I was raised by a single mother and her widowed mother and single sister. That’s a lot of women in one room, and they were completely and wholly invaluable to me as a child: together, the three of them kept my brother and I safe and entertained, fed and well-rested. My mom worked nights, so my brother and I spent those nights in my grandmother’s basement; she picked us up after school and my aunt took us out on weekends. I grew up learning that women were all-too capable of doing these things alone, burdensome and seemingly impossible as they might be.
I grew up pro-woman, pro-mother, pro-family, and pro-choice. I grew up knowing I was wanted, and loved. I grew up with a parent willing to sacrifice almost anything for me – and I say “almost” because though I have yet to find it, I’m sure her limit must exist. My mother drove us around for thousands of miles, came to all of our performances, and also struggled to put food on the table. She doesn’t have a college degree and had given up being in the workforce during her brief marriage to my father – the odds were stacked against her and thus, against us. But that never ruined her resolve. Together, my immediate and extended family watched as my brother and I graduated with honors from prestigious universities, landed our dream jobs, and started our adult lives.
Having grown up empowered, I noticed that women’s lives were not really on anyone’s radar, and that it was affecting my own life. Men ran local and national and international businesses, played politics into adulthood, ran for local office. Business executives and doctors in the world and on TV were predominately male. None of these men understood my mother’s life: growing up under George W. Bush, it was impossible to give credit to leaders of the free world for taking care of her. Nobody was. Men were also the majority of my mother’s coworkers, and though I expected her humanity to be apparent to them they were often directly or indirectly unsupportive of her despite her obvious challenges and burdens. I had three women raising me and outside of that, I was wholly alone. At the time, nobody was concerned with my story, either: children of single-parent homes were mythologized as being destined for prison and drug abuse, studied for signs of abuse, pre-determined to suffer from neglect. I was defined by lies. My experiences were invisible. And nobody admired my mother as much as they should have.
I became a feminist. And once I invested myself in feminism, I came to do a lot of reading about the folks and movements that worked against my mother in newspapers and books. I learned a few things: that the forces working against my family were both social (widespread media and cultural values that devalued our family unit and individual experiences) and political (commonplace legislation of our lives and livelihoods; the playing of political games with social programs and women’s rights on the table). And I came to realize was that no issue opened women up to being talked down to more than abortion.
Anti-choice talking points often come down to shame, blame, and stigma. It starts at conception, when women are blamed entirely for their unplanned pregnancies. (Y’know, I don’t know what these legislators tell their kids, but if not men than surely even the stork is sort of implicated in that problem.) Next comes shame: women must face punishment, after all, for having sex in the first place. Babies become “punishments” for that sex: “if you didn’t want the child, you shouldn’t have had sex.” Which, hoo boy! Tell that to the girls I went to middle and high school with – the ones who were pressured on the daily to have sex. Or maybe tell that even to legislators who get caught in extramarital affairs, yet somehow retain their careers. The stigmatization piece comes later: women face social punishment either for having an abortion or for considering one; their pregnant bellies become invitations to be lectured and picketed by violent and angry protesters outside of valid medical facilities.
Men and women talking down to pro-choice and struggling women about abortion lacked an understanding, even to my teenage self, of how pregnancy would really impact me should it be thrust upon me: I would face isolation, struggle through physical and emotional turmoil, and put my entire future at risk in the course of just nine months. Add to this that most anti-choice arguments (fetal pain, fetal heartbeat, and abstinence-only sex education among them) are unsupported by science and data and there seems, to me, to be little compulsion to listen to them. Yet this discourse has dominated women’s lives since my birth.
Women don’t need to be talked down to to take control of their lives. We know exactly what we need, and we’ve been asking for it: we need emergency contraception, comprehensive sex education, birth control access and coverage to make family planning a pre-emptive action rather than a post-coital appointment. We need safe and legal abortion to prevent maternal mortality and the economic destruction of women’s lives. We need privacy and respect as it has been afforded to millions of human beings who make momentous medical decisions by themselves. We need patience and understanding and compassion as we make choices that could alter our futures, lives, and relationships. Family planning is not a keyword – it’s a movement. I was wanted, loved, and sacrificed for. I don’t know, to this day, how my mother did that. She is stronger than I’ll ever know, and braver, too. I don’t want babies to be punishments for pre-marital or even post-marital sex. I don’t want aborting a baby because it may never live a happy and healthy life to be seen as a monstrous decision even as it may eat someone else alive. I don’t want women to be shamed for enjoying sex, as men have for centuries. I don’t want women to be stigmatized for controlling their careers and wanting it all.
I want choices. It’s what brought me to feminism, seeing as even by the age of ten I was struggling to decide between President, Pope, and famous starving artist as my career trajectory for the future. It’s what kept me there as I grew up and witnessed unique and individual moments of beauty inside every single human being, and realized that a movement big enough to hold us all had to also be big enough to hold us together. It’s what brings me here today. The pro-choice movement is still my movement because until legislators take their hands off of my body, and stop telling me how to live my life, I cannot leave. I can’t back out. I can’t turn around and abandon all hopes of freedom. I came into this world marginalized, and I refuse to leave it that way.
Women want, and deserve, to make their own choices. Women need to be free to do so. And until that’s made clear to everyone walking this Earth, the work’s not done.
Latest posts by Carmen Rios (see all)
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- WATCH: Jay Leno, Frances Fisher, Ellie Smeal, and Others Speak Out to #StopTheSultan in Beverly Hills! - May 20, 2014