Choosing Our Own Lives: Two 40-Something Feminists Reflect on Roe – The Feminist Wire

Choosing Our Own Lives: Two 40-Something Feminists Reflect on Roe

By Aishah Shahidah Simmons and Monica J. Casper

[Over a two-day period, TFW Collective Members Aishah Shahidah Simmons and Monica J. Casper shared an e-dialogue about abortion, feminism, family, shame, love, friendship, and the way forward. Here is the largely unedited transcript of their exchange, shared publicly in recognition of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.–TFW Editors]

January 20, 2013

Artist: Favianna Rodriguez

Artist: Favianna Rodriguez

Aishah: Are you there, Monica? It’s me, Aishah. 🙂

Monica: Hey sis, I’m online and ready to “talk” about abortion and Roe. I have to admit, though, that after publishing a piece on Friday in TFW (on gun control and domestic violence), I’m hesitant to take up more space/time this week. Too much of me isn’t good for the Collective!

Wondering if we could structure this as me having a conversation with you about your experiences? What do YOU feel like talking/writing about today?

Aishah:  I’ve been glued to my computer preparing for my “Audre Lorde: The Life and Work of a Silence Breaker,” graduate/undergraduate seminar.

I’m so disconnected from the rest of the real/virtual world…I didn’t even know about your peace/piece. I look forward to reading it and getting reconnected (not submerged like I was this past autumn) once I launch my classes on Tuesday…I’m sure your article is powerful. I can’t wait to read it.

I’m open to your having a conversation with me about my experiences…

I can’t believe it’s the 40th anniversary. I’ll be 44 this year, which means I was four years old when it was legalized and it feels like it has been a battle to keep it legal ever since then…I’d like to talk about my rape (the joyous topic that it is…forgive my sarcasm. Sometimes we have to use humor to keep from crying)…I want to challenge this “women who are raped should be able to have abortions, but not the rest of those ‘sluts’ out there” patriarchal and misogynist line of thinking for so many…I believe my own herstory underscores some the problems with this line of thinking….I also know that I’m not alone.

Monica:  Audre Lorde class sounds amazing, sis!  Would love to sit in on that one.

Okay, let’s talk about you. I love that. What struck me so much about your email to me about this a couple of weeks ago is your term “life-affirming.”  Not sure if you’ve had a chance yet to read my forthcoming piece on my abortion in college, but I wrote in that piece that “I did choose a life: my own.” And there is something so profoundly feminist and womanist about honoring your own self, your own life–especially in this context in which women are so repeatedly framed as selfish. The notion of life-affirming seems a direct response to those claims of “selfish.” Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Regarding rape, YES, I am so with you on this. And it’s convoluted, too. Women are so often blamed for their own sexual assaults; and yet, with abortion, the framing is that they’re innocent and so thus can legitimately abort the rapist’s progeny. If not raped, i.e., your everyday garden variety “sluts,” then they/we cannot legitimately abort. Would also love to hear your thoughts on this.

And finally, you have written and talked about being a survivor of incest and sexual assault. How does this experience/these experiences for you complicate or deepen both your understanding of abortion as topic and experience, and your own history?

Aishah:  I want to read your forthcoming piece on your own abortion in college!!! Wow, how/where/when can I read it?

This is so complicated for me, Monica. Foremost, I’m glad that I was able to have a safe and legal abortion. I honestly can’t even imagine being the mother of a (soon to be) 24-year old. And yet, if my being a parent were my reality, I probably would say, I can’t even imagine my life without my (soon to be) 24-year old. The conundrum of life. I firmly believe that my life (and I’m not talking about my physical health) was saved as a result of my being able to have a safe and legal abortion.

Reproductive Social Justice for All WomenI must share that this is not something that I take lightly or even write easily because I believe in the sanctity of all life and I’m vehemently pro-choice. I want a world where all Beings everywhere, and without exception, are free and safe from enmity and danger, well-nurtured, loved, peaceful, and happy. When I think about frightened 19-year old soon to be 20-year old Aishah in 1989, I know that I was in no position to carry out the powerful responsibility of being a mother. My pregnancy resulted from either my rape or from very consensual (and pleasurable) sex with a different man less than 24-hours after my rape. It’s important that those of us who are able, share our complex sexual herstories, which are often a mixture of trauma and pleasure. I’m so tired of these debates about the “innocent” victims vs. the “jezebels”/”sluts”/”whores” who “get what they deserve.” This plays a role in the deafening silence of so many women who have been assaulted/violated by an acquaintance, friend, or lover, vs. the strange unidentifiable man. This is so common with any woman who dares to (strive) to own her sexuality.

