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February 10, 2006


The Happy Feminist

It's tough for me to see an embryo or fetus in its early stages, with no brain, no nervous system, and no consciousness as having an equally powerful competing claim as weighed against the autonomy of a sentient adult woman.

I think you're right as to the modesty issue. People should dress in a way that shows consideration for others in accordance with societal norms. Those norms should not be unduly constraining. Furthermore, these norms may change; if as a society we agree that ultra-short mini-skirts is an acceptable norm (as we once did in the '60s), those who feel threatened by it will have to adjust. On the other hand, it is rude and inconsiderate to inject something like an ultra-short miniskirt into an environment where it is not a norm, like a church service or a reception at the Saudi embassy.

I lived in an Islamic country as a teenager so I know a little about the balancing act of wanting to be considerate without hampering one's own freedom. I chose not to wear any shorts, any sleeveless tops, or any skirts that hit above the knee. I chose not to wear a veil, or to refrain from my workout regimen which involved long distance running in the streets.


Hugo, thank you so much for your thoughtful post. I disagree, however, with your assertion that ambivalence is necessarily a sign of a character flaw. Frankly, I think the world would be a better place if we all were a bit more "indecisive", in the sense of seeing (seeking?) validity in both sides of an issue.

Some people hold tight to a particular set of beliefs, and some people find more occasions to question theirs...I think we need both types of people.


Hugo, you beat yourself up too much! Being placed in the middle of an axis of thought makes you a good ambassador and translator to both sides. I don't think it's just the hallmark of privilege: there are lots with privilege and no shades of grey in their thinking. It means there are some things that you won't have to personally confront: but I imagine, should you wake up and find yourself female, you'd still be as considerate of all sides of the argument, and hear all the textures of emotion in your heart.


I think there's a different between feeling ambivalent and acting ambivalent. Causes are rarely pure or fully right, but if none of us acted for them the world would be a much worse plac


Ambivelence is certainly a mark of privilege, but I'm not certain I can agree it's a character flaw, at least not necessarily. I'll think about why not at the long boring meeting I have to go to now and return with a better reason for my objection.


Didn't you say you were a Gemini? I think that's a valid excuse.

I think you can present both sides of an argument and also encourage activism and leave it at that. You don't have to encourage activism in any one direction.

I personally think one thing that is sorely lacking in the school system in general is critical thinking. My (liberal) daughter goes to a middle school where most of the teachers and students are conservative. The conservative teachers have no problem saying things like "abortion is wrong" in the middle of an abstinence only sex-ed class and putting up cartoons that are sympathetic to the "plight" of President Bush in history class. But the liberal teachers keep their mouths shut and avoid any sort of political discussions in class. That isn't education.

A quality (classic?) education is one in which students learn to be able to argue for both sides of an argument, regardless of which side they actually agree with. And a good teacher teaches that skill. A good educational system also shows students the varying ways in which citizenship is demonstrated (marches, voting, writing to your congressman) and gives them the tools to make decisions. But I don't think teachers or educational systems should ever be in the position of telling students what to do.

On the subject of dress - shouldn't we be challenging those girls who are uncomfortable with their tube-top wearing classmate just a little bit? WHY are they intimidated? Because they start comparing themselves to her and feel bad 'cause her boobs are perkier? Wouldn't that be a great opportunity for them to celebrate her body, her right to display it and THEIR bodies as well?

I'm reminded of a scene in one of Maya Angelou's books where a group of African and African - American women are watching one of their sisters dance and celebrating her - her sensuality and sexuality - and not shunning her because they are comparing themselves to her and feeling inadequate, but using it as an opportunity to celebrate their own sensuality and bodies. I'd rather be in that group than be one of the self-loathing girls going "who the hell does she think she is?"

Russell Arben Fox

On the one hand, Hugo, I can see your point about ambivalence being a privilege. To the extent that what you describe as ambivalence is a kind eternal critique without engagement, a disassociative ability to survey the territory and reflect upon the perplexing meaning of it all, always giving the other (and then yet another!) side its due...then yes, it's a privilege. It's a privilege that was identified as long ago as ancient Greece, where a life of intellectual discussion in the agora was made possible because, of course, slaves and wives and others back at home were actually keep shop and keeping Athens running. It's a sexist and classist privilege that some thinkers have honestly defended, on some level or another, as utterly necessary to the life of the mind.

