Aimée Thorne-Thomsen is a pro-choice feminist activist and sometimes-guest poster here at Feministing. Thorne-Thomsen is the former Director of the now-defunct Pro-Choice Public Education Project, a fantastic organization that worked for reproductive rights and justice for young people, gender non-conforming people, the LGBT community and other groups whose voices often go unheard in the reproductive justice world. But the end of PEP hasn’t diminished Thorne-Thomsen’s commitment to reproductive justice: she still sits on the boards of multiple pro-choice organizations, and she is using what she learned at PEP to help other social justice organizations to improve their services and expand their reach.
Thorne-Thomsen grew up in New York City in a family that was devoted to her education. That devotion paid off: she attended Yale, and later went on to get her Master’s at Baruch College in New York City. When she graduated from college, she worked in the private sector, in advertising, but soon found herself longing for a career that was more personally and politically fulfilling. When she found the Pro-Choice Public Education Project, she says, she fell in love. She served as the organization’s director until it shut down in April this year, a loss by which we were all saddened.
It was a real pleasure to speak to Thorne-Thomsen about how she learned to be an activist, how to move the pro-choice movement forward when doing so seems more difficult than ever and the importance of an ice-cold glass of sweet tea.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Aimée Thorne-Thomsen.
Chloe Angyal: How did you become a pro-choice feminist activist?
Aimée Thorne-Thomsen: I think I’ve been pro-choice firmly in my own mind since I was in Catholic school in New York City. It all came from a very basic place of feeling like we shouldn’t be able to tell other people what to do. And as a young Latina growing up in New York City, I got a lot of that. I was told how I should sit, how I should act, what I could do, what I couldn’t do, just based on the fact that I was a girl, and no based on my abilities or my skills or my age or whether I could be trusted enough to do something. There was a very clear line drawn in my life: there were certain things boys did and there were certain things girls did. And there was a lot of pressure not to question that. I was lucky that I grew up in a family and in a community with my Mom, my aunts and my grandmother, who gave me space to question it, even if they didn’t always know how to respond, and even if they didn’t like where I was going with it. Early on, I had friends getting pregnant when they were 13, 14 and 15 years old. They all came to different decisions about what to do with their pregnancies, and it seemed hard any way they did it, but it seemed like they had a better idea of what to do with it than anyone else who was telling them what to do with it. And so I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t pro-choice, because as long as I have been conscious, I have felt that the person who is in the best position to decide what to do with a pregnancy at any point in time is the person carrying that pregnancy. And I would say as I’ve gotten older, my position on abortion specifically has become more empathetic and more radical simultaneously.
I’ve always been involved in social activism from high school on, and I did my undergrad at Yale, which is where I feel like I got my education in activism. My freshman year the Rodney King verdict came in, and we heard about it by word of mouth on campus, and the next thing we knew we were hearing from our classmates that there was going to be a protest of the verdict on campus in front of the President’s office. And sure enough, that afternoon, there were hundreds of us congregated there in front of a mic and an amp, talking about what the verdict in the Rodney King trial meant to us. At that point, the riots had already started in LA. We had lots of friends in LA who were voicing both their concern about what was happening and their anger with it, and wishing that they could be at home in solidarity with their communities. So I think I landed in the right place for me, to have a chance to apply some of the things I had learned in the classroom to real-life situations, and to be able to take what was happening in real life back to the classroom. Yale was where I learned to be an activist in all the ways I could and wanted to.
When I got out of college I worked in the for-profit sector and in the non-profit sector, I did a lot of volunteering and always kept my hands very busy. Most of my work in activism was in the Latino community, because that was home, but then I saw a job opening for an organization that was focused on young women, that really did a lot to engage young women through messaging and through research, and through engagement and leadership development. And I thought that sounded like a dream job. When I saw the opening for PEP, I thought it really couldn’t be true, because it brought together all the skills and interests I had, with a population that I was really passionate about. And I guess you could say I fell in love with it.
My friends keep telling me that they don’t see me doing anything different, because they continue to see me at meetings and online. I’m continuing to do the things I’ve always done: I serve on several boards, particularly Law Students for Reproductive Justice and the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, as well as some others, and I continue to work to expand and highlight what they do and to bring whatever expertise I had to bear. I’m still involved with the Emerge! initiative, and we’re preparing for some really amazing campaigns in the future. I’m blogging and writing and consulting with some organizations in the reproductive health and justice movements, trying to expand their work and integrate a reproductive justice vision and framework into their work. And I’m also taking some time to breathe, to think about what I have to offer and what I want to be doing.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
ATT: My fictional heroine would probably be the Mirabal sisters from Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. They’re based on real women, but it’s her fictional account of the resistance they were involved with under the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. It’s her ideas of what they did and how they did it and why, because three of the four sisters died under Trujillo. I was so powerfully moved by the book because they don’t all engage in the same ways, and they don’t all have the same motivations, and yet they all make tremendous sacrifices for what they believe. And the fact that they were women of color, that they were Latina, that they were Caribbean, was incredibly powerful for me, because those narratives don’t exist out there very much. It resonated very deeply with me, this question of what are you willing to do to stand up for what you believe in and for the people you most believe in.
