EPISODE 118: FEMINIST DYSTOPIA
Published November 10, 2017
Aminatou: Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend.
Ann: A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.
Aminatou: I'm Aminatou Sow.
Ann: And I'm Ann Friedman. On this week's agenda, feminist dystopia with interviews featuring Margaret Atwood, the novelist Charlotte wood, and the ACLU reproductive freedom projects, Brigitte Amiri.
Ann: You know that feeling when you wake up and read or listen to the news first thing and the creep of panic about all of the terrible things that are happening? Do you have that feeling?
Aminatou: Trick question. Don't wake up and read the news first thing in the morning.
Aminatou: Otherwise you will get that sensation.
Ann: Okay, but you must feel that at whatever point you do actually engage with the news.
Aminatou: Oh, 100%. Are you kidding me? It's like my thing is I can't go to bed reading the news because I have nightmares.
Ann: Right. And obviously you're right, there are things within our control like not reading the news first thing when we're still in bed and having to put our glasses on. Hmm, talking to myself here. Whenever I'm holding my phone two inches from my nose and I haven't even gotten out of bed or made coffee or put my glasses on or whatever and I'm already ingesting what is horrible in the world today, yeah, you're right that I'm not living my best life. But also I can't help it.
Aminatou: Listen, I know. It's like a slow-motion train collision that you have to be a part of. I feel you.
Ann: So yeah, so I have been thinking about -- and I feel like this is something I've had a lot of conversations with about friends too, of oh god, are things bad? Or like really, really, really bad? How do you know? It's like the whole frog boiling thing, right? At what point are things irreversibly bad for not only the most vulnerable people in this country but every single one of us? And what do you even do with that feeling that it's happening?
Aminatou: [Sighs] Just like deep sigh.
Ann: [Laughs] Yeah.
Aminatou: Where is my gravity blanket?
Ann: So I looked up the actual definition of a dystopia. [Laughs] Which is a community or a society which is undesirable or frightening. It is translated as "the not good place, the opposite of utopia." Dystopian societies are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, and environmental disaster.
Aminatou: Wow. Real Handmaid's Tale shit.
Ann: It's funny that you mention that because . . .
Aminatou: I'm good at transitions now.
Ann: [Laughs] It's actually not funny. It's tragic that you mentioned The Handmaid's Tale in this context of us talking about US news but I interviewed the novelist Margaret Atwood for this week's episode who wrote The Handmaid's Tale among -- she's written 40-some odd books. Some of them are like The Handmaid's Tale.
Aminatou: Are you serious?
Ann: Yeah. She has a serious output.
Aminatou: Wow, writing machine.
Ann: I know. A percentage of those like The Handmaid's Tale are speculative fiction meaning not sci-fi, like things that have yet to happen in technology or politics, but based on things that have already occurred in documented societies and history that she has sort of remixed to form the plot of novels like The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake and there are a few others that she's written that are in this vein. And so I thought it might be kind of interesting to talk to her about this moment we are in. Gina and I went and interviewed her at NeueHouse which is an event space here in L.A. because she was in town to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Penn Center which is a literary and human rights organization. So yeah, we talked to Margaret Atwood about dystopia.
Ann: Thank you so much for being here.
Margaret: Well hello to you.
Ann: [Laughs] All right.
Margaret: Do it again.
Ann: Okay, perfect.
Margaret: You're not going to use that, you naughty girl.
D: Which part? The last?
Margaret: When I made fun of her.
D: All right. Say hello one more time.
Ann: [Laughs] How many takes of hello can we do?
D: It's going to be a great montage.
Margaret: [Laughs] This -- it's audio, not video?
Ann: It's audio. We have faces for radio.
Margaret: Okay, so what are you going to do with it?
Ann: We're going to put it on our podcast.
Margaret: Podcast? Okay. All right.
Ann: Which is called Call Your Girlfriend.
Margaret: [Laughs] About what?
Ann: Well, the premise is a conversation between two long-distance friends.
Ann: It's me and my friend who lives in New York. So often the episodes are us catching up but this episode will also feature you.
Ann: It's a special episode about . . .
Margaret: So you're going to say "I'm talking to Margaret Atwood," and your girlfriend in New York is going to say "Oh my god, I'm so jealous." [Laughs]
Ann: Precisely that. Exactly that. She got to interview Hillary Clinton without me. The theme of this episode . . .
Margaret: But she's more famous.
Ann: I mean is she though? [Laughs] What are your thoughts on Hillary? Are you a Hillary fan?
Margaret: I think Hillary got really bombarded with 17th century witch imagery during the election. I mean the misogyny was extraordinary.
Margaret: I mean I'm not an American so I don't get to vote in those elections but of course we watch everything you do with great interesting and that was very, very strange.
Ann: Were you surprised? It was strange to you?
Margaret: Was I surprised by the vote? Wasn't everyone?
Ann: No, by the framing of her, that 17th century witch.
Margaret: I was surprised that it was so overt. Like usually the misogyny is more concealed. This was right out, splat in your face.
Margaret: So everything got a lot more overt during that election than usually it is.
