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The Struggle Against the 40 Days for Life

The Struggle Against the 40 Days for Life

The Struggle Against the 40 Days for Life

Heather Bradford

10/21/19


While some people prefer to spend the fall season carving pumpkins, thousands of anti-choice activists across the United States prefer to spend it trying to carve away reproductive rights.  In over 500 cities, from Marietta, Georgia to Bismarck, North Dakota, anti-choice protesters have once again mobilized for the annual fall campaign 40 Days for Life. Beginning September 25th and ending November 3rd, reproductive health clinics are again inundated with demonstrators from dawn until dusk during the 40 day vigil.  In the wake of aggressive abortion restrictions passed last spring and summer and over forty years of attacks on abortion rights, it is critical that pro-choice activists take action against this campaign.        


What is the 40 Days for Life?

For those unfamiliar with these events, the 40 Days for Life is an international campaign which urges participants to use prayer, fasting, education, and vigils to stop abortion.  On the surface, these may sound benign compared to arson, murder, acid attacks, or other less kindly tactics used by the anti-choice movement in the past. Participants must even sign an agreement that they will obey the law and conduct themselves with non-violence.  Nevertheless, these tactics constitute harassment of patients who utilize reproductive health services. If it was truly a matter of religious fasting and prayer, this could be done in the privacy of home or in churches, rather than at hundreds of reproductive health clinics across the country.  While the actions are framed as vigils, these “vigils” are held outside of clinics, sometimes for over twelve hours a day, for the entire forty days. Participants carry signs which say “Pray to End Abortion” and “witness” or engage with staff, patients, and pedestrians. The religious language of vigil obscures the reality that it is a picket and “witnessing” often amounts to harassment.  For instance, at the WE Health Clinic in Duluth, Minnesota a few of these picketers have prayed loudly, played religious music, skirted the property, and entered the physical space of patients and counter protesters. Indeed, it is a movement to end abortion not through the imagined power of the spiritual realm, but in the very real public arena through picketing and marshaling anti-choice activists into action.  While there may be some praying involved, appearing at clinics amounts to preying upon patients.          


The 40 Days for Life initially grew out of anti-choice activism in Texas.  David Bereit, the founder of the group and former pharmaceutical sales representative for Bristol-Myers Squibb, began his activist career organizing against the 1998 expansion of a Planned Parenthood in College Station, Texas.  The Planned Parenthood had operated in College Station for 24 years, but sought to build a stand alone facility to provide abortions. In response to this, Bereit founded the Coalition for Life, which protested the Planned Parenthood on abortion days.  Over the years, he saw decreased engagement in this organizing. Looking for fresh tactics, he envisioned the 40 Days for Life as a shorter, more targeted campaign. Held in the fall of 2004, the first 40 Days for Life recruited 1000 volunteers to picket in the public right away of the College Station Planned Parenthood.  The campaign drew support from local churches and Knights of Columbus, who covered daily shifts from 7 am to 3 pm. The following year, a second 40 Days for Life was launched in Dallas, Texas to coincide with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and quickly expanded to Seattle, Houston, and Green Bay, Wisconsin.  Owing to the swift success of the campaign, Bereit went on to work for the American Life League, a national organization opposed to euthanasia, abortion, stem cell research, and all forms of contraceptives.  The first nationally coordinated 40 days for Life began in 2007 in 89 cities and 33 states (Bereit, Carney, and Lambert, 2017). The campaign has since spread to 61 countries, has amassed 1 million participants, is supported to 19,000 churches, and claims to have closed over 104 abortion clinics (Saving lives and ending abortion, 2019)


It is a certainly a bold claim to say they have closed 104 abortion clinics.  But, there has been a precipitous decline in the number of clinics across the country.  For instance, in 1992 Kentucky had eight abortion facilities, but as of 2018 had one. In 1992, Louisiana had 17 abortion facilities and as of 2018 had three.  In Missouri, there were 12 abortion facilities, but in 2018, it was down to one. Many of these closures are due to TRAP laws, or Targeted Regulations of Abortion Facilities.  TRAP laws are among the 1,100 restrictions enacted since Roe v. Wade and target clinics by forcing them to comply with unnecessary regulations such as admitting privileges, minimum room and doorway sizes, and meeting the requirements of ambulatory surgical centers. The Supreme Court struck down TRAP laws in Texas in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (Arons, n.d.).  However, the decision came too late for many clinics.  In 2013, prior to the passage of TRAP Laws under House Bill 2, there were over 40 abortion clinics in Texas. This number was halved by the time the Supreme Court decision was made in 2016 and it is unlikely that many of the clinics will reopen (Ura, Murphy, Daniel, and Carbonell, 2016).  The 40 Days for Life is not specifically related to TRAP laws, but it is part of a continuum of tactics used by the anti-choice movement. With fewer clinics operating across the country, it is easier for anti-choice forces to concentrate their protests on what few remain. The Planned Parenthood that served College Station, where the 40 Days for Life began, itself closed in 2013.  The clinic, along with three other Planned Parenthood clinics, closed their doors the same day Texas governor Rick Perry announced the passage of House Bill 2. However, the clinic cited that loss of funding after the 2011 legislative session was the reason for the closure (Brown, 2013). The closure of the clinic was made more appalling by the fact that the facility subsequently went on to become a crisis pregnancy center called Hope Pregnancy Center and a headquarters for the 40 Days for Life (CCM News, 2015).  Crisis Pregnancy Centers are yet another tactic used by the anti-choice movement. These fake clinics have proliferated across the United States, using the guise of reproductive health care to spread false information and lure abortion seekers away from actual clinics. 


 

The 40 Days for Life Campaign Today


This year in Minnesota, there are seven registered 40 Days for Life campaigns.  The number of campaigns outnumber the actual number abortion clinics in the state, which is five.  According to UnRestrict MN, three of five of these clinics are located within the Minneapolis and St. Paul area (2019).  Wisconsin is hosting seven 40 Days for Life vigils this year, but only has three abortion clinics in the state. Many of these pickets are located at Planned Parenthood clinics, which often do not provide abortions.  For instance, Planned Parenthoods in Mankato, MN and St. Cloud, MN are not abortion providers, but are locations for the 40 Days for Life campaign. The campaign therefore target cancer screening, STI tests, birth control, transgender health services, and other health care.  Make no mistake, they want to end Planned Parenthood. Even communities without reproductive health providers are hosting campaigns. Although Walker, Minnesota has a population less than 1000 and is two hours away from the nearest abortion clinics in either direction, it is home to a 40 Days for Life campaign.  The remote town was even visited by Dr. Haywood Robinson, the director of campaign’s medical affairs and education. Robinson was once an abortion provider, who now describes abortion as genocide and was a founding member of the 40 Days for Life when it first launched in Texas (40 Days For Life’ speaker comes to Walker, 2019).   


The passage of restrictive abortion laws this past year has only increased the numbers of anti-choice protesters at clinics this fall.  The Red River Clinic of Fargo, North Dakota, the only abortion clinic in the state, reported a larger than usual number of protesters during this year’s 40 Days for Life.  Earlier this year, North Dakota passed a law which would require doctors to provide inaccurate information that drug induced abortion can be reversed. A lawsuit against the restriction has been filed by the Red River Clinic and American Medical Association and the law was recently blocked by a federal judge (Hyatt, 2019).  In Alabama, where the Human Life Protection Act was passed in May, protesters have reportedly increased in numbers in the subsequent months. The ban, which sought to make abortion a felony offense for doctors and outlawed abortion even in cases of rape and incest, is being legally challenged by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.  Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery Alabama, one of three clinics in the state, has braced itself for more demonstrators, who have purchased a nearby parking lot for their operations. Their activities include a mobile ultrasound machine called “Life on Wheels,” which offers ultrasounds to abortion seekers in an attempt to sway their decision.  A local pro-choice organization called Power House, provides housing for abortion seekers and escorts them to their appointment by shielding them with an umbrella and navigating the crowds of harassers (Crain, 2019). As a whole, there has been a substantial uptick in anti-choice activities at abortion clinics over the last several years. The number of protesters outside of clinics was 21, 175 in 2015 and by 2018 had risen to 99,409.  Incidents of obstruction at clinics has also increased, from 242 instances in 2015 to 3,038 instances in 2018. One example is Red Rose Rescue, wherein anti-choice activists trespass into health clinics to harass patients under the guise of giving them a red rose. Abortion clinics reported 15,773 instances of internet harassment and hate mail in 2017, which increases to 21, 252 in 2018. Instances of hate mail and phone harassment increased by 1000 since 2015 (National Abortion Federation, 2018).  This increased activity has many causes and no doubt, the election of Donald Trump has emboldened many reactionary elements of society. Further, anti-choice activists may be on the move because their movement has been given new life by their many successes passing abortion restrictions, expanding crisis pregnancy centers, and limiting funding to reproductive health services (such as Planned Parenthood’s loss of Title X funding).     


The Need for a 40 Days for Choice


There are modest, but valiant efforts across the country to counter the 40 Days for Life.  In 2014, the Feminist Justice League in Duluth, Minnesota began counter protesting the 40 Days for Life and have continued this effort each fall, picketing once a week.  The group has also organized “Chalk for Choice” once a week. This event entails creating positive messages and images on the plaza of the Building for Women. The Building for Women is home to the WE Health Clinic, one of the five abortion clinics in Minnesota.  The clinic plays an important role in providing abortion to the northern and central parts of the state as well as Northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Locally, the 40 Days for Choice has grown, as Feminist Action Collective, founded after the election of Donald Trump, has also sponsored a once a week counter protest during the 40 Days for Life.  H.O.T.D.I.S.H. (Hands of the Decision, It’s Healthcare) Militia, an abortion fund also located in Duluth, has also joined the 40 Days for Choice, and last year hosted one night a week of protest and also organizes an abortion fundraiser during the 40 Days. Other Duluth events for the 40 Days for Choice this year included an educational presentation on the constitutional history of reproductive rights, a launch party for the 40 Days for Choice, and an upcoming poetry night that celebrates body autonomy.  University of Minnesota Duluth’s Student Advocates for Choice have also collaborated on community events for the 40 Days for Choice, including participation in the H.O.T.D.I.S.H. Militia abortion fundraiser and hosting their own protests of the Women’s Care Center, a crisis pregnancy center located across the street from the WE Health Clinic. The statewide UnRestrict Minnesota campaign has sponsored some of these events and sought to involve AFSCME in reproductive rights organizing. The collaboration of multiple groups for the 40 Days for Choice offers an organizing template of what might be possible elsewhere in the country.


Other events are also being organized.  Since 2015, the Guild of Silly Heathens in Missouri has hosted a variety of pro-choice events for a 40 Days for Choice at Planned Parenthood in Columbia, Mo.  Like many Planned Parenthood clinics, the Columbia location does not provide abortions but is still a hot spot for anti-choice protest. The sole abortion provider in Missouri is in St. Louis (Woods, 2018).   Missouri is one of six states with only one abortion clinic, a clinic which was almost closed this past summer in the wake of new restrictions. The Movement for Abortion Defense in Cincinnati, Ohio has also counter protested the 40 Days for Life last spring.  Madison Wisconsin Abortion Defense held a counter protest against the 40 Days for Life last March. Unfortunately, there is no nationally coordinated effort to organize the 40 Days for Life, so these actions are taken by individual groups or small networks of groups in collaboration.


Abortion does not have to be a controversial issue.  It is healthcare that should be available free, readily, safely, on demand, and without stigma.  Beyond healthcare, it is vital to the equality, inclusion and empowerment of women and abortion seekers who are trans and non-binary.   Forced pregnancy is degrading, inhumane, and dangerous. There is a lot of work to be done to fight back against the onslaught of restrictions and barriers that have been passed since Roe v. Wade.  One piece of this work should be a nationally organized campaign against the 40 Days for Life as part of renewed engagement in clinic defense and mass action.  The anti-choice movement is coming out in force and all defenders of reproductive justice rise to the occasion in a time when abortion rights are already barely existent in large swaths of the country.  While this is a movement that has sworn to non-violence tactics, the consequence of illegal abortion is anything but. In a society with widespread sexual assault, domestic violence, economic deprivation, mass incarceration, and marginalization of the oppressed, body autonomy is the leading front in the battleground for liberation.  prochoice


Sources:

Arons, J. (n.d.). The Last Clinics Standing. Retrieved October 20, 2019, from https://www.aclu.org/issues/reproductive-freedom/abortion/last-clinics-standing.

Bereit, D., Carney, S., & Lambert, C. (2017). 40 Days for life: discover what God has done … imagine what He can do. Nashville, TN: Cappella Books. 

Brown, B. (2013, July 19). Planned Parenthood announces closure of Bryan clinic, two others in Texas. Retrieved from https://www.theeagle.com/news/local/planned-parenthood-announces-closure-of-bryan-clinic-two-others-in/article_f5ded327-fe5a-5694-b5e3-35a759a33ef2.html.

CM News. (2015, November 10). Planned Parenthood Facility Repurposed In Bryan, Texas. Retrieved from https://www.ccmmagazine.com/news/planned-parenthood-facility-repurposed-in-bryan-texas/.

Crain, A. (2019, September 25). 40 Days for Life means more protesters outside Alabama abortion clinic. Retrieved from https://www.al.com/news/2019/09/40-days-for-life-means-more-protesters-outside-alabama-abortion-clinic.html.

How many abortion clinics are there in Minnesota? (2019). Retrieved from https://unrestrictmn.org/faq/abortion-facilities-in-minnesota/.

Hyatt, K. (2019, September 25). Protesters gather outside Fargo abortion clinic on start of 40-day campaign. Retrieved from https://www.westfargopioneer.com/news/4678872-Protesters-gather-outside-Fargo-abortion-clinic-on-start-of-40-day-campaign.

National Abortion Federation. (2018). 2018 Anti-Abortion Violence and Disruption Statistics. (pp. 1–10). Retrieved from https://prochoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2018-Anti-Abortion-Violence-and-Disruption.pdf

Saving lives & ending abortion. (2019). Retrieved October 20, 2019, from https://www.40daysforlife.com/about-results.aspx. 

Ura, A., Murphy, R., Daniel, A., & Carbonell, L. (2016, June 28). Here Are the Texas Abortion Clinics That Have Closed Since 2013. Retrieved from https://www.texastribune.org/2016/06/28/texas-abortion-clinics-have-closed-hb2-passed-2013/.

