Don't try this at home. Photo by the author.
Earlier this month I watched a doctor demonstrate how to perform an abortion on a papaya. Apparently papayas are perfect teaching tools for abortion techniques because their shape closely resembles the anatomy of a uterus. I was at the Reproductive Health Access Project, an organization dedicated to ensuring that all females, regardless of their socio-economic status, have access to a safe abortion through their family doctor. The practitioner wanted to show us how simple it is to conduct an abortion—it can be done right in a standard office and doesn’t require super fancy tools. She requested to remain anonymous because doctors who perform abortions can be targeted and physically harmed by anti-abortion groups. As is probably evident, I’m not in medical school, nor am I trying to perform an at-home abortion (or any back-alley botch job). I am, however, a proud graduate of SoapBox Inc.’s Feminist Camp, Winter Section 2014.
If being this straightforward about the mechanisms of aborting a fetus makes you uncomfortable, that’s expected. But spend a week at feminist camp, learn about how women become second-class citizens the moment they become pregnant, and next thing you know, you’ll be wearing a T-shirt reminding people you’re not an incubator. Today it’s not only about maintaining reproductive rights for women, it’s about keeping personhood rights once they get knocked up as well. In October 2013, The New York Times highlighted the case of Alicia Beltran, a pregnant woman in Wisconsin who was ordered by a judge to spend 78 days in a treatment facility or go to prison because her doctor accused her of endangering her fetus through suspected drug use. Alicia, brought to the court in shackles, didn’t have a lawyer during the proceedings — but her fetus did.
Or take the more recent case of Marlise Muñoz who was pronounced brain dead at a Texas hospital. A paramedic, Marlise was aware of end-of-life matters and had requested to be taken off life support should a situation like this come to pass. Marlise was 23 weeks pregnant and the fetus would not have survive were it born this early in the pregnancy. Her family was fighting for the hospital to follow her last request, but it refused to abide by their pleas. The hospital contended that it was bound by Texas law, which states that life-sustaining treatment cannot be withdrawn from a pregnant patient, regardless of end-of-life wishes. It was finally decided that the hospital was misreading the law and that is doesn't have absolute authority to keep someone in Marlise’s state on life support against her stated direction.
And Alabama is considering a law that would allow doctors and other medical staff the ability to opt out of any aspect of terminating a pregnancy, even if it’s just treating a woman who just had a miscarriage.
With women’s rights in America at such a schizophrenic state today,15 young women from around the country gathered in polar-vortexed New York City to attend Feminist Camp. The camp is an intensive weeklong program for budding activists, thinkers, and truth-seekers. It consists of talks, quick internships, thought provoking lectures, and movie watching.
I’ve just begun to see myself as a feminist over the past few years, though I’ve agreed with the politics for as long as I can remember. Embarrassingly, I think I became more comfortable with publicly identifying as a feminist only as it’s become more mainstream, or at least from my perspective as a left-leaning, college-educated middle-class chick. There are hot girls on Twitter proudly proclaiming themselves feminists and now I want to be one of them. The fact that this is what prompted me to top-toe out of the feminist wardrobe has always irked me.
I’ve been steeped in the work of generations of feminists. The legacies of second- and third-wave feminism have hugely informed women’s status in many parts of the world today. The awe-inspiring work of Pakistani teenage education advocate Malala Yousafzai, programs that give microloans to women’s communities in Bangladesh, and other 21st century Global-South versions of feminist projects have all been positive and disruptive forces in the fight for equality between the sexes. But for all of my feminist cultural immersion, I still didn’t really know that much about it besides the basics: equal rights for women and the belief that white men have been dictating too much for too long. I heard about Feminist Camp through a friend who’s public with her feminist proclivities. It sounded interesting, and the fact that I needed her endorsement to brave signing up only confirmed it essential I attend.
While feminism has found a sort of hipness in certain circles, the broad project of gender equality has languished over the years or been pushed to the margins in favor of other bullet points on the progressive agenda. That’s where the camp comes in, offering a space for those activists-to-be who want to keep their faces close to the grindstone. Perhaps the best lesson I received at camp, papaya abortion notwithstanding, was getting to know the other women in attendance.
Kaitlyn is a soft-spoken, small, single mother from a part of Indiana where people participate in roping competitions—feminist theory isn’t big there. Attending camp was her first time in “The Big Apple.” Kaitlyn graduated from Ball State University where she held down a 30-hours-a-week job while taking 21 credit hours and raising her son. She said she became an outspoken feminist in college when, while working as a single mom, supporting her unemployed boyfriend and child, her (former) guy came home and said his parents were coming over for dinner and requested that she cook and clean. A few days later she was folding laundry when Miss Representation, a 2011 documentary about the sorry state of women in the media, came on TV. She marched into her advisor’s office and declared her major. Less than 2 percent of teen moms graduate from college and now Kaitlyn is on to her way to a Masters. Kaitlyn was especially moved on the day we looked at incarceration as a feminist issue. After a screening of the documentary the Mothers of Bedford, she said the realization that a woman could be a good mother, even from behind bars, made her want to fall back in her seat.