Ann: I feel like that's a great intro into . . . I mean a lot of your work has misogyny that's splat out in your face as you put it.
Margaret: Not quite. Well yeah, yeah, it does, sure, but not the real life stuff. So the realistic novels, the misogyny is more covert although often quite extreme but not so public.
Ann: That's true. I mean I think the female characters in your books especially deal with the full range of terrible things.
Margaret: They deal with the full range of micro aggression to macro aggression.
Margaret: Because I've got a lot of girlfriends over the years and they tell me a lot of things.
Ann: Has that been a direct -- and maybe inspiration is the wrong word here -- but things that women in your life tell you make their way into . . .
Margaret: Oh, for sure.
Margaret: Yeah. I said to my friend Beverly who is unfortunately dead "Can I borrow your terrible aunt? Can I use her in my book?" She said "Go ahead. She might as well be useful for something."
Ann: [Laughs] Wow. So I was going to ask you about that, the choice to make very explicit or plot points of women's private pain and suffering.
Margaret: I mean they're not even plot points. I mean it's just once you start describing real life people of course think you're being political but you're describing real life. Make of that what you will. This is what happens. I suppose you could make a story about Mary and Jane who live in a lovely house and have beautiful furniture and nothing bad ever happens to them and they go to a lot of parties and dress up like Barbie and have a boyfriend like Ken. You could do that. And maybe it does happen sometimes. But usually in real life there are challenges and obstacles and not everybody likes you and not everybody is friendly to you.
Margaret: And sometimes things just leap out of the bushes at you as it were. Things and people leap out of the bushes.
Ann: Yeah. I don't disagree that this is the stuff of real life but I think that often it's left out of -- conveniently left out of stories that are about women's lives. Maybe that's why.
Margaret: Who? Who leaves them out? I can't think of anybody who leaves it all out.
Ann: Well, I don't know. I mean more like I guess popular culture. I guess maybe more I'm thinking about the types of things that are on television or, you know . . .
Margaret: Or they have happy endings.
Margaret: So what is that very funny -- they're romantic comedies so there is, you know, bad stuff happens but it gets resolved.
Margaret: So what is the wonderful one about the beauty contest in which the girl is an undercover agent and she . . .
Ann: Oh, Miss Congeniality.
Margaret: It's so wonderful.
Ann: Have you seen Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous?
Margaret: No, no, no. What's it called?
Ann: [Laughs] I just recently watched that one. Armed and Fabulous.
Margaret: Oh, I need to see that.
Ann: Yeah, you definitely do.
Margaret: Yes, it was very well done, Miss Congeniality.
Ann: I am also a fan.
Margaret: And Legally Blonde. So yes, they have these challenges but they overcome them. And in real life that doesn't always happen.
Ann: Right. And I guess maybe that is part of the interpretation of it as political if you are reflecting the real-life fact that sometimes women cannot overcome . . .
Margaret: Why does that have to be political? [Laughs]
Ann: I'm not -- I said interpret it as . . .
Margaret: Yeah, interpret it as. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well I think reel that back a few weeks or months or years. I think once upon a time it might have been considered political or people used to ask this question, "Are you angry? Are you angry?" Well, no, I'm not angry. I'm just describing what I see.
Margaret: Does that make you angry?
Margaret: You know, angry. Oh, oh, angry woman.
Ann: Have you ever said the question is making me angry? Your question.
Margaret: [Laughs] I don't get very easily angered but I often get really quite surprised and puzzled.
Ann: What is the last thing that did get you angry?
Margaret: What's the last thing that got me angry? Dum-de-dum-de-dum. Let me think. Just mildly peeved or really raging?
Ann: Hmm, raging. [Laughs]
Margaret: Yeah, I don't know. I'd have to scan back a while. I mean I get very interested in political moves and pissed off like everybody else at some of the things that go on. But does that qualify? I think you're thinking more about personal life.
Ann: I'm thinking about that feeling of when you can feel you're angry, like in your body, whether it's been from the news or personal life.
Margaret: Could be both. I mean after a certain age I have to tell you this, you don't get -- you're not as easily triggered by things.
Margaret: Well you get calmer.
Margaret: Unless of course you start losing your mind and all of your inhibitions and hitting people in the nursing home. [Laughs]
Ann: Also an option. [Laughs] I want to talk about -- a little bit about perspective, I mean maybe because I just asked you to think back to a time when, but many of the . . .
Margaret: People who are rude, that annoys me quite a bit.
Ann: To you or to others?
Margaret: Oh, others. Yeah. Or me. One or the other, just gratuitously rude.
Ann: Right. Do you think that's a personality trait of yours? Is that a Canadian thing? Is that a . . .
Margaret: I think it might be a generational thing, or possibly a Canadian thing. But I think a lot of people are like that really.
Ann: Rude or annoyed by rudeness?
Margaret: Annoyed by it. Yeah. Gratuitous. I mean if they're being rude on purpose, for a reason, because of something you did, then that's understandable.
Ann: [Laughs] So you mentioned reading the news and I know that you have said that much of your speculative fiction is drawn from real events in history or you've made that . . .