Woods, E. (2018, January 3). 40 Days for Life: Protesting the Protesters. Retrieved from https://reproaction.org/40-days-for-life-protesting-the-protesters/.

’40 Days For Life’ speaker comes to Walker, (2019, October 17). Retrieved from https://www.bluemountaineagle.com/life/national/days-for-life-speaker-comes-to-walker/article_16d52b8a-84c2-567b-b1d9-4815c43db3f8.html.

 

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I don’t believe in Hell

i don't believe in hell

I don’t believe in Hell

H. Bradford

6/7/19

This is a poem about abortion rights.

 

I don’t believe in hell,

but I’ve got an idea of what it might be.

Languishing orphans in a Romanian cage,

sitting in urine,

dying of AIDS.

The panopticon gaze on missed menses,

missed work,

miscarriages,

or visitor in the night,

his secretary,

his sister,

his kindly wife.

 

Every anomaly  is an invitation

for incarceration.

 

Hell is the body

under siege,

prone and pried open for all to see.

It is emergency room corpses,

sepsis, and secrets.

Deadly exorcisms of rape and incest.

 

Hell is hot like Alabama

or cold like the hands of a priest,

clutching the wealth of genocide gold

and clasping tradition like a rosary of bones.

 

Hell is a landscape where a thousand wombs bloom,

sprouting babies, soldiers, and beggars

each doomed to die ravaged and poor

Because life is a weapon

of wealth and

of war.

 

 

Illegal Abortion: Lessons From Romania

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Illegal Abortion: Lessons from Romania

by H. Bradford

7/10/18

I recently read Gail Kligman’s The Politics of Duplicity.  In the past, I had read parts of the book, drawing from it for my thesis on the topic of abortion in formerly communist countries.  In preparation for my upcoming short vacation to Romania, I wanted to read some books about Romanian topics, so I reconnected with the book for that purpose.  Reflecting upon the book, there are some lessons that can be drawn from Romania’s abortion experience.  Abortion access has been relentlessly attacked and restricted since its legalization in 1973 and Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will certainly be hostile to Roe v. Wade.  While the spectre of inaccessible, if not illegal, abortion has haunted America for decades, there is fearful anticipation among activists that a new era of attacks on reproductive rights is upon us.  Therefore, Kligman’s book is timely for anyone looking to learn from the historical horrors of illegal abortion.


To provide some context, in 1966 abortion was made illegal in Romania by the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.  Decree 770 made abortion illegal in most cases, spare some medical conditions, age thresholds (40 or 45 depending upon the age), rape, incest, fetal deformity, or having already raised a certain number of children (4-5 depending on the year).  Abortion remained illegal until the collapse of Ceausescu’s dictatorship in 1989.  During this time period, contraceptives were unavailable in Romania, women were subjected to regular mandatory gynecological exams to monitor pregnancies/abortions/reproductive health, abortion seekers and providers were imprisoned, childless people were fined, homosexuality and adultery was criminalized, and divorce was made difficult to obtain.  The state mobilized propaganda, medical institutions, and the criminal justice system towards enforced reproduction in the interest of demographic goals.  According to Kligman’s book, this reproductive dystopia was the inspiration of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Although the United States is very different from communist Romania in the 1960s-80s, some important lessons can be drawn from these nightmarish decades.


1.Abortion Does Not End With Illegality:

Despite Romanian’s draconian laws and lack of access to birth control, abortion did not end.  Women either found legal channels, such as obtaining an abortion for medical purposes (as some conditions allowed for abortion) or faking a miscarriage or illegal channels, such as willing doctors or underground providers.  Most often it was through illegal channels.  The option of travel was not available to most Romanian women, but for a privileged minority this was also a means to obtain an abortion.  One way or another, women continued to seek abortions.  Of course, the ability to seek an abortion was largely dependent upon privilege.  Women who knew doctors, had more social networks, had favorable connections to the police or state, more money, or other resources could more easily circumvent the laws.  Thus, the burden of illegal abortion hits the most marginalized populations the hardest.  It is the poorest and most estranged from social institutions who were forced to reproduce.   For example, Kligman (1998) relayed the story of a peasant woman who was awarded a Medal of Maternal Glory for having 10 children.  She used the award ceremony as a platform to beg for an extra bed.  While she was celebrated for her large number of children, it may very well been for lack of access to an alternative and certainly, this state celebrated choice was not supported by accompanying material resources.


Within the United States, if abortion was made illegal, abortion seekers would continue to have access to it.  Women with careers, credit cards, no criminal histories, U.S. passports, and paid vacation time could access abortion in other countries if it was made illegal here.  Generally, those with resources such as money and vehicles could travel to states where abortion laws were less restrictive.  Those with social networks or living in urban areas, might have access to underground illegal abortion services.  Thus, once again, abortion would not disappear, though the limited access would have the greatest impact on poor women, women of color, rural women, women with criminal histories, immigrant women, and those whose access is already severely limited by lack of abortion access and funding.  The Anti-abortion movement is inherently a war against the most oppressed members of society.  While illegal abortion would certainly be a challenge to educated, “middle class”, mobile, white women, the impact would be deeper felt by those who face multiple oppressions.


  1.  Unsafe Abortion:

The illegality of abortion in Romania drove women to seek abortions.  Some abortions were performed by doctors looking to supplement their modest incomes and some were performed by those who genuinely wanted to help women.  These abortions were made unsafe by the secretive conditions that illegal abortion created.  Doctors had to hide their tools, work quickly, and perform abortions in private residences.  Others were self-induced or performed by non-professionals.  About half of these illegal abortions were performed without harm to the woman.  As for the rest, women often found themselves suffering complications from the herbs, plants, toxins, or objects used to perform the abortion.  This created the hard choice between seeking medical help and risking criminal charges or the possibility of death.  Around 60% of women who went to the hospital for pregnancy complications had sought illegal abortion.  In all, there was an average of 341 deaths per year from abortion complications while abortion was illegal in Romania.  Illegal abortion is the death sentence for some women.


Maternal death can also be expected if abortion were to be made illegal in the United States.  There are some key improvements in the United States compared to Romania.  For one, abortion medicine is more advanced.  In Romania, abortions were only performed by curettage, as vacuum aspiration was unavailable before 1989.  Mifepristone had not yet been invented, so medical abortion was also unavailable (misoprostol the other drug used to induce abortion had been invented but would not have been available in Romania).  The lack of abortion technology made abortion less safe in Romania than if abortion became illegal in the United States.  Nevertheless, if abortion were illegal in the United States, abortion seekers and providers would still face tough choices if complications arose.  Because doctors in the United States are better paid than those in Romania and their education comes at a steep cost, fewer might be incentivized by earning extra money than those in communist Romania were.  This may put women in the hands of those who have less access to abortion medicine/knowledge.  Illegality means less regulation, oversight, uniformity, accreditation, sanitary conditions, and more dangers.  This isn’t to argue that only medical professionals are capable of providing safe abortion.  There were certainly Romanian women who obtained safe abortions from non-medical providers whose folk knowledge of plants and good fortune were enough to end a pregnancy.  However, illegal abortion creates more unknown variables that can contribute to a lack of safety.


  1. Criminality:

In Romania, both women and doctors were imprisoned for seeking/performing abortions.  Time in prison was generally one to three years.  However, some repeat offenders found themselves in prison for longer.  Even those who facilitated abortion were imprisoned, such as the girlfriend of a doctor who was imprisoned for one year without a change of clothes.  She was believed to have hosted the abortion in her apartment.  Doctors who performed illegal abortions could lose their medical license, or at the very least, had to work in another area of medicine.


If the anti-abortion movement in the United States believes that abortion is murder, then it follows that abortion must carry with it some sort of penalty.  In the U.S. the penalty for murder is often life imprisonment and sometimes capital punishment.  Those who argue that abortion is murder rarely argue for the same punishment as murder, which is odd, as it indicates to me that they do not believe it is actually murder or that if it is murder, it is a different kind of murder.  Why is it different?  And, if it is different, it concedes that a fetus is not the same as a born human, for which the punishment is the harshest among all crimes.  But, supposing that abortion is made illegal but the punishment is more minor, such as a few years in prison.  The United States has the largest prison population in the world.  22% of all of the prisoners in the world are in the United States.  Illegal abortion could potentially add many people to our prison system, as one in three women have had an abortion.  What would society be like if one in three women were imprisoned?  The United States has 30% of the world’s female prison population.  African Americans make up 40% of the United States prison population, despite the fact that they are 13% of the general population.  Criminalizing abortion, like criminalizing anything in this country, disproportionately impacts people of color.

Image result for romania communist prison


  1. Unwanted Children:

One outcome of illegal abortion in Romania was unwanted children.  After all, not all women could successfully access illegal abortion.  Many of these children found themselves on the streets or were put into overcrowded, underfunded orphanages.  Because of unsanitary medical practices and lack of transparency/policy regarding HIV, some of these orphans contracted HIV.  After the collapse of communism in Romania, the Western Media broadcasted the images of underweight, despondent, dirty, neglected children in Romanian orphanages, revealing and perhaps making a spectacle of the horror of their abuse.  Romanian society failed to care for the children that women were forced to birth.  I doubt the United States would do much better.


Romanian society had some advantages over the United States when it comes to the care of children.  In Romania, retirement age was 57 for women (and 55 upon request).  For men, it was 62 or 60 upon request.  Therefore, unwanted children or children that parents simply could not care for, could be sent to retired grandparents or other relatives.  In the United States, full Social Security benefits begin at 66, but many people feel that they can no longer retire.  The pool of retirees who can provide care work for children is smaller as the economy and lack of pension benefits at jobs forces U.S. workers into the job market longer.  Romania also offered 112 days of paid maternity leave, a birth bonus, and a 10% stipend for their second child (more for additional children).  While these government funds were not sufficient to defray the actual cost of raising a child, at least the government made some effort to provide for families.  The United States does not offer free daycare, paid maternity leave, or any additional funds to support families.  In this sense, our country is profoundly unequipped to support mothers and children.  There are programs for needy families, such as MFIP and food stamps, but only the poorest can access these and this does not resolve problems such as affordable daycare and paid leave, which all working parents need.

Image result for romanian communist woman


  1. Ideology of Gender Oppression:

In the United States, it seems that one of the biggest incubators of the ideology of gender oppression is religion.  After all, most anti-abortion groups are religiously affiliated.  Because religion has been used to justify homophobia, lack of abortion access, and the oppression of women, it is easy to view religion as the source of gender oppression.  However, one lesson from Romania is that religion can be completely absent from public life and the state can still propagate ideologies that justify the oppression of women.  Romania, like all communist countries, was an atheist state.  Nevertheless, the state created mythologies about nationalism and building communism, in which the role of women was both that of a worker and glorified mother.  While the case for illegal abortion is often made on religious grounds in the United States, nationalism, economic prosperity, and even science can be mobilized to oppress women.  In Romania, propaganda created a mythology that women were naturally meant to be mothers.  That this was what made them the healthiest, happiest, and most productive.  Any ideology that states that women are naturally “X” should be a red flag.  Women are not naturally anything.  Woman is a social category which has divided the world in an unequal gender binary.  So, while I write now about women and often discuss women’s rights to abortion, it is important to remember that men and non-binary people also seek abortions.  Not all people with uteruses are women.  Part of the fight for reproductive rights is the fight to challenge notions of gender or what is natural, since “natural” is a dog whistle for what is expected and enforced.  The fight for reproductive rights is not a fight against religion, though some religions are involved in the anti-abortion movement.  In a discursive sense, it is also a fight about the very notion of what it means to be a woman.  It is a fight against the demographic and economic interests of states, which are invested in the reproduction of workers and soldiers if not the actual upkeep of children.

Image result for romanian communist women


  1. Culture of Suspicion:

Kligman (1998) noted that Romanian abortion laws created a culture of suspicion.  Women were made to have regular gynecological exams.  Doctors were mobilized by the state to police the bodies of women.  Everyday citizens were recruited by The Securitate to spy on one another.  Relationships between couples, neighbors, co-workers, doctors, etc. deteriorated as it was never certain who could be trusted and who could not.


The United States is not the same sort of police state, but because of our political and cultural environment, abortion is still a matter of secrecy and shame.  Few people discuss their abortion experience even though abortion is common.  If abortion were illegal, this secrecy and shame is likely to increase because of the legal consequence.   Therefore, it is important for supporters of abortion to fight the shame.  In the arena of discourse, we should never accept that abortion should be rare, that it is shameful, regrettable, or that no one is pro-abortion.  I am pro-abortion.  If abortion is medicine, then I am as much for abortion as I am for dental treatment, eye exams, cancer treatment, or any other form of medicine.  Abortion can be life saving.  Abortion is sometimes freedom from poverty or abusive relationships.  Like anything, it can be a positive, negative, or neutral experience based upon social and personal circumstances.

 


  1. Abortion and Abuse

Kligman (1998) did not give as much attention to this topic as it deserves, perhaps because of lack of research in this area.  However, she mentioned that in Romania, divorce was hard to obtain and abuse was considered a personal/family matter.  Even if a woman sought to escape an abusive situation, survival on a single income and the ability to obtain housing would have been nil.  She also wrote that men really did not take responsibility for pregnancy prevention and that it was up to women to obtain an abortion or deal with the consequences of pregnancy.  State health propaganda suggested that couples should have sex several times a week.  The state fostered a society wherein domestic violence was inescapable by virtue of social norms, lack of resources, enforced pregnancy, and state sanctioned male entitlement to sex.


If abortion were illegal in the United States, victims of domestic violence would similarly find themselves forced to have the children of their abuser.  Due to the efforts of the feminist movement, domestic violence is not inevitably viewed as a personal or family matter but a problem related to patriarchy and the exertion of power.  Advocates have pushed back against this narrative.  Shelters, community responses involving education police and social services, and laws that protect victims from such things as eviction or job loss are some of the victories of the feminist movement which Romanian society did not have.  However, illegal abortion would still have an impact on victims/survivors as it would force them to have the children of their abuser and through this connection continue to have to deal with them in courts (for child support, custody, visitation) and in life (if the abuser does have partial custody, visitation).  Enforced pregnancy (through rape or sabotage or denial of birth control) is one of many ways that abusers exert control over victims.  Illegal abortion is essentially the state’s sanction of sexual abuse.