But let's be ambivalent, and note that on the other hand the way in which you experience ambivalence proves that you're all wrong about at least one thing! You write with an enormous degree of "affectivity"--you may say that "what a student wears doesn't really affect me," but the fact that you bother to write about it, so sensitively and so seriously, shows that in fact you are "affected." And why wouldn't you be? You're part of the human race, your a member of the feminist movement, you're religiously committed to the development of young people, you're a teacher and a role model, you're this and that and the other thing. You're a committed man, Hugo: you are deeply involved in communities and causes, and that makes you not an observer, not a stranger, but a member (and yes, I am purposefully echoing scripture).

Those who think only of the freedom "from" things picture freedom as a caricature of the first possibility--the unaffected, unhindered thinker, following "truth" wherever it may lead. Yes, well, "negative freeom" has it's place. But give me the "paralysis" of being affected by, involved with, engaged in my fellow man and woman any day. Paralysis is a definite downer, for certain--but only out of paralysis can come "positive freedom," the freedom to do things, move things, be part of things, make things, change things, and--most crucially--be changed by things. I'm often called ambivalent, naive, sentimental, romantic, conflicted, and so forth. I take it as a compliment: it means that I'm not deluded by believing that freedom comes from disengaging problems, but rather comes from frustratingly and rewarding submitting myself to thing, letting them affect me so I can affect some change back.

Sorry for the sermon. Keep the faith, Hugo! And don't you dare start putting up synopses for your posts, or else all the rest of us who write equally long, meandering posts will feel obliged to do the same.


These are wonderful comments, folks, and I'm tremendously grateful for them all.

Russell, I always love your writing, largely because despite our very different backgrounds, we do enjoy wrestling with so many of the same issues. You are very kind, but also very challenging; I appreciate your insight and your thoughtfulness.

I will avoid synopses, and will also reconsider my labeling ambivalence as a fault.

Col Steve

I am just as equally swayed by the argument that the most basic right we possess is the right to control our own flesh. If we don't have corporeal autonomy, aren't all other rights moot?

We may indeed have a basic right to corporeal autonomy, but you're hiding behind a myth if that line of reasoning is your counterweight to the life begins at conception argument.

Hugo - where do you stand on the rights of (mentally competent) age of consent individuals to sell (of their own free will without coercion) one of their kidneys, part of their livers, or other body parts (temporarily or permanently) to others if such exchange does not cause death? After all, if I can't do with my kidney as I please (or those actions that do not diminsh others rights - obviously there are limits on say putting my fist in your face), then who controls my kidneys? Clearly, I don't have complete control of my flesh because there are laws that do limit my rights to do with my body what I please.

We, the people, in order to.... is about giving away some of our (United States citizens) rights in order to form that more perfect union and other good benefits from an organized society. One of those rights is complete corporeal autonomy. One may believe that, in the specific context of women and their control over a child inside them, the right to control one's flesh trumps society's potential right to legislate -- but that still means putting relative values on parts of our flesh (not all parts of the flesh are equal goods).

I use the kidney example in a econ class I teach adjunct at a local community college. I often find that people (men and women) who strongly object to a right to sell a kidney also believe in the "my body, my choice" slogan -- but then qualify that belief only to abortion.


I actually understand what you're saying. When it comes to dress, I admit to be anywhere from a revealing to a very conservative dresser. What I try to do is be appropriate for the occasion, and not use dress as a means to call distractive and inappropriate attention to myself, which i personally find immature.

I try to focus on autonomy and respect when dealing with clothing issues when I talk to younger women. I don't think women should be forced to cover up or forced to reveal- and I also feel the rights of women to do both. One of my friend's daughter wears a headscarf- not in school (she goes to an all-girls school) but in public. Her parents are fine with it either way- it's something the daughter chooses to do, and I've supporter her in her right because the daughter was the one that made the choice. For women that feel uncomfortable around her, I say that's their problem and not hers. i think the way she uses the scarf to express herself (by tying it in different ways, using different fabrics, etc) is quite unique.

On the other hand, I have more of an issue with revelaing clothing because of the body image dilemma. There's nothing wrong with revealing clothing in itself. It's the message that it sends to others, from "she was asking for rape because of her outfit" (as an extreme example) to "she's proud of her body and wants to show it off." I personally don't really notice women in skimpy clothing unless people point it out to me. However, I understand the distractive nature of it to both men and women. I'm sure most women would be kind of distracted if a guy walked into class without a shirt, wearing tight, short, shorts. So, my answer has been to women that prefer less clothing that there's nothing wrong with what they're doing at all, but to respect the occasion and try to think about whether it's appropriate for them to be a distractive element. At that point, it's not about shaming the body, but allowing the people around her to do what they're there to do and not be distracted by her presence. I had a preference for tube tops and miniskirts back in the day- it just never occured to wear them to school. I usually marched into my classes with my pajamas- fresh out of bed... One time, I was so late I wore my footsie pjs to school in order to get to class, and I'm sure that could have been seen as disrespectful and inappropriate.

