The women discuss the 2020 candidates, reproductive freedom, sci-fi matriarchies, and the power of female anger for Document's Fall/Winter 2019 issue.
This conversation will appear in Document’s upcoming Fall/Winter 2019 issue, available for pre-order now.
“Some women being empowered does not prove the patriarchy is dead. It proves that some of us are lucky,” acclaimed author Roxane Gay reminds us in her seminal work, Bad Feminist. The problem is that even the lucky ones are still operating within a system that was created by and for men. Those at the top are keenly aware of persistent inequalities, but changing the patriarchal system from within has proved slow and arduous. Power is not enough. Success is not enough. The system itself needs to change.
Women wielding legal power in the U.S. is a relatively new phenomenon. From the first female member of the House of Representatives (1917) to the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court bench (1981), women attaining positions of legal authority have only occurred within the last few generations. (Not very long when looking at a system of Western patriarchy that stretches back to antiquity). Even now, women comprise only about 29% of legislators in the U.S. Perhaps this is why laws protecting women continue to go unenforced or fail to exist in the first place, which is where women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred steps in.
For more than 40 years, Allred has represented female victims against powerful men and corporations who have improperly coerced, assaulted, abused, murdered, mistreated or otherwise discriminated against them. Jeffrey Epstein, O.J. Simpson, Dodi Fayed, Scott Peterson, Tiger Woods, Herman Cain, and Anthony Weiner are a few of her current and former clients’ adversaries. Allred has proved to be a formidable advocate, winning hundreds of settlements and cases, but even she has to operate within a system in which women are still encouraged to accept payouts to remain silent about the conduct of powerful men, single mothers remain unable to recoup expenses from deadbeat dads, and women (particularly trans women of color) continue to be victims of male-perpetrated violence at appallingly high rates.
How did we get this system? Where did the ideas that underpin Western society’s structure originate? Well, with the philosophies of Plato, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and dozens of other, unsurprisingly, men. Of course, throughout history there have been important female philosophers, but until recently, their ideas have gone ignored, disregarded or, like Hypatia of Alexandria or Anita Sarkeesian, torn apart by mobs of angry men, both literally and digitally.
To change the system, we need ideas that originate from the female perspective. Novelist and scholar Siri Hustvedt has explored sex and gender in Western philosophy and art in both her fiction and nonfiction, recently dissecting the mind/body problem in her essay collection, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women. We invited Hustvedt, along with Gay and Allred, to apply the female gaze to the legal system and imagine what the world might look like if women, instead of men, had written the law and philosophies on which it is based since the beginning of recorded time.
“We’ve tried singular leadership and the singular voice of legislation, and it really has not served women, or people of color, or the queer community, or anyone who’s different from a white, heterosexual, able-bodied man.”—Roxane Gay
Siri Hustvedt—We have to be careful about thinking of women as a monolithic presence or “kind.” In Western culture it goes back to Plato and the idea that the mind or soul can be separated from the body. In the Symposium, everybody is pregnant in one way or the other, but the superior pregnancy is male pregnancy—the philosopher who gives birth to ideas. There remains in Western thought the stubborn idea that women are associated with the low natural body, and men with the high immaterial intellect or mind.
Meg Thomann—And from that we got Greek law, then Roman law, and later on, Aquinas, Locke, Rousseau—all of these men, only men, interpreting this ancient philosophy and applying it to the law. If we could rewrite history, which female writers and thinkers would you most want to influence society and the law?
Siri—Margaret Cavendish was an amazing 17th-century philosopher who did not believe in the mind/body division. Her philosophy is one of organic, constantly changing life. She argued that the mind and the body are one. Did the fact that she was a woman influence her philosophy? Probably. Although she was an aristocrat and became the Duchess of Newcastle, she was mostly ostracized from philosophical discussions and had to create her philosophy outside the structures of power.
Gloria Allred—For me, because I’m a lawyer, it would be thinkers like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan. Their philosophy is one of equality and equal rights under the law, and it’s based on liberty, privacy, and equal rights for women. My belief is that all of them would be supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment. To have that added to the United States Constitution [would] guarantee women equal rights under the law. And of course women are only mentioned once in the United States Constitution. That’s suffrage, the 19th amendment….