  1.  U.S. Foreign Policy- Exporting Anti-Abortion

One final lesson from Romania is that Western countries were either indifferent or supportive of Ceausescu’s abortion policies.  Nixon visited Romania in the early 1970s, Jimmy Carter hosted a visit of Ceausescu in 1978, and the United States looked at Romania as a potential ally due to its independence from the Soviet Union, relations with Israel, and willingness to engage in trade agreements with the west.  The suffering of the Romanian people and the restrictive abortion laws mattered very little to the two ruling parties of the United States.  This is because ultimately, U.S. economic and political interests as an imperialist power supersede principled concerns about the rights of women.  Lip service may be given to these concerns from time to time, but these concerns meet their horizon where US hegemony is challenged.


Our country’s hostility towards abortion has a global impact.  One example is the Global Gag rule, which began with Reagan and has been squarely supported by Republicans since.  Basically, it means that oversees organizations which receive U.S. aid cannot provide or promote abortion services.  I expect that if abortion became illegal in the United States, we would empower and expand restrictions elsewhere.  In terms of abortion, the worst offenders, of course, are Republicans, but at the heart of the issue is a shared, underlying view that the United States is exceptional, correct, important, and deserves a disproportionate place in shaping the history of the world and lives of the people of other countries.  The United States is not exceptional, or it is only exceptional in its atrocities, war mongering, genocide, racism, mass incarceration, and capacity for immiserating the world.  I believe that if abortion became illegal in the United States, the people of the world would help the oppressed women here.   In return, it is our duty to demolish U.S. power abroad.

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Conclusion:

Illegal abortion seems like a nightmare, but in this nightmarish lens, it is always an Other.  It is an exotic, Eastern, communist dystopia that is distant from the United States on account of time, place, and political/economic system.  But, the challenges faced by Romanians are some of the same faced in the United States before abortion was illegal and which are faced today where abortion has not yet been legalized.  In Romania, the people rose up and killed their dictators.  In the United States, social movements also tirelessly worked to legalize abortion and contraceptives.  While women might not have the power  to “shut things down” when it comes to reproduction (to quote Todd Akin famous rape statement) there is always the power to shut society down through protest, strikes, and civil disobedience.   As challenging as it is, it is our best and only hope in rolling back the tide of attacks against reproductive rights.

The Woman Question

The Woman Question

H. Bradford

4/21/18

I have not written a poem for EVERY book that I have read this year, but this a poem inspired by Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women.


When did the oppression begin?

Was patriarchy painted on the walls of caves

long before women gave birth on factory floors?

Is it passed down in property

or built into the body?

Maybe it’s just all in the family.


And what is the value of labor unpaid?

Is the value surplus?

Is it use?

Or is there any value in the question at all?


What exactly is a woman?

A person, a place?

Or a thing we made from mud of ribs, breasts, and sin.

Is it an idea to divide us by pieces and parts?

An excuse to pay some less or nothing at all

so that society lives long enough to work another day?

Image result for lisa vogel socialism and marx

End the Lies: Activists Confront Crisis Pregnancy Centers in Duluth

End the Lies: Activists Confront Crisis Pregnancy Centers in Duluth

H. Bradford

3/24/18


On Thursday, March 22nd, activists gathered at the Women’s Care Center in Duluth, MN to draw attention to Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs).  The event was organized by the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Student Advocates for Choice as part of NARAL’s national End the Lies campaign.  The student organized event in Duluth was also attended by members of several local feminist groups, including H.O.T.D.I.S.H. Militia, Feminist Action Collective, and Feminist Justice League.  On March 21st and 22nd, similar events were held across the country as part of an effort to expose CPCs. These fake clinics use tactics such as deceptive advertisements, websites, and misinformation to deny abortion and other reproductive health services.  The March 22nd protests coincide with NIFLA v. Becerra, a Supreme Court Case which is set to decide whether or not a California law which requires crisis pregnancy centers to post information about abortion and contraceptive services offered by the state and whether or not staff are licensed by the state is constitutional.  NIFLA or National Institute of Family Life Advocates has sued the state of California for their right to mislead women as a matter of free speech.


The Women’s Care Center in Duluth was chosen as the site of protest because it is located across the street from the Women’s Health Center, one of six abortion clinics in Minnesota (State Facts About Abortion: Minnesota, 2018).  In addition to performing abortions, the Women’s Health Center offers STI testing, cancer screening, a variety of contraceptives, annual gynecological exams, menopause care, and other reproductive health services. The Women’s Health Center has provided abortion and other reproductive health care since 1981 to Duluth, as well as large swaths of northern and central Minnesota and Wisconsin as the nearest abortion provider.  In contrast, the similarly named Women’s Care Center was launched in 2012 across the street from the Women’s Health Center (Rupar, 2012). While the Women’s Care Center offers free pregnancy tests, parenting classes, and baby items, it can only be described as an anti-abortion center due to its strategic location, similar name, vague website, and pro-life affiliation. Furthermore, the Women’s Care Center is the annual launching point of the 40 Days of Life Campaign, an annual 40 day anti-choice protest outside of the Women’s Health Center.  Although protesters are commonplace outside the Women’s Health Center on clinic days, the 40 Days of Life means that each fall there are larger numbers of protesters outside of the building and that they are there for longer hours.

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Unfortunately, Duluth is hardly an exception when it comes to crisis pregnancy centers.  As of 2012, there were over 90 crisis pregnancy centers in the state of Minnesota. These fake clinics receive over $2.4 million of state money through the Positive Alternatives Act.  The Naral-Pro Choice Minnesota Foundation found that 73% of the CPCs that they investigated provided false medical claims about the association between abortion and breast cancer, 87% lied about the connection between abortion and severe mental health problems, and 67% provided misleading information about the connection between abortion and infertility.  None of the CPCs investigated referred women to birth control and 67% provided misleading information about the health risks of birth control (State-Funded Deception: Minnesota’s Crisis Pregnancy Centers, 2012). This is just a small sample of the ways in which CPCs use deception and lies to promote an anti-abortion agenda.

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Nationally, CPCs have operated since 1969, when Robert Pearson founded the first center in Hawaii.  Pearson created the template which has been used for decades by CPCs across the country. His manual explicitly called upon CPCs to falsely portray themselves as abortion providers to lure abortion seekers away from actual providers.  His manual instructed “councilors” to never counsel for contraceptives. In a 1994 speech, he said that a women seeking abortion has no right to information that will help her from killing her baby. Make no mistake, CPCs were founded on a concerted effort to deceive.  These fake clinics have flourished in recent decades as they have found support from Focus on the Family and Care Net. They have also obtained state funding through federal “abstinence only” programs, “choose life” license plates, and through tax credits and direct funding allocations (Stacey, n.d.). Image may contain: 3 people, including Jenny Hoffman, people smiling, outdoor


With 2,300 to 3,500 Crisis Pregnancy Centers across the country and fewer than 800 abortion clinics, it is vital for activists to fight the tide of shrinking abortion access.  To this end, feminists should demand an end to state funding to crisis pregnancy centers and work to educate the public about their deceptive tactics with the demand of increased state oversight.  Abortion itself should be destigmatized, state funded, and added to the canon of regular healthcare. It should be safe, legal, and accessible. At the same time, choice cannot exist so long as we live in a society defined by poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, transphobia, and the myriad of oppressions that divide and immersate us.  Choice cannot exist so long as women are paid unequal wages, bear the burden of unpaid labor, and endure the high cost of childcare. Child care should be provided free of charge at facilities that are open all hours and all days. Some Crisis Pregnancy Centers provide clothes and diapers for babies. Lying, anti-abortion organizations should not be left to fill the gaps of our deficient, war mongering state which gives tax breaks to the rich while denying a living wage to the poor.  Housing, healthcare, child care, parental leave, living wages must also be a part of the larger campaign to finally realize the true meaning of choice and thwart the anti-abortion forces once and for all.

Image may contain: Jenny Hoffman, Lyle Matthew Koesterman and Heather Bradford, people smiling

 

 

Sources:

 

Rupar, A. (2012, July 2). Duluth’s only abortion clinic braces for anti-abortion center to open across street. Retrieved March 24, 2018, from http://www.citypages.com/news/duluths-only-abortion-clinic-braces-for-anti-abortion-center-to-open-across-street-6546494

 

Dawn Stacey. (N.D.). The Pregnancy Center Movement: History of Crisis Pregnancy Centers. Crisis Pregnancy Center Watch.  Retrieved MArch 24, 2018 from http://www.motherjones.com/files/cpchistory2.pdf

 

State Facts About Abortion: Minnesota. (2018, January 05). Retrieved March 24, 2018, from https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/state-facts-about-abortion-minnesota
State-Funded Deception: Minnesota’s Crisis Pregnancy Centers (pp. 1-26, Rep.). (2012). St. Paul, MN: NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota Foundation.

Feminist Justice League Year in Review

Feminist Justice League Year in Review

H. Bradford

1/16/18

2017 was a big year for feminism.  The election of Donald Trump mobilized feminists towards activism, which was expressed through events such as the Women’s March, International Women’s Day Strike, protests and social media campaigns regarding sexual harassment and assault, forming new groups, and more.  It is an exciting time to be a feminist, to be sure.  Locally, there has been a flourishing of feminist activities this past year.  The Feminist Action Collective emerged in November 2016 as a large, active, vibrate group which has sponsored a variety of successful events over the past year.  Locally, we have also seen the re-emergence of the HOTDISH Militia, which began in 2002 but had become inactive over the years.  Our group, the Feminist Justice League, was established several years ago during a much less active time in feminist organizing.  The renewed interest in feminism creates new challenges and opportunities for our group.  The following is an overview of our activism in 2017 as well as our outlook for 2018.


 

January 2017 Women’s March, Duluth MN:

2017 started off big with several January events.  The first was the January 2017 Women’s March.  The Feminist Action Collective organized buses to Washington DC, but there was also a local march in Duluth.  One of our members, A. attended the march in Washington DC and later reported her experience back to the group at an event we hosted as a local coffee shop.  It was an inspiring experience for her, despite some mechanical mishaps experienced by the bus.  Several members of the Feminist Justice League participated in the local march in Duluth, which was attended by several thousand people.  This year, Feminist Action Collective is organizing an anniversary march.  Feminist Justice League is supporting their efforts in a number of ways.  Firstly, we have endorsed the event.  Secondly, we are going to make some posters for the event on Friday.  Thirdly, I have tried to promote their event by obtaining sponsors for them, such as Occupy Duluth, Socialist Action, and Safe Haven.  A. and I will also serve as Peace Marshalls at the event.

an image from the Duluth News Tribune- Duluth Women’s March

 

Glow for Roe:

Feminist Justice League organized Glow for Roe last year, which happened to fall on the SAME day as the Women’s March and Dough for Utero.  Although it was an extremely busy day, about two dozen people showed up to hold glow sticks for our glow in the dark protest in support of reproductive rights.  We have done this event twice before and this was the most successful year for that particular protest.  However, in 2018, we are not hosting a Glow for Roe event.  This is because there is already a Women’s March, Dough for Utero, and Party on the Plaza.  Glow for Roe was developed when there was far less feminist activism, so moving towards the future, it may not be as necessary as it was in the past.  Still, a glow in the dark protest is a fun idea, so perhaps it will return in 2019! Image may contain: 4 people, night and outdoor

Dough for Utero and Party in the Plaza:

January 2017 also saw Dough for Utero and Party in the Plaza, which were both organized by Hotdish Militia and the Women’s Health Center.  Dough for Utero featured $19.73 pizza and beer, raising more money than any previous fundraiser.  Party in the Plaza was a vibrant event in which several Feminist Justice League members attended.  We contributed to the event by promoting it and providing picket signs.  Certainly, 2017 saw more activism related to reproductive rights than there has been in Duluth for a long time! Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing, dog and outdoor

Valentine Letters to Prisoners

In February, Feminist Justice League co-sponsored a Valentine Letters to Prisoners event with Superior Save the Kids.  The goal of the event was to send solidarity cards to prisoners near Valentine’s Day.  In Christian traditions, Valentine cards were first exchanged by St. Valentine while he was in a Roman prison, so the theme seemed suiting.  The event was attended by several people and was a way for our group to be more intersectional as we tried to connect feminism with issues in the criminal justice system.

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A photo of A.C.’s letters last year

Homeless Bill of Rights Letter Writing:

Feminist Justice League hosted a small letter writing event, wherein members gathered at a coffee shop and wrote letters to the editor to various news outlets regarding the passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights.  Feminist Justice League is one of the endorsing organizations of the Homeless Bill of Rights.  A year later, the homeless bill has not yet passed, protracting this already long struggle to pass a bill ensuring that homeless individuals are treated with dignity.


International Women’s Day Strike:

In March, Feminist Justice League organized a symbolic strike for International Women’s Day.  The strike was a protest that lasted for 78 minutes to highlight the pay gap between men and women.  At various intervals, we banged on pots to highlight the pay gap between Hispanic women, African American women, Native American women, Pacific Islander women, and women over the age of 55 and men.  This event was followed by a panel, wherein several speakers discussed labor issues and gender.  The event was successful in that it was covered by several news outlets and was even mentioned in a British Socialist newspaper! Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, hat, child and outdoor

HOTDISH Militia Bowl-a-Thon:

The biggest event that Feminist Justice League participated in April was HOTDISH Militia’s bowl-a-thon.  We had a team of about seven people and though I don’t remember the exact number, I believe we raised over $600.  Our team dressed as superheroes at the event and won a prize for best costumes.  It was a fun event and HOTDISH Militia’s best fundraising event yet!  They reached their fundraising goal and were able to obtain matched funds to help low income women access reproductive health care locally. Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor

Graham Garfield Petition:

In May, members of the Feminist Justice League participated in several events related to the Graham Garfield domestic violence case.  We were able to develop a successful petition which contributed to his resignation as a Superior City Councilor.  However, interest in the case waned over time and although his trial is ongoing, there is little activism around it at this time. Still, I think that the group was able to effectively work towards his resignation and can be proud that we sought to educate the community about myths regarding domestic violence.


 

Mother’s Day Letters to Prisoners/Film Showing:

During the month of May, Feminist Justice League co-sponsored a film showing about incarcerated mothers with Superior Save the Kids.  The group also co-sponsored a mother’s day themed Letters to Prisoners event.  By helping to host and support these events, Feminist Justice League hopes to connect feminism with other issues.