Margaret: Yeah, I don't put things in -- in Handmaid's Tale I didn't put anything in that hadn't happened or that couldn't happen given the technology. In Oryx and Crake I didn't put anything in that wasn't already being worked on.
Margaret: In Heart Goes Last, the same thing. They're working on it, including the baby's blood which is bad news for babies.
Ann: So do you read a lot of science news? Or how do you . . .
Margaret: I read -- from time to time I read quite a lot of science news. And because people know I'm interested in these things, any time there's an advance in lab meat I'm the first to hear.
Margaret: Somebody will send it to me on Twitter. Or oh, oh, here come the sex robots. I hear about those. They're certainly making improvements in them. The first models were quite clunky.
Ann: Tell me you don't have -- maybe you do have a sex robot.
Margaret: I do not have a sex robot. [Laughs] Nor am I one.
Ann: [Laughs] Thank you for clarifying.
Margaret: Yeah, but I get messages from them.
Ann: Oh yeah?
Margaret: I do, yeah. They've kind of backed off. I guess they've realized I'm the wrong person to be on their sex bot Twitter feeds but I was getting for a while some messages from them that thought I was a man.
Margaret: And purported to be young ladies interested in having sex with me.
Ann: Did you reply?
Margaret: No, I did not. There's no point trolling the sex robots.
Ann: [Laughs] Far too busy for that. So of all of these links . . .
Margaret: Well they wouldn't get it anyway.
Ann: Sure. I meant more for your own pleasure and enjoyment.
Margaret: No, I'd rather -- no, no, I save that for real people.
Ann: Okay. So of all these links that people send to you, the lab meat and the sex robots, is there anything that has grabbed your attention? Or maybe something more in the political realm from this moment that you think, you know, that feels like something that . . .
Margaret: Oh, a lot.
Margaret: Yeah. A lot of that comes into view. So from the news and from various moves that politicians are making. Oh, but on the other hand there are hopeful things that come across as well and I highly recommend this book by Tim Snyder called On Tyranny. It's quite a small book. It's a point-of-sale book. You see it in bookstores and it's 20 questions from the 20th century or possibly 20 answers, I forget which. So that's my period. [Laughs] I remember it well.
Margaret: I think some of the angst that young people felt when this election happened was they did not remember those things and they thought this is the worst thing that has ever, ever, ever happened which is not true. It's not the worst thing.
Margaret: But On Tyranny takes us through the steps that lead to such things and gives us warning signals and tells us things to do. So in that way it's quite a hopeful book and the mere fact that it's on sale in bookstores means we're not in that tyranny yet.
Ann: Right. Which as you say is hopeful.
Margaret: It's very hopeful. Believe me, it's been a lot worse. So what you want to do is avoid going there.
Ann: I'll keep that in mind.
Margaret: Don't go there.
Ann: Yeah. The theme of this episode is dystopia. I'm curious if you think we are currently living in one.
Margaret: Dystopia and utopia, they're flip sides of the same record. So compared to the dystopia we might be living in, we're living in a utopia. Compared to the utopia we might be living in, we're living in a dystopia.
Margaret: Like that. And also it's lumpy. It's like William Gibson says, the future is already here but it's unevenly distributed. So some people are living very utopian lives and other people are leading very dystopian lives on this planet right now.
Ann: Right. So how do you feel in those two categories? Do you feel like you're living in a type of utopia?
Margaret: Compared to what it might be.
Margaret: I live in Canada which is right now a lucky place to be living. It hasn't always been, and it isn't always for some people. For some people it's been hell. But compared to other places on the planet, it's stable, it's aware of its failings to a certain extent, it's got so many diverse groups in it that it is not adverse to sitting around the table and working things out. It tends not to just go out and shoot other groups. So from that point-of-view it's good. Could it be better? Yes, and it's very Canadian to say that. We're always like "Oh, it could be better."
Ann: [Laughs] I love that. So last night -- I believe it was last night -- you accepted this lifetime achievement award.
Ann: I'm air quoting that because I'm assuming that you're not done writing.
Margaret: Who knows?
Ann: That the work of this lifetime will continue. [Laughs]
Margaret: First the lifetime achievement award and then you become a park.
Ann: I mean, worse fates, but yeah.
Margaret: The Margaret Atwood Park, yes. So I have plans for a tiny little parkette to save urban living space. My parkette is going to be one foot by one and I'm going to donate my teeth to it after I get myself composted.
Margaret: So they'll be in my little parkette with a little monument, a tiny little monument.
Ann: I can't wait to visit.
Margaret: Well I can wait. [Laughs]
Ann: Yeah, way in the future. Far, far in the future.
Margaret: Yes, I'm heading for the Guinness Book of Records, the tiniest park in the world.
Margaret: Yeah, so it will be very nice for, you know, insects and mice.
Ann: [Laughs] Tiny dogs maybe.
Margaret: They'll have to be very small.
Ann: Yeah. So I'm wondering, okay, given other people's framework of this as a lifetime achievement award, when you look at the body of work you've created so far, what do you want your legacy to be? Or what do you want to be most known for?
