need to keep in mind all the sacrifices that women make nearly every time they make a choice about how to exercise their autonomy. And the more we do this, the less we will have black and white thinking and dichotomies, and the more we will have a conscientious dialogue with other women about how frustrating it is to navigate the world we live in, in which there are almost no “right” choices, only better choices. I think that definitionally, as women, nearly every decision we make has to be thoughtful (obviously there are some exceptions, but when you’re part of an oppressed group you’re forced to be more conscious of your decisions). And because of this, we are always aware of the costs and the benefits of our decisions. Now we need to start recognizing that process in others.