 

Chalk for Choice:

During the summer and fall, Feminist Justice League sponsored Chalk for Choice events on the evening before clinic days at the Women’s Health Center.  While these events are often only attended by a few people, our group receives a lot of positive feedback from workers at the WHC.  During these events, we draw or write supportive images and messages for the patients and workers who utilize the Women’s Health Center.  The events provides us with a creative niche for our activism.  Looking at 2018, it should certainly continue these events as they are easy to organize, do not require large numbers of participants, and are a unique way to promote reproductive rights. No automatic alt text available.

40 Days of Choice:

For the past several years, Feminist Justice League has organized events for 40 Days of Choice, which happens each year in September and October in response to the 40 Days of Life.  The 40 Days of Life is an international campaign wherein pro-life activists gather outside of abortion clinics and reproductive health centers to pray and protest to end abortion.  The Feminist Justice League was actually founded in response to this annual pro-life campaign.  This year, as in year’s past, we participated in the event by hosting Friday pro-choice pickets.  Some of the pickets were smaller than in year’s past owing to FJL’s dwindling numbers.  On the other hand, some were larger owing to the participating of the HOTDISH milia this year.  HOTDISH sponsored its own Thursday pickets.  Our goal next year should be to increase the numbers at these events by bolstering our own membership, continued collaboration with Hotdish, and improved collaboration with Feminist Action Collective.  This year, we also hosted a successful launching party for the 40 Days of Choice, but the success of the event would not have been possible without HOTDISH Milia’s collaboration and WHC’s support. Image may contain: 1 person, child and outdoor

Feminist Frolics:

Once a month throughout the year, Feminist Justice League hosted events called Feminist Frolics.  These events usually do not attract more than four or five people, but are high quality educational opportunities and community building events.  This year’s highlights include a citizen science project wherein were learned about women in science and learned how to test the health of a river by examining small fauna such as snails, worms, and insect larvae.  We also learned how to geocache and did this while collecting garbage.  I researched women and waste management and did a short presentation on that topic for our event.  We also learned more about fungi and one of our members, Ar., told us about her experiences gathering and selling mushrooms to local businesses.   A few of us also attended a Halloween themed event wherein we hiked to an abandoned cemetery at night and learned about the history of witches and capitalism, based upon my readings on that topic.  We have not done a frolic in a few months due to cold weather, but we can consider planning more at our next meeting.  My suggestion is that we continued them, but on a more irregular basis in 2018.  Personally, I put a great deal of effort into researching these topics and lack the time I once had.  However, I think that these events remain viable if we can find others who are willing to research and present the topics.  These events remain important because they are an opportunity for learning, connecting to nature, and bonding. Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sitting, child, shoes and outdoor

Spark in the Dark:

Following the swarm of sexual harassment and assault cases involving celebrities and politicians, FJL organized a small protest against assault and harassment.  The goal was to believe victims, hold public figures accountable, and make ourselves visible.  The evening event was attended by about a dozen activists, despite chilly weather.  In the end, we lit sparklers to symbolize the spark of social movement organizing around these issues but also light in darkness. Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and crowd

Christmas Cards to Prisoners:

The same day as the Spark in the Dark event, we once again collaborated with Letters to Prisoners/Save the Kids to send Christmas Cards to Prisoners.  The event was the best attended Letters to Prisoners event yet.  It was hosted at Amazing Grace Cafe and activists at the event were interviewed by a newspaper. Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, people sitting, table and indoor

 

Looking at 2018

 

Our Challenges and Assets:

As we move into 2018, our biggest challenge by far is that we have a small, active membership.  Over the years, we have lost a few people who used to be more active in the group.  One of our active members, A., has recently had a child so she will not be as active for a while.  Two of our members, C. and An., have young children so they will not be able to participate as much as they would like.  Children should not be a barrier to participation and this also shows our weakness in providing child care.  Since we are small, it is hard to provide this service.  At the same time, perhaps we can think of alternative roles for these members, such as posting online content to our Facebook page.  Small membership limits what we can do as an organization but also has a demoralizing effect.  I often wonder if I have personally failed as an activist when our numbers are low.  Thus, we should brainstorm ways in which we can attract new members.  Ideas towards this end might include collaborating with other organizations, tabling at events, putting up fliers more often, and advertising ourselves more on community calendars.  I think it is also important to reframe what success looks like and better work with what we have.  If interest in feminism is generally increased and other organizations have seen new members, then we should celebrate the overall victory of feminism, even if our organization is small.  Further, even a small organization can maximize its impact in the community through collaboration with others.


Despite our low numbers, we do have some assets.  I am proud of the many events that our group sponsored and organized last year.  We also have some great members with some useful knowledge and skills.  Both J. and I work in the field of domestic violence, which I think puts us in a good position to do activism related to this. I also work part time at the WHC, so I think this will help us continue our reproductive rights activism. We have a new member named C, who is smart, knowledgeable of science, and very active in criminal justice activism.  A. is a male member and close friend who is an asset to the group because of his long history of local activism, especially his labor activism.  We have several members who sometimes attend, but perhaps get spread thin by their own activist schedules.  Overall, we often attract low-income and working class activists to our group.  We also often attract members who have experienced homelessness, trauma, mental health issues, poverty, violence, etc.  I think that we can be proud of ourselves if we continue to be an organization that creates space for those who experience multiple oppressions.  While these things can be barriers to activism, it can inform the sorts of issues we work on and perspectives we promote.  At the same time, our organization mostly attracts white people.  There is no immediate solution to making our group more diverse, but, we should always be mindful of the pitfalls of “White feminism” and seriously consider how the group can tackle racism along with sexism.   Sponsoring, promoting, attending, and collaborating with anti-racism activism is one step in that direction.


Finally, several of our key members and most of those who attend our events are anti-capitalist.  This can help us create a niche in the feminist movement.  Although we are a small group, we can act as a complimentary group to FAC.  FAC is a larger group that appeals to a broader group of people.  However, based upon their focus on candidate events, female identity, representation in politics and the business community, etc. the group leans towards liberal feminist ideology.  Our niche in comparison is that we should try to attract anarchist and socialist feminists or provide space to promote those ideologies.  While this ideological focus is less popular, promoting anti-capitalist feminism is a way to differentiate ourselves and what we do.  This should not be rigid nor a requirement for participation/membership- but a useful framework for focusing the organization’s tactics and issues.  The goal is not to compete with other feminist groups, but to broaden the overall feminist movement through theoretical diversity while collaborating on common causes.


Our Goals:

Based upon the following summary, I suggest the following goals for 2018.

 

  1. Co-sponsor a Letters to Prisoners Valentine, Mother’s Day, and Christmas events in 2018 to continue criminal justice related work.
  2. Continue Feminist Frolics on a more limited basis in 2018.  For instance, create feminist history geocaches in the area for Women’s History Month in March.
  3. Host an event for International Women’s Day in March (depending upon other local events)
  4. Consider collaborating with other organizations to create a community Take Back the Night this summer as the major undertaking of the year.
  5. Continue to Chalk for Choice in the warmer months.
  6. Continue the 40 Days of Choice events.
  7. Work more closely with Feminist Action Collective
  8. Continue to work with HOTDISH Militia
  9. Consider other projects such as a Stitch and Bitch Group
  10. Plan an action related to Crisis Pregnancy Centers
  11. Participate in the Bowl-a-Thon
  12. Host a socialist feminist educational event
  13. Increase our membership by at least one or two core members
  14. Collaborate with and support other organizations and events in areas such as labor, anti-racism, environment, indigenous rights, anti-war, sex workers rights, LGBT issues, reproductive rights, mass incarceration, US imperialism, etc.
  15. Table, put up fliers, make better use of the media
  16. Continue to consider our purpose and niche so that we remain relevant
  17. Try to promote ourselves more!  We could make buttons…

 

In Defense of Protest

In Defense of Protest

H. Bradford

1/15/18

Across the world next weekend, there will be marches to mark the anniversary of the Women’s March.  Last year’s marches in defense of women’s rights brought over five million people together in events held in over 80 countries.  Despite the historic size of the marches and the epic accomplishment of bringing so many people together, these event has been widely criticized.  Worse,  the very notion of protest has been critiqued as ineffective, outdated, or inferior to other methods of social change (namely, electoral politics).  Disagreements about tactics or critiques of events themselves have the potential of helping movements to grow, become more inclusive, correct mistakes, sharpen messages and demands, etc.  At the same time, there is something deeply pessimistic, and worse yet, submissive to capitalism, about the critique of protest itself.  This is why I will take a moment to defend protest.


Why Protest?

To begin, it is useful to ask what is the point of protesting?  From an organizer perspective, the general goal of protest is to bring a group of people together to highlight an issue or injustice and make a demand.  This action is a public display of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a call for change.  The power of protest is that it is visible, massive, public, uniting, and disruptive.  Another positive aspect of protesting is that it can be done immediately, without having to wait for election cycles.  For those who are alienated from the political system, it is way to voice an opinion or concern which may not be addressed by politicians or ruling parties.  It is also an opportunity for those with power to react with promises, concessions, or changes to avoid being ousted from power.  Ideally, protest is a method of challenging and reshaping power.  It can be a pathway to revolution.  For example, in March 1917, women gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia to march, mainly demanding bread (or an end to war time food rationing).  They were joined by striking workers and within a few days, the protests swelled to 200,000- demanding not only food but an end to the Tsar itself.  Tsar Alexander abdicated eight days later, ending three hundred years of Romanov rule.  One of the early events of the French revolution was The Women’s March on Versailles, which began on October 5th, 1789 when women began rioting in Paris’ markets over the cost and scarcity of bread.  This swelled to thousands of women, who marched to Versailles Palace to not only demand bread but political reforms.  Certainly, very few protests in history have resulted in such dramatic overhauls of systems of power.  But, there are many examples of protests that resulted in significant reforms.  The March on Washington in 1963 pushed the United States government towards passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  While social movements employ a variety of tactics, protest in one form or another, played an important role in many social changes in history from winning women the right to vote to earning the right to an eight hour day.

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Women’s March on Versailles

Protesting doesn’t work…

While historically, protests have won us many of the rights we often take for granted, there is a great deal of cynicism that this tactic works or remains relevant.  It is easy to see why people may feel that protesting fails.  In recent years, there have been many massive protests that have not resulted in much significant or obvious social change.  In February 2003, millions of people around the world protested the Iraq War, but this did not avert the war and over the years, the anti-war movement his dissipated into invisibility.  The Occupy Movement drew attention to such things as economic inequality, the commons, bank bailouts, and fictitious capital, but it was ended largely through the criminalization of the movement (i.e. law enforcement broke it up).  Climate change threatens to bring on a mass extinction event and it seems protest has done little to slow it.  Protest could not stop Scott Walker from hobbling public unions in WI.

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February 15th Iraq War Protest

Redefining Success:

It is hard to know the impact of recent protests, since history continues.  We live in a moment of time, only able to see the defeats behind us.  Successful protests seem to be somewhere further in history or in some far off place in the world.  When success feels distant, it is easy to become demoralized.  Many people may not even be aware of past victories won through protest, because mainstream history tends to focus on great individuals rather than the accomplishments of mass movements.   Viewing history in this manner makes it hard to imagine the possibility that ordinary people can come together en mass and create social change.  This is why it is useful to both redefine what success looks like but also refocus history.  Because I am a revolutionary socialist, my ideal vision of success is the end of capitalism.  I would like to see a world where no one goes hungry, war is no more, climate change is stopped, everyone is housed and clothed, reproductive rights are a given, education is free, health care is a human right, and all people are treated with dignity and full humanity.  This requires both a long view of history but also a long view of the future.  In this viewpoint, protest in the interest of this future is never a failure.


Consider the Iraq War movement.  The failure to end the U.S. war on terror is painful.  But, was this movement a failure?  My first steps to becoming an activist were in 2003.  That was when I became a socialist.  Before I was a feminist activist, I was an anti-war activist.  It is through considering global issues like war, poverty, and colonization that I became a socialist to begin with.  It is through becoming a socialist, that I became a feminist.  On a personal level, the Iraq War movement was part of my political coming of age.  I imagine there are others like me.  And, there are those who participated in their first protest when they attended the Women’s March last year.  That will be part of their political coming of age.  These protests did not bring down patriarchy or thwart U.S. imperialism, but they are part of the process of creating people who will make change.  Even when protest fails in a traditional sense, it can be powerful in personal ways.

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At the same time, while some protests have not yielded the necessary and immediate results that one would hope for, they have not been for nothing.  There are plenty of times that I have participated in protests of less than a dozen people.  This certainly feels like a failure.  However, it puts a message out into public space.  It may spark a conversation.  At the minimum, it shows the world that this is an issue that a few people think matters.  On the other hand, there are much larger protest movements that may be seen as failure since they became smaller or disappeared.  The Occupy movement resulted in the popularization of a tactic: to occupy!  It also generated interest in anti-capitalist politics and perhaps in spotlighting social inequality, inspired other movements, such as the movement for $15 an hour minimum wage.  The Women’s March last January was followed by a burgeoning of feminist activism over the past year including #MeToo and the International Women’s Day Strike.  The story is not over because history is not over.


Alternatives to Protest:

There are of course, alternatives to protest.  To clarify, when I speak of protests I refer to activities such as marches, pickets, sit-ins, and demonstrations.  These are public events with participation ranging from a handful to millions.  Alternatives to protest include such things as voting, boycotts, divestment, petitions, lawsuits, strike, riot, terrorism, and warfare.  A strike would be a wonderful tactic since it wields a lot of social power.  However, it is not an easy tactic to pull off because many people fear losing their jobs, union membership is not widespread, and most people do not have experience with even more basic labor activism.  This is an aspirational tactic which protest could and should be built towards.  Terrorism and warfare are not on the table for most activists because they are violent, can result in criminal charges or death, are usually not mass movements, and alienate potential supporters.  Boycotts, petitions, and divestment can be useful tools in an activist tool box.  The only shortcoming is that they are often private, so those who are not involved in the movement may not know about them and those who are involved may not feel connected to a larger movement in the same way a protest brings people together.  Legal actions can also be a useful front, but again, this is not as public, massive, and visible.  Even voting or electoral politics can compliment protests.  But, none of these things should replace or usurp protests (well, strikes could but usually massive strikes also include protests).  It seems to me, when there is critique of protest, the alternative tactic suggested is voting.

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This is an example of protest combined with divestment.  In this case, activists were asking for divestment from apartheid South Africa.  Apartheid in South Africa was ended through a variety of tactics, including riots, labor organizing, divestment, protest, international sanctions,  boycotts, armed struggle, etc.

