Forty--not young, not old

Monday, January 21, 2013

By Mariotta Gary-Smith

40. This past summer I turned 40, a milestone year in my life. Not too young, not too old. I wonder which way I am headed next.

40. Significant also for the landmark Roe v. Wade decision 40 years ago that made it legal for women to obtain an abortion. I wonder, what is next for Roe v. Wade?

I’m a child of the civil rights and feminist movements. The year I turned 16, my mother, herself a lifetime activist/agitator, turned 40 and began sharing with me more of her history and her views on the issues. She told me about how she wasn’t able to attend the college she wanted to because my grandmother (another civil rights activist/agitator) was fearful of my mother going to school in the deep South. In 1966, the year my mother would have entered college, young Black women were facing grave dangers.

My mother spoke passionately about how she wanted more for me—she wanted me to have all that she’d worked for and to understand why she chose to fight and advocate. She talked to me about my right to a life full of “unending potential, possibility, and promise.” She talked about my right to choose, the various choices I would be making, and how I would make them. We always talked openly, honestly, and yes, with some difficulty, about sexuality, especially Black female sexuality. Our conversation reverberated with tones of the Middle Passage, American slavery, Jim Crow, segregation…and choice. We talked about how my life was my choice: my body, what I did with it, and who I decided to do things with were all mine.

In high school, several of my peers were pregnant and had to make a choice. Some left school to give birth and parent. Some opted for adoption. The few who exercised their right to terminate their pregnancy asked me to help advocate for them. I did, continuing the family legacy of being a youth-focused activist. I remember the stigma and shame these young women endured. It was a horrible and soul shaking experience. The images that were pushed on us as we walked into the clinic, the vile words that were shouted at us: “baby killers;” “whores who have no morals.” I hadn’t felt such tangible hatred from folks before. They had no clue about the personal situations that resulted in a decision to abort, and of course, none of them offered other ways to help, either.

At college, I continued to speak out and advocate for friends who chose to terminate pregnancies. During these years, I worked at a reproductive health clinic that provided health services, including abortion. As staff, we were required to receive training in bomb safety and self-defense just to go to work. It was a choice that I made, and without hesitation, I would do it again. Yet, the environment was hard, working to provide quality, compassionate care to women and their families/partners under threats of harm and violence. Although time has passed, the stigma and the hostile reality for women who exercise their right to choose still feel fresh and palpable.

40 years young and it strikes me deeply how the right to choose is still a question of whether women have a right to control their own bodies. I got a loud, resounding answer during this most recent election cycle. Women, their bodies, and choice were bandied around by white men who promoted their concept of “women” as a commodity, interchangeable with whatever parts fit the needs of those in power. I was disgusted with the conversations about rape, power, and choice—and the deafening silence about intersections of oppression that impact many women.

Because of my experience in the deep South, the reality of how difficult it is for women to access services without being harassed, stigmatized, disrespected or arrested is not lost on me. In places outside of the South, people might have the idea that it’s no longer so hard to gain access to abortion services. Women of color, immigrant women, and low-income women who are pregnant know, however, that access to reproductive health services (especially abortion) has many roadblocks. Consider what these women might encounter if they have issues with finances, transportation, immigration status, not having childcare/support, literacy issues, addiction, language barriers. All these issues shape the ability of women to seek access to quality care, including safe and legal abortions in a state that is considered a leader in health care reform. That is why a path to citizenship is a choice issue. Economic justice and educational equity are choice issues. Criminal justice reform is a choice issue. The list is long, yet important.

Roe v. Wade. 40. Not too young or too old. Right in the middle. Which way are we headed? What will be the legacy that is yet unwritten? How do we want the impact of this decision to ripple out for the next generation of women?

This year I turned 40. Not too young, not too old. Right in the middle. What I choose now in my life will certainly inform the life and legacy that I want to have. As I reflect back on my mother, and the hopes she expressed to me, I ask myself, what would I say to her? I would say to her, “Mama, I’ve chosen to remain committed to our family legacy of activism. I’ve refused to remain silent, and instead I am openly supporting other women in their decisions, whatever they may be. I’ve tried to live the life you imagined for me so many years ago in the hopes that I’ve made you proud.”

And so, I will always choose to fight for women’s right to make choices about their lives. I will always choose to make sure my reproductive choice is fully protected, honored, and available. I will always choose to see the complexity of that choice, and to find my place in the multiple and connected struggles for social justice, not only for me, but for my nieces and nephews, godchildren, sisters and brothers, cousins, and friends. And, especially for you.

Mariotta Gary-Smith, Western States Center board member, sexologist and public health educator

This post is part of Still Wading: Forty years of resistance, resilience and reclamation in communities of color, a blog series by Strong Families commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade.