The summer of 2012, I was a public affairs intern at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. I’d just finished my freshman year, and two months before the plan had been to get a job as a barista back home, to live yearning endlessly for my college town, where even if it’s not perfect, is at least a place where the pro-choice bumper stickers don’t get scraped off my car. But somehow in my feminist awakening (which oh lord, hit me hard and fast that spring semester), I found myself applying for internships with non-profits; and, somehow, come June I found myself with an internship in hand with the best known (and, for the antis, most hated) name in reproductive healthcare and rights. As an intern in the public affairs department, and especially with it being an election year, one particularly charged in Kansas, I found myself getting a comprehensive crash-course education in the importance of state laws, tracking legislation, composing political mailing, and of course—phone banking.
Over the course of that summer, I phone-banked dozens upon dozens of hours. I called in the morning, the afternoon, the evening. I talked to supporters and non-supporters alike—democrats, republicans, libertarians. I was told that I was brave to be doing work with reproductive healthcare, and fighting to elect candidates that respect the right to choose. I was told I was an admirable young lady. A fighter. A whore.
I was demeaned, called name after name, snided at, yelled at, and I always, no matter the vitriol, had to respond with “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. Have a good day.” The slurs and namecalls blurred into one another, and I grew a thick skin pretty quickly. After a while, whenever someone I spoke to on the phone would give me their spiel about “How DARE baby-killers call their home?!?!” I’d roll my eyes, tune it out, say a quick and insincere “I’msorryyoufeelthatwayhaveagoodday,” and move on. But there is one phone call I made that summer that still sticks out in my mind, the only one I really specifically remember from that long summer with a phone attached to my ear a third of the time. The man who told me I should be ashamed of myself.
We were doing blind phone-banking, meaning we didn’t really know the political leanings of the people we were calling, and therefore could expect a lot of offended and derogatory words from folks who weren’t down with reproductive rights. I’d been through the spiel so many times now, it came out automatic to each person I called, recording their replies and who they were going to vote for on the sheet in front of me. Mid-way through that evening of phone-banking, I called a man who picked up asking, “Who is this?” before cutting off my coming words with “You’re from Planned Parenthood.” I could tell by the tightly controlled anger that this wasn’t going to be a call I could check off in the Yes column. I told him, yes I worked with Planned Parenthood and we were doing phone banking to see what his district’s thoughts were on the republican candidates running for in the upcoming primary. I figured I’d just be blown off, but before I could even say the candidates’ names he practically snarled at me on the phone –“You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Now that was a new one. Granted, that’d been sort of the implications when folks had called me a baby-killer. That the work I and Planned Parenthood did was shameful. That fighting for an individual’s right to an abortion, or birth control, or reproductive healthcare services that didn’t cost an arm and a leg, was somehow, a dishonorable thing. But to have it bluntly said—and repeated while I tried to get off the phone “Shame on you, shame, shame!” –rattled me a bit. After I finally hung up, while, yes, saying “ Have a good day,” I ate a piece of chocolate covered in a label I’d designed for one of our fundraisers. I tried to assess how I felt. Shaken? Shocked? Hurt? No, no, and no, I reasoned out, slowly chewing on a piece of abortion chocolate. No, as I swallowed the last bit slowly, went back to the call-list, and got ready to make another call. No, It wasn’t any of those things.
I was pissed. I made the rest of those calls with a sunshiney cheer and politeness that I can only attribute to my years of high school theater, because I was furious. How dare he tell me to be ashamed? How dare he try to dictate my emotions? To make me feel small, and worthless, as if the words from one man would make me step back from the work I’ve dedicated myself to? How dare he try to shame me for my desire, and many others, to have control over their bodies, to be entrusted with making the best choice for themselves concerning their reproductive lives and health? That access one to doctors who legally given the right to lie to you should be a given? How dare he?
But then, later that evening, the anger dissipated in part—not because I forgave him, but because I know exactly how he was able to tell me that I “should be ashamed.” Because this is what the antis I saw so many times that summer outside our clinic would try to tell the people coming into our clinics. Their signs and faces and sheer presence; their protest says “Be ashamed for not choosing what I would choose. And let that shame frighten you and harm you in ways I will never have to live with.”
And sometimes they succeed. They drive people away from the healthcare they need and want and call it a victory. In my catholic school days, when how to sidewalk “counsel” was a part of the curriculum, we’d be told that “getting one woman to turn away is a victory the whole of heaven can sing to.”
So shaming people about their bodies and needs is a reason for the archangels to bust out the party poppers? Shame is a reason to celebrate? I’d say gag me, but that would imply silence—and see, people like the man who told me to be shamed might think their words keep me and others quiet, but they’re wrong. It just makes me crow even louder, fight even harder, and tell those who wish they could rip the control over my body I exercise right out of my hands “I hope you have a nice day.”