Political Process and Protest


I am extremely alienated from the U.S. political system.  Because both major parties fully support the continuation of U.S. capitalism and the resulting imperialist foreign policy of violence, poverty, and oppression, I can’t get behind Democrats or Republicans.  Therefore, I tend to avoid activist events that involve meeting politicians, phone banking for politicians, or really, anything that diverts energy towards getting candidates elected.  I am open to these tactics for candidates from anti-capitalist parties, but the goal shifts in these situations.  Since individuals who are not a part of mainstream political parties are not likely to win an election, the goal of campaigns tends to be more educational.  These campaigns might be used to point out the political shortcomings or hypocrisies of other candidates, educate people about socialism, or popularize anti-capitalist ideas.  This approach may be hard for others to understand, but at my core, I don’t really care about the existence or well-being of the United States as a nation.  I care about the working people or oppressed people of the world.  Thus, I find it hard to participate in the electoral process of the United States, as once again, both parties generally want to continue the U.S. dominance of the world and capitalism.  Still, I do not absolutely rule out participation in the political process as an activist tool.  I simply do not emphasize it as a prominent tool.


Bringing the topic back to protest, if social movements are effective in mass mobilizations, they can shift the political system without necessarily voting.  For instance, if a protest movement becomes widespread and it seems clear that public sentiment has shifted, politicians will shift.  After all, they want to be re-elected or at least see that their party is re-elected.  Social movements make it “safe” for mainstream politicians to support same sex marriage, utter the word climate change, or proclaim that they are for the 99%.  Thus, the horse is always social movements and the cart is the politicians being dragged along to speak to public sentiment.  Mainstream electoral politics doesn’t favor the brave.  Ideally, it would be wonderful to build space for alternative parties and reforms to our political system that create more opportunities for political representation from a variety of viewpoints.  This won’t happen with the acceptance of lesser evilism, a concession to perpetual disappointment, disempowerment, and disillusionment.


Why so Cynical?

I think there are many reasons why protests are critiqued.  I have only touched on a few.  At the heart of some of the critique is the notion that they have not been working.  It is certainly sad and frustrating to see so much misery and destruction go on, seemingly unchecked.  And, while I can be optimistic about small victories or alternative successes, this means little to those who struggle without a living wage, are brutalized by the police, watch natural resources wrenched from the earth while the planet warms, cannot afford housing, die of preventable disease, live in warzones, or all of the other sufferings in the world.  Change is needed immediately and systemically.  Protests themselves sometimes fail to be inclusive or fail to connect to other struggles.  Beyond this, there is the problem that most people are not engaged in political struggle.  The “masses” are often dismissed as fat, stupid, and reactionary.  It is hard to see our future liberation in the faces of the oppressed in our midst.  Once again, one might find inspiration in the long view of history.  In 1524, illiterate peasants gathered in the Black Forest and managed to create demands, create a banner, and elect leaders, launching the Peasants’ Wars in Germany (which were brutally suppressed, but it is always impressive when a group with little political experience or social leverage manages to organize and fight).  Our president recently designated Africa and Haiti as “shithole” places.  The Haitian revolution was the most successful slave revolt in history- which horrified Europeans with the reality that Black people could defeat white power and govern themselves.  The “shithole” countries of Africa managed to eventually defeat European colonial rule, even if they have not yet defeated capitalism, post-colonial economic relations, and legacies of exploitation.  I bring these examples up because when the masses are dismissed as too stupid, too lazy, too addicted, etc. it not only underestimates them, but concedes that some people are inferior.  This notion of inferiority is thinly veiled classism, racism, sexism, ableism, or other isms.  It is unfortunate that this dismissal of ordinary Americans and the elitism inherent in this sentiment only serves to make Trump more appealing.

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If this is your image of why Americans can’t liberate themselves, consider the classism, fat phobia, ageism, ableism, or other isms which cause you to write off sectors of society as incapable of social change.  People can be mobilized towards many things- from Black Friday shopping to White supremacy.  But, if a person can be mobilized towards these things, then can also be mobilized towards progressive social change with organizing that speaks to the conditions of their oppression and honors their humanity.


There are alternative methods of social change, which certainly can be used with mass demonstrations.  All of these methods may inevitably fail.  Protest as a tactic remains viable inasmuch as it is a visible, social, collective, public expression of the desire for social change.  It also remains viable in the context that working towards systemic change will require mass mobilization.  Tactics should ultimately seek to inspire others towards a cause and serve as a stepping stone to larger more system challenging actions.  Ultimately, what choice is there?  While there may be some tactical choices, there is little room to choose defeat or complacency.  This is not Pascal’s Wager, where faith is a tepid attempt to avoid the possibility of hell.  Hell is here in the creeping barbarism of everyday life in Late Capitalism.  The choice now is between accepting its inevitability or working to end it.  Accepting it is a betrayal of all who suffer and of present life on the planet. Therefore, we must fight relentless and together by all means available, but especially those which offer the most promise of dismantling systems of oppression once and for all.

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Image from 350.org

Frankly, It Isn’t My Feminism

Frankly, It Isn’t My Feminism

Reflections on Al Franken

H. Bradford

I haven’t weighed in publicly on the Al Franken sexual harassment debate.  I don’t have the time to engage in internet debates and I don’t want to alienate allies in the Democratic party, who feel very personally hurt and confused by his resignation.  At the end of the day,  all feminists must work together to end sexual harassment/assault.  Further, as a Marxist feminist, I am in the extreme margins of feminism.  I feel that my opinion means little to most people or that my opinion is a quaint anachronism that is tolerable so long as I do my best to work well with others.   Still, I do want to share my opinion, as I feel very frustrated by some of the ways this debate has been framed.   Thus the following is a laundry list of my Marxist feminist “pet peeves.”

1: Al Franken was a feminist/ally to women


Many people have expressed a sense of grief, loss, disappointment, anger, etc. because of the argument that Al Franken was an ally to women.   I fundamentally disagree with this statement.  He supported the Iraq war in 2003, he has supported airstrikes in Syria, voted for increased sanctions against Iran, approved the national defense budget, voted in favor of PROMESA, he supported Israel’s 2014 attacks on Gaza, against closing Guantanamo Bay, etc.   I have said this many times, but internationalism is central to my feminist beliefs.   US foreign policy is based upon promoting US interests in the world.   The US has violently exerted its power in the interest of profit making.  This has been done through countless coups and wars.  What benefits the continuation violent US hegemony does not benefit women, does not benefit working people, does not benefit oppressed nationalities, does not benefit people of color, does not benefit the environment, and does not benefit the vast majority of the world that lives in poverty.  It does not benefit our own people, who fight in these wars and who pay for these wars (at the expense of social spending towards education, health, jobs, environment, etc.).   Supporting Palestinians is a feminist issue.  Supporting Puerto Rican independence is a feminist issue.  Supporting the end to US wars is a feminist issue.  Politicians who support the status quo of US foreign policy- that is, those who do not question our right to play world police or the assumed moral superiority that nationalism grants us the right to starve, bomb, or destabilize other countries… is not in my opinion a feminist.  Women happen to live ALL over the world.  American women are no more important than women in Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, North Korea, or Iraq.

This woman in Gaza matters, along with thousands of other people who were killed/injured in Gaza in 2014.  (Image from International Business Times).

 

2. It isn’t Fair that He Stepped Down

The “it isn’t fair” that he stepped down while worse Republicans remain in office is weakest, least morally courageous argument I have heard.   If someone does something bad…something that has hurt women…isn’t the morally responsible thing to do …is take accountability, step back from public life, and quietly work to rebuild trust through atonement?  It doesn’t matter if someone is worse, has done more, or others are not taking accountability.  The “grown up” thing to do when a mistake is made is admit it, apologize, bravely face the consequences, reflect on what happened and how to prevent it again, and work towards remedying the offense.  Yes, it certainly stinks to get in trouble for something when others are evading the consequences of their actions- but if a person truly believes that what they did was wrong, then the punishment of others should be of little concern.   This could have been an opportunity to set an example of how to gracefully, genuinely handle the serious issue sexual harassment.  Instead, Al Franken’s unapologetic resignation made him look like a petulant child- the same sort of behavior one would expect from Donald Trump.


3. Victim Blaming

One of the grossest things throughout this ordeal is the amount of victim blaming.   Despite photographic evidence of Al Franken groping Leann Tweeden, her credibility was attacked because of the bawdy nature of comedy, her conservative interests, her history with Playboy, etc.   Victims who have not identified themselves have even been blamed for not having the courage to reveal themselves- which implies perhaps they are not credible.  Worse, some people bemoan the fact that Al Franken was SUCH a good politician.  Why, he might have had a chance at becoming president some day!  Oh my!  Well, Brock Turner was SUCH a good swimmer!  That pesky sexual assault got in the way of such a promising athletic career.  When people bemoan “what could have been” it blames victims for ruining the careers and futures of offenders.  It is true that groping a sleeping woman is not the same as raping an unconscious woman.  However, there has been a great deal of minimizing Al Franken’s behaviors.   Eight accusations of unwanted touching and kissing IS a big deal.  And yes, Trump’s pussy grabbing and Roy Moore’s grabbing, dating underage women, forcing an underage woman’s head to his crotch, and other allegations of nastiness also matter.  ALL of this matters.  Everyone should resign.  Everyone sucks.  But please, believe victims!!


 

4. Get a Woman into Office!

Another pet peeve has been that the solution to all of this should be the appointment or election of more women into office.  Indeed, the socialization and social position of women in society has not lent itself to the same kinds of oppressive behaviors.  Women are more often the victims of sexual harassment and assault because women it is a method of social control of all women, this keeps women in their place, men feel entitled to women and have historically been entitled to women, women are not socialized to be sexually aggressive or exert control over men in this manner, victims historically and currently are not often believed, this behavior often goes on without consequence, etc.   However, this argument is troubling for a variety of reasons.  For one, it reifies gender.  That is, men and women are different, women are naturally better or less violent/gross/terrible, and the solution must be to include more women in power.  I think that this oversimplifies the problem while reinforcing the gender binary.  It assumes that there is some evil kernel within all men that makes them sexually harass/assault people.   This also ignores transgender, gender queer, gender fluid, or the many other ways to express gender and that these individuals are ALSO often the victims of sexual assault.  It also makes the issue a matter of who is in power rather than a matter of power itself.  Returning to the first point, women in power can be just as terrible- if they are promoting capitalist interests.  The world does not need more Condoleeza Rices, Madeline Albrights, Angela Merkels, Margaret Thatchers, and Hilary Clintons.  Yes, these are women, but they all promoted policies that have hurt women.  While it is less common, men can also be victims of sexual assault and harassment.  Women can sexually harass and assault each other in same sex relationships.  So…this argument is very base to me.  It does not tackle some fundamental issues of power or broader issues of feminism beyond sexual harassment. Image result for madeleine albright starved iraqi children


Beyond this critique, this is a disempowering message to feminists.  This message says that the best thing we can do is hope for a female politician to save us!  Gross.  We should be out in the streets.  Every night should be Take Back the Night.  We should be blocking roads and walking out of our work places in protest of sexual harassment/assault.  We should make power FEAR US.  We should not accept that power should be replaced by a female face.  We should take back power.  We should become power.  Politicians of both parties should fall over themselves to resign, because they fear the rage of millions of mobilized men, women, gender non-conforming, queer, trans, etc. people in the streets demanding  not only accountability….but the destruction of patriarchy itself.   This is a great opportunity for building a mass movement against the machinery of sexist oppression.  A woman will not save us.  We must save ourselves….and this planet.  The politicians will scramble to follow our lead.  If we are smart, we won’t give them the luxury of promises.


Conclusion…

I am sure I could go on, but these are some of the main “peeves” that have angered my socialist sensibilities.   I know that everyone is struggling with these issues.  I know that activism is a path- there is always room to grow and change.  I don’t wish to shame my fellow feminists.  I just…feel like I am alone in the wilderness sometimes.  I am not a Republican or a Democrat.   I don’t have any skin in that game.  I want a new game, with new rules, and new players, and a lot more winning for everyone.  I’m tired of playing Monopoly or Risk.  We are ALL losing.  We will ALL keep losing if we can’t change the discourse and step out of the realm of elections and politicians and into the realm of building the power of mass movements…and labor movement.

Capitalism and Witches

Capitalism and Witches

 H.  Bradford

10/14/17

The following was written for the Feminist Justice League as part of a monthly “Feminist Frolic.”  These events are a way for local feminist activists to get together and educate each other on a feminist topic while enjoying the outdoors.  This was written for an event wherein activists gathered to learn more about the history of witches followed by a fall themed night hike to a cemetery.  


Since the advent of the feminist movement, there has been increased interest in the history of witches.  In contrast to earlier scholars on the topic who often approached this history with gender blindness, feminist scholars have sought to connect the history of witches to larger issues of gender based oppression by framing the persecution of witches as organized violence targeted specifically against women.  Thus, over the past few decades there have been numerous books and articles which have explored different facets of witches and their place in women’s history.  It would take months if not years to do justice to this vast and interesting topic.  Regrettably, this paper only scratches the surface of this history by highlighting some of the research on the topic.   With that said, although there are debates on the actual numbers of people who were killed or tried for witchcraft, there were at least 110,000 people tried in the Americas and Europe between 1450 and 1750.  Historians have many different interpretations of the causes of these witch hunts, ranging from hallucinations, religious fundamentalism, to economic instability (Thompson, 2003).  However, one of the most intriguing arguments regarding the cause of the persecution of witches is the development of capitalism itself, which coincided with the dates wherein witch hunts were at their height.  Thus, while there are many ways to approach the topic of witches, the focus of this piece is to understand the economic roots of the persecution of witches.


Female Power in Early Europe:

To understand witches (in European context), it is important to go deep into European history.  While the world today is steeped in male power, it was not necessarily always so.  Feminist anthropologists have argued that women once enjoyed more power and status than they do today, though there is caution in going as far as to say Europe was once purely matriarchal.  One of the more classic texts to make this argument was Raine Esler’s (1987) book, The Chalice and the Blade.  I read Esler’s book over a decade ago, but it was eye-opening and one of those wonderfully memorable works that opens one’s mind to the possibilities of history.  Esler (1987) posited that for 30,000 years the women of Europe were important and equal members of society and that in general, European societies were more egalitarian.  One example of the evidence of the importance of women was the discovery of Venus figurines.  Venus figurines are artifacts made of bone, clay, ceramic, stone, ivory, etc. that have been found all over Europe and date from 11,000-35,000 years ago.  Esler (1987)  argued that these figures may have represented a fertility cult or fertility goddess, as their sexual characteristics were exaggerated and some of the figurines appear to be pregnant.    She also argued that Neolithic settlements in Turkey, such as Catal Huyuk and Hacilar do not have striking differences in the sizes of houses or the size of gifts used with burials.  In all, Neolithic art was centered around nature and fertility and burials were largely equal.  The book argues that European societies based upon sharing relationships, with an aversion to warfare, and gender equality were ended about 7000 years ago when nomadic Indo-Europeans spread across Europe, bringing warfare, male gods, and patriarchal social relationships.  European history since then has been the gradual destruction of the remnants of its more female centered early history.  Thus, early female goddesses from more matrifocal societies were turned into villainous, evil characters in European folklore or religions until they were wiped out entirely.  A particular example used by Esler (1987) was the Minoan snake goddess.  In Minoan culture, during the Bronze age on the island of Crete, women played an important role in society as administrators, priestesses, traders, and other occupations.  The Minoans also worshiped more female goddesses than male gods, including a Snake Goddess which appears in various figurines on Crete dating back as far as 5700 BC.  The Snake Goddess is believed to represent fertility and the earth and other goddesses associated with snakes or snake cults existed in the Near East.  Elser (1987) believed that snakes and snake goddesses were later vilified or turned into evil figures to usurp the power of women in society.

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There has been a backlash against the hypothesis that early human societies worshiped goddesses, fertility, were more egalitarian, and matriarchal.  For feminists, viewing patriarchy as a particular system that is less than 10,000 years old can be empowering because it creates space to imagine a world wherein women were not always oppressed.  In this viewpoint, most of human history was not a story of gender oppression.  It is absolutely true that we will never have all of the archaeological evidence necessary to reconstruct the many diverse societies that existed tens of thousands of years ago.  It is also true that purely matriarchal societies are not common.  The Mosuo ethnic group near Tibet features female heads of household and female lines of inheritance, with a mother goddess and ancestor veneration.  The Minangkabau ethnic group in Indonesia is the largest matrilineal society in the world, wherein inheritance is through the female line of descendants and women are the head of the household.  However, there are no examples of matriarchy in the sense that there have or are societies wherein women dominate society in the same way men dominate society in patriarchy.  Though, our ability to imagine what female power may look like is stunted by our experiences of patriarchal oppression.  Still, it is impossible to piece together complex societies with what little remains of them.  The Venus figurines may not represent goddess worship or admiration of fertility.  They could represent objects to curse women or fat shame them for all we know.  However, we can see by looking back at history and even looking at the world today, that there are differences between societies and that the oppression of women varies.

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Marxists approach history through historical materialism.  That is, from a Marxist perspective, societies develop upon a base structure consisting of economic conditions.  For most of human history, humans were hunters and gatherers.  The nature of hunting and gathering economics means that there is little social inequality because there is little accumulation of surplus.  Hunter and gathering societies tend to have smaller populations and less specialization in roles or occupations due to the fact that specialization requires enough surplus to liberate some members of society from basic sustenance work.  Thus, in Ancient Egypt, where there were settled societies, slave labor, and agriculture, there were also people who specialized in working as priests, bakers, scribes, or any number of professions that did not require direct procurement of food or the means of survival.  To Marxists, economic conditions shape social conditions such as class relationships, gender inequalities, religious beliefs, and relationships to nature.  Thus, while we can’t know what Europe was like tens of thousands of years ago, we do know that societies are built upon a particular economic foundations.  Societies with different economic bases have different ways of treating women.  For instance, many Native American groups were matrilineal.  Colonialists particularly noted this among the Iroquois, among which when men married they joined the wife’s family or when they separated, the children remained with the mother.  Women were also involved in tribal decision making through councils of senior women who could appoint male leaders and attend meetings.  Because women provided an average of 75% of the calories consumed among Native Americans, they had a socially important role of providing the means to survival.  Native American women were not treated as property by men, had the right to divorce, and the means to support themselves.  While Native American beliefs are varied, many feature important female figures, especially in creation stories (Mays, 2004).   Women were treated differently among these societies because they were not based upon private property, amassing capital, or class inequalities.  Before Europe colonized the world, imposing Christianity and patriarchy, it colonized itself, over centuries and in various ways, until its societies became unrecognizable from its earlier hunter gatherer or agrarian traits.   The oppression of women is rooted in the social and economic function that sexism plays in supporting systems of inequality.  Patriarchy oppresses women as a way to control their reproductive power, support other social inequalities, control their labor, and ensure the continuity of private property.  Thus, understanding the persecution of witches is connected to understanding the larger economic and social conditions of patriarchy itself.


The Evolution of the Witch:

The hypothesis that women once had more power and importance in European societies is evident in the understanding of what a witch actually is.  Max Dashu’s (2016) book Witches and pagans: women in European folk religion, 700-1100 provides a detailed history of early origins of witches.  According to Dashu (2016), various European cultures had the notion of powerful women who controlled the fate of humans.  Often these mythical women were grouped as a trio and involved in weaving the future of each human.  In Greek mythology these women were called Moirai.  In Slavic mythology they were called Suddice and in Roman mythology they were called Parcae.  In Norse mythology, they were called the Norns.  Across Europe, from Lithuania, Ireland, and Italy to as far east as Tadjikistan, there were variations of the myth of three spinning women.  In Latin, they were called Fata or fatae, translating to fates.  The words fae and fairy actually come from fata, so prior to the concept of tiny winged women, fairy or fae was more connected to a woman with supernatural control of fate.  The three Fates each had a name.  In Saxon, the oldest of the sister name was Wuro.  In German it was Wurt and in Anglo it was Wyrd.  The word “weird” in English, originally meant destiny.  In old English, werding meant worship and a witch was a “weird women” which was roughly understood as a woman with control over destiny.  And, the “weird sisters” in MacBeth, which were portrayed as witches, represents a shift in how “weird women” were understood.  In the play, the women certainly have some knowledge of the future, but their “weirdness” is not their understanding of destiny, but the oddness of being haggish women using body parts in a cauldron.  The word witch itself may come from the German word wikke or Anglo-Saxon word, wiccian, which both mean wise woman.  The main point that Dashu (2016) makes is that at one time in European history, the prototype of witches were wise women or women with control over fates.  This original understanding was warped over time into the more modern notion that witches were evil women, with dark powers, and an alliance with the Devil.  In fact, a significant turning point in this understanding was the 1600s.  The example of MacBeth and the change of the word “weird” is indicative of that pivot in history, a point that will be explored later.

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The Greeks, Norse, Slavs, etc. whom Dashu (2016) wrote about were all patriarchal societies.  However, these patriarchal societies had enclaves of female power in the form of deities and female spiritual leaders.  Perhaps these bastions of female power were the remains of much earlier female centered societies.  What is know is that witches were once understood as wise women and the process of villainizing witches was slow and uneven.  In some cases, the three sisters were Christianized, such as the Three Sisters, a trio of Belgian Saints and Las Tres Marias-the three spinning Mary’s in Italy and Spain.  Throughout the early middle ages, it was common for people to associate weaving with supernatural power, just as the Fates used their weaving skills to weave destiny.   For instance, there is a story in the Annals of St. Neots in 1105 which mentions a magical banner that shows a raven in times of war.  It was common for various cultures to use knots for protection.  Celtic crosses and manuscripts feature knots, another example of the Christianization of pagan beliefs, and the Russian word for wizard, vzol’nik means knot tier.  Before 800 CE, the punishment for witches was flogging or fines.   In 800, Charlemagne decreed that heathens and diviners could be enslaved or imprisoned, death to those who would not convert, as well as death to anyone who would not fast for lent.  In 845 CE, Ramirol, a Spanish King was said to have burned a large number of sorcerers, Jews, and astrologers.  In 873 CE, the Frankish King Charles the Bald is also said to have engaged in a witch hunt.  The first European witch whose name and execution was recorded was Gerberga, who was killed for befriending the step-mother or Prince Lothair and helping her mary King Louis with a spell.  In 853, an unnamed serf woman was killed for poisoning the daughter of a lord,  Engilpercht, who was then awarded land for his loss.  In 800, a Tyrolean Bishop decreed that if someone practices witchcraft, they should have their head shaved for the first offense, have their tongue and nose cut off for the second offense, then execution or enslavement for the third offense.  Some of the worse laws, and certainly some of the most clearly gendered laws were from Spain.  In 1176 CE the Forum Turdii Code of Aragon stated that a male witch should be banished after having a cross shaved in his head, whereas a female witch should be burned.  Death by fire was the punishment for ending a pregnancy, leaving a husband, or having sex with a Muslim or Jew.  Women could prove their innocence through the Trial by Iron, in which they had to hold a fire heated four foot rod of iron as wide as their palm and thick as two fingers, eight steps without dropping it.  Alfred the Great called for death or exile to unchaste women and witches, but there was no law against male promiscuity.  Across Europe, the notion of witches and whores were paired together.  For instance, in 1030, the Archbishop of Trier accused a nun of making him a pair of magical shoes that would cause him to lust after her.  For her lustful magic, she was banished (Dashu, 2016).


It isn’t know how many witches were killed between 800 -1100, since records were not always kept or preserved.  It can generally be said that among peasants, there were many remnants of paganism in the form of fortune telling, herbalism, or even worship of herbs through song or chants.  The control of women’s sexuality through its connection to witchcraft is a perennial trend in patriarchy.  Patriarchy is based upon private property and controlling women’s sexuality is a way to control property by ensuring the its is passed on through male lineages.  Thus, using witch accusations to control women’s sexuality comes as little surprise.  While the persecution of witches has a long history in Europe and certainly spiked under certain rulers or in certain times, full scale witch hunting did not come into being until 1500s.


According to Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch (2012) in the 5 th through 7th centuries serfdom began in Europe after the breakdown of slave systems.  The lot of a serf was better than a slave, inasmuch as serfs were not punished as much as slaves, were given plots of land, and were granted access to commons, or commonly held land such as forests, pastures, or lakes which were open to public use.  Of course, the lives of serfs were not that great and over the course of the feudal centuries there were various peasant revolts and heretic movements.  Movements such as the flagellants, Bogomils, cathars, and millenarians are examples of heretic movements that Federici (2012) framed as liberation theology of their day.  There were also less religiously based uprisings, such as when in 1377 clothing workers in Ypres took up arms against their employer, the Peasant wars in Germany, or the 1379 Ciompi Revolt wherein workers briefly seized power in Florence.  Women participated in and sometimes led peasant revolts.  Thus, the first “women’s movement” might be seen as some of these early expressions of resistance to feudalism.  The Black Death, which killed 30-40% of the population of Europe created the social space for peasants to advocate for themselves due to labor shortages.  This resulted in rent strikes and uprisings.  Generally speaking, between 1350-1500 prices went down, rents went down, and work days decreased.  To curtail the power of peasants, something had to change to shift the balance of power.  This shift was the development of capitalism. Image result for florence workers uprising ciompi revolt

Witches and the Advent of Capitalism:

Federici (2012) noted that capitalism’s early development was made possible by such things as the exploration of the New World, the enclosure or privatization of commons, slave trade, the development of workhouses and systems of mass incarceration, and witch hunts.  These are all characteristics of what Marxists call primitive accumulation.  Primitive accumulation is the process by which the initial capital was generated to make capitalism possible.  For instance, for capitalism to work, there needs to be capital, which can include such things as land, buildings, raw materials, and labor.  Within feudalism, peasants were able to obtain the means to support themselves through small plots of land and use of commons, such as hunting, fishing, or gathering from commonly held land.   This commonly held land was also a place for peasants to meet and even organize against injustices in the world.  Any modern activist can surely relate to the lack of free meeting spaces to utilize for public events, which represents an often overlooked facet of what a lack of commons in capitalist society means.  Peasants were evicted from their land because capitalism depends upon workers who support themselves with a wage.  People who can support themselves do not require wage labor.  Thus, in order to turn peasants into workers who relied upon a wage, common land had to be privatized, rents had to be increased, and people needed to be evicted from their land.  At the same time, not working had to be criminalized.  This resulted in the passage of vagrancy laws, which criminalized begging, loitering, or non-work.  This process of primitive accumulation increased starvation and malnutrition. In the mid 16th century, population increased, food production decreased, and inflation was up across Europe  (Barstow, 1994).  Meat, oil, salt, wine, and beer disappeared from the menus of common people during the 16th century.  At the same time, work days lengthened and incomes deceased.  It was not until the middle of the 1800s that wages returned to before the Enclosure movement (Knight, 2009).

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The first witch hunts coincided with the birth of capitalism.  For instance, the Malleus Maleficarum, the famous guidebook for exterminating witches, was written in 1482,  In 1532, witchcraft became punishable by death in England.  At the same time that land was being privatized and “idleness” criminalized, Federici (2012) argued that there were important changes to how women were treated which also played an important role in the early development of capitalism.  The 16th century saw severe fines passed against women who used contraceptives, engaged in infanticide, or sought abortion.  These became capital crimes.  In the 16th-17th centuries, the number one crime that women were executed for was witchcraft, but the number two crime was infanticide.   During this time period, midwifery was banned and folk healers were persecuted (Federici, 2012).  Sollee (2017) noted that in 1556 the French Parliament ordered women to register their pregnancies and to have a witness watch their deliveries.  A woman could be penalized if their infant was stillborn or died after birth and there were no witnesses.  Judge Henry Boquet of Burgundy claimed that all witches were abortionists (Barstow, 1994).  He pronounced over 600 death sentences against witches and sometimes had them burned alive.  Witch hunting was a way to control women’s reproduction.  Witches themselves were often punished publically, through burning, hanging, or torture.  Witches were punished in front of their community, but also in front of their daughters.  The daughters of witches were also subjected to punishment.  By making witch hunting a public spectacle, all women were collectively punished and cowed into submission to the new social order of capitalist patriarchy.  Within Feudalism, women often worked together sewing, harvesting, tending to animals, or washing in common.  This solidarity between women was broken as witch hunting cultivated the fear, suspicion, and isolation necessary to divide women from one another and relegate them to atomized households (Knight, 2009).