Siri—[Laughs] That’s it!
Gloria—It took us from 1848 at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls until 1920 to win the right to vote for women. Now we’re in 2019 and we still have not won passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Next year is the 100th anniversary of suffrage, so it’s a particularly important year, and we still have a long way to go. But others that I would suggest would be Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, because they all understood the hard-fought battle for equality and the importance of the role of legal justice.
“A truly bizarre and, frankly, grotesque legal notion is that the embryo or fetus is a person and has the rights of a person. How can this entity have legal rights when it’s inside somebody else?”—Siri Hustvedt
Siri—We have the 14th amendment, supposedly a guarantee of racial equality, but without enforcement and constant agitation, it hasn’t done its job. One can enshrine something in law, but it has little effect if it isn’t enforced.
Roxane Gay—That’s one of the challenges in thinking about this, because next year is the 100th anniversary of white women’s suffrage. I think it’s really important to remember that it took much longer for black women to have suffrage. In terms of thinkers that I would love to see included: Audre Lorde, Hélène Cixous, Judith Butler, Hypatia, Mary Wollstonecraft. I think it would be really interesting to get a range of women from different fields because we’ve tried singular leadership and the singular voice of legislation, and it really has not served women, or people of color, or the queer community, or anyone who’s different from a white, heterosexual, able-bodied man. So, we have to start to think about who could help us think about the world in a way that accommodates everyone who actually lives in the world.
Meg—It seems that the only time women are represented as the ruling class is in science-fiction novels—the same place where one would find infinity stones or alien invasions. Are there any literary examples that depict women in a position of power that resonate with you?
Roxane—I do read some sci-fi and fantasy, but oftentimes when there’s a matriarchal society, it’s flawed, which it should be. And I think that’s the important thing to remember. We always have this fantasy that if women were to rule the world, everything would be better, and the reality is that in a patriarchal society, women oftentimes end up making decisions that are not in their own best interest because they have been enculturated in the exact same ways that men have.
Siri—I couldn’t agree more.
Roxane—A really interesting book that thinks about women’s power in a subversive way is called The Power by Naomi Alderman. It’s a novel about women, [who] all of a sudden, start to have this power where they can basically electrocute people, and it’s a really interesting twist on thinking about power and gender.
Gloria—So are we talking, then, about what difference it would make if women were in power? Is that the question?
Meg—That’s where I was going. If women were in power, what would that look like? Would we have treated men the way that we have been treated?
Gloria—If women were in power—and when you say ‘women,’ I would say ‘feminist women,’ because not all women are feminists—I do not believe that they would feel that they should control a woman’s body, and hence, her life, by requiring her to undergo illegal abortions. Because, of course, it’s a fantasy to say that they’re outlawing abortions, therefore there won’t be any more abortions. There will still be abortions, only they will not be safe.
Meg—What’s interesting now is that we’re seeing the criminalization of pregnancy.
Siri—A truly bizarre and, frankly, grotesque legal notion is that the embryo or fetus is a person and has the rights of a person. How can this entity have legal rights when it’s inside somebody else? Personhood laws are founded on religious ideas, but they have also borrowed from genetics and turned DNA into an unchanging, deterministic, immortal soul, which distorts the biology. DNA is inert without its cellular environment. These laws are not based on legal traditions or precedents.
Gloria—I would agree with that. And there are a number of those who would like to outlaw abortion [who] apparently think that a fertilized egg should have more rights than an adult woman. I call it ‘mandatory motherhood,’ which is not what the antichoice forces like to call it, but that’s what it is. And much of it is rooted in religious belief, which essentially is subordination of women to men, although they wouldn’t view it that way.