Campers with Gloria Steinem. Photo by Carly Romeo
Three of the girls at camp had friends who were raped in college and were sparked to action after seeing a lack of initiative from their universities. Caeli started a group at her school after a roommate in her dorm suite was raped across the hall from her. Over Facebook message Caeli explained how the police asked her if she had heard anything from across the hall as they removed her roommate’s bedding and rifled through her things. Caeli described it as very “cold and procedural.” The girl ended up not pressing charges since she knew the boy and was embarrassed. She later left school that semester. Caeli said, “This is where I simply wished I would have known how to deal with that situation more, and I don't think she got the support, especially emotional counseling, that she needed at the time. I started the Feminist Union more so as a result of seeing how she didn't feel like she had an outlet to speak about her experience. She had nowhere to truly go.”
For others, feminism is less about gender-based violence and more about eschewing labels. Carly Romeo, one of the Project Managers running camp, said for her, feminism is about “taking the step to push away what’s expected of you.” That’s where the identification with LGBT comes in, as well as solidarity with disabled communities and any other person that didn’t make the straight, high-income, white man team.
This unanimity was markedly apparent when we met with Audacia Ray, the founder and director of the Red Umbrella Project, which works to amplify the voices of people in the sex industry and give sex workers a platform to tell their stories. A former sex worker herself, Audacia spoke frankly about her past and the people she works with, completely normalizing the topic (though ‘normalizing’ is never the right word to use when you’re talking feminism). I was hesitant to ask questions about her experiences at first, not wanting to seem disrespectful or like I was demanding gratuitous stories, but her comfort set me at ease. Sex work is a complicated subject to talk about because unlike human trafficking, there is a level of choice on the part of the people in the industry. It’s also, however, the oldest profession in history, a global one that’s not going away. The business of sex, and talking to the extremely few individuals and organizations working to protect the rights of the many in the industry came up numerous times throughout the week.
Many of the other campers began identifying themselves as feminists when they learned about the theories in introductory Women’s Studies courses in college. Most said learning about feminism itself was really just giving a name to thoughts they had already had.
“The way I was raised—with powerful, influential women and a mindset that I could do anything—led me to my natural place in feminism,” emailed Taylr, a camper from Ohio. “I was a feminist far before I knew what a feminist even was.”
Some of the campers coming from ‘red states’ or more conservative necks of the woods are already strident activists at their schools or in their communities. For Yesenia, a mother from Oregon, for example, “The most memorable thing about camp was honestly being able to meet all of these amazing feminists who think like me.” She wore a navy blue Free People-esque winter coat around the city, and I enjoyed speaking to her on day 3 of camp on the F-train uptown as we headed from the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center to our next stop at the HBO Screening room in midtown where we spoke with Evan Wolfson, the founder and President of Freedom to Marry and then watched the striking documentary Valentine Road. Yesenia makes sure her son has dolls as well as trucks to play with. He also enjoys painting his nails; her attitude is he should be able to play with whatever he finds most entertaining. Her frank attitude and completely non-judgmental stance strikes me as extremely rational and lacking any bias.
The camp is led by major feminist players Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards. Jennifer is the Executive Director and Publisher of the historic Feminist Press at CUNY. She’s the producer/creator of the award winning documentary I Had an Abortion (a major feminist "aha" moment for me, I saw the film in college and realized if I had an abortion I would never tell a soul because of the shame). Her documentary, It Was Rape, began screening in late 2012. Jennifer writes regularly for publications including Glamour, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, The Nation, The New York Times and NPR’s ‘All Things Considered.’
Amy is a long-time adviser to feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Most recently, she was the director of educational outreach for the PBS documentary MAKERS: Women Making America. Amy is the co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, an activist organization that builds social justice movements led by young women and has been publicly recognized for her work with numerous awards.
Together the duo have appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and co-authored Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism. To be in the presence of such giants all week was intimidating, exciting, and affirming.
Notably, there was a striking lack of diversity at camp—it is open to men as well as women, and though there have apparently been some in other years, there were no men in my winter section. The majority of the campers were white, as was the majority of the speakers with whom we interacted. This was something we discussed amongst ourselves quite a bit. The founders have developed a great offense on this point, clearly it’s come up before— and on the first day they suggested we contemplate why so many white women are leading these NGOs, think tanks, and production companies. Even with their forewarning, If you saw the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, which trended on Twitter earlier this year, well, it did little to diffuse that message.
An intensive camp like this is surely an invigorating experience, but it might only serve to isolate the feminist movement among already aware and privileged groups. Turning college-educated would-be activists into professional activists is definitely a worthwhile cause, but its tangible efficacy in terms of overturning the entrenched status quo is still up for debate.
But to be awash such a fountain of notable women left a unmistakably positive impression on me. The founders’ connections meant each day was crammed with an impressive roster of leaders for us to meet. On media day we sat with New York Times journalist and author Jodi Kantor, image activist and CNN contributor Michaela Angela Davis and Jamia Wilson, the Executive Director of YTH. Media day ended at Hosteling International in Morningside Heights where the non-local campers were crashing that week. After dinner we worked with the award-winning spoken-word poet Kelly Zen-Yei Tsai who got us up and moving around the room with improv games, and then sat us down and had us write our hearts out with the prompt “What you don’t know about me is…” A few courageous souls stood up to read their pieces. Kelly had the readers speak once looking at their papers. The second time around she gave the orator cues to look up, pause, and direct their gaze at a specific person. Her direction intensified the exercise. This, I thought, is how you turn someone who cares into an activist.