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The transition to capitalism saw other changes to the status of women as well.  In the 16th century, women were barred from highly skilled work and relegated to part time, low investment, home related trades.  Women, unlike men, were allowed to take up more than one trade, but this was indicative of the devaluation of their work.  In the 1500s, women were also forced out of guilds (Barstow, 1994).  While women certainly worked, their public work was devalued, as evidenced from their ban from guilds and professions.  Of course, women’s work is still devalued, as evident in the wage gap between men and women but also the amount of unpaid labor that women perform.  Within capitalism, women are tasked with the social reproduction of labor.  This means that women are supposed to reproduce the next generation of workers but also care for the current generation of workers by taking care of their health, cooking, cleaning, or tending to the household.  Thus, control of women’s reproduction is a way to ensure the production of more laborers and their relegation to the household and denigration of their work ensures that women provide the free service of upkeeping capitalism.  Witch hunting served the purpose of both controlling women’s reproduction and collectively punishing women into submission.

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The Peasant Wedding-Pieter Bruegel 1567

It is no wonder then that Barstow (1994) noted that witch hunts did not simply target women, they targeted elderly, single, and poor women.  Barstow (1994) cited many examples of women who lived in the margins of society as beggars or widows who were accused of witchcraft.  For instance, two impoverished families living in the Pendle Forest selling trinkets and charms were accused of witchcraft in 1612.  The head of the Demdike family was an 80 year old woman who was believed by locals to have practiced witchcraft for 50 years and the head of the the Chattox family was also an elderly widow.   A dispute between the two families was taken to court, wherein Old Demdike’s granddaughter accused her of witchcraft along with the Chattox family, resulting in the executions of 10 people as witches.  The complicated story involved a family fued, but also overzealous judges and a landlord, Robber Nutter who accused Anne Red Fearne of the Chattox family after he failed to seduce her and threatened her with eviction.  In another example, Margaret Flower of Rutland England was keeper of poultry who was fired by the earl that she worked for in 1613.  After the firing, the earl’s son got sick and several years later, his eldest son died.  He attributed this to witchcraft and had Margaret and her two daughters arrested.  Margaret died en route to prison and the two daughters were hanged.  Barstow (1994) observed that on average, European victims of witch hunts were over the age of 50.  In New England, women who had inherited land were more likely to be accused of witchcraft.  Single women and postmenopausal women were also more likely to be accused.  Women with outspoken personalities were also more likely be accused and scolding actually became a crime in Britain.  The punishment was that a woman could be put in a scold’s bridle, an iron cage with spikes in the tongue.  While upper class women were sometimes targeted, it was often an act of revenge.  So, sexism, ageism, and class conflicts were compounded in witch hunts.  This supports Federici’s (2012) argument that witch hunts supported the foundation of capitalism, because targeting outspoken women enforced submission to the new order.  Targeting poor women who were beggars or outsiders to society enforced the virtue of work and the victimization of poor.  Even today, the poor are often blamed for their lot in life.  Targeting women without male heirs or widows also served to keep property out of the control of women.


Although Barstow’s (1994) book Witchcraze does not connect capitalism with witch hunting as clearly as Federici’s (2012) work, it supports some aspects of her hypothesis.  Barstow (1994) argued that the persecution of witches coincided with changes in systems of governance.  For instance, in the 16th century, governments became more powerful and centralized, with higher tax rates.  At the same time, secular courts had been developing since the 15th century, often based upon inquisitional courts of the 13th century.  This transition also marked a change from punitive justice, which consisted of community administered justice to less personal state administered justice consisting of fines, punishment, or execution.  The changes that Barstow (1994) outlined made witch hunting possible, but also represents a shift towards more secular, rational institutions which are characteristic of capitalism.   This is important to note since witch hunts are often framed as religious extremism, the scientific and secular minds of the day participated in and supported witch hunts.  For instance, both Hobbes and Bodin participated in witch hunts.  Most witch trials were conducted by secular courts and both Protestants and Catholics used the same arguments against witches (Federici, 2012).  While the sort of evidence used against witches, the notion of witches, the trials and punishments, etc. seem wildly irrational, the phenomenon of witch hunts was rational inasmuch as it was conducted by increasingly rational, or standardized and predictable state apparatus.  This same state apparatus made possible the centralization of power necessary for such elements of capitalism such as national banks, stock exchanges, overseeing the appropriation of commons, and the enforcement of property rights.   Federici (2012) also noted that the Enlightenment or Scientific revolution is sometimes credited with ending witch hunting, but posits that witch hunting ended when it became more of a nuisance to those in power than an effective tool in terrorizing women into submission.


Federici’s (2012) argument is both confounded and supported by the fact that Barstow (1994) found that some areas of Europe had higher numbers of deaths than others and some areas engaged in witch hunts earlier than others.  For instance, England was the first capitalist country but not the earliest or largest scale site of witch hunting.  In England, primitive accumulation began in the 15th century, but it was not until the 17th century that 70-75% of the land was under the control of landlords.  Marxists argue that capitalism began in England because that was where landlords were first successful at evicting peasants from common lands. The peak of the witch hunts in England were in the 1640s-60s which is precisely the same time that the English state transitioned from supporting the traditional rights of lords to supporting the development of capitalism following the English Civil War.  Tenant farming became common along with state sponsored enclosures (Poynton, 2011).  Most witch trials in England occurred where land was enclosed but where land remained public, there were no witch hunts.  In the highlands of Scotland and Ireland, where there was slower development towards capitalism, there were no witch hunts (Federici, 2012).  Nevertheless, it is confounding that England did not have the most witch hunts nor the earliest.  It had some significant witch hunts such as the Pendle witches killed in 1612 and the witch hunts conducted by Matthew Hopkins between 1645-1663 which resulted in 300 executions.  More research is needed to explore more precisely why England, the first capitalist country, was not the country with the first or largest scale witch hunts.  It can only be said that its witch hunts did coincide with a shift towards a more state driven effort towards  primitive accumulation.


The rest of Europe was slower to enclose land and developed capitalism later.  According to Barstow (1994) German speaking parts of Europe had the most deaths from witch hunts, accounting for ½ to 3/4s of the deaths.  Catholic areas of Germany put more witches to death, with 900 witches executed by the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg and 600 put to death by the bishop of Bamberg alone.  But, both Protestants and Catholics vigorously persecuted witches.  German speaking regions were the center of witch hunts, but also experienced the strongest peasant movements and the harshest persecution of heretics and Jews.  In the 16th century there were some enclosure laws, but the project to privatize lands was not complete until the 1800s. Barstow (1994) suggested that the Germanic witch hunts were a continuation of earlier persecutions and the newest form of social control.  However, this answer is unsatisfying because it does not connect the hunts to capitalist development itself.  German speaking areas were not centralized into a singular state, but numerous principalities, baronies, and smaller political units under the umbrella of the Holy Roman Empire.  Nevertheless, the breakdown of Feudalism in Germany was particularly painful.   100,000-300,000 peasants were killed in the Great Peasant Revolt that began in 1524 and lasted about a year.  It was the largest mass uprising in Europe until the French revolution.  Protestant reformation also began in Germany in 1517 and resulted in various social conflicts, including the 30 Years War which began in  began in 1618 and cost the lives of up to eight million people living in central Europe, broke up the Holy Roman Empire, and was ended with the Treaty of Westphalia, which set the groundwork for modern secular, pluralistic, nation states.  Witch hunting was far more extensive in German speaking areas than anywhere else in Europe and certainly these 16th and 17th social upheavals played a role, even if the economy itself was not advancing towards capitalism at the same pace as England.

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Image of the 30 Years War

France was the number two area in Europe or witch hunts (Barstow, 1994).  Yet, property rights in France were complicated.  The Feudal state in France collected taxes directly from peasants and sometimes competed with lords for their surplus.  Sometimes the state intervened at the expense of lords on behalf of peasants and often made it difficult for lords to evict peasants or obtain vacant lands (Poynton, 2011).  Scotland also had many witch hunts, resulting in around 4000 deaths, whereas Ireland had very few.  Some areas experienced witch hunts later, such as Scandinavia where witch hunting peaked in the 1670s or Hungary, where it peaked in the 1720s (Barstow, 1994).  The timeline and scale of witch hunts does not exactly follow the timeline of capitalist development in Europe, but as a general rule countries which developed capitalism sooner tended to have witch hunts sooner.  It would be useful if Federici (2012) would have accounted for these differences.  It can only be said that during the witch hunts many European societies were dealing with the contradictions of Feudalism.  The birth of capitalism was not linear or inevitable and various societies had different elements of capitalism such as merchants, lending, industry, wage labor, markets, rents, speculation, etc.  It is only in England where landlords were able to appropriate the land of peasants that capitalism got the spark that it needed to take off.  The witch hunts could be framed as a part of the general growing pain that many transitioning economies were facing, though not necessarily specific to primitive accumulation.


Witches and witch hunts are a women’s history and gender issues.  Victims of witch hunts were mostly women, who were subjected to male power in the form of male accusers, male juries, male religious leaders, male dominated state power, etc.  On average  80% of the people accused of witchcraft were women, though in some areas the numbers were higher.  For instance, in France and England, 92% of the accused were women.  However, in other areas, more men than women were accused, such as Finland, Estonia, and Russia.  The fact that some men were killed has been used by some historians to challenge the notion that witch hunts were gender driven acts of violence.  For instance, Thompson (2003) noted that although the majority of the victims of witch hunts were women, but ¼ to ⅕ were men.  There are some areas of Europe such as Iceland, Burgundy, and Normandy wherein the majority of victims were men (Thompson, 2003).  It is true that in some areas, men were persecuted in greater numbers than women.  Nevertheless, that in the majority of Europe, it was a gender based persecution.  This is very similar to how although there are male victims of domestic violence in today’s society, the vast majority are female and violence against women plays a role in the systemic oppression of women.  Still, male victims require some explanation.  In Russia, 60% of the accused were men and 40% were women.  In general, there was less persecution of witches and no cases of harsh torture, no children persecuted, and no spectral evidence used in courts.  Witnesses were allowed in the defense of witches and there were never multiple burnings of witches.  At the same time, Russia was not any less sexist than the rest of Europe.  The Orthodox church was repressive of women and sex negative and Russian society had a high tolerance for violence against women (Barstow, 1994).  It is also important to note that although Russia had fewer witch hunts and a different gender dynamic, it was experiencing social change in the form of the consolidation of the Russian state.  Ivan IV or Ivan the Terrible came to power in 1547 and centralized the Russian empire by naming himself tsar of all Russia, by creating a secret police to terrorize other nobility, by conquering various khanates and territories, and by giving positions of power to the emerging commercial class.  He also encouraged men in Russia to beat their wives and distributed propaganda that promoted domestic violence.  Still, witch hunts remained a mostly Western European phenomenon.  If sexism cannot be blamed for the differences in gender makeup of witches, then there must be other answers.  Again, one answer may be the development of capitalism.  Areas which had more men who were persecuted or fewer women, were often less developed in terms of their transition to capitalism.  Finland, Estonia, Iceland, and Russia were all on the periphery of early capitalism.

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Ivan the Terrible by Viktor Vanetsov-1897

 

Witches Today:

Witch hunting peaked in Europe in the 1600s and declined in the 1700s.  The 1734 Witchcraft Act of Britain decriminalized witchcraft.  While some professional fortune tellers were persecuted, the punishment became less severe.  Witch hunting itself was abolished in 1736 in England, in 1776 in Poland, and 1682 in France.  Maria Theresa, the Queen of Bohemia and Hungary and Archduchess of Austria outlawed witch hunting in the late 1700s.  By the 1800s, witch hunts in Europe were rare.  Despite the end of witch hunting in Europe, there are many places in the world today where women continue to be persecuted as witches.  For instance, women in Papua New Guinea are still murdered for accusations of witchcraft.  In 2008, there were 50 people killed for sorcery, most of whom were women.  In Ghana, women accused of witchcraft are widows who are punished with exile to witch villages.  Those accused are often elderly women and widows with families who are looking to take over their property (Backe, 2014).   In remote parts of Northeast India, over 2000 people have been killed in the last 15 years for witchcraft.  Most of the victims are women who have been blamed for bad harvests or illness, but many have been accused due to land disputes (Singh, 2016).  2000 is a high number as it is greater than the number of witches killed in France, the British Isles, Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe respectively.   ISIS beheaded two women and their husbands in 2015 for using magic as medicine.  In Saudi Arabia witchcraft is a criminal offense and in 2006, Fazwa Falih was sentenced to beheading for using magic that caused impotence.  She was sentenced on the basis of one man’s testimony but died in prison before she was executed.  The entire sad story is very similar to the stories of European women who lingered and died in jail before execution and the absurdity of the accusations and evidence used against them.  Witch hunts also happen in Nepal, which target low-caste women.  Around the world, women, but especially poor women, continue to be persecuted as witches.


Federici (2012) argued that witch hunting continues in the so called developing world because this is where capitalism is still in transition.  While capitalism is certainly a global system that impacts the furthest corners of the world, the process of proletarianization is not complete.  That is, there are still places in the world where people support themselves through gathering, subsistence farming, and use of common lands.  At the same time, institutions and agents of globalization put pressure on every country and region of the world to become a part of capitalism.  An example how capitalism continues to privatize the commons is how Monsanto has sought to patent the genes of crops that have traditionally been grown by subsistence farmers.  By patenting the crops, the farmers must buy the seeds or face fines.  Because farmers must buy seeds, they must somehow earn money to grow what they once grew from saving or sharing the seeds.  This forces them to become a part of the economy as consumers, but also as workers.  Governments and international organizations adopt or promote policies which allow international corporations to restructure the economy towards the interests of global capitalism.  For instance, in 2013 in Colombia, peasants went on strike and blocked roads in protest of new laws that outlawed exchanging seeds.  In 2011, the government of Colombia actually destroyed 70 tons of “illegal” rice and raided the trucks and warehouses of rice farmers.  The places in the world which continue to persecute women for witchcraft are often the very same places where people are still in the process of being forced into the capitalism.