Margaret: Well I don't get a choice about that. So it's not really worth speculating upon. And looking at people's lives, you can see that they're going on in a jolly kind of way for a while and then they fall over a cliff. So you just don't know what's going to happen between now and "the end."
Ann: But if you could write it?
Margaret: If I could write my legacy?
Margaret: That is a very creepy thing to suggest.
Margaret: I've already kind of thought about that because I'm part of the Future Library of Norway Project.
Margaret: Do you know what that is?
Ann: I don't.
Margaret: I will describe it to you. You can find it online under futurelibrary.no which means Norway. And it is the brainchild of Katie Paterson, a young Scottish conceptual artist, who's interested in time and slow time. So Future Library Norway involves a forest that they've planted which will grow for a hundred years. And every year of that hundred years a different author will be asked to contribute a manuscript in a sealed box, no other copies. And we'll know the title and the author's name. And inside the box there shall be something made of words, no images, so you can't just chuck your photo album in there. And the something made of words can be one word or it can be a novel or it can be a letter or it can be a short story or it can be a non-fiction thing or an essay, we don't know. Part of the deal is you don't tell.
So you are sworn to secrecy and you go to Norway and you go through customs. I thought this was going to be the part where they would say "What's in the box?" and I would have to say "I can't tell you."
Margaret: "Come over here into this corner." But that didn't happen. And then you have a ceremony in which you walk into the forest, and every year the trees are going to be bigger. And you hand over this box and the chief forester makes a speech, the chief librarian makes a speech. Katie Paterson is there. You make a speech and they go off with the box. And in the hundredth year all the boxes will be open and enough trees will be cut from the forest that will have grown to make the paper to print the future Library of Norway anthology.
Margaret: So this got a lot of press because it's a very hopeful thing to do. It implies there will be people. There will be trees that will grow. There will be the library. The people will be able to read. They'll be interested in reading and it will all come to pass as planned.
Margaret: So that'll be fun. Let's think of that as the legacy. There was a very small baby in the audience when I did it. I was the first person who did it. And that maybe might conceivably be there to see the future Library of Norway, but nobody else in the crowd would be. So you're writing for a very unknown group of people.
Ann: I love that.
Margaret: It's very hopeful.
Ann: Thanks for being here.
Margaret: My pleasure.
Aminatou: Oh wow, that is heavy. [Laughs]
Ann: I still am thinking about -- this interview's a couple of weeks old and I'm still thinking about the things she said that every dystopia is probably a utopia for some, and everything that feels like a utopia for some people has the effect of or the lived experience of being a dystopia for others. And I just -- I think about that so much, like this moment of inequality especially and how this moment probably feels pretty damn utopic or utopian for some people.
Aminatou: You know, like I said at the beginning, real Handmaid's Tale shit. [Laughs]
Ann: [Laughs] Ugh.
Aminatou: Wow, amazing.
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Ann: An incredible shero of the legal community, shero of everyone who wants their reproductive freedoms protected in America, with Brigitte Amiri who is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project. Brigitte is amazing. She is litigating multiple cases right now in multiple places across America in order to protect constitutional rights held by 50% of the population and more. She most notably recently represented Jane Doe, the 17-year-old unaccompanied immigrant minor who the Trump administration basically held hostage in a detention facility for over a month to prevent her from getting an abortion even though she had all of her paperwork in order to do so.
Ann: Yeah. So Brigitte -- I mean I think we would've wanted to talk to her anyway about what's going on but she provides a pretty interesting point-of-view about all those feelings I was talking about earlier of oh my god, is it dystopia now? Because she's watching what's happening across the country on these issues.
Ann: Brigitte, thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Brigitte: Thank you for having me.
Ann: I told a friend that I was interviewing you for this episode and she did like a boy band fangirl scream.
Brigitte: Oh, I love that. That is so nice to hear. Thank you for sharing that.
Ann: Know that the people who listen to this podcast are super, super engaged and impressed by the work that you're doing. I wonder -- I almost couldn't believe it when I looked at your staff page on the ACLU website about all of the different things that you're involved in litigating right now through the Reproductive Freedom Project and so maybe you can give a quick rundown of where your focus is these days and what states and areas you're looking at?
Brigitte: Sure. So for many years our focus had been on battling restrictions at the state level. Since 2010 politicians have passed something like over 300 restrictions on access to abortion very quietly and we have been challenging those restrictions one after another. And that's been our main focus. And then the election happened and now we are battling the Trump administration with their attacks on reproductive rights and fighting them in court in addition to all of the battles that we have ongoing in the states over their abortion restrictions too.
So it really runs the gamut in terms of my cases. Obviously the case that we're going to talk about involving Jane Doe, the unaccompanied immigrant minor who the government -- our federal government -- held hostage for over a month to prevent her from having an abortion while she was in an immigrant detention shelter in Texas, and because of our court case we eventually allowed Jane Doe to be able to access abortion, but also we recently challenged the Trump administration's rollback of the contraception coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act. We also have cases on state courts, including one that I'm involved heavily right now in Kentucky, where the state is trying to shut down the last abortion clinic in Kentucky.