Additionally, at the time, I was in deep denial about my queer identity. I desperately wanted to be heterosexual because I viewed that as the one way I could be viewed as normal in a world where “everything that’s defined as normal is white and male” (Audre Lorde). Since I’m neither, I thought my being heterosexual would bring some ‘normalcy’ to my life. Ah, my youthful thinking!

Dennis Struck (Monica's dad) with granddaughter Mason in 2012

Dennis Struck (Monica’s dad) with granddaughter Mason in 2012

Monica:  I sent you the [abortion in college] piece in preparation for our dialogue, but I probably sent to that other email address! It’s out there in the virtual hinterlands. Here it is again. You’ll notice that it’s what I call a “love story” about my parents, more than anything. After it got accepted for a forthcoming edited volume and I was making changes, it was after my dad had died, and it was terribly sad to be rereading it again because his loss was so big. As you’ll see from the piece, I lucked out with some pretty amazing parents, and I can honestly say that I had a stepdad who just about never let me down, and for the big stuff, like my college abortion, he was just THERE for me. I was about the same age you were, and I knew that I didn’t want to be and couldn’t be a mother at that point.

I have heard other women say that after a sexual assault, they wanted to have sex…that there was something very empowering for them in choosing to have sex after their experiences of assault. That seems to me, along with the right to “choose” an abortion or to be a mother, something fundamental about women’s being in their own bodies, and making their own decisions.

I, too, am weary of the innocent vs. jezebel debate; it’s so self-serving for (some) men and for patriarchy. When we throw in the “innocent” fetus, too, women are knocked right off their perch. The one thing that seems so basic to me is that any emergent embryonic/fetal life is inside a woman’s body. To some degree, how it got there is irrelevant; it’s there, and it’s up to her to decide what to do with it.

After my fetal surgery research that became my first book, I remember Mom asking me if I felt differently about abortion. And I said that I was still resolutely pro-choice, and even more so, that I had seen firsthand how many layers of skin and culture it takes to get inside a pregnant woman’s uterus. It is no easy task, and it should never be taken lightly–as so many pundits do when they toss off their lame-ass beliefs about pregnant women being “selfish” or whatever.The-Making-of-the-Unborn-Patient-Casper-Monica-J-9780813525167

Anyway, enjoy the piece.  And we will continue our dialogue…


P.S.  And I’ve been thinking about this, too…how abortion intersects with the lives of women (and men) who do not identify as “straight” in any standard meaning of the term. How do sexuality and reproduction fit into, around, and within these lives? Your lives? This is such a powerful piece of your history, this attempt to bring some “normalcy.” Did the abortion affect these feeling of “normalcy” or “not normalcy” in any way?

Aishah:  Wow, I really look forward to reading the article…From what I’ve read, your parents sound really incredible, M. I LOVE that you’re sharing your herstory. It’s so important that more of us who are able, share our stories. So many of us can’t and as a result we think we’re alone. When silences are broken it frees so many others…

Non-sequitur, I pulled out Julie Dash‘s Daughters of the Dust: The Making of An African-American Woman’s Film, with Toni Cade Bambara and Bell Hooks. I pulled it out because I was reminded of the profound impact that her courage to share her abortion story in the context of making Daughters of the Dust had on me:

“In those days, of pre-production (of Daughters of the Dust), I found myself nauseous and easily fatigued. At first I thought that it was the heat and humidity (in the Sea Isles of South Carolina), until I learned that I was pregnant. I had to quickly make a decision as to what I was going to do. I had two choices – to put off the production for at least another year or to have an abortion. I made my decision to go forward with the filming of Daughters. I flew back to Atlanta to have the abortion. This was a painful decision many women have had to face, especially women who must rely on their physical as well as mental stamina to perform professionally. Unfortunately, many women do not have the same options that I had. At least I could still make a choice. Daughters would become the child that I would bear that year.”