My heroines in real life are my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother passed away earlier this year, and she was really the rock of our entire family, my extended clan. She was always, for me, the center of the universe. She made it clear that education was the most important thing in life, and so my grandmother and my mother did everything possible to make sure I had every opportunity to learn, to grow, so that my world wasn’t our neighborhood in Washington Heights. So that what I saw was more than that. A lot of that came from the fact that my grandmother couldn’t go to school. Our family in Puerto Rico was really poor, and she didn’t get the scholarship that was the one chance she had to go to high school. So the fact that I could go to school, to college and get a graduate degree, was huge. And she was always very supportive of that. What I did with it mattered not at all. What mattered to her was that I had options as a result of an education that she would never have. That was huge in shaping my life.
And my mom, who I don’t think would define herself as a feminism, but who clearly defines for me so much of what feminism is about. My mother feels strongly that women should be able to make decisions for themselves, for better and for worse. My mother believes that you work hard, you take care of yourself and you take care of your family. She embodied that in all ways, and made lots of sacrifices for our family. And when she was diagnosed a few years ago with advanced gastric cancer, we had to be strong for her. It’s now a little less than two years from her diagnosis, and we just spent last week in Florida with my brother and his two kids, and she got to play with her grandchildren, and they could see that their grandmother was their grandmother. When I asked the kids, “how does grandma look to you?” they just smiled, because this is the grandmother they know and remember. For a couple of years, she wasn’t quite herself. And I think that kind of fortitude and tenacity and strength has really changed my life.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
ATT: There are so many that sometimes it’s hard to pick. The story about Robert Gibbs blasting the left almost makes me laugh because I think it’s so ridiculous that it’s almost comical. But it infuriates me to no end because it highlights for me an ongoing issue that I have with the entire Obama administration, which is a complete lack of courage and principle. I understand that many people would say that he’s had some wins, like healthcare, and that the economy would be so much worse if not for their intervention. I get that. But he didn’t lead on healthcare reform from a principled place. He led from this idea of a bipartisanship that does not exist except in fantasy. He has an obstructionist Republican Party in both chambers who are not interested in working with him. So he’s not leading us anywhere. He caved in on things he doesn’t need to cave in on, like the abortion ban in healthcare reform. And some things he just hasn’t delivered on, like immigration and energy policy. He hasn’t done anything about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And so to get blasted by his Press Secretary, openly, who said that the problem is those of us who are holding him accountable for what he said and what he ran on, is completely preposterous. And it makes me question whether I would vote for him again, if this is the lack of principle, the lack of leadership on the issues. And that’s a scary place to be. That’s what’s gotten my panties in a knot right now.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
ATT: I think it’s a lack of honest conversation about intersections within feminism. Especially these last six months, there’s been so much discussion about older feminists and younger feminists, and women of color feminists and white feminists. There are all these intersections of women, and intersections of issues that feminism isn’t honest about. And it drives me up the wall, to say it nicely. I’ll use the age thing as a perfect example. When NARAL did their research and were trying to focus on millenials, and they decided to give Newsweek the exclusive on covering the research, how did it never occur to anyone that basically saying that the reason we’re in the mess we’re in right now is because young feminists and young pro-choice activists don’t care – who thought that was a good message to send? Who thought, first of all, that that was a true thing to say, because there’s a lot of data out there that says the exact opposite. And who thought that it would somehow be a community building, movement building moment? It was divisive from the moment it came out of anyone’s mouth or anyone’s head. And then it was exacerbated by people saying, “we like you, young people, it’s just that you don’t vote.” Or “we like you, but you don’t write big enough checks,” or “you’re not at the rallies.” And no one stopped to take a breath, and think, “if we’re not seeing young people in our organizations, if we’re not seeing young people at our events, if we’re not engaging with young people online or face to face, maybe the problem is us. And maybe we need to rethink what we’re doing, and maybe the way to do that is to talk to young people and listen to them. Instead of nagging them and guilt-tripping them.”
It’s amazing to me that, as feminists, we’re really dishonest about the power imbalance there. Because the people who control the agenda are not young women. They’re not women of color. They’re not queer women. They’re not immigrant women. They’re not poor women. And yet, so often, in media circles and even in the way policy is constructed, the people who get scapegoated and thrown under the bus are those very communities. And I don’t think feminism has been honest about participation in and going along with the throwing under the bus of those people. And then feminism complains that those people are not dedicated to the feminist cause. You see it play out in big ways and small ways, and it frustrates me, because I think we’re going to continue to repeat these horrible power dynamics until we’re honest about them.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
ATT: My grandmother’s white rice, sweet tea and Shelby Knox. Shelby and I have locked horns about so many feminist issues over the last few years, and we always come at things from a different place, but I think our conversations make us richer, and we’ve each taught each other so much. I love having these really intense conversations with her because I feel like we both gain and give so much of ourselves.