The visible women

Paul Constant

June 28, 2016

“We fucking won,” Amelia Bonow announced last night on the corner of 10th and Pike. The crowd around her burst into applause and victorious whoops. These dozens of people had gathered to celebrate the Supreme Court decision that struck down onerous abortion clinic restrictions in Texas. The 5-3 decision, which was delivered a little over twelve hours before the street party, was one of the biggest wins for a woman's right to choose since Roe V Wade.

Bonow is the founder of Shout Your Abortion, an organization created in and based out of Seattle devoted to publicly telling abortion stories. Bonow said that abortion has for too long been cloaked by its opposition in a shame that has “thoroughly dehumanized the women who made this choice.” As a result, abortion stories are kept secret; women who are known to have had abortions are ostracized, while other women choose to stay silent out of fear.

These women, Bonow said, become “invisible,” and “you can’t demand justice for an invisible population.” Shout Your Abortion, she affirmed, is about making the invisible visible. To celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision, Shout Your Abortion hosted its first nationwide action. In cities across the country — Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Portland, Austin, seven different locations in New York City — activists projected images of proud women wearing t-shirts that read, in gold lettering, “EVERYONE KNOWS I HAD AN ABORTION” onto the sides of buildings, on billboards, and in other public locations.

Above Bonow’s head, projected on a giant screen lashed to the side of Neumos, were those women. People in the crowd carried images of the women on posters. Bonow announced that the video and posters are available for free on Shout Your Abortion’s site. She urged people to display the video in bars, art galleries, and “on your neighbor’s car.”

Bonow gestured up at the screen on the wall and asked, “what if you walked up on this on a first date? You’d probably talk about it, right? That’s a good thing to talk about before you fuck someone.” This movement, she said, is about visibility — gay marriage wouldn’t have been possible, after all, if everyone had stayed in the closet.

“The only kind of change I believe in,” Bonow said, “is the kind of change I see right here: on the street.” The street party was not to declare victory — abortion access is severely limited in states and counties across the country, Bonow reminded everyone — but to mark another step in a long process of change. “I am so fucking proud of us,” Bonow announced, before urging the crowd to tell more stories. And so they did: standing around in the street as the sky grew darker and the women projected up on the screen became brighter and sharper, people talked about abortion and what it means and how it saves lives. The message is spreading.

“Shout Your Abortion is everywhere,” reads the minimalist indicia on the inside front cover of the first issue of the #ShoutYourAbortion zine. This is the spot where most organizations would put a mailing address, but Shout Your Abortion uses the space instead to make a brief-but-forceful statement of purpose. This is not an address you can protest, they’re saying, or mar with graffiti. It’s your sisters, your friends, your wives, your brothers. In five words, it’s a mission statement for the whole organization.

Issue one of #ShoutYourAbortion is titled “Dear Doctor.” It’s a collection of letters, comics, collages, and sequin-dappled tapestries devoted to thanking abortion providers for their bravery, competence, and compassion. Bonow writes an introductory letter to kick off the zine, addressing abortion providers directly:

Soon after I discovered that I was pregnant, I became calm because I knew that you were there and I felt lifted by the promise of your care. Because I knew that you were there, I felt certain of my own future resilience. Thank you.

A page or two later, Lindsey Stewart writes:

This accidental pregnancy was, without a doubt, the defining moment of my life. Thanks to you, I was able to have the life I wanted; college, grad school, successful career, 35 years of marriage and two beautiful grown children. You are probably gone by now, and I never knew your name. Thank you.

Flipping through the zine, you’ll find haiku, odes to Planned Parenthood, and handwritten notes. They’re written by women and men, teenagers and elderly women, anonymous writers and celebrities like Lindy West and Ellen Forney. There’s a funny, sweet confession by a woman who accidentally farted in the face of the doctor who was implanting an IUD.

No story here is typical, but every last one is the story of a life being changed. “Her kindness was the beginning of me learning how to care for myself,” one woman writes. “The liberty I was allowed — and that so many others have been and are being denied, even when lawful — has allowed me to spend my life contributing to understanding the workings of the Universe, and sharing this understanding with my students and the public,” says another anonymous writer.

Page after page after page are filled with testimonies. Children of women who had abortions say they wouldn’t exist without abortion; women with children say they wouldn’t be good mothers without abortion. None of these stories seem repetitive. They are all passionate, unique, important.

A reader gets the sense that these stories have been whispered in private many times — in bars, to friends, in emails, over and over in the authors’ heads — and that finally, now that they’re announced to the world, they are accompanied with a feeling of catharsis. Everybody knows, now. It’s been said aloud, in public.

Few thoughts are itchier, more restless, than a heartfelt “thank you” left unsaid. By expressing all this gratitude for anyone to see, the first issue of #ShoutYourAbortion celebrates a part of the abortion story that has long been too quiet. These providers are everyday heroes, and they’re finally getting their due.

You might ask: why a zine? Didn’t zines die out when websites became cheap and widely accessible? To answer your second question first: no. Zines accomplish a very specific task in a way that a website can’t. The first issue of #ShoutYourAbortion in particular, calls back to a long Cascadian tradition of feminist punk zines — the sort of unabashed paper primal scream that Kathleen Hanna used to create in Riot Grrrl-era Olympia.

The fact is, there are some things that websites can’t accomplish. Imagining the personal messages of #ShoutYourAbortion as a slideshow plugin on some Huffington Post-style news blog is downright depressing: it would cage in these stories, homogenize them in an uncomfortable way. These are personal expressions, statements, manifestoes, and love letters. Each one is fingerprint-unique. A squinty window on a laptop wouldn’t broadcast the power and the vitality of these documents.

The fact is, some messages demand paper. Sometimes you need to write a letter on a piece of paper, and fold it with your hands, and send it out into the world. A thank you email will never be as powerful as a thank you card.

Maybe one day, these thanks will be collected into a book — something you can put on your shelf and keep on display forever. But for now, as the organization’s just getting started, it’s probably better as a zine: it feels like a physical manifestation of its movement, the kind of tract that passes from hand to hand, that you carry in your backpack until it’s a little bit grimy from reading and re-reading. It’s a document of energy and immediacy and excitement. It’s this very second in time, Xeroxed out and stapled and delivered to you. It’s very human. It’s an act of love.

Books in this review:
  • #ShoutYourAbortion
    by Various

    June 01, 2016
    52 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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