Daughters of the Dust book cover

Daughters of the Dust book cover

I share this book excerpt for multiple reasons. This book was published in 1992. Ever since my teacher and big Sister-friend Toni Cade Bambara introduced me to the work of so many Black women independent filmmakers, I’ve been deeply influenced, inspired, and profoundly impacted by Julie Dash’s work. This book came out three years after my abortion, two years after my coming out as an unapologetic Black feminist lesbian, and in the year that I started my production company – AfroLez® Productions. I inscribed a love note to myself on the day that I purchased the book, which was on November 17, 1992, the exact date of Audre Lorde’s death…

Aishah Shahidah, November 17, 1992
my spirit, my sister, my friend, myself, my mother, my daughter, my lover…
Stay strong and focused, never compromise your beliefs; don’t ever sell your soul;
speak truth to power.
Be committed to creating art that affirms African American Women’s beauty, power,
love, strength and eternal peace…
Keep your eyes on the prize.
Love Always,
Aishah Shahidah

I’m literally sitting here in tears, M because of all of the synchronicity of what’s going on here…

I pulled Dash’s book to read and share her courageous words with you. I haven’t read her book in over four years and honestly, I forgot about the love note to myself.  I can’t believe I wrote that on the exact date of Audre’s death. How did I not make this connection sooner than now? Of course, when I wrote it, I didn’t know Audre Lorde transitioned. E-mail wasn’t what it has become today, and social media as we know it today didn’t exist. News of Lorde’s passing didn’t reach my ears until at least a few days afterwards, if not later.

Toni2Tonight, I’m reading it almost as if for the first time. All of this is happening as I very literally prepare to teach this seminar on Lorde’s life, in the 20th anniversary year of the completion of my first short video Silence…Broken, which was created in a Toni Cade Bambara scriptwriting workshop at Scribe Video Center. And, it is dedicated to the life and work of Audre Lorde… (I firmly believe that) NONE OF THIS would have happened or would be going on had I not been able to have an abortion…

I should also share that my rape followed by consensual sex with another man happened while on a study abroad program in my sophomore year in college. I was so distraught about everything, which was rooted in my trauma and underscored by my internalized homophobia…I felt as if I couldn’t breathe…My making the decision to drop out of college shortly after the rape/sex/pregnancy/abortion, which was followed by my coming out as a lesbian one year later, enabled me to forge ahead with my then unknown trajectory…

I’m thinking about so much shame that I’ve carried connected to my rape, consensual sex, pregnancy, abortion, dropping out of college…It’s very intense in the context of developing a syllabus about breaking silences IN SPITE OF the fear….

Monica:  I didn’t know about Julie Dash’s experience, or her writing about it. There was so much literature and film that I wasn’t tapped into in college. I’ve been thinking a lot about the kinds of cultural, economic resources that women (especially young women) need when they’re/we’re facing an unwanted pregnancy. I had very little in the way of economic resources, but still far more than many; I was blessed on the family front, and I had a partner who stood by me. (We ended up getting married when I was 22, divorced 5 years later.)

Mason and Delaney, Nashville, c2005

Mason and Delaney, Nashville, c2005

So many things were made possible, or facilitated, by that abortion: me finishing college, graduate school, all the many sexual and relationship paths I later took, and ultimately the two daughters that I have now. I think, often tearfully, of what my life would be like without Mason and Delaney; I could not know it then, but without ALL those decisions at 19 and subsequently, I wouldn’t have these particular children. I might have other children, or not; but I wouldn’t have these particular little girls with their beautiful distinctiveness.

Aishah:  I’m not sure how many people know about Julie Dash’s experience. Her book is the only reason I knew about her experiences. I don’t think most people (who aren’t in her personal circle) who don’t own or haven’t read the book know about it. What’s fascinating for me is that I couldn’t wait to delve deep with the book because of my desire to read anything and everything about Black women filmmakers’ journeys in their own words. Dash sharing about her abortion was an unexpected gift for me on multiple levels as I embarked on my own emerging cinematic journey, which focused on Black lesbian identity and heterosexual rape. It was a very bold and courageous move on her part. Afterall, it was 1992, and not 2012. Julie Dash is definitely one of my sheroes.