“I think four years of Trump is a disaster, but eight years of Trump would be a tragedy.”— Roxane Gay
Roxane—We are seeing the criminalization of pregnancy. It’s something that we really have to resist, actively and vigorously, because it becomes a very slippery slope where, if you have a miscarriage, all of a sudden you’re a criminal. And if you need to make a decision to terminate the pregnancy for whatever reason, you become a criminal. We need to look at which kinds of women are going to be disproportionately policed. Wealthy white women are never going to be policed in this way. But women of color, working-class women are always going to be policed in these ways. That’s why we have to have an increased awareness of this issue and really make sure that we’re fighting for all women when we talk about reproductive freedom. We always think that we have to do something to somehow prove our innate worth and our innate humanity. But actually, women are not the problem here.
Roxane—You know, men are the problem. Until men get their shit together, honestly, we can talk about this all we want, but we know that we’re human; it’s men who don’t know that we’re human. So that’s the real problem.
Meg—How do you think we change that?
Roxane—I don’t know…we just stop dealing with men entirely.
Gloria—I would add that what we do is have women run for office—feminist women, pro-choice women, diverse women—as many have done in the last election. Running and winning and that kind of power shift is extremely important. One other point about abortion that I would make is: Laws like the ‘fetal heartbeat laws’ [are] based on myth, not a scientific fact. The truth is, there is no fetal heartbeat at six weeks. If you base it on scientific fact, then the dominoes fall. And the facts undermine the law. At six weeks a lot of women don’t even know they’re pregnant. This is a running theme: Much of what men or others who support controlling women decide to do, they base on myths, not facts.
Siri—Right. It’s not clear that biology is going to win these discussions, especially when one side takes a religious position. I have given a couple of lectures on the biology and philosophy of pregnancy. What’s actually going on in pregnancy? Why are these ideas completely wrong from a biological point of view? In pregnancy, the fetus is part of a woman’s overall homeostatic reality. Homeostasis is the continual dynamic adjustments a body makes to changes inside and outside it. Her body accommodates the fetus, but the idea that these are two separate systems that can be divorced from each other is false. The arguments the anti-abortion forces are promoting as biology are fiction. That’s why, with every tool possible, this has to be fought.
“The women’s movement is unique in that it’s the only movement in which the participants become more radical as they get older.”—Gloria Allred
Gloria—And pregnancy does make women more vulnerable to exploitation. We have laws now that women’s rights activists have fought for, that outlaw pregnancy discrimination in employment. But I can tell you, as a lawyer for 43 years, that women are still being discriminated against in employment because they’re pregnant. The reality is [that] just because we have a law against it doesn’t mean that everything is fine, because someone has to enforce the law. There are not many women’s rights lawyers to enforce the law, and often the government doesn’t do what it should. Ask women who are eight, nine months pregnant: If they were fired today, would they be able to get another job? Most would say, ‘Oh no, who’s going to hire me?’ This is something that we have to continue to fight against because pregnancy has economic implications for women. It has social, physical, emotional implications, and they are so very vulnerable. A lot of poor women, young women, women of color, and others don’t know how to find an attorney. They feel they cannot afford an attorney—which, by the way, most attorneys take this under contingency. But they don’t know that, because most women are kept ignorant of their rights, perhaps because the power structure fears that if they knew their rights, they might want to enforce their rights, and they don’t want their power threatened.
Meg—Have you, personally—or someone you love, because they were a woman—been mistreated or criminalized in a way that was really unfair by our justice system?
Siri—Well, I’ve seen the reverse, where young, upper-middle-class white boys have been protected by good lawyers for criminal activity and basically gotten off. And that’s a pretty sobering observation.
Roxane—I can’t say that I have had a personal experience because I have not yet had to deal with our legal system. The stories I know are the stories that I read about, but they’re horrifying enough.
Gloria—I’ll just expand a little bit on my personal experience. When I was in my 20s, I went to Mexico on a vacation, met a doctor, went on a date with him, and then went to the hospital where he had to see some patients. Then he said, ‘I have some [patients] released and they’re in a hotel and I want to see them before I go to dinner.’ And we went, and he opened the door, and when I went in, there was no patient, and he pulled out a gun and raped me. Like many young women, I thought, Well, who’s going to believe me over a very well-respected doctor in Mexico? I felt that I was Gloria Nobody, and so it would be hopeless to go to the police.