Aside from being occasion appropriate, I have not resolved this completely in my mind.

The Happy Feminist

Yep -- must second all those thoughts about ambivalence. People who are too sure that they are right about all things scare me.

Past tense

Hugo, there's definitely nothing wrong with being undecided. If we were all like that the world would be a much nicer place.

I've had other women criticise me because I like covering up and dress very sensibly. We need to be more tolerant of each other.


Hugo, if you (or anyone else who feels similarly ambivalent about abortion) are looking for some reading on the matter, let me recommend David Boonin's A Defence of Abortion. Boonin's dry, formal method makes me a little uncomfortable as a feminist, but the logic and structure of his arguments really are dead-on. I'm only halfway through, so I can't give a complete precis now, but he addresses 'the conception criterion' -- the idea that the right to life begins at conception -- and defends an argument that the right to life is not the same as and does not imply the right to be gestated to term.


Hugo, I've just a small bit of time to read and to respond today, thanks to being ordered by my family to RELAX. lol

As I've gone through your recent posts and the comments, there has been something tweaking at my brain. I think perhaps I can illucidate with a response to this statement of yours:

A woman's right to autonomy seems to me to be an absolute, fundamental, irreproachable good; an unborn person's right to life seems equally compelling and unquestionable.

Why are these listed as opposing principles? Why does one negate the other? Why can a woman not be autonomous if she is also caring for another?

If it is determined that one person *cannot* be autonomous while providing care for another person, then where does that lead?

There's somewhere my mind's going with this, but the kids all just headed out the door. They got ready more quickly than usual. Something about us deciding to take them out to eat. Go figure. I'll try to come to a cohesive statement while we're gone. Our kids are good for helping with that.


This post and Catty's comment are the most insightful response to the modest-dress issue that I've seen in some time. It helps me understand why I feel equally uncomfortable in an Orthodox shul and in a raunchy urban nightclub - it's not the content of the dress code so much as the fear that you'll be judged harshly (as a slut or a prude) for deviating from it! I'm reminded of St. Paul's discussion of whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 10:23-33). He warns the Corinthian church not to fall into the legalism of debating the "correct" rule, but rather to do whatever is compassionate and respectful in the context.


"If it is determined that one person *cannot* be autonomous while providing care for another person, then where does that lead?"

I think a person can be autonomous while caring for another. It's one thing to physically care for someone- i.e. a sick relative. It's another thing to be forced to physically give their bodily functions, i.e the use/donation of an organ.



I agree that it's different to care for a sick relative than it is to donate an organ. But neither takes away a person's autonomy. Neither does pregnancy, IME. That's why I am so baffled by the correlation of pregnancy to loss of autonomy.


It's being *forced* to give up or donate your organ *against your will.* For example, I don't think I should be forced to donate blood. It's one thing for a person to care for a sick relative- but it's not imperative. I wouldn't say a child has to care for a parent that seriously physically and emotionally abused her/him, for example.

autonomy is right or condition of self-government. If someone has the right to take or use your organ against your will, I can't think of a more serious violation of self-autonomy.


Well, Catriona, I think people are considering it in the context of unwanted pregnancy. Being pregnant involves someone else being dependent on you and requires that you curb your behavior in a variety of ways. For someone who wants to be pregnant, forgoing alcohol, some travel, roller coasters, etc. may seem wholly inconsequential. For someone who doesn't want to be pregnant though, those things seem like an imposition, especially when you think of them in conjunction with feeling like your body's been hijacked for someone else's purposes.

Does that help?


Sorry to not get back to this sooner. We went to pick up 3 ram lambs this afternoon, only to come home with 2 of the original 3 ram lambs, a ewe with twin lambs (1 ram and 1 ewe), and a set of goat triplets less than a day old whose dam wasn't going to be able to take care of them. Those triplets put us at 5 bottle babies in the living room.

autonomy is right or condition of self-government. If someone has the right to take or use your organ against your will, I can't think of a more serious violation of self-autonomy.

If a person consensually engages in an act that results in the creation of another being, that person has a *responsibility* to that additional being to see him/her to self-sufficiency. The "fetus" hasn't come into being on its own. It is not willfully forcing the mother into any action whatsoever. Therefore, IMO, this is not a violation of self-autonomy.