Governor Bevin is along the same lines of Trump in terms of wanting to restrict access to abortion and basically ban abortion for women in his state just like Trump would want to do for all of us in the US. So it really runs the gamut of the types of restrictions that we challenge but they're both at the state and federal level.
Ann: Ugh. I mean I feel that is dizzying already, like just listening to that, and I'm wondering how you decide which case to take. I mean I know we track in this podcast in a low-level way a lot of the things that are happening to curtail reproductive rights. Like we lose track.
Ann: You know, I mean as civilians. I'm curious about how you kind of say okay, this is the fight we're going to dig in on at this moment in time.
Brigitte: Yeah, it's a good question, and really luckily we're not doing this alone. The ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, those are the three organizations primarily that litigate against the restrictions on access to abortion at the state and federal level and then we have a bunch of coalition partners that are amazing. NARAL, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, there are so many grassroots organizations, smaller organizations at the state and local level. And so there really is a wonderful community of people who are standing up against these restrictions when they're pending in front of the federal congress or at their state houses in their own state. And then if those restrictions do get passed by whatever government body then there are a number of us waiting to challenge them.
But generally we try to bring cases that we think will benefit the most women, that will keep clinic doors open, will prevent women from being shamed and stigmatized for having an abortion, and also that we bring cases where it's incredible important for a particular woman like Jane Doe who was literally being held hostage by our federal government, that was not just important for her because it does impact other people as well but here was an individual where this was incredible important that we got involved.
Ann: Let's talk about that case a little bit because it was one of those for me, as I read each detail after the next, it was more like "Excuse me, what? What? What?" at each point. And you even wrote in your blog post about this that federal officials' actions were "straight out of dystopian fiction."
Ann: So maybe you can tell me what prompted you to characterize them that way and a little bit more about her case.
Brigitte: Sure. And actually it does feel like The Handmaid's Tale and I have not watched the series because it feels a little too close to what I do on a daily basis but I loved the book when I read it many, many years ago. And it really does feel like we are living in a society where our government thinks it's acceptable to prevent women from having an abortion and accessing their fundamental constitutional right to an abortion.
What was so chilling about this particular case is that at every step of the way in the court case the federal government doubled down. Each brief got more extreme than the next when the government filed them in court, saying "We have a right to do this. We have a right to deny her access to an abortion." And basically by implicit admission what that meant is she was going to be forced to carry a pregnancy to term against her will. They forced her to remain pregnant every day for a month against her will and they would have gone all the way if they could have, if other courts didn't stop them. And that is what I find so shocking and so chilling about what was going on, because they were so brazen and blatant about their intent.
Ann: Right, yeah. Normally it's like okay, we're going to impose a bunch of piecemeal restrictions. And I mean in some cases they're not pretending, but in a lot of cases they're not like we're going to do our best to force women to remain pregnant against their will. But like in this case, as you say, it's just right up front. Like this is a person whose will we want to override.
Brigitte: That's right. And I think that actually what it means is that in some ways it's exactly what they want to do with all these restrictions where they claim they have some sort of other interests in protecting women's health, for example. You know, we saw that in Whole Women's Health, the case that the Center for Reproductive Rights brought to the Supreme Court out of Texas where doctors were required to have admitting privileges at a local hospital if they were to provide an abortion. And the Supreme Court in the summer of 2016 said there's no medical justification for requiring admitting privileges for an abortion provider, and the burden on women in terms of the clinic closures is great. And so you balance the two and the law has to be struck down.
But Texas and other states were arguing "But there's a medical reason to have admitting privileges. Don't you want your doctor to have admitting privileges?" And so it was this veneer that there was some sort of reason for this law even though just peel back the surface and all of the evidence showed that that there was no medical benefit. So it was a sham and it was a pretext, but that's right, it feels very different in the Jane Doe case where the government was just so blatant and so brazen about their desire to force her to carry her pregnancy to term against her will.
Ann: Yeah, and I'm wondering if that is something that you're seeing more of because one thing that I have just been so infuriated about is Mitch McConnell saying he's definitely going to move the 20 week abortion ban onto the Senate as quickly as possible while at the same time saying he's not sure if he's going to do much about children's health insurance.
Ann: Or not sure . . . you know, there's so many important priorities, he's like "Who knows?" And when it comes to a blatant attack on Roe he's like I'm going to do my best to move this forward right away.
Ann: I mean that feels very much aligned with what you're talking about in terms of it being more straight forwardly about control.
Brigitte: Absolutely. And even just to have the microcosm of young women and women in detention who are undocumented in this country, colleagues at the ACLU and other partner organizations who work on other access to healthcare and not abortion, pointed out in a recent letter to the federal government that women who are being detained who are here without documentation, who are pregnant, were not treated well in the detention facility so much so that they in some cases lost their pregnancies. So not only do we have the federal government in Jane Doe's case saying that she can't access the abortion, she has to be forced to carry the pregnancy to term against her will, but then the federal government when they do have women in their immigration detention shelters are not providing them with the proper care and with devastating consequences.
