By Deana A. Rohlinger
Feminist Gloria Steinem made headlines when journalists and pundits learned that she dedicated her new book, My Life on the Road, to Dr. Sharpe – the physician who performed her illegal abortion in 1957.
According to Steinem, Sharpe asked her to not reveal his identity and encouraged her to pursue her life’s passion. In response, Steinem writes:
Dear Dr. Sharpe,
I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death:
I’ve done the best I could with my life.
This book is for you.
Mass media exploded with commentary on the controversial dedication.
Opponents of legal abortion criticized Steinem for “killing” her baby and advancing women’s rights by “destroying” the rights of the unborn. Others praised Steinem for being “badass” enough to tell her story and remind readers that she doesn’t regret this choice in her “moving” dedication.
At the end of the day, does Steinem’s dedication really matter much to the abortion debate?
Yes. Steinem’s dedication and subsequent interviews give important momentum to a growing trend in the pro-choice movement – reclaiming abortion narratives.
Powerful narratives recounting illegal abortions played a critical role in making the abortion procedure more accessible in the 1960s. Women, who had sought back alley abortions or attempted to abort their pregnancies at home by ingesting chemicals and throwing themselves down flights of stairs, shared their sometimes devastating stories with legislators and the broader public, hoping to change their minds about the importance of safe and legal abortion to women’s health. These stories were symbolized by the metal coat hanger, which were used in at-home abortion procedures. In the wake of the 1973 Supreme Court decisions Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, which legalized abortion in the first trimester or before viability, the narratives about illegal abortions lost their political power.
Abortion narratives did not disappear. Opponents of legal abortion began telling their own stories – this time of women who regretted their abortion decisions. Women’s stories focused on the days, months, and years after abortion, which were riddled with guilt and physical pain. These narratives, women such as Nancy Jo Mann argued, were the real legacy of legal abortion. These narratives, which feature uncaring spouses or parents, callous physicians, and finding peace through faith, dominated the political landscape for almost three decades.
Picture by Fibonacci Blue
The Internet, which allows individuals to create and disseminate content easily, provided a forum where pro-choicers began to challenge this narrative. In 2003, sites like “I’m Not Sorry” opened their virtual doors to women who didn’t feel guilty about getting abortion and invited them to share their stories. The point of the sites is not to celebrate abortion, but to:
Help society understand why many pregnant people choose to have abortions and why it can be the right decision for them. They will better understand why those who experience abortion feel the pressure to keep it a secret and how harmful this can be at an already painful time. Sharing a personal story can help others see that life isn’t simple [from Share Your Abortion Story].
Established pro-choice organizations are catching on to this digital trend, launching their own platforms for women to talk, unashamed, about their abortions, and women’s willingness to speak openly appears to be growing. The recent #ShoutYourAbortion social media campaign started by Amelia Bonow and Lindy West is an excellent example. Bonow, who shared her abortion on Facebook, urged other women to share their stories in order to challenge abortion stigma and reframe the debate. “Even women who support abortion rights have been silent, and told they were supposed to feel bad about having an abortion.”
Picture by Steve Rainwater
In this context, Steinem’s dedication matters. It reminds the public that abortion narratives are not owned by abortion opponents, nor can they be written off as a practice in which “over-sharing” Millennials engage. Steinem’s comments connect feminists across generations and help pro-choice supporters reclaim the power of narratives in American politics.
Deana A. Rohlinger is a Professor of Sociology at Florida State University. She is the author of Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Learn more about Deana’s work at www.DeanaRohlinger.com.