What I love about our sharing, Monica, is that we clearly have very different life experiences in a myriad of ways and yet there are some similarities. We made very different choices as a result or our abortions and yet our paths have intersected/connected in this profound way. Your testimony is very powerful and I believe an important one of choice, exploration, empowerment, and motherhood.

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Aishah, & Michael Simmons

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Aishah, & Michael Simmons

I’m very close with my divorced parents who are also my comrades and friends. Things were very strained between my mother and me during my pregnancy and subsequent abortion. My father was out of the country working in Eastern Europe during most of the ordeal. He actually returned home on the day of my abortion. After the abortion, he was a lifesaver, including taking me to Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain to attend a nuclear disarmament conference with him. I stayed after the conference, to backpack alone for five weeks throughout the country. It was in Grenada, Spain while looking at the Alhambra that I wrote in my journal in 1989, “I want to make films that affirm the lives of Black women. If I have to go in debt, it will be over a film and not a degree.”

I shared about the difficult time with my mother to discuss the complexities surrounding my pregnancy and abortion. She was the first self-identified pro-choice, feminist woman that I knew, with my paternal grandmother coming in at a close second. Though Nana didn’t call herself a feminist, she definitely was one and she was pro-choice. In spite of this reality, it was a rocky road with both of them during that time period in my life. I’m honored to be my mother’s daughter and my grandmother’s granddaughter. I would not be the woman I am without both of their and my father’s profound influence on my life. I’m not a parent and I do not want to be one, but I understand what happens when one has dreams and visions for one’s child and those dreams and visions don’t womanifest in the way a parent envisions. I firmly believe this is what happened with both my Mom and my Nana when I came home pregnant and unable to name the biological father…

2007NODVDFRONTBACK_smallI often wonder if I did carry my pregnancy to term, would I have come out as a PROUD Black feminist lesbian or would I’ve been afraid and concerned about what that would mean for the unborn? Would I have made NO! The Rape Documentary? …. Who knows? Even if the answers are yes, what I know is that it wouldn’t be what it is today….

These are the stories and dialogues that we don’t get to have because we’re so busy fighting the surge of the Right Wing to take away all of our reproductive rights. We often don’t get to hear the nuances, the complexities, the back stories…For many on the rabid (my words) Right, it’s as if women are incubators for fetuses and receptacle for (unwanted) penises….

Monica:  One of my very best therapists ever, in San Francisco, was writing her dissertation on shame. She had this gorgeous argument about how shame was such a driving force for so many of us, both in what we do and what we don’t do. Heather [Talley] and I have talked about writing a piece together on the neoliberal university and its strategies of shame, disavowal, and retribution…and those three words resonate so well not just with neoliberalism run amok in higher ed, but also in patriarchy. Women are repeatedly and often quite violently shamed, disavowed, and made to serve retribution…this is written in our bones, our uteruses, our psyches.

Not being ashamed seems like such a gift to self. Living, writing, teaching away the shame…


Aishah: Ooh, that sounds like a delicious topic and argument…Did she finish it? Is it accessible? And yes to your and Heather’s piece on the neoliberal university and its strategies. That is so needed…We are repeatedly shamed…We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. So, I’m wrong if I have an abortion. Would I have been wrong if I decided to carry out my pregnancy and get on public assistance?

That’s a wonderful quote, “not being ashamed seems like such a gift to self.”

Artist: Favianna Rodriguez

Artist: Favianna Rodriguez

I wish we could ALL be proud and celebrate on Jan 22, 2013…WE CHOSE LIFE…OUR OWN (as you so eloquently stated)….I don’t want to be ashamed about the choices I made because they brought me to this very place where I’m standing (seated)…I would not be who I am had I not been who I was….

When I think about the wretched history of White men legally controlling all women’s bodies since this country’s founding, I say HOW DARE THEY try to legally dictate what any of us do with our bodies in 2013? HOW DARE THEY!

