Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Roe (Norma McCorvey)

Norma McCorvey (on left) aka ROE of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision (which made abortion legal in 1973), with her attorney Gloria Allred, at a pro-choice demonstration in Washington DC during the early 90s. (Photo from PBS)

NOTE: I first wrote this in July 2009, after Norma was arrested at a pro-life demonstration. I am re-running it here this weekend, the 38th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.--DD.

Jovan reported that Norma McCorvey was arrested for demonstrating during Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. Once pro-choice, McCorvey met up with the Operation Rescue people while defending a women's clinic and started attending church with some of their members. She was subsequently baptized in 1995 and now strongly identifies as pro-life.

News of McCorvey's recent arrest sent me looking for an incisive article I once read about her in the Village Voice, written right after her conversion to the pro-life side...which of course, I can't find now. The author made the case that the pro-choice, feminist movement had systematically dissed McCorvey as a low-class white-trash embarrassment, sending her over to the pro-life side, which welcomed her and feted her. She was in the widely-viewed pro-life documentary titled I Was Wrong (2007). She speaks to pro-life groups throughout the country, and tells them she feels used.

Was she used?

The article pointed out that Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued Roe, went and got her own abortion while the case was going on, while McCorvey was forced to go ahead and give birth. Why didn't Weddington use herself as "Roe"?

McCorvey and Weddington comprise the tale of two pregnant women, one from the elite class, one from poverty. One argues Roe v. Wade and becomes internationally famous, the youngest lawyer to win a Supreme Court case. She writes books, holds elected office, teaches at UT Austin, and now has her own Weddington Center. By contrast, McCorvey earns her keep by traveling the church-chicken-supper circuit, telling people that Weddington used her for her own political and professional ends.

Did she?

I think so.

As one who has also been repeatedly dissed, let me say, I know the feeling. Feminism often has the unfortunate appearance of a high-class country club, filled with educated, affluent, snooty white people. This is one reason activists like Renee call themselves womanists. This is why many working-class women say "I'm not a feminist, but..." Feminism is often seen as the territory of highly-educated, elite women. When one of these influential feminists disses you and acts like you don't know any better (especially if you are my age, or Norma's age), it can be deeply humiliating. And confusing. I can remember one of the huge pro-choice rallies in Washington, DC in the early 90s (see photo above, McCorvey and Allred) during which McCorvey was not permitted to speak--an incident also mentioned in the Village Voice piece. Why wasn't she? Too redneck and uneducated? Good Lord, people, the damn SCOTUS ruling was named after her!

I can just imagine Norma tearfully wiping away tears in some fast-food restroom somewhere, after the rally, wondering why they would not allow the person whose life was necessary for the ruling, to speak to a crowd of women celebrating said ruling.

Or maybe she did know why. I mean, I immediately knew why. And if you have ever listened to McCorvey, you know she is pretty intelligent.

And now, I echo the Village Voice author, whose name I can not remember (and therefore can not properly credit), who suggested there was an element of "I'll show you bitches!" involved in Norma McCorvey's defection.

And there is also the matter of basic respect for who she is, in a culture of symbols.

It is no mere coincidence Norma eventually converted to Catholicism under the auspices of the head of Priests for Life, Father Frank Pavone. Catholics understand martyrdom and sainthood. Norma being USED by the pro-choice side became a form of martyrdom. Every time the words Roe v. Wade are used by the mass media, Norma is martyred once again. She is used by a group of people, so the story goes, who needed a pregnant, poverty-stricken stooge who could not afford an illegal abortion. Her own lawyer sure could afford one, and didn't waste time procuring one. Why didn't she do the same for Norma?

She needed Norma. Norma was Roe.


This whole story makes me cringe; I am typing it in perpetual-cringe position. But I think I know why Norma turned to the other side, where she is a pretty good fundraiser, the Catholic pro-lifers tell me. Most have heard her speak at the aforementioned chicken-suppers. She is a very good speaker, intelligent and earnest. Regular folks. She makes an impact. And when she talks about being used? Home run. Every time. The deep pockets open up and the collection plate is full-to-overflowing.

What does it mean for feminism that one of our heroines, a woman we should have honored and given a place of respect, has jumped ship? A woman who was a lesbian (I am not sure if she still identifies this way, but at one time was in a long-term relationship with a woman and called herself lesbian) and should have seen us as the allies, and not them?

I consider the case of Roe, Norma McCorvey, our own failure. It's on us.

Can we please have some class awareness in feminism? Can we stop exploiting each other? Will this ever happen?

And meanwhile, let me guess....who bailed Norma out of jail?


petpluto said...

Hi Daisy,

This is an incredible, moving piece. I don't comment often, because I feel like I should have something to say beyond "bravo!" when I do, but in this case that's all I have. You are right.

D. said...

When you do the book on the failures of the "left," this should be the third chapter.

I wondered about the Village Voice article (I stopped reading the Voice regularly in the '70s and haven't actually run across it since '90 or so) and it turns out that the archives don't go back past 1997. (And all their best stuff was 20 years or more earlier.)

It really ought to be inscribed in stone somewhere: People go where they're appreciated. Someone should have laid that on Karl Marx.;-)

JoJo said...

Wow Daisy, I never knew any of this back story at all. Thank you so much for putting it so concisely. Yes, she's being used by both sides. Poor woman. It can't have been easy to live with this all these years. I didn't know she was seen as too uneducated to speak. They never empowered her at all.

It's interesting your take on feminists being elite and wealthy. Sort of reminded me of some of my boss' friends in Berkeley politics.


I knew most of this.but you did a great post..thanks..

sheila said...

I had NO IDEA that the woman who argued had her own abortion! WOW! This is a great post, Daisy!

Jim said...

Class awareness in feminism? How long will feminism and Class Woman survive that analysis?

Where might that lead? Advocacy for working men as men? NO! NO! NEVER!

Feminism disappeared up its privileged Ivy League Manhattanite asshole a couple of decagdes ago.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Jim, my mother was a union rep and EEOC rep, and she managed to combine the two pretty well. True, she DID advocate for men, too, when necessary. ;)

I consider myself a working class feminist, the way Renee calls herself a Womanist; it's a very specific thing. I can't separate the two in my mind.

One of my goals here on this blog is to highlight women like my mother, me and Norma, who are systematically ignored by the privileged, regardless of who those privileged are and what they claim to believe.

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