Category Archives: Social Studies

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Faces of the Resistance

On the bleakest day for American women in my lifetime, the texts and the tears started flying back and forth within seconds of the New York Times news flash on my iPhone.

“It happened,” I texted a friend who is a leader in the abortion rights movement in Minnesota.

A rally at Planned Parenthood in May 2022, after the U.S. Supreme Court decision leaked

Her one-word answer described the swamp I stayed stuck in all day after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion nationwide on January 22, 1973. I was 15 and a half years old. I am 65 now. That means I had the safety and protection of legal abortion throughout my reproductive years, a right that my two grown sons will not inherit.

“Shit,” my friend responded, placing a period after the single word in her text, as though to emphasize the finality, the inevitability. Then she helped organize a massive vigil in downtown Minneapolis at 5:30 that afternoon, Friday, June 24, 2022.

“Join us in grief, rage, and in loving community,” her email invitation said. Contrary to stereotypes about the godless nature of pro-choice activists, my friend is a minister.

A counter-protestor outside Planned Parenthood in St. Paul on Black Friday

Amid the dozens of articles, headlines and notes from radio broadcasts or podcasts that I have saved since June 24 — “Roe Ruling, Remapping Turned Tide,” about the DFL sweep of the Minnesota statehouse; “Democrats Flip Script in Abortion Rights Debate,” from the New York Times; “Covert Network Provides Pills for Thousands of Abortion in U.S. Post Roe,” in the Washington Post; “Court at Odds with Public,” two days after a decision that has stripped a generation of their rights — one quote stands alone.

“Women didn’t talk about it much, they didn’t do a bunch of marches and protests, they didn’t post on social media, they probably didn’t even tell their husbands,” GOP strategist and former Senate majority leader Amy Koch told the Star Tribune after her party’s defeat in the midterms. “But they were ticked off and they went out to vote.”

A day after Roe v. Wade fell, I tabled for Planned Parenthood at the Pride festival in Minneapolis.

She got the last part right. But Koch’s assumption that women were disengaged from the debate — that any woman who cares about the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health is, by definition, heterosexual and married — and that many people, of all genders, have not been out marching, protesting, phone banking and strategizing on social media is, to my experience, just plain wrong.

It also helps explain why Republicans fell short in this year’s midterm elections in Minnesota (“State GOP Surveys Wreckage” was the headline for this piece). “Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world,” anthropologist Margaret Mead once said. Especially if those people have lost their rights.

I know a 32-year-old man who got a vasectomy within weeks of the Dobbs decision, not wanting to put a female partner through an unwanted pregnancy and certain that he never wanted kids himself. I have a good friend, a lesbian, who came to the United States from Europe as a child; she and her wife are contemplating moving back to her liberal homeland, where she doesn’t have to fear that their legal marriage could be undone.

“What happens to all the babies born into unsafe conditions?” asked a report on National Public Radio the Monday morning after the Dobbs decision was announced. States with the strictest abortion laws also tend to have the fewest social services, the program host pointed out.

My neighbor, like me, is more than a decade past her reproductive years. We feel this decision deeply, especially as mothers — her to three daughters, me to two sons — but we wouldn’t primarily feel its effects. White, middle-class, still supported by the safety net with which I was raised, I could afford to cross state lines for a safe and legal abortion, if I were of childbearing age and wasn’t lucky enough to live in Minnesota, an oasis of sanity and compassion in the Upper Midwest.

A pregnant woman displays her baby bump at an abortion rights rally in July.

Thirteen states have enacted laws banning abortion with limited exceptions since the Dobbs decision. I am hosting a fundraiser for 30 people this coming Saturday for Our Justice, an organization that raises money to house women seeking abortion care in our state. This is what we’ve come to: individual solutions in individual states, as though women’s autonomy were not a national value (which, of course, it’s not).

I saw a woman last summer at the dog park with a T-shirt that read: Pro-Cat, Pro-Feminist, Pro-Choice. “I agree with all but one of those,” I told her, and then I paused before dropping the punchline: “I’m allergic to cats.” The woman told me she’s a teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools and can’t wear political T-shirts or buttons to her job. So she wears a pro-choice T-shirt when she’s out running weekend errands and notes how many — or how few — people respond.