Ann: Right. It's just I can't even handle the hypocrisy. It's like it is . . . I can't even speak. Infuriating. It is so infuriating. You know, I know something that we talk about a lot and something you've pointed out as well is that really the people from the most marginalized communities experience the effects of this type of legislation or this type of challenge by the government in the most acute way. And I'm curious when it comes to women like Jane Doe who are frankly at the forefront of experiencing what all people in this country could experience very shortly if we don't hold the line, how are you finding those women to represent? Or what sort of alliances are you building with groups that are in contact with serving communities like this to make sure that you're . . . you know what I mean? Finding the people who need your help.
Brigitte: Yes. So let me just take a moment to say that I am in awe of Jane Doe and her bravery and courage is just really phenomenal that here is this young woman who came to the United States on her own from her home country where she was abused by her parents and she finds she's pregnant here in the United States and requests an abortion and is immediately met with resistance. And that resistance builds and builds and builds. And she decides to take on the Trump administration in court and fight for her constitutional right to access an abortion.
All the while the federal government holds her immigration status in their hand, and the ability of this young woman to do that is just . . . I am in awe of her and I feel so proud and so fortunate to be able to represent her. But in general we are constantly talking to all of our partners on the ground, in various communities, and actually Jane Doe's case came to us because a wonderful organization in Texas called Jane's Due Process represents young women who are seeking an abortion and because of the law in Texas that requires young women to get parental consent from their parents, it's sometimes difficult for young women to do. There is an avenue where young women can go to court and get a court order saying they can consent to the abortion on their own without having to tell their parents.
And Jane's Due Process has a network of attorneys that help these young women go through the court process. And so it was one of those attorneys that was helping Jane Doe obtain a judicial bypass in Texas so that she could get the abortion and actually Jane Doe did get that court order from the state court saying that she could consent to the abortion on her own and that's when the federal government threw down the gauntlet and said you're not getting out for the abortion. We're not allowing you to be transported by anyone for any abortion-related appointments.
So Jane's Due Process knew that I had been working on issues of access to abortion for unaccompanied immigrant minors. Even under the Obama administration I actually have a lawsuit pending against them from the Obama administration. And so she knew to call me and we got involved and we built this great team of lawyers to represent Jane.
Ann: That's amazing. I mean I know things were not perfect under the previous administration. It's like obviously state legislatures have been passing really bad piecemeal legislation to chip away at rights for a long time. I'm curious about how the landscape is different beyond cases like Jane Doe's when you look at the big picture across the country.
Brigitte: Yeah. I mean the landscape, what makes a difference is that the state legislators are emboldened by the Trump administration and so we are seeing more aggressive attacks at the state level, more blatant attacks. You know, just taking Kentucky again for an example, they are trying to shut down the last remaining abortion clinic in Kentucky for a ridiculous reason. There is a law in Kentucky that requires abortion clinics to have a written transfer agreement with a hospital, and Governor Bevin's administration decided all of a sudden out of the blue that the last remaining clinic which is called EMW Women's Surgical Center, that the signature on their hospital transfer agreement was signed by the wrong person at the hospital.
Brigitte: And they said that they were going to shut them down because it was signed by the head of the OBGYN department as opposed to someone higher up the hospital. And so we had to spring quickly into gear and get an emergency court order to keep them open and we had a trial in September over this but it is that kind of emboldened action that states are taking, and they're just ripping a page out of the Trump administration's playbook.
Ann: Ugh. When I follow news like this and I hear about what is being done to push back against unconstitutional attacks on reproductive freedom it really comes down to courts. I mean I keep thinking -- there is this feeling I have right now where I'm like oh my god, the courts are our only hope on this issue and so many others. I'm wondering if it feels that way to you as well, like if you're like oh my god, we're running out of legislative partners for this kind of work and we're just holding the line alone in this branch over here.
Ann: Or if I'm being dramatic.
Brigitte: I don't think you're being dramatic, but I also don't want to shortchange what can happen at the local and state level and even the federal level for that matter. We know that our representatives do hear us when we call and when we're loud and when we make ourselves heard. And I think about the spontaneous grassroots efforts at the different state houses across the country where abortion legislation we being considered and the people turning out in the handmaid costumes and before that it was orange t-shirts in Texas and pink t-shirts in my home state of Michigan demanding that their representatives represent them.
And so I think that that is incredibly important and we should be loud and involved and engaged and, you know, in the streets, and having our voices heard. Absolutely. We cannot rely just on the courts alone although that is what my job is and what my focus is, that maybe gets us the line that you were talking about. Holding the line. But we don't just want to hold the line in this country. We want to live in a country where women are able to get the care that they need without obstacles, without shame, and without stigma, and we have to really build that -- the groundwork -- to get to that goal. And it's not enough just to hold the line; we really have to push the line to make sure that all women are able to get the care that they need.
Ann: Right. And so for women like Jane Doe who are really putting themselves out there, you know, you're saying they notice when the rest of us are showing up in the streets and vocally supporting what they're up to.
Brigitte: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, the amount of attention that this case has received and the attention that the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a man named Scott Lloyd, has received, the criticisms that he's received, and legitimately so. I mean this man authorized the shelter where Jane was staying to hold her hostage. Our government official, Scott Lloyd, got on a plane and flew to San Antonio, Texas in another incident and tried to convince an unaccompanied pregnant minor to carry her pregnancy to term against her will all because of his own anti-abortion ideology. And so we're seeing people seeking to hold him accountable as well and I think that is incredibly important too, is really focusing on the individuals who -- the politicians that are making these decisions and seeking to hold them accountable.