Monica:  Hi Sis, I am back…the girls distracted me there for a bit. Sorry! I think we have a title: Choosing Our Own Lives.

I love what you wrote in your journal from that time…about wanting to make films, and being willing to sacrifice for it. It seems so important not to sacrifice SELF, but to sacrifice aspects of living (money, a child in Julie Dash’s case, etc.). It is the SELF that is affirmed.

I quite often think, How dare they? So much of my rage, which doesn’t always come out since I’m generally pretty good humored, is about the ways that girls and women are so controlled, abused, violated, and stepped on. Men-qua-collective/patriarchy seem to want to break women. And yet, so much of my joy and hope comes from the ways women and girls do not ALLOW ourselves to be stepped on. That we continue to find voice, self, a way forward. This is not to denigrate individual men who have done a great deal for women and girls and feminism (and we both know many of these men), but the system, the hierarchy is what chews up women and girls and spits them out to die. The world over, no less.

It is that way forward–the poem, the film, the story, the conversation, the dialogue, the picture, the abortion, the divorce, the sex, the sexuality, the recipe, the prayer–that is most inspiring to me. All the ways women move forward…

Aishah:  Hey Sister, no worries at all. I just shifted gears and re-communed with Audre :-)! I love the title! This sounds like a kitchen table (virtual table) dialogue between two sister-comrades…

Like you, I’m nervous, nervous…not so much about the abortion but the consensual sex less than 24-hours after the abortion, my dropping out of school, etc. This information is elsewhere but TFW is getting a lot of visibility these days (YAY team). Anyway, I’m ready to “come out” about it all because it haunts me. I don’t hide it, but I don’t announce it either. Audre’s words taught and teach me that what I hide or am ashamed of will be used against me, first by me and then by others. I’m working hard on not allowing fear and shame to dictate my life. I’m grateful to shed another layer.

January 21, 2013

Audre Lorde (c) Dagmar Schultz

Audre Lorde (c) Dagmar Schultz

Aishah:  Morning Sister. I hope when you receive this email, it will find you well. I’m in a very heavy space/place right now…I started working on our dialogue and didn’t make a lot of headway last night because I’m a bit overwhelmed with so much. When I awakened this morning in tears, I felt a need to write about communing with Audre’s spirit on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which, this year falls on the first day of my teaching the course on her life…My being reminded that I wrote that love note to myself on the date of her death has hit me at a profound level. I’m facing my own fears and looking at my ego (again and again)…Time is always of the essence…I will see what, if anything, I can do to meet this TFW lifeline in the midst of my meeting my non-negotiable lifelines…

Regardless of if we publish something tomorrow, I may write about what I’ve experienced/am experiencing at a later date for TFW or somewhere else…

Initial thoughts…


Monica:  Morning sister! So much is coming together in your life this day: your syllabus, our dialogue, history intersecting with the present, the meaning of Audre Lorde in your life/work. No wonder you woke up in tears! I hope that you can find some peace, too, amidst all this feeling, this heaviness. Our piece will be what it is. No pressure there, at all…

I was crabby last night; snapped at Bill and the girls. Could blame PMS, and the cold/flu thing, but mostly, I think it’s just feeling raw and vulnerable about all that we were and are dialoguing about. So easy to lash out at those closest to you, instead of enfolding them into the journey. I did tell them at dinner what we were planning to publish. Laney, our 8-year old, said, “What’s abortion?” I explained it and she said, “Oh” then moved on to another topic.

We are smart and brave and lovely, my friend; and if we do this, we still are who we are. And if we don’t, we are also still who we are.


Aishah:  Your words are right on time…in time…You know, I didn’t even think about the impact that digging up those painfully transitional times had on both of our lives. I’m glad you were able to get in touch with what was going on for you and share with your dearest loved ones. I love your Laney story. One day you two will revisit that conversation. However, the seed was planted…

We are (also) still who we are…We can decide if/how/when to move forward…If not today, some other day….While very important, it’s not about January 22, 1973. It’s about life after January 22, 1973…

We are the beneficiaries who, in our own ways, have dedicated our lives to make sure that future generations of girls will have similar options should they be faced with these painfully complex decisions.