A handmaid, by definition, is a “subservient partner or element.”

The first time I saw a Handmaid’s Tale outfit at a pro-choice rally was at the Minnesota State Capitol in spring 2019. “Since you creeps won’t get out of our bedrooms, we’re coming for your House,” the woman’s sign read. I didn’t know then that the costume would become contentious, that women of color whose earlier family members had no choices, who had no agency over their bodies, would see it as another symbol of white, clueless privilege. Still, at that time and place, it was powerful for me.

Nearly three years later, in May 2022, the same outfit had a more chilling effect at a Planned Parenthood rally after the Supreme Court’s draft document leaked, once the reality of Roe’s demise felt closer, more real. This Handmaid paused after consenting to have her photo taken, striking the pose of submission that personifies the point novelist Margaret Atwood was trying to make when her book — now better known as a TV series on Hulu —was published in 1985.

A reproductive rights rally at the State Capitol this past July brought out thousands of people who looked more angry than afraid. I shouted out information about the event till I was hoarse on June 25, the day after the Supreme Court decision was announced. I was tabling for Planned Parenthood at the Pride festival in Minneapolis alongside another Boomer woman who had shared her abortion story at a rally the previous day. She left our shift early, emotionally drained and physically spent.

By contrast, I found the energy and support at the Pride festival to be inspiring, a spirited day of action that helped me feel less frightened and alone.

Thousands of people gathered at the Minnesota State Capitol on July 17, 2022.

“I don’t see the point of going to a rally,” my husband said before I convinced him to join me at Planned Parenthood’s Twin Cities headquarters back in May. Similarly, a letter writer told the Star Tribune right after the Dobbs decision: “I guess the rallies are supposed to send a message to [elected officials], but I believe personal messages have more impact.”

It’s the energy, the camaraderie, the crazy and creative signs, the righteous outrage, the relief of being among like-minded people in a society that has turned right so hard and fast it leaves me bruised: Those are the reasons to attend a rally.

The National Day of Action in Minneapolis in October 2021

At the National Day of Action, dubbed the Women’s March, in Minneapolis on October 2, 2021, I volunteered to get people on the mailing list for UnRestrict Minnesota, a coalition of groups focused on reproductive rights, racial equity and gender equality. Then I started taking photos of T-shirts and signs. Some were provocative (“If my uterus could fire bullets, you wouldn’t regulate it”), others straightforward (“Patriarchy hurts everyone” and “Racist people suck”).

But one spoke volumes by speaking the simple truth. It quoted Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her Senate confirmation hearing for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, perhaps the last time a prospective jurist was honest about their views on Roe v. Wade, which declared abortion to be constitutionally protected.

Data show that women of color will be more greatly affected by the revocation of Roe.

“The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity,” the sign said, quoting Ginsburg flawlessly. “It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”

Donald Trump may never set foot in the White House again. But he will leave behind a legacy of a six-judge conservative majority on a nine-person court that will undo the social progress of my youth. Our downfall as liberals and progressives, in the 2016 presidential election and beyond, was that we failed to see it coming. Instead, we bickered among ourselves, refused to coalesce around a candidate and hated on Mitch McConnell rather than emulating his focus.

Being right doesn’t matter once your rights are gone.

Once gun violence hits close to home, what comes next?

I flew to Chicago early on a recent Thursday morning but rode the train home the next day. I needed the space, the spotty WiFi, the long, lonely stretch of eight hours on the Amtrak Empire Builder to steady myself after the whirlwind of the past week.

The shocking news came initially via voicemail and text message and, later, in person amid sobs of disbelief. Then there was the rearranging of schedules, the packing and the journey, the reunion with familiar faces, and finally the funeral of a young woman I have known since her toddler days.

Numbers best describe this memorial service, in a funeral home filled with the sweet smell of flowers and the bittersweet concoction of tears and laughter that always accompanies death.

