Emily Douglas is the senior editor at TheNation.com, where she also blogs. She has written about politics, culture and the law for The Nation, The American Prospect, the LA Review of Books, the Women’s Review of Books, and RH Reality Check, and maintains a Tumblr of observations about the changing media landscape.
She is a contributor to Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage. She is the co-chair of WAM!NYC, the New York City chapter of Women, Action and Media, a national organization working towards gender justice in media. She is a former editor at RH Reality Check and a former educator/advocate at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.
And when she’s not swamped with writing, she can be found jaunting on the beach. (She went to New York City beaches at least ten times this summer!)
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Emily Douglas. (Make sure to follow her on Twitter too at @EmilySDouglas!)
Anna Sterling: Have you always been a left-y? How did you become progressive in your politics and passion for reproductive health?
Emily Douglas: I remember identifying as pro-choice early in my life, in elementary school, because I went to a Catholic school, so the fact that abortion was a political issue was very clear to me very quickly, like fourth or fifth grade. My parents knew that we were being taught in religion class that abortion was wrong, and they made a point of presenting a different value system to me. I remember being made fun of for it, by my classmates, a little bit, but somehow I knew I’d find “my people” when I got older. And I did!
But I have to confess that my support for reproductive rights was a little knee-jerk in school. The issue seemed obvious and dated; it didn’t spark my passion. I was busy coming out and trying to figure out why I felt like I couldn’t speak up in class. It was only later, when I started to realize how deeply different reproductive and sexual rights/LGBT issues connected to each other, both in practical and philosophical ways, that I started to get excited about it, get indignant and invested. Being an advocate for reproductive health calls you to be humble about how much you can know about another person’s life, reasoning, moral philosophy, and way of being in the world. I wish everyone on the left could take a page from that playbook!
AS: How can we talk about reproductive rights in a way that’s more nuanced? How do we stray from antagonizing “pro-life”/”pro-choice” labels to move us forward?
ED: I think we do so by looking at the realities of women’s lives. I wrote about this recently at TheNation.com. There is a strong strain in the pro-choice community to say “it doesn’t matter why women have abortions.” And to a certain extent, that’s right and good. It’s no one’s business and it shouldn’t matter legally or politically. But abortions and unintended pregnancies don’t happen in a vacuum. Abortion can be but isn’t always a magic bullet and we shouldn’t stop the conversation at: “can a woman access abortion?” (even though that conversation, sadly, is far from finished). What else can we find out about women’s unmet needs by looking at what else is going on in her life when she has an abortion? I think that’s worth talking about.
I’m incredibly excited about a film being made by my life-long friend Martha Shane and her co-director Lana Wilson about the providers who perform second-trimester abortions and the women who seek them. It is a jaw-droppingly moving film; it tells women’s intimate stories with incredible respect. And, yes, it does explore the circumstances around abortion and how women and doctors reason about them.
Since I’ve said that LGBT and reproductive rights are connected–which they are, around many issues of bodily autonomy and dignity–I’ll make one more point about how there are also ways in which they can’t always be collapsed, and how we should change how we talk about this. The reproductive health/rights movement is quick to universalize certain sexual health behaviors, like birth control use. The oft-cited statistic “99 percent of American women use birth control” makes me feel like either I’m not American, or not a woman, or just…invisible! To my ear, the implicit message is “everyone uses birth control, except the 1 percent of American women who are religious fundamentalists.” It’s as if the only way to be a sexually healthy, responsible person is to use contraception which, guess what, people having non-potentially procreative sex do not. But, we still care about being sexually responsible, and we still care about access to contraception! As a movement, we shouldn’t have to imply that every single rational woman in this country uses contraception in order to make the case that women are entitled to it.
AS: Why do you think we’re seeing this drastic push-back on women’s reproductive rights in Congress and in states across the country? What do conservatives have to gain on the backs of women’s rights and why is this even appealing to voters on the right?
ED: At this point the pushback on reproductive rights feels like a very cynical, purely political game. I don’t think the right actually wants abortion to be outlawed in this country, they just want to be in a perpetual state of war over it. And it works for the more powerful elements of the Republican Party to keep the anti-choice rank-and-file in this position. That’s politically and psychologically their strongest position. Why does it appeal to voters beyond the highly politicized religious ones…well, Americans don’t have much of a safety net. That’s a very stressful reality that exists in the background for all of us. I think that interferes with the ability to be patient and nonjudgmental with other people’s lives.
AS: What stood out the most to you about the 2nd presidential debate? Did the candidates say anything that surprised you or that you found extremely problematic?
ED: Romney’s “binders full of women” was a distressing moment–although, the approach he described, which is essentially affirmative action, can be an important component of getting more women and people of color into a workplace, as Ann Friedman and Rinku Sen pointed out–but I was much more concerned by his brief aside about an female aide who had to be home at 5pm to make dinner.
Workplace flexibility is absolutely vital but it 1) needs to be addressed legislatively, not just by magnanimous bosses and 2) makes me a little nervous, because “flexibility” often means women doing the flexing. I’m often seeing women in accommodating workplace environments using the flexibility to pick up their (I’m going to say male because I have not seen this in same-sex relationships in the same way) male partner’s slack rather than pushing to change the fundamental dynamics of their home life. Which is not to say that kind of accommodation is not vital on the part of employers–it is–but we need it for everyone, and used by everyone, male or female, with children or without. And Romney clearly does not stand for that.
AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
ED: I read Rachel Maddow’s Feministing Five when you ran that and she says she’s not a very hero/heroine-oriented person. I feel similarly, but I’ll try an answer to this question anyway. My favorite fictional heroines: Karen in Norman Rush’s Mating (the most complex female character I think I’ve ever read–a rebuke to the pathetically one-dimensional female characters in a number of highly-praised novels of the past few years), Georgette George in Sigrid Nuñez’s The Last of Her Kind, Anastasia Krupnik, CJ Cregg, and Leslie Knope crossed with Liz Lemon (if Leslie and Liz had a baby, it would be me). I like representations of women who have some degree of power, some access, a lot of conviction and passion and smarts, and some self-doubt, and need to do their jobs and take responsibility for others within those constraints. Because, that’s basically my life. I learn a lot from observing how other women, including fictional women, navigate that terrain. But I’ll say again: I’m often frustrated by the heroines I encounter in fiction. Even women often don’t write good women–either that, or my feelings, motivations, and way of seeing the world are very different from most other people of my gender! My heroines IRL: Heather Corinna, the brains, hands, and heart behind Scarleteen, the realest sex-advice column I’ve ever read; my bosses, Katrina vanden Heuvel and Teresa Stack, editor-publisher and president of The Nation, respectively, who set an extraordinary example for women having smart, informed, effective opinions in public, and running a business; and the many feminist bloggers who showed me it was okay to make a big fuss about sexism and ignore the voice in my head that said, I don’t have an answer to every possible counter-argument about this, I better not say it.
AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
ED: Am I on this desert island willingly, or is this a “Lost”-type scenario? I’ll assume the latter. I’d be pretty distressed in this situation, so I’d pick my comfort food and drink, which are spinach quiche (my mom’s recipe), a green salad (ditto), and Earl Grey tea (that my dad can make too). For one feminist, this is a hard call because you’re basically asking me to pick one from my entire tribe, but if pressed I’d pick my girlfriend, Tara Sweeney, who would either build us a bridge off the island (I would be very helpful in that regard, of course) or, more likely, she’d be psyched about being there and start a wildly successful desert island CSA.