Being an ally to women

Marysia asked what prompted my last post. It was no big deal, really — a relatively civilized abortion discussion on Atheist Nexus. Anyway, I’ve decided it doesn’t matter.

Yes, there are people out there who think that any opposition to abortion necessarily indicates misogyny. No, they’re not right. But the best way to rebut them isn’t to complain that they’re closed-minded (even when they are) or even to argue about it. The best way is to be the best ally to women that you can be. Every day, in all parts of your life.

I realize it sounds a bit crazy to talk about being allies to women when so many of us are women. Just to speak about my own position for a moment: I benefit from privilege by being white, middle-class, educated, and heterosexual. I am lucky in that I have a supportive family, my birth control has always worked, and if it didn’t, I have the resources I need to give my child a good life. There are women who don’t have all of that privilege and all of that luck, and I want to be the best ally I can be to them.

As Greta Christina wrote in her great post on how atheist groups can be better allies:

Learn about that group’s experience in the world. Learn what the common myths and misconceptions are about that group, and don’t perpetuate them. Learn what kind of language they prefer… and what kind of language insults them and pisses them off. Speak out against bigotry. Be inclusive — not fake, lip-service inclusive, but real inclusive. Don’t trivialize their anger, and don’t divide the group into “good” ones and “bad” ones based on who’s being angry and confrontational and who’s being polite and diplomatic. If you’re going to be critical, be very, very careful that you have both your facts and your context right. Find common ground. Be aware of your own privilege.

Pro-lifers, please think about that paragraph in terms of being an ally to women, including women who are pro-choice.

Being an ally means listening. It means not assuming that you know better than someone else what hurts them. It means not making everything about you. It means checking your privilege.

It doesn’t mean a knee-jerk agreement with everything any member of the less privileged group does. It doesn’t mean guilt, or self-flagellation. It does mean being open to the possibility that you don’t know everything. It means being humble enough to recognize, correct, and apologize for causing unnecessary hurt — even if it’s unintentional. Perhaps hardest of all, being an ally to women means being willing to take a hard look at yourself and consider whether any of your beliefs or actions may be rooted in internalized misconceptions of or disregard for women. Yes, that can happen to women too.

One more thing about being an ally? You don’t get to tell someone that you’re their ally, and that they have to believe you. It doesn’t work that way. You just have to do your best, and they get to decide whether they consider you their ally. Some people are never going to accept as an ally anyone who opposes abortion. And that may hurt, and you may think it’s unfair or misguided. You’re going to have to live with it.

One thought on “Being an ally to women

  1. Marysia

    Jen,
    beautifully said, this could apply to anyone who wants to really be an ally of any oppressed group.

    I have thought long and hard about why the terms “prolife feminism” or “consistent life ethic” are considered such so suspect and empty, even deliberately deceptive and insincere.

    Part of it, as you say, is that some folks define antiabortion as inherently misogynistic, no matter the motives or the context of one’s opposition to abortion.

    Although people’s personal reactions to abortion vary widely, a good portion of people who equation antiabortion always and forever with misogyny seem (in my experience anyway) to have personal experiences of abortion that they feel were indispensable to their own and/or a loved one’s wellbeing and even survival.

    Any challenge to abortion seems to be experienced like a very personal attack, and who want in that case to regard any antiabortionists as having recognizably humanitarian motives? It is critical to empathize and engage with this sort of response, even if it strikes one as unfair and misplaced and inaccurate.

    Another problem–and the one for which as prolifers are responsible–is that when many antiabortionists profess concern for women, they haven’t got a clue! Or they make things worse.

    Like Joe Scheidler claiming that women don’t need social programs to help them avoid abortion, or that contraception is inherently antiwoman (rather than a matter of informed choice, conscience, and health). And it’s the clueless or outright hostile towards women who get a hearing in this culture.

    Not the prolifers who are doing their damnedest to make the world a better place for women. But then, those who try to dismantle the conventions and conflicts of power-over and seek power-with are usually belittled and covered over.

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