  • 37, the age of the gunshot victim struck in the back by a bullet intended for someone else on a street in Chicago, during the early evening of Juneteenth.
  • 5, the number of people who asked me in the immediate aftermath whether the violence occurred on the city’s largely Black south side. (For the record, it did not.)
  • 125, the number of minutes the victim’s mother — my oldest friend — had to walk past or sit directly in front of the open casket that held her only daughter.
  • 50, the estimate by my friend’s older brother of how many people traveled to the funeral from New York City, where the victim began her career in the food-and-beverage industry, lauding her in tributes as a caring and generous friend and manager, a vibrant woman who had other people’s backs. Other friends came from the victim’s hometown of Mankato, Minnesota; from her time in college in Rhode Island; and from her three years in Chicago. “It was very clear that this community lost a shining light,” her uncle said, “a term many used to describe [the victim’s] impact on their lives.”
  • 2, the number of times the young widower stood at the podium during the service, visibly stunned, audibly grieving, and described how a bullet had shattered his life, too.

I quit counting the number of sniffles, air gulps, flowing tears and outright sobs by Millennial-age adults too young to be memorializing one of their own.

As we were walking down the street, we heard 3 gunshots. Nichole collapsed into me while grabbing her back, screaming in pain.

The victim’s husband, describing the tragedy on a GoFundMe page

‘I don’t know what to say” was the most common attempt at condolence that my friend heard in the days following her daughter’s murder. For me, a wordsmith, words ceased to matter. My husband and I drove to Janey’s house in a torrential rainstorm, four hours after hearing the news. I didn’t give a thought to how I would greet her. Instinct took over, and I hugged my friend tightly — wordlessly — till she let go.

  • 52, the number of shootings in Chicago over the course of that stormy Father’s Day weekend in June.
  • 15, the number of friends and family members my friend texted the day after the funeral to say an arrest had been made, the detectives had done their work, the omnipresent video cameras in our daily lives, for once, had served their purpose.
  • 5, the number of charges — one count of first-degree murder of my friend’s daughter, four counts of attempted first-degree murder for shooting into a car of visitors from Milwaukee — against the young man who has been arrested as a suspect.
  • 1, the number of times that random, unintended but horribly consequential gun violence previously had pierced my circle of friends and colleagues. My safe middle-class bubble. “This violence is close to home now,” a friend wrote on Facebook. The day we heard the news, the Star Tribune carried a banner headline: “Rising Gun Crimes Defy Answers.” The story described the May 22 death of Charlie Johnson in downtown Minneapolis, a graduating senior at the University of St. Thomas, where I work. Shot in the back, like my friend’s daughter; caught in gang violence, like my friend’s daughter; white and middle-class, like my friend’s daughter, with a promising life ahead.
  • 5, the number of letter writers who decried the easy sale and exchange of guns in our society and “the culture of poverty that produces the despair that fuels violence.”

Prosecutors charged Angel Ayala, 22, with shooting a tourist and murdering a passerby during last weekend’s Puerto Rican Day festivities.

CWB Chicago, June 26, 2021

After a suburban cop shot and killed Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man and school cafeteria supervisor, during a traffic stop in 2016 only miles from my home, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I wanted to comprehend the particular anguish and protectiveness that Black parents feel for their Black sons, a fear and an urgency that I don’t have to experience — even though my older son, the tall blond one, the rebel who sees the underbelly of American society for what it is, was arrested protesting Castile’s murder. Several years later, an officer from the same police force pulled over my son for speeding along the same road. No guns were drawn this time. In fact, the cops apologized for having to impound his car.

Reading isn’t action. It doesn’t change anything. I understand that. But as a college-educated woman reared to revere books, and employed in higher education for the past 20 years, reading is my starting point.

Three days after the funeral, safely home from a city I have vowed never to visit again, I dog-walked by Next Chapter Booksellers, my neighborhood bookshop in St. Paul, and saw historian Carol Anderson’s latest book in the window: The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. I came home and ordered it online, for same-day pickup.

Then I read my friend’s keenly felt message of hope, in a text exchange that has been ongoing since she broke the news to me of her daughter’s death.

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash

“This has nothing to do with politics, religion or anything else but a senseless murder,” my friend Janey said. “My platform now is grief. I’m going to get the word out about gun violence. I’m not sure how, but it is being clarified in my mind today.

“I’m not angry,” she went on, with an eloquence anchored by a mother’s unconditional love. “Nichole’s murder will not go unnoticed. This violence has to stop. Any murder of a son, daughter, mother, father or grandparent has to be honored and noticed by people.”