Ann: Right. And just how transparent it is, right? You know, the idea like you said earlier that this man is willing to get on a plane to intervene in a woman's choice about her own body and yet the government is not supportive of women who are in a similar position who very much want to carry their pregnancies to term. Like that part of it is just . . . yeah.
Brigitte: Right. And also even broadening that connection further. I mean Scott Lloyd is also the man involved in deciding to take Rosa Maria into custody. She's the ten-year-old girl who has cerebral palsy and had a surgery at a hospital and the federal government was at the hospital waiting for her to recover well enough so that they could take her into custody because she is here without documentation.
So this idea that somehow the government is seeking to act in the best interest of this population is just a farce and we should be making the connections to all of the different issues that we care about that are so important to civil rights and human dignity.
Ann: Ugh. Thank you so much for the work you're doing from all of us, and if you do -- I mean all of the women who you represent directly, but for all of us too, thank you.
Brigitte: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me and being able to speak to your listeners and hopefully we all can make change together.
Aminatou: Real Handmaid's Tale shit. [Laughs]
Ann: I know. Well, also, I love -- I hate what she said about how this stuff is getting worse and worse and more upfront and more brazen, but I also love what she said about all of us turning up and telling lawmakers that we don't stand for this actually supports the work that she's doing in the courts and really communicates to super, incredibly brave women like Jane Doe that the rest of us have their back. And I think that's definitely what I'm going to take to heart. That's what I have to focus on otherwise I would never read the news again. So we'll link to resources about how you can get involved in your state and what you can do to support the work that Brigitte and other amazing crusading lawyers are doing in the show notes to this episode and we also put resources like this in The Bleed which is the newsletter which we send at the end of every month. So you can sign up for that at callyourgirlfriend.com and click through to the show notes if you want to know more.
Ann: When I was in Australia a month or so or two months ago someone there recommended this novel by an Australian writer named Charlotte Wood called The Natural Way of Things and she told me it is like a modern or Australian version of The Handmaid's Tale. And because I'm apparently a masochist I was like "Great, I'm going to read it!" [Laughs]
Aminatou: [Laughs] You're like 25 hour plane ride, let's do this.
Ann: Okay, the million hour plane ride definitely had something to do with it. But the thing that's interesting about it, and there's definitely some of these dynamics in The Handmaid's Tale, but the plot revolves around a bunch of women -- a group of women who as a result of systemic misogyny in society, I won't give too much away, are held against their will in a work camp, held captive in the outback. And a lot of the book is about what happens among women when they are in dystopian conditions. And I know we love shine theory, we'd love to think that we would all band together, but the truth is shit gets real.
Aminatou: Oh, god.
Ann: So I called her up to talk to her about that dynamic in her book.
Ann: Charlotte, thank you so much for being here today.
Charlotte: Thank you, Ann, for having me.
Ann: Your novel The Natural Way of Things came out in 2015 in Australia. Is that correct?
Charlotte: That's right.
Ann: So for those who haven't read it I'm hoping you might be able to tell us just a little bit about the plot and say what attracted you to wanting to explore some of those topics.
Charlotte: Okay, sure. Two young women, aged sort of 19, 20, wake up from a drugged state to find that they have been abducted. They don't know where they are. It's somewhere in the middle of Australia. They soon find out there are eight other young women there. There are ten young women in this place, and it's kind of like an abandoned sheep station or some sort of broken-down old farm in the middle of nowhere in the outback. But they gradually realize the fact that they are all there because each of them has been involved in some kind of sexual scandal, in inverted commas, at the hands of a powerful man or a group of men. Each of them either spoke out about this situation and spoke up against their treatment at the hands of these men, and the speaking was the crime.
So in this sort of strange world that I've created there's a company called Harding's International that can be employed to go around and just remove these problematic women from society and dump them in this place. And I guess the big question of the book is how are these women going to escape? Is anyone going to rescue them? Is it possible that they can rescue themselves?
Ann: Yeah, and so I read this book admittedly sort of late to the game because a friend in Australia said to me this is sort of like our Handmaid's Tale, or she put it in a way like that. And I picked it up right around the time when this huge wave of women speaking out about men sexually harassing and abusing them has happened. And so you pointing out that these women are there not just because they have experienced this great injustice, or they've been sort of privately inconvenient, but because they are publicly talking about their experience, I was like I've got to read this book right now. [Laughs]
Ann: I'm curious if you had been directly inspired by the headlines or if you were more thinking about, I don't know, what was that like?
Charlotte: Well there were a couple of early influences. The first one was the 1970s when I was a girl. There was a prison -- a real prison -- for young women who were seen as kind of wayward or promiscuous. And in reality those girls were drugged and put on a train and taken out to this place and locked up. So it wasn't dystopia; it was real.
