Sunday, July 19, 2009

On 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)

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?


queen emily said...

That's.. uh.. not surprising that there'd be such a betrayal at the very heart of white, mainstream feminist politics. Sad, but not surprising.

Thanks for bringing it to light.

Tracey said...

The class issue is definitely too often ignored in feminism. I can only speak for how it seems in the U.S., but since people don't tend to "claim" their class in the same ways they claim other components of their identities, class tends to go unmentioned, even when it may be a huge factor in perceptions, interactions, and relations.

I have to say that I didn't know most of this about McCorvey, but I felt myself rather reminded of the more recent Lilly Ledbetter case and the times and ways in which Ledbetter was allowed to speak and be presented publicly. In court cases, "regular" (often working or lower class) people are sadly used and manipulated in whatever ways the "experts" (always upper class) decide. And all without a mention of class.

JoJo said...

I saw the elite feminism first hand when I worked in CA. My boss at the time, though a lovely woman of whom I am very fond, is a wealthy white woman who lives in the Berkeley Hills, and who counts amongst her best friends other wealthy white Berkeley feminists. To be fair, there are a few African American woman in her circle, but very politically connected ones.

The problem I have always found is that the right wing is very organized and the left wing isn't. No wonder they snapped up McCorvey for their cause. But aren't they just exploiting her too?

Rachel said...

What exactly were they scared she was going to say...? I wonder. Perhaps more than just a bunch of old embarrassing, blue-collar bumbling...?

I will also say that i did not know of this. thanks for posting.

K.C. Jones said...

So sad. This reminds me of a movie I just watched called, "Citizen Ruth" about his very thing. It's a very funny and depressing at times satire about how both sides use the people who need the most help. I strongly recommend it.

Octogalore said...

This is a fascinating post, Daisy.

I think there are a number of narratives here. Class, and how class groups within various boundaries -- movements, classrooms, workplaces -- use each other. Also ambition, and how it can be abused by women as well as men.

I'm not sure any of this is particular to feminism, but I agree it's certainly played a part.

sheila said...

No, it won't ever happen. :(

And dang! I can't get over how YOUNG Gloria looks from just a few years ago! Well, okay, it's like 20 yrs ago. Was 1990 really THAT long ago? WOW

Meowser said...

First feminists used her, now the anti-abortion crowd is using her.

I think the operative difference here is which "user" has more money.

For all the snooty country-clubness of mainstream feminism, for all the celebration of turbo yuppies at the expense of everyone much real money is there in the pro-choice movement specifically? Where are the high profile billionaires campaigning for reproductive rights? A few women making six figures a year, or even seven, can't compare to the kind of money that's poured into the anti-abortion movement.

I really don't think it's a matter of the anti-abortion people being nicer people or better friends of the working classes. I really don't. They both suck. If the anti-abortionists were as broke as the pro-choicers, McCorvey would stay home.

Mama Moretti said...

"Where are the high profile billionaires campaigning for reproductive rights?"

Is Cher a billionaire? I know Oprah is. Most of the movie & entertainment industry - including the Governator - is very prochoice. Both sides have plenty of money imho.

I agree w/Daisy that it's about respect.

Meowser said...

Big difference between being prochoice and actively campaigning for it. Biiiiig difference. Oprah does not, and would not, actively campaign for abortion rights; it would be career suicide for her to do so, in a way it would not be to come out with an anti-choice statement the way many right-wing multi-millionaire media figures have. And the anti-choice movement has corporate money behind it, not just individual bucks.

If both movements were financed comparably, nobody would think about touching our rights, because most Americans don't favor the criminalization of abortion, or the systematic harassment of doctors into not performing them.