On Feminist Badassery, the Importance of Story-telling, and Memories of Walking to Class

          Hollaback! is an international organization that strives to combat street harassment and empower women to stand up for each other and report incidents of harassment.  Day one of my internship was a whirlwind introduction to the executive director, the mission, the pro-bono staff, the international sites, “a culture of badass” and the historical context underlying the street harassment resistance movement.  It’s simply hard to believe the amount of work overseen by this tiny one room office in Brooklyn, which had six of us tripping over each other.

As part of our orientation, Emily May asked us to each share a story about a time when we had experienced street harassment.  I was immediately anxious — stories like this are embarrassing and sensitive.   I explained how disruptive and triggering it was when day drinking frat-stars would catcall and yell at me from across the quad.  Telling Hollaback! during my internship orientation was the first time I had ever verbally acknowledged this behavior for what it was– harassment.  Someone else described walking home from school every day as a young teen while being followed, catcalled, and threatened.  Another story involved a middle aged man masturbating at a seventeen year old, as he followed her down the street in his car.  It’s disgusting, and so tragic to realize that we really do ALL have these stories.

Emily pointed out that women are taught from birth to remain silent– to step back and shut up in the face of aggression, harassment, or opposition.  She stressed how important story sharing was in the formation of Hollaback!, which started when she and a few friends were telling stories about their experiences walking down the sidewalks of New York.  They realized that each woman in the group had stories to share about street harassment, incidents they had all experienced, but didn’t talk about.  Friend and co-founder Samuel Carter was shocked and appalled by their stories, sadly stating that he truly lived in a different New York than his female friends.

The true beauty of the exercise was that it made me think about why we don’t talk about these things more often, why I felt so anxious and fearful repeating an experience to me that wasn’t my fault in any way, and in the end, why Hollaback! is so unique.

Reproductive Rights and Eternal Damnation

Two Saturdays ago, Sarah and I rose bright and early to catch a 6:39 F train to Jamaica Queens.

As we rounded the corner we saw the pro-lifers already there setting up, pulling huge signs depicting mutilated tissue and tiny hands on top of dimes and nickels for comparison.

We approached the clinic, and the escort coordinator Frank showed us inside, saying he recognized us as volunteers as soon as we came around the corner.  Our body language and recognition of the “anti” signs with knowing glances distinguished us immediately in his mind from the women we would be escorting into the clinic later that morning.

He explained that the few protesters outside were only the first shift, and soon more would appear— the preacher, the children, and other regulars weren’t there yet.  A fellow volunteer introduced himself, explaining that as local who grew up in this area, he had been disgusted by the protestors’ graphic signs, especially when neighborhood children walking past couldn’t avoid seeing them. Frank pointed out the discrepancies between the fetus’ development and the age that the posters claimed the fetus was, and explained that several of the photos were from miscarriages.

Our basic strategy was to spread out like the protesters and escort women entering the clinic to ensure that the protesters right to free speech did not cross the line into verbal or physical harassment.  We quickly explained to the women that we were with the clinic and could walk with them into the door.

As more of the regular “antis” arrived, the intersection beside the clinic became more tense.  Two young boys had arrived, and were holding up the signs alongside about 10 adult antis spread out across the city block.  The preacher was there and started yelling pronouncements about us, the women walking inside, and the passersby, as church volunteers pressed grotesque pamphlets into the hands of everyone who would accept them, boldly stating false information about abortion and about the clinic.

One woman was particularly vocal. Pacing back and forth in front of the clinic, she sped to the side of anyone who approached the clinic doors, exclaiming the sacred quality of a life, and the multitude of options. Many of the protesters did not seem to be aware that the clinic offers counseling before any surgical procedure and the option of extensive pre-natal care instead of abortion.  Frank had two volunteers walk on either side of her for a while to further limit her access to the clients.  She walked between us, decrying our choices and our sin in the midst of a basic gospel message, reminding us of a fast approaching judgment day.  We were soon joined by another protester who spoke of her arrogant college days, and asked me to reconsider the lives she insinuated that I personally was ending.  Frank smiled and laughed when we passed, joking that I shouldn’t worry about it, he’d hang out with me in hell, and we’d have a great time.

Several of the protesters in particular seemed to believe that their opinion was not only true, but also the only opinion that a Christian could have.  He looked shocked when he overheard Sarah and I talking about attending church together.  Another explained that “true Christians” couldn’t possibly believe in evolution or support marrying “the gays.”

I guess I don’t really have a well-developed take away message at this point, except that it’s very interesting to put yourself in a situation in which you are standing (or pacing) in direct opposition to the vehement moral beliefs of someone else.

But I went back again this past Saturday,
And I’ll be back in Queens bright and early next week.

“SO, who here’s had an abortion?”

Sunny is a rising junior working at Hollaback, which combats street harassment locally and globally.

“Well, I have.”

In part, that’s why Merle Hoffman is so inspiring.  Clearly a brilliant businessperson, she’s brazenly passionate about her work, and unafraid of encountering opposition, but she also, deeply, personally knows what she’s talking about.  From the start, she shocked us into wondering why we were so shocked—if one third of women in America have abortions sometime in their lives, why don’t we ever talk about it like this?

Headed to Choices, I didn’t know what to expect.  I definitely identify as pro-choice, but thinking about abortion as a theoretical issue is vastly different from visiting a clinic, or thinking about abortion in your own life.  I’ve never been involved in advocating for reproductive rights, or even felt comfortable enough with my knowledge on the issue to contribute much of an opinion.

But listening to Merle talk about it, it just made sense— a woman should be able to choose when, if ever, she wants to have a child.  Abortion is legal, and a woman should be able to access her reproductive rights regardless of which state she lives in or her financial situation.

The national conversation on abortion has been especially rough in the past year—from personhood laws, to bans limiting the abortion timeframe, to the Georgia state senator’s comparison of pregnant women to pregnant livestock.  For many women, the right to abortion is threatened by cost and local access to a provider.  That’s why Merle has dedicated her life to this clinic, which provides counseling and reproductive health services (both pre-natal care and abortion services) to ensure that all women, including Medicare recipients, have access to their right to choose.

Although Hollaback has chosen to avoid taking a stance on politicized topics like abortion, I do see a connection with the way Merle was so open about her experience.  Hollaback is all about gaining the courage to speak out, break the silence on something that is a big part of so many women’s lives.