I was really troubled by the knowledge of this place. I started writing a book set in the past to try and understand what the hell had gone on here but then because I was sort of -- my antenna was up for this stuff -- I suddenly started seeing things that were happening all around me all the time in Australian culture and internationally where this exact same sort of psychic punishment, if not physical punishment, was happening to women who spoke up. So, you know, Monica Lewinsky is a really obvious example and I guess Australian readers will recognize some of these cases that I've drawn on very loosely. All I really used was the language that was said about these women.
Traditionally if women speak up about it they are the ones punished and the men pretty much, you know, maybe get a slap on the wrist but pretty much go on their way where the women just vanish. So I flipped the timeframe of my story to make it this sort of contemporary, slightly futuristic, slightly otherworldly place where the stuff that is happening now I could explore more thoroughly.
Ann: This dehumanizing captivity and the ways that these women have been treated by the culture at large, how that plays out in terms of their relationships with each other, and I think that often when there are headlines about these things it's about a woman's story and then about the defense of or the response from the man who's accused or the men who are accused of doing something to her, right? It's rarely about what happens then in women's interpersonal dynamics.
Ann: I was hoping you could talk a bit about the ways in which the women do and don't express solidarity or see themselves as in the same struggle as the other women who are held captive with them?
Charlotte: Yeah. That was really important to me, you know, not to just write a sort of good feminist novel where the men are bad and the women are good and the women are strong and they triumph or whatever. I wanted to explore the complexity of how women treat each other in this situation. So in my book, the women, they understand that something unites them but they don't really want to be united by this horrible thing. And so one of the things they do is really separate themselves from each other. So Verla, one of my main characters, sees herself as quite different from the rest. You know, her affair with a politician was completely consensual. She's sort of the brainy girl of the group I guess. And she thinks look, all these girls have been fucked over in some way but I haven't so I'm different from them.
And some of the other young women look each other and think well, I was obviously a complete victim here whereas she kind of brought it on herself. To pretend that women are united and will behave consistently in resisting oppression is just completely contrary to what I see around us all the time.
Ann: Yeah, and I think it is -- I mean it's interesting that you said that this is something that in your mind makes it not maybe a perfect feminist novel because to my mind, reading it through my feminist lens, I saw it as pointing out the ways that this dynamic happens. And in some ways holding up a mirror to the way these things play out and become toxic among women is itself pretty feminist. You know, rather than pretending that we all rise up together all the time, which you're right, we don't.
Charlotte: Yeah. I mean, you know, more and more culturally we're lead to desire simple answers in fiction. You know, we want happy endings and we want good guys and bad guys. I feel kind of proud of my book in that it doesn't offer any of those things. One of the problems that we face in resisting patriarchal oppression is that we have to fight our own complicity.
Ann: I'm curious if you think that the culture that you're living in, that I'm living in right now, is a dystopia.
Charlotte: Well, it often feels like that to me. You know, there are certain days of my life where I go -- and my life is a great life. I don't suffer terrible oppression on a day-to-day level myself, partly I think because I'm an artist and artists are always kind of slightly outside the main culture and are not beholden to the rules of the main culture. But in Australia if I were a surgeon, a sports woman, if I was in some industry that really didn't want me, I would be definitely feeling that dystopia much more severely.
I mean a couple of years ago there was a kind of wave of allegations and proven allegations of really vile sexual misconduct among surgeons, right? So these are the most highly-educated people on the fucking planet and these guys are telling their fellow surgeons to buy yourself some kneepads because you're going to have to learn to suck cock in this operating theater. Stuff like that that's just -- at least one woman who spoke out and took the guy on legally, you know, she got a payout and she can't work in the medical system she wants to work in and nothing happened to the guy. He had to pay a fine. He's gone on. His career is unchanged. Hers is destroyed. Those cases are the really . . . they're the ones that most kind of traumatize me in a way because it shows that this is not about knowledge. This is not about awareness. This is not about education. It's just raw power and the really strong desire of a male culture not to have women in it. I'm kind of grief stricken about these things.
Ann: Right. I mean I hate to end it there but . . . [Laughs]
Charlotte: [Laughs] I know.
Ann: I really -- I mean I do share your perspective. I mean maybe not to end it exactly there. You know, to your point about systemic policy change and things like that. And also collective action and support among women and a collective uprising. You know, that desire you described among the readers of this novel who say look, why didn't all those women rise up together? And being able to turn that question back to them and us I think is how I end up not in the realm of total despair.
Charlotte: Yeah. And look, my comments now are not exactly the most optimistic comments but I think young women are smarter in not just going "Oh, he apologized. Okay. It's great. Let's go back to normal." I don't think they're going to tolerate the kind of lip service and bullshit that's been offered before and I really hope that's true. And of course, you know, I want there to be optimism. I try to be optimistic and I really -- you know, I really hope that this is a moment of massive change that's happening.
Ann: Yes. Charlotte, thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
Charlotte: Thanks Ann for including me.
Aminatou: I guess I'm going to be adding this onto the Kindle.
Ann: Good luck. Godspeed. It's pretty intense. All I can say is follow it up with something that feels more lighthearted.
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Ann: Gina D! See you on the Internet.
Aminatou: See you on the Internet.