So I went back home, ultimately found out that I was pregnant, and then—this was the time when abortion was criminalized—had to have a back-alley abortion. He left me bleeding in a bathtub, hemorrhaging—the person who did it. I developed a 103° fever, was taken to the hospital. They wouldn’t give you the abortion, but if you were bleeding to death, they would take you in. There was a special ward there for women who were hemorrhaging like I was, infected from illegal abortions. Anyway, I ultimately recovered, but a nurse said to me, ‘Well, I hope this will teach you a lesson.’ And I said, and I say now, ‘Yes, I did learn a lesson, which is that abortion should be legal, affordable, available, and safe for all women.’ I was impacted by laws that, at that time, were made by men for the benefit of men, and which had a real-life impact on young, poor women, which I was. That’s why I am personally so passionate about, and committed to, fighting to preserve Roe v. Wade. I will stop there on that, but of course I have literally hundreds, thousands of examples. Still, women are being denied their rights and [are] discriminated against. This is something that often young women don’t realize as much as the older women because, you know, we say the women’s movement is unique in that it’s the only movement in which the participants become more radical as they get older.
Meg—So if you could change an existing law or write a new law, what would it be?
Roxane—Well, I would make a law saying that trying to impede women’s bodily autonomy is illegal, as a way to protect Roe v. Wade, and any other legislation that tries to disempower women from making decisions about their bodies and their health, regardless of whether it’s reproductive health or anything else. I just think, How do we protect our bodily autonomy? How do we make it so that we get to move through the world the way men do?
Meg—What do you think about criminalizing men for creating unwanted pregnancies? Really, the only repercussion right now is that they may have to pay child support, which is laughable because so little even gets paid. But there is no emotional consequence, no physical consequence, no professional consequence. The conversation keeps coming back to women and women’s bodies, and that’s so important. But if there were real, immediate consequences for men, would that change things?
Roxane—It might. But I think that plays into patriarchal thinking where there should be punishment for mistakes. I don’t want to criminalize anything around pregnancy for anyone. And while, of course, it would feel good to punish men for breathing, I don’t think that we should punish women and we should not punish men. Criminalization should not be in the conversation, with regard to reproductive freedom.
Siri—There is an old anxiety attached to all this. If an infant is born out of a woman’s body, then you know that it’s her child. The patriarchal anxiety about controlling women’s bodies is connected to the fact that you can’t be sure about a child’s paternity. I guess DNA testing has brought more certainty, but a fear of female sexuality and procreative power recurs in many cultures.
Gloria—You know, that’s an interesting concept, I would agree that there should not be criminalization of what people do with their bodies. But we could make an argument that if there’s going to be criminalization, then if men do not use every one of their sperms to impregnate a woman, they should be subject to the criminal law.
Gloria—When this discussion happens as a culture, the antichoice forces only talk about a fertilized egg. Because if they went back one step to the sperm, and not the fertilized egg, then they would have to go where I am suggesting, which is to criminalize men for not using every one of their sperm. But they don’t do that. Men have never had to pay the price. I think one of the sharpest examples of how this all started is, Why is there marriage? Why are there marriage laws? They were basically passed by men so they would know who their children were. And, of course, men go off and have sexual activity with as many women as possible, but the only ones who were considered legitimate were the children born from his wife. The main reason that women with dependent children go on welfare is because there are so many deadbeat dads, and there’s not enough enforcement of child support laws. Well, why not? Why would the laws not be enforced? Most women I know would rather have child support laws enforced than to be on aid. That’s counter to the myth that women are freeloaders, [that] they want to be on welfare. It’s just another way that women are more vulnerable because they’re forced into lives of dependency.
Meg—If women had always been in charge, would we have marriage?
Roxane—I don’t know that it would look [like] the way we see marriage now. But the reality is that throughout the history of humanity, people have come together in partnerships because life is hard. I think marriage is great. I actually have no problem with marriage. My parents have been married for 46 years, and I like them both…they still like each other. Life is hard, and so sometimes it’s like, I need someone to help me maintain this house. It’s not even about financial stability, it’s just like, Oh my goodness, can you please change the sheets! Partnership is so wonderful if you have a good partner. And that’s the challenge: How do you make sure that people have the freedom to get into relationships not because they need economic stability or social legitimacy, but because they genuinely care about someone and want an equal partner, whoever they are, and whatever their gender is, to go through this life with? I do think marriages would still exist.
