Less-than-subtle signs peppered downtown Denver last Saturday as thousands of protestors gathered in support of Planned Parenthood. “Our lady parts aren’t up for grabs.” “If men could get pregnant, birth control would come from gumball machines and be bacon-flavored.” “I’m sorry, did my human rights get in the way of your misogyny?” A personal favorite: “Jesus is not a dick so keep him out of my vagina.”
The sharp humor of these signs forces people to confront their discomfort surrounding reproductive health. It exposes the hypocrisy in simultaneously advocating for deregulation of the private business sphere and greater government influence in private domestic life. It puts men face to face with a reality they’ve been able to distance themselves from. It provides comic relief in a serious discussion. It gives strength to the voice of a population that has often been silenced.
The scene was composed of students, grandparents, small kids, couples who just bought their first apartment, suburban moms and dads, Planned Parenthood volunteers, and uterine cancer survivors, all standing in solidarity. It was beautiful and powerful and moving: all that a protest should be. And in the midst of the fervent cheering, I saw this sign: “We are both oppressors and oppressed.”
Suddenly I looked over the crowd of people and saw a few who had dedicated their lives to activism of all sorts, attending protests routinely. But a whole lot more lived generally comfortable lives and just now felt spurred to action by an infringement of their own rights. The blatant privilege of it hit me like a load of bricks.
There is nothing wrong with being spurred to action once your body is on the line; that may be how many activists become activists. The anger and indignation that the crowd exuded was totally justified—Planned Parenthood provides not only abortions but also low-cost contraceptives, cancer screenings, and information about safe sex to women who would otherwise be denied it. The defunding of Planned Parenthood doesn’t just speak to the gender biases entrenched in our society; it would have a very tangible impact on already vulnerable women who deserve access to basic health services. I’m not arguing that these women, including myself, aren’t oppressed; any woman in today’s America is.
However, oppression and privilege are not mutually exclusive. Compare the obstacles faced by a white mom with a college degree, living in nice house, working a job with paid parental leave and adequate health care coverage to the obstacles faced by an unemployed woman of color living in a rural area, without reliable access to health care. Equating the two diminishes the reality of the latter, just as saying “all lives matter” detracts from the impact of “black lives matter.” It makes inclusive an issue that is fundamentally exclusive. Allowing our female identity to cloud our perspective of the privilege we may also enjoy misrepresents the true issue at hand.
Take, for example, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s experience of being silenced by Mitch McConnell on the senate floor. “She persisted” has become a core slogan of feminist movements around the country because the experience of being told to “shut up” by a man is all too familiar to women everywhere. Her silencing demonstrated that even the most widely respected, intellectually confident women remain subject to gender-based bias. On the other hand, how many of us can say we’ve ever been silenced on the senate floor? Warren represents a tiny fragment of the women “she persisted” has come to represent. While oppressed, she is also vastly privileged, and her voice carries far more clout than most other women. For her to so often become the face of the battle for equal rights pushes to the sideline the experiences of the millions of women who don’t have a steady job, who don’t have the ability to speak on the senate floor, who aren’t white, who weren’t raised in an upper-middle-class family, or who weren’t professors at Harvard Law School.
That doesn’t mean Warren shouldn’t use her privilege to expose gender-based oppression—in fact, she should consider it her duty. So should the upper-middle-class women who showed up and brought their families to protest that Saturday. Duty extends beyond supporting Planned Parenthood or women’s rights in general. What the signs asked us to do, so simply and gracefully, was to have empathy, and empathy entails showing up for those with less privilege than you.
If everyone who showed up for Planned Parenthood showed up for Black Lives Matter, for refugees, and for immigrants, the world would be a different place. Oppression doesn’t absolve privilege. It is their interaction that defines our place on the proverbial starting line, and we would do well to remember that having to take steps backward doesn’t necessarily negate the forward steps we are able to take.