“I’m not a feminist, but {insert feminist goal here}”

I banished this sentence structure from my vernacular about ten years ago.

Last week in an interview I was asked to describe my feminism. My short answer was, “Well, I’ve been to the Michigan Women’s Music Festival for the past seven years out of nine. That probably speaks volumes in and of itself.” One of my three interviewers nodded, said “Yup!”, or both. She’s also a Fest-goer. Another of my interviewers made a comment suggesting she disagrees with the trans women exclusion policy of the Festival. That’s an issue of nuclear proportions, and one I’ve tried to stay out of. I go to Fest to get my soul fed in a way that no other place can feed it, not to get involved in a political battle. I was successful until last year. Let’s just say the political became the personal, whether or not I wanted it, and save the details for another post. Maybe. I’m still figuring things out.

Back to the interview. I also commented that it’s hard to do the job we do and NOT be feminists.  I wish I’d had more time to just chat with them. Instead, on my ten hour drive back home after the interviews, this turned over in my head.

My feminism began genetically. Hehe. My mother, upon discovering she was pregnant with me, chose not to marry my biological father-a gutsy decision to make in the early 1970’s. She went to nursing school and was able support the both of us. Among the gifts I got from her, the most intangible of them is that she never taught me that it was my job to get married and have babies.

When I was in college, I read The War Against Women by Marilyn French. Imagine, though, that I read it holding it with only my thumb and first finger of each hand, at an arm’s length, with an incredulous look on my face. It’s an entire book about the history of women’s political, cultural, physical, and economic repression, and how our male dominated global society destroys, subjugates, and mutilates women. Worldwide. Throughout time. Really? It was horrifying, and not in the Stephen King sort of way, which I like. I read the whole thing, and for years afterwards, remember it as blistering and hateful.

About ten years later I decided to read it again. It’s fun to reread a book I read a long time ago, to see how I’ve changed. This go round, I realized it’s not blistering and hateful at all; it’s actually quite dry and academic. This time, I read it with the eye of an educable skeptic-maybe she’s right.

What comes to mind when I think about how hard it is to NOT be a feminist in this line of work is one specific day when I was a hospital employed midwife. All three of these things happened the same day.

My first patient of the day was an observant Muslim woman, twelve weeks pregnant, in for her intake visit. Within the first ten minutes, I learned that she was currently living in a shelter specifically for Muslim women. She had left her abusive husband, who had custody of her other three children because, well, he had money and she didn’t. She finished her story by saying she wanted an abortion. In the next breath, she asked if I could show her a picture of what the baby inside of her looked like. Not a common request, but a specific one. When I did, she changed her mind on the spot.

Before she left, I ensured that the shelter where she was staying would have the resources she would need. They did, and I sent her on her way.

Right before or right after lunch, I did a GYN visit on someone whose baby I had caught about six months prior. She had Chlamydia. When I told her, her eyes narrowed and she said, “He’s having sex with that Mexican girl again.” Oh, I asked, this has happened before? “Yes. Twice last year.”

Chlamydia three times in one year?

I had a comfortable enough relationship with her to half jokingly ask, “Have you thought about throwing his ass out?”

She seemed surprised and said, “Well, it’d be him throwing me out. It’s his place, he pays the rent.”

Wow. Way to be slapped down by your own privilege, Jen. In her world, if she wants a place to live, she has to put up with getting Chlamydia a few times a year.

Before I share my LAST client of the day, I need to rewind to the day before.

Towards the end of the day, I did an intake visit for a woman at 32 weeks pregnant-her first visit this pregnancy. Before I walked into the room, I knew to think about drugs and domestic violence. Despite that, because I can be dense, it took me a few minutes to realize that she was high. Then I sadly wondered what sort of incomprehensible (to me) life she had.

I followed my normal history taking routine. “OK, I’m going to run down a long list of medical things, and stop me if you’ve had any of them so we can talk about them. Do you have asthma? High blood pressure? Ever had surgery? Been in the hospital for any reason?” I got down to, “Violence, trauma, or abuse?”

No to everything.

A few questions after the violence, trauma, or abuse inquiry, she said, “Wait. Can we go back?”

We did. She was being actively abused, and it was directly because of him that she hadn’t come in for prenatal care. They did drugs all day, every day. She told me everything with nonchalance, not a shred of anger, just the comfortable anesthesia provided by whatever she was taking.

How did she get there that day? Her sister.

We talked about a safety plan. She had a grandmother in south Chicago who she could probably stay with. I asked if she needed to use our phone. No, that’s ok.

Given her state, I was able to use my Boss voice and told her she absolutely had to come see me the next day, because we needed to finish her history and physical, and we’d run out of time. She said that would be good, and she’d try to bring him, too.

So it’s 24 hours later, right? I’ve already taken care of an abused woman who probably struggled against every expectation of her culture to leave her children with her abusive husband for her own safety, and another woman whose life had taught her that an occasional STD is the cost of rent.

My day ended with taking pictures of injuries for legal documentation purposes. The woman from the day before had decided to quit drugs upon leaving the office, told her partner she needed to move in with her grandmother, and her reward was a beating. No abdominal trauma, nothing below the waist, but a black eye and a swollen lip. She was unrecognizable, somewhat from the disfigurement of her injuries, but also the way her energy had changed, from the foggy, half smiling, not-quite-thereness of the day before to the harsh awareness of the real world and nothing to medicate the pain with.

The end of her story was a request for medical records from a south side hospital about a week later.

Let me remind you: I saw all three of these women in one day.

Since that day, and probably on that day, I decided Marilyn French was right. I look at the world through her glasses, not with vitriol, but with clinical detachment. I’ve accepted that most women are or have been abused in some fashion. A rape, a violent partner, an abusive upbringing. It’s not the remarkable exception perpetrated by freakish men and unsually bad parenting. It’s the norm. I’m still sad, but I’m not surprised and horrified anymore.

When I take care of women and they disclose some history of abuse, and that disclosure has any degree of shame in it, I do what I can to communicate the bigger picture to them. Women are abused because our society tolerates it. Abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence are not isolated events out of the range of normal. It IS normal, if one defines normal as the most common occurrence of a phenomenon.

That’s hard to communicate, even in 30 to 60 minute long visits, even over several of them. I do what I can, which is to honor her when I’m caring for her and hope that she comes to believe that she is worthy of the same honor in the rest of her life. Yes, I speak with my white middle class privilege and delusional optimism, but if I’ve helped a woman safely bring her baby earthside AND bring her up a notch on Maslow’s hierarchy, I’ve done my job with a cherry on top.

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2 Responses to “I’m not a feminist, but {insert feminist goal here}”

  1. Dana says:

    Great post, Jen. In my mind, one of the great things about midwifery is that its a very specifically feminist profession because you help women be empowered about a very female right of passage.

  2. Pingback: A time lapse guest post | Urban Midwife

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