Meg—But until relatively recently it was very difficult for a woman to get out of a marriage of her own free will in the U.S.
Gloria—Actually, it was ingrained in the law, in many places, that if there were children of a marriage that perhaps a woman could maintain custody of those children if they were of ‘tender age.’ But then as they got older, the men would have the right to get custody. Around the world, a woman with children has become especially vulnerable, not only economically, but legally, where men feel that essentially the wives or the women are basically just reproductive entities and that the children actually belonged to the men. But on a brighter note, we have more women now, strong female leaders, being portrayed culturally and actually taking power in legislative bodies in the states and also in Congress, although not in the White House yet.
“It’s threatening to a lot of men to have a woman be angry. But women definitely do have a lot to be angry about.”—Gloria Allred
Gloria—First we pray, then we fight.
Siri—Then we work.
Gloria—In 2020, that would be a great thing. We would have to start saying that a woman’s place is in the White House. We would actually achieve it! And we see the culture changing with strong female leaders: Christine Lagarde, the lawyer who was just appointed as head of the European Central Bank. Germany has been governed by a woman, Angela Merkel; Indira Gandhi, who was prime minister in India until she was assassinated; Golda Meir, who was prime minister of Israel. Only in the United States are there some people who still believe that if we had a woman president that the country would collapse or somehow be at a disadvantage.
Siri—I think this is all true. However, strong women and women who do not apologize for their authority continue to be punished. A 2010 social psychology study [Okimoto and Brescoll, “The Price of Power: Power Seeking and Backlash Against Female Politicians”] gave voters a biography of a fictitious politician, which included the words “power seeking” and was then assigned a male or female name. Voters responded to the male politician with complete neutrality. However, a significant number of both men and women responded to the ambitious female politician—I am quoting now—“with feelings of moral outrage, ie. anger, contempt and disgust.” There are many studies on backlash against women perceived as ambitious. The irony is that you can’t run for office unless you are seeking power. That’s what occupying political office means.
Meg—We’re seeing that now with Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Nancy Pelosi. People are not used to seeing women, particularly young women who are outraged, who have a platform and power—especially women of color—in that role.
Roxane—I think that we’re seeing a groundswell of people realizing that we can have power even if we traditionally have not had it, especially after Trump was elected. A lot of us were so shocked that we decided, Well, we can’t ever be in a position where we’re this shocked ever again, and so we made ourselves do something about it for the first time. So that’s why we saw so many women running for office, and so many of those women running for office were women of color, and now they are serving in Congress. And I think they’re realizing, We can push back against the establishment. Conservatives and even progressives. Because we’re seeing that many of our progressive leaders are not as progressive as they need to be to create measurable change for the most vulnerable people. Nancy Pelosi is having to answer questions about why she’s so centrist and so politically oriented. She has done amazing work over her career, but the way she has treated A.O.C. and Omar and Tlaib is unacceptable. And it’s really interesting. And this question of women and would laws change? I mean, Nancy Pelosi is a woman with power, and what is she really doing with that power? She’s using that power to hold on.
“You know, men are the problem. Until men get their shit together, honestly, we can talk about this all we want, but we know that we’re human; it’s men who don’t know that we’re human.”—Roxane Gay
Siri—It’s complicated. I feel that what she doesn’t want to happen is what has happened to the left over and over again: coalitions fall to pieces. I am on the side of a more progressive agenda than the one Nancy Pelosi is advancing, but I also think that at this moment, which I consider a crisis, the left needs to hold together as best it can.
Roxane—Yes, but the challenge is whenever we do that, the people that pay the price are the people who lead us to dare to be different, to dare to be radical. I’m all for coalition, but, at the same time, the reason that we always have these fractures on the left is that there’s always…it’s really about centrism. I have certainly been accused of being a centrist throughout my career, and that’s totally fine.