We notice you, Nichole. We grieve the loss of you. Rest in peace; because the people who loved you — who invested in you, who cared and care about you — will never rest until the streets of our cities are safer for everyone, and until everyone in America, of every color, has a home, an education. And a chance.

Why privileged people must keep talking in troubled times

White people are talking to one another these days. Eagerly reading books. Earnestly participating in whites-only discussion groups — a type of racial segregation with an entirely different feel and meaning from the power-hording exclusions of the past.

This is our work, to face up to and come to terms with what feminist and white anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh calls the “unearned entitlements” that society bestows on white people. (See the list that McIntosh laid out more than 30 years ago in her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and notice how full that knapsack remains today.)

As I have worked through (in order) the books White Fragility, and Between the World and Me, and There There, and How to Be an Antiracist, I have been thinking about language:

  • How white names have erased other cultures.
  • How shifts in capitalization initially confused me.
  • How hard I tried, as a young feminist, to incorporate gender-neutral language into my writing and daily speech.

And because I made such an effort to replace generic male pronouns with the admittedly awkward “he or she,” I have become more aware of when unconscious bias — the privileges of race, class and sexual orientation that I take for granted — still trips me up with how I use and view language.

Here’s what I am learning:

Lesson 1: Do your homework.

During the uncivil tug of war over whether to call Minneapolis’ largest lake by its original Dakota name or the one that honored racist politician John C. Calhoun, I never bothered to investigate how to pronounce Bde Maka Ska. Instead, wanting to look “woke,” I simply used it.

A friend who lives near the former Lake Calhoun gently corrected me when I referenced ba-DAY-mah-kah-SKA, putting the primary emphasis on the final syllable. The correct pronunciation of what translates into English as White Earth Lake has a flow, emphasizing the second syllable of the second word. Ba-day-mah-KAH-ska.

“But that’s not what the spelling suggests!” I told my friend. No matter. Not my language, not my place. Instead of embarrassing myself further, I found a video online that helped me pronounce the name correctly, and then I practiced. By now, the pronunciation is second nature.

Lesson 2: Fake it till you make it.

The first time I was asked to introduce myself with my pronoun preferences was when I began volunteering for a feminist health organization in January 2018. “Hi, I’m Amy, she/her/hers” sounded awkward at first. Eventually, like “he or she,” it just seemed natural. The practice has also helped me be more cognizant of non-binary people, those who identify as neither female nor male.

I had witnessed the pronoun challenges of my transgender first cousin, who spent some long, hard years transitioning from male to female and who later grew impatient when people made pronoun mistakes — as her parents, my aunt and uncle, sometimes did. My husband once referred to Renae as “he” at a family gathering, watched her stiffen and felt himself want to melt into the floor. Instead he apologized and moved on, acknowledging Renae’s feelings before his own by staying with the conversation. By remaining present, both literally and emotionally.

Lesson 3: Find safe spaces to work things out.

I recently joined a “Dismantling Whiteness” group at work. I seek out people I trust with whom to discuss issues of race and inequity, of power and privilege, of unconscious bias and changing language patterns. Like me, they are white; like me, they are trying. Like me, they sometimes are confused.

As a former editor, I closely followed the decision by prominent media outlets last summer to start capitalizing the word Black again, in the wake of the social upheaval that followed the police killing of George Floyd. Was this a gesture meant to reverse centuries of horrific treatment? Was it intended to help Black people earn some overdue respect? Or was it time to remind whites of our complicity?

A commentary last July in the Washington Post argued a different point of view. If we capitalize only Black, said author and historian Nell Irvin Painter — who herself is Black — then we fail to acknowledge that whiteness is a race, a social construction that for centuries has elevated some people at the expense of others.

I choose, here and elsewhere, not to capitalize white. Not yet. I fear leaving any impression of allegiance to white nationalism or of appearing antagonistic toward social change or of differing with Black people’s right to claim their own identity. I’m just not sure it is my choice to make.

This is why white people are talking. We must figure it out among ourselves. “I feel like such a stumbling white person,” I told a Black colleague last year at a pre-COVID work meeting. She laughed and touched my arm. “Keep on stumbling,” she declared.

Our turn, finally, to have a reckoning with race.