While witch hunts have ended in more industrialized countries of the world, the idea of witches continue to be a tool of sexist oppression.  For instance, in Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, by Kristen Sollee (2017) noted that Hillary Clinton was often compared to a witch by her political opponents.  By calling her a witch, she was associated with something feminine, evil, ugly, and old.  It was a gendered insult.  Certainly, Hillary Clinton could and should be critiqued for her support of neoliberal policies that promote America’s agenda for a more violent and impoverished world.  However, by calling her a witch, it sent the message to all women that it is not alright to be public, old, outspoken, and female.  Sollee (2017) also made the argument that the word slut today is similar to witches in the past.  They are similar because victims of sexual assault are blamed for the crime and it is a label that only applies to women.  Sluts are like witches because they are persecuted for seeking control of their reproduction.  While witches have become a part of popular culture, actual witches are still stigmatized in society.  According to the General Social Survey in 2016, just over 70% of Americans identified as Christian.  Traditionally, witchcraft has been viewed as evil by Christians.  The Bible very famously states that “Thou Shall Not Suffer a Witch to Live,” in Exodus 22:18.  Suffice to say that a majority of the U.S. population comes from a religious background that is uneasy if not hostile towards witches.  Furthermore, the idea of a witch is used as an insult and often a negative comparison.  For example, a Texas Preacher named Lance Wallnau said that the Women’s March in January 2017 was the result of witchcraft and the work of the devil.  This comparison was meant to delegitimize the protest and frame expressions of female power and solidarity as evil.  Pat Robertson said, “feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”  It is interesting that witchcraft is connected to feminism, but also associated with capitalism and abortion.  This trifecta of feminist characteristics is precisely what Federici (2012) argued that the witch hunts were all about.  They were about forcing women into submission, reproductively and socially, in the interest of capitalism.


Witches often capture the imagination of women today because feminist historians have done much to uncover the history of witch persecution and in doing so, redeeming witches as healers, midwives, and wise women.  Therefore, to many women witches can be a symbol of resistance or counter-culture.  Women may also be attracted to witches because they represent female power in the form of knowledge and defiance of social norms, but also in the more mythical and magical sense wherein witches may be depicted as actually possessing supernatural power.  Witches offer an alternative role model to young women.  Witches are self-reliant, they don’t need to be conventionally attractive, and they don’t need to be saved by men (Theriault, 2017).  It is no wonder that witches have sometimes been associated with protest.  Glinda the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz was based upon Frank Baum’s mother in law, Matilda Joslyn Gage.  Gage was a visionary woman who was a suffragist, abolitionist, and supporter of Native American rights.  She also wrote about witches not as evil women, but wise women.  Gage lived with Baum and served as his intellectual mentor.  When he created Glinda the Good Witch, he drew from Gage’s insights that a witch did not have to be evil and thusly created a beatific and wise witch.  In another example, W.I.T.C.H or the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell was formed in 1968 as a group of thirteen women who used costumes and the imagery of witches as a form of protest.  They hexed the stock exchange on Halloween of 1968 and protested the inauguration of Nixon in 1969 and a bridal fair that same year.  They developed various chapters called covens around the country  (Sollee, 2017).  Dianic Wicca, a goddess centered form of paganism with feminist roots emerged in the 1970s, again indicating the interest that women had in reclaiming witches not only as a political symbol but spiritual inspiration.

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Interestingly, the modern idea of witches can also be oppressive to women.  The word witch is a gendered term and several branches of modern day neo-paganism were developed by men (Gardnerian/Alexandrian/Crowleyan) and reflect the worldview of men drawing from medieval texts and 19th century British esoterism.  For instance, the moon was envisioned as female and the sun male or masculine fire and feminine water (Theriault, 2017).  Some Dianic Wiccans have been criticized for being trans-exclusionary.  Beyond this, while witches appear in the media, the mainstream media is mainly controlled by men.  Thus, the witches that appear in popular culture are not examples of positive, feminist role models.  For instance, in Hocus Pocus, the witch characters receive their power from a man (a book), are trying to kill children, and are motivated by anti-aging.  The Craft involves a plot line of social outcast teens engaging in witchcraft to punish an attempted rapist, but stopped by a middle class white women who practices a kindlier magic.  Both films were directed by men (Dommu, 2016).  Finally, just as feminism has been commodified by t-shirts and product advertisements, the image of witches and practice of witchcraft has also been tamed by the market.  As a testimony to the money making potential of witches, Etsy has 28,000 results for the query of witchcraft.  Searches for witchcraft were up 30% and witchcraft related purchases were up 60% between 2105 and 2017 (Faif, 2017).  Salem, Massachusetts has cashed in on its history of witch persecution through tourism, gift shops, and specialty shops.  While witches may represent subversive female power, the market often seeks to subvert the subversive if it is profitable.  Thus, in an odd contradiction of late capitalism, we live in a society which disdains witches as evil and uses them to denigrate feminism while at the same time profiting from them and taming them into something more benign.

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Conclusion:

Witches can inspire feminists today as a both a symbol of resistance and victim of persecution.  We live in a disenchanted world.  That is, capitalism destroys all that is sacred in the name of profit- family relationships, solidarity, dignity in work, relationships to the environment, leisure time, the time and autonomy to pursue passions, etc.  Like witches that were denuded, poked and prodded in search of birthmarks or devil’s marks, the market economy strips us bare of our humanity and connections.  Naked, cold, and alone, we live and die as workers in the home and public workplaces with little protection from the ups and downs of wages, costs of living, the economic strain of endless war, inflation, recession, and depression.  At the same time, poverty is punished and punishment breeds poverty as formerly incarcerated individuals often serve as auxiliary labor as unemployed and contingent workers.  Women are still cloistered in their homes and devalued in the public sphere.  The great witch hunts of the 17th century have ended in the industrialized world, but continue in the impoverished, socially strained, and economically exploited regions of the world.  There is no magic to fight this.  There is no actual “hexing” of Wall Street.  Everything magical in the world is long dead.  But, there is solidarity.  Witch hunts served to pit women against women and entire communities against their more vulnerable members.  The worst horrors inflicted by the state and the economy are often those that we have internalized and inflict upon one another.  If there is a lesson from history it is to stand against the persecution of the outsiders, the poor, the different, the elderly, women, the mentally ill, the marginal, the Other.  An injury to one is an injury to all.  By reclaiming our solidarity we can stand against the injustices of society, many of which are very similar to those faced by witches in the 17th century.  Our criminal justice system can be just as illogical.  Victims are still blamed.  Public enemies are always socially constructed.  The tragedy of the witch hunts is that no one organized against them.  In one instance, in Basque country in Spain, a group of women were to be executed as witches but when their husbands and brothers, who had been fishing returned, they stopped the whole ordeal.  It goes to show that the persecution of witches could have been stopped.  All that is needed is the will and solidarity to do so.


 

Sources:

Backe, E. (2014, December 20). Something Wicked This Way Comes: Witches and Modern Women. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://thegeekanthropologist.com/2014/07/25/something-wicked-this-way-comes-witches-and-modern-women/

Barstow, A. L. (1994). Witchcraze: a new history of the European witch hunts. San Francisco, CA: Pandora.

Dashu, M. (2016). Witches and pagans: women in European folk religion, 700-1100. Richmond, CA: Veleda Press.

Dommu, R. (2016, October 20). Witches on screen: good for fashion, bad for feminism? Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://mic.com/articles/157194/witches-on-screen-good-for-fashion-bad-for-feminism#.soR3gmPwI

Eisler, R. (1989). The chalice and the blade: our history, our future. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Faife, C. (2017, July 26). How Witchcraft Became A Brand. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://www.buzzfeed.com/corinfaife/how-witchcraft-became-a-brand?utm_term=.heA0yv6ANY#.cc2N940VY3

Federici, S. (2014). Caliban and the witch. New York: Autonomedia.

Knight, A. (2009, November 05). Who Were the Witches? – Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://endofcapitalism.com/2009/11/05/who-were-the-witches-patriarchal-terror-and-the-creation-of-capitalism/

Mays, D. A. (2004). Women in early America struggle, survival, and freedom in a new world. Santa Barbara (Calif.): ABC-CLIO.

Metcalfe, T. (2016, July 18). Black Magic: 6 Infamous Witch Trials in History. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://www.livescience.com/55431-infamous-witch-trials-in-history.html

Peoples, H. C., Duda, P., & Marlowe, F. W. (2016, May 06). Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0

Poynton, D. (2011, August 08). The Rise of Capitalism. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2010s/2011/no-1284-august-2011/rise-capitalism

Singh, V. (2016, February 24). Fighting Modern-Day Witch Hunts in India’s Remote Northeast. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/25/world/asia/india-assam-state-witch-hunts.html

Sollee, K. (2017). Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive. Consortium Book Sales & Dist.

Theriault, A. (2017, February 16). The Real Reason Women Love Witches. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://everydayfeminism.com/2017/02/real-reason-women-love-witches/

Thompson, D. (2003, March 16). The victims of the witch hunt history would rather forget. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3591284/The-victims-of-the-witch-hunt-history-would-rather-forget.html

howtospotawtich

100 Political Events in 2017: A Reflection

100 Political Events in 2017: A Reflection

H. Bradford

8/16/17

Yesterday, I attended my 100th political event of the year.   The 100th event was a solidarity vigil for Charlottesville at the Clayton, Jackson, Mcghie Memorial in Duluth.  The event was attended by several hundred people.  So many people flooded the plaza that there were people in the the street.  It was large enough that the police blocked off the street to passing traffic during the event against white supremacy (but framed generally as hate).  We are just three years shy of the 100 year anniversary of the the lynching of three innocent African American men in Duluth.  Yet, 100 years later so little has changed.  Activists 100 years ago might be terrified to peek into the future and see that we are still fighting imperialist wars, hate groups like the KKK not only still exist but is actually gaining popularity,  union membership is less than it was in 1920 and almost a third of what it was at its peak in 1970s, we are killing our planet, and basically…every oppressed group is …still oppressed.   It would be pretty demoralizing to look ahead in time.  In this long view into the future…this century long parade of violence, misery, drudgery…Trump would probably not stand out as the worst of the worst but just the latest terrible thing in the procession of suffering.  Yet, I would hope that this activist of the past would see some hope.  There are moments when humanity unites and fights against the tide of suffering.  There are slow gains from the struggles of mass movements to rage against everything that destroys and diminishes us.

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(I did not take this photo, it was posted to the Charlottesville Solidarity Vigil and I believe it was taken by Jordan Bissell)


Today was my 100th political event.  Activism is not a numbers game, but I do like numbers.  I know how many books I have read this year, new species of birds I have seen, the number of blogs that I have written, the number of countries I have visited, the calories I have consumed in the last 25 days, spending on food for the last several months, and many other things.  So, tracking my activism is just one thing of many things that I like to keep tabs of.   Numbers do not tell the whole story, but they do provide a piece of a puzzle.  What can be said about 100 political events?  Well, yesterday was day 227 of the year.  That means that 44% of the days this year have been spent at political events such as meetings, protests, or educational political presentations/films.  If I subtract the time I was out of the country on vacation- not at all engaged in politics- the number increases to 50%.  That means half of my days are spent at a political event.  This does not count times I spend writing political blog posts, preparing for political events by making event pages, putting up fliers, or creating fliers, having political conversations, or other political activities.  Of these 100 events, approximately 46% were feminist, 13% were against racism, 10% were socialist specific, 8% were LGBTQ, 7% were non-labor specific economic justice events, 6% labor related, 5% were environmental,   4% were anti-war or anti-imperialism, 3% were criminology related, and 2% were miscellaneous.  These numbers are imperfect, as some events were related to more than one category.  The previous year, I attended 80 events for the WHOLE YEAR.  So, it is safe to say that the election of Trump has resulted in an upsurge of political activity and opportunities to participate in social movements.  I think it is also fair to say that this year has seen the emergence of far more feminist activism.  While I tend to prioritize feminist events, there are far more events than I am able to attend.  Locally, the most consistent and robust area of activism this year tends to be feminism…though there are plenty of opportunities in other kinds of activism as well and my numbers do not reflect the actual number of events against racism or for the environment, for instance.  The numbers tell a bit more about myself than the political situation…but the general increase in activities certainly is indicative of an increase in opportunity.   People are fighting back on many fronts.

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What else can be said about the 100?  I can say that I am a little tired!  I feel accomplished.  It helps keep me motivated.  It also feels like hiking up a mountain and reading the elevation signs or the KM to the top.  When I went on my vacation and entirely disengaged from activism and politics, it was hard to come back.  I can see the appeal for the people who can’t be bothered to become engaged in social change.  I can feel the hopelessness that nothing will become better so we may as live for whatever pleasures we can eke out of this existence.  It isn’t always fun to go to meetings.  It feels like a second job sometimes.  It can feel like responsibility, stress, pressure, annoyance, etc.  I feel a lot of conflicted feelings, really.  I feel that it is mostly thankless and misunderstood.   At the same time, I do feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of need.  I feel enough passion to continue.  I feel very angry.   It is anger that motivates me the most.  I feel so angry that the world is so shitty for so many people.  I feel angry that there are violent, horrific people who want women to live in the social equivalent of a whelping box as they breed the next generation of soldiers and workers.  I feel angry that the ignorance of America’s atrocities over history and today.  The stupid fear mongering over North Korea.  I feel angry that white people feel victimized by a system built upon slavery, genocide, racism, and imperialism.  I feel angry that there are so many people with the means to do more, but they don’t because it isn’t respectable to protest or in their immediate interest to make some waves.  I wish I had more time for other things, yet I actually usually do get a lot out of activism.  At the same time, I often wonder how normal people live.  What do they do with their time?   Then, there are some super activists who have probably been to 200 things this year!  I am sure that comrades, Adam and Lucas, have probably been to more events than I have.  Adam might have been to 150.  They don’t write it down like I do.  It isn’t a contest, of course.  Activism feels a bit like a Sisyphean task.  Most of the time, the results are not immediately obvious.  OR, in the worst case, the stone of social change actually rolls down the mountain.

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Activism isn’t always fun.  Sometimes it is cold…and boring…or disappointing.  Though this event actually was engaging and left me feeling hopeful.


All activists must have some sense of optimism that things can change.  Even without optimism, things always change.  More than optimism, activists have to believe in a sense of efficacy.  That not only does change happen, but humans can and often influence this change.   I have to assume that the imagined activist from 100 years ago would be disappointed if not terrified, but I would also hope that the activists today could give them hope.   I suppose that it where I see myself in history.   I hope that whatever future 100 years from now is better.   Wouldn’t it be nice if there weren’t prisons, hunger, homelessness, or wars?  What if everyone had enough?  What if the planet wasn’t dying?  How do we get from POINT A (this shit hole world) to POINT B (a better one)?   I believe it is by trying to build movements that will change the world.  I am a very minuscule part of that.   But it will be made by millions of minuscule parts.  So, I am telling you that I have been to 100 things so that maybe someone…out there…. will think that it is time to attend one thing.  The past, present, and future might appreciate it.  And, you can take it from me… one thing is not so much to do.

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Just keeping the flame of hope alive…

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