Siri—Have you? [Laughs]
Roxane—I have! But the older I get, the more radical I get, and I do think that it really becomes a battle of radicalism versus centrism. I do think that there is room for compromise but we have to find it very quickly because 2020 is coming up fast, and I think four years of Trump is a disaster, but eight years of Trump would be a tragedy.
Siri—Yeah, and we don’t want Joe Biden. I want him out.
Gloria—I think that the election—or the selection, however you want to term it—of Trump, with a little help from his friends from another country…
Siri—Yes, in Russia.
Gloria—…has caused many women to do what the famous labor organizer Mother Jones said, which is, ‘Don’t agonize, organize.’ And so we’ve seen these marches. The Women’s March was not a one-day occurrence; it’s every year now. It’s millions of women marching, in the United States and around the world, standing up for their values and against what the Trump administration symbolizes and actualizes. If there’s a positive in any of that, it’s so many people realizing what essentially has been said in this conversation: that we are at risk, even more than we ever have been, and that we need to do something about it.
Meg—Would you run for office? [Long pause]
Siri—I’m 64. [Laughs]
Meg—How old is Bernie? Biden?
Siri—They’re older than I am, but I really would like those two old guys to step aside. I think they should leave the field.
Gloria—Are you saying that because of their age?
Siri—No, it’s not just their age.
Gloria—But is their age part of it?
Siri—would rather see young people in there, absolutely, as an older person myself.
Gloria—Well, I’m 78, so…
Siri—Oh my goodness!
Gloria—…and I’m working for women’s rights and minority rights every day—there’s no weekend, vacation, holiday, or anything. This is what I do, and I love doing it. So I would have to say they shouldn’t have to step aside because I think it is ageist to say that. Having said that, I can understand the move to thinking of younger people. But I see vitality in both Senator Sanders and Vice President Biden. I do think we have to look at people’s records. We have to look at their ideas and their plans for the future.
“There remains in Western thought the stubborn idea that women are associated with the low natural body, and men with the high immaterial intellect or mind.”—Siri Hustvedt
Siri—Listen, I do. Bernie barks the same things over and over. When you examine his policies, they do not stand up to someone like Elizabeth Warren. And I think Biden has always been a politician blowing with the wind. I don’t admire that. And I haven’t forgotten his stealing part of a speech from a British politician. I am not deeply impressed with him.
Meg—I think it’s more a matter of the baggage that they carry rather than the age itself. If somebody, at any age, comes in with fresh ideas, age doesn’t matter so much.
Siri—No, it doesn’t.
Gloria—I would agree. But I’m hopeful, as I see the evolution of women wanting to seize power. I have been asked to run for office, and I have declined. The role that I have now—our law firm acts as private attorney generals, to be able to enforce the laws that we have, to speak out and to change the laws because they’re still not adequate, to protect the rights of women—this is what we do. At the same time, I realize the importance of women running for office—if they’re feminist women—and I support their very tough battles to win justice for women. I would encourage others to reach out to the National Women’s Political Caucus to learn how they can obtain funding for campaigns and other tips about how and when to run and where. We also need more minority women running for office and to be supported in their campaigns because it can’t be just a token number of women of color running. We need to support them in every way, and not just in words but in deeds, because their infusion into the political system will make the changes for all of us.
Roxane—I would never run for office. I don’t have the temperament for it. I’m too opinionated, and I have very little patience, and I can’t pretend to like people I don’t like, so—
Meg—You know the guy who is president, right? Have you seen him?!
Siri—That’s the problem! You have to keep smiling.
Roxane—Yeah, I’m not interested.
Gloria—You just tapped into something important: Women are expected to smile even when they’re in pain. We don’t tell men, ‘You need to smile more.’ But I hear this over and over to women in power. I’ve had that tossed at me as well, and I say, ‘Look, I’m not going to be smiling when I’m talking about rape or those who are trying to criminalize abortion.’ Women often smile even when they don’t feel like something is funny or happy because it’s threatening to a lot of men to have a woman be angry. But women definitely do have a lot to be angry about.