Feminist Conversations is a weekly column here at Feminists For Choice. We spotlight activists from around the country to find out what feminism means to them. Today we’re talking to Henry Howard, a long-time anti-war and and reproductive rights activist, originally from New York, who is now a writer in Los Angeles. Henry is a member of World Can’t Wait and the National Organization for Women.
1. When did you first get involved in clinic defense, and what influenced that decision?
I first got involved in clinic defense in November, 1989, when Operation Rescue decided to make Los Angeles its first national battleground. I was active in every major defense from then until 1992, when Operation Rescue folded its tents and finally left L.A. alone. Next they focused on Wichita, KS and Dayton, OH, throwing themselves by the thousands at Dr. Tiller’s clinic, and clinics in Ohio, for weeks at a time. I was not part of those national campaigns, but I went to Wichita in 2000 to defend Dr. Tiller, and last summer to Bellevue, NE to defend Dr. Lee Carhart. I would have to say that Dr. Curtis Boyd will probably be Operation Rescue’s new public-enemy #1, and we will eventually be required to stand in front of his clinic, too.
As for what got me involved in clinic defense: it was really a natural evolution of my activism in the women’s movement, which I date back formally to 1980 and the ERA campaign. I have always been unrelentingly pro-choice; I believe abortion rights are a red line in the sand that must never be crossed again in this country. I have met too many survivors of back-alley abortions, refugees from a time in this country when to be a woman daring to exercise her own biological destiny meant seeking out an underground world that often lead to her death. My own mother had two illegal abortions before I was born—both without anesthesia.
To stand in front of a clinic and see the fear on the faces of women there for a pregnancy termination, to see the shame and guilt as they pass the legions of religious fundamentalist goons who screech at them and call them baby-killers, and then to see the pure gratitude on their faces as I take their arm and put myself between them and the hellfire thugs—it radicalizes you forever.
I will never demean or dehumanize people who genuinely believe abortion is wrong, yet who treat women who make that choice with compassion, and respect for their decision. Those people can be my allies. But with all due respect to President Obama, I will NEVER seek “common ground” with fanatics who shoot doctors through their own kitchen window after synagogue, or blow their brains out in their own church in front of their wife and children. I will never seek “common ground” with people like John Salvi or Eric Rudolph, because I have met their victims, like Emily Lyons, personally, and have borne witness to their life-long pain.
In Los Angeles, I helped defend a clinic every Saturday for three years, and I have seen far too many women shed far too many tears simply for making the decision that seems best for them. I have worked for more than six years as a hotline volunteer for WRRAP, the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project. Every week, I listen to the stories of women who need abortions: women who are victims of rape, incest, domestic violence, cruel poverty, mental illness, parents who kick them out instead of helping them through the worst crisis of their lives, victims of plain bad luck. I will not stand by and see our country return to those nightmare years before Roe at the hands of politicians twisted by false religion, and drunk on power.
2. Do you call yourself a feminist? If so, what does feminism mean to you?
I have been a feminist since childhood. My parents brought me up that way, and I can never think of another way to live. To me, feminism means the rejection of power and control over other people, and a way of life based on sharing, equality, consensus, positive respect for differences without dehumanization, and an end to a class-based, confrontation-based system that can only destroy the earth, never enhance it.
Feminism, to me, means full and equal rights, and unfettered realization of one’s own potential and dreams, regardless of gender; it means the unequivocal rejection of a system that objectifies women, and reduces them to sexual playthings who can be slapped around, exploited and abused if they don’t go with the program. Feminism means putting the love back in love-making, volunteering to use a condom without waiting for your partner to plead with you, taking time to smell the flowers, not being afraid to cry (something I’m still working on), not being afraid to say “I love you” without having to negotiate for something guaranteed in return. Feminism means living in gentleness and nonviolence as a way of life, not just a tactic of political protest. Feminism is a tool for building a better world.
3. Is there a role for men in the reproductive rights movement? If so, what do you think that role should be?
There not only is a role for men in the reproductive rights movement, it is essential that men play a role. Men are a very critical half of the equation in a pregnancy, whether planned or unplanned. In about eight out of every ten cases I deal with through WRRAP, we check the box “Man Gone” in our intake forms; it’s like a bad Hollywood script. The lack of willingness of men to take responsibility for their actions, to actually be there for another person in crisis and share the decision-making, the financial burdens and the emotions, is appalling. We live in a throw-away society in which people of both sexes, but men especially, are subtly encouraged to treat relationships as disposable baggage when the going gets tough.
On a broader, political level, men who stand with women in demanding full reproductive rights have much more to gain than we have to give up. What we gain is self-liberation through women’s liberation, the casting-off of an unhealthy value system that pits both sexes against each other, and thrives only through the perpetuation of inequality. Reproductive freedom is not just about sex, it is about POWER and CONTROL. It is about what kind of society we are willing to accept and really build: one based on a patriarchal system that divides and limits everyone, along permanent class lines of race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and any other –ism invented to keep relationships inherently adversarial; or a society in which women, who hold up half the sky, are finally encouraged to reach for that sky as full and equal partners, in a world in which privilege no longer exists, the needs of the many are no longer held hostage by the greed of the few, and the world is liberated forever from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear.
I have a tee-shirt with a quote from an anonymous peasant woman, living and struggling in the conflict zone of southern Chiapas, Mexico: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I couldn’t have said it any better.