Forced sex is an entirely different situation, but IMO any resulting "fetus" still deserves to be cared for. The "fetus" bears no responsibility for the actions that led to its existance. In actuality, it can be a blessing to the mother, a symbol of new beginnings, of hopes for the future.

There's more there, but I can't wrap my mind around it atm. It's late and it will probably be another night with little sleep. Babies that were fed less than an hour ago are already sounding hungry again.


The "fetus" hasn't come into being on its own. It is not willfully forcing the mother into any action whatsoever.

Um, yeah. Fetuses can't willfully do anything. That's why pro-choicers (sensibly, in my view) aim their message toward legislators and the general voting public, rather than shouting through a megaphone into some pregnant woman's belly. Fetuses (and what's up with the scare quotes? It's a real word) don't make laws mandating childbirth. The government does. We do.

it can be a blessing to the mother, a symbol of new beginnings

Yes, pregnancy can feel like the most wonderful or the most terrible thing in the world. It makes some women joyous, other women concerned, and still others suicidal. I think maybe it's because women are individual people with individual lives, who don't all feel the same way about the same things.

If you mean that because it can be a blessing to some women in some circumstances, it should be a blessing to all women in all circumstances, well, perhaps you will find someone for whom that is a persuasive assertion. I have never enjoyed much success from telling women they ought to feel the emotions I choose for them, myself.


and what's up with the scare quotes? It's a real word

Scare quotes? No "scare" there, just a difference in opinion on appropriate terminology. I prefer the words baby or child, but many in the current discussion prefer fetus. Thus the quotes, to differentiate.

I had posted: it can be a blessing to the mother, a symbol of new beginnings

And sophonisba replied: Yes, pregnancy can feel like the most wonderful or the most terrible thing in the world. It makes some women joyous, other women concerned, and still others suicidal. I think maybe it's because women are individual people with individual lives, who don't all feel the same way about the same things.

I've found this to be true about *any* situation in life. A person's feelings about any particular situation depend upon the person's perceptions at the time s/he is in the situation. If the person *chooses* to change his/her perceptions, then his/her feelings will also change. It is truly be a matter of choice.


Yes, but sometimes, "choosing" to change perceptions is a priviledge that is not afforded to everyone in any given situation.

Just say someone was an occasional smoker- and finds out she has lung cancer. Do you say, "hey- you made your bed, lie in it. You don't deserve treatment, as you knew you actions could lead to cancer, oh, but... choose to see this positively, because perception is reality. Buh-bye!"

For me, pregnancy was and will always be devastating. Personally, I will not risk extended/permanent debiliatation or death for a pregnancy, which is a real possibility in my case. Any pregnancy for me right now is not going to be joyous or celebrated- it's going to be shattering, and there is no way I will allow someone to tell me, "oh it's just a matter of perception" when their health and life is not on the line. To someone else that may desperately want to have a child, even if the mother has a 50% risk of debilitation or death, the occasion of pregnancy may still be a joyous one, and a risk she's willing to take. I don't think (the flip side of the coin) it's right for people to ask her to change her perception and tell her she needs to grieve. A woman has been brutally raped, and find out she's carrying the rapist's baby. The woman does not want to carry this baby to term. I think it's completely cruel and callous to tell the rape victim, "oh, it's only a matter of perception. If you can just forget that the pregnancy is a reminder of your brutal rape- just cast that whole rape memory aside for me- and see this as a joyous occasion, you'll be just fine."

It's easy for someone to tell people to "choose" to change her perceptions, and I find the concept in itself incredibly offensive (no, I'm not offended by you, Caitrona and I know you mean well).


Catrionia: I feel like that's a nice sentiment, but telling women to look on an unwanted pregnancy as a blessing is difficult at best and patronizing and judgmental at worst. While it's no longer true, there were definitely times in my life where I would not have been able to look at pregnancy as a blessing in any way. I would have been angry, upset, and afraid. I cannot conceptualize how positive thinking would have improved my financial situation, the lack of stability in my life, or my youth.

I can't really see encouraging positive thinking as more than a platitude in these circumstances.


I suppose one difference between abortion and donating a kidney is that the latter is an irreversible change in the anatomy. One can recover from an abortion but you do not re-grow a kidney. Same with blood donations -- the blood replaces itself, eventually.

Of course, these are all arbitrary distinctions. If one owns one's own body, then you ought to be able to sell parts of it.

On the other hand...the law does exercise control of your body in many ways. Thus (in the USA) you can not use certain drugs, nor engage in certain sexual acts (e.g., prostitution). So there is no absolute right to choice.

To give but one example: the state of South Carolina passed a law forbidding people from selling their own urine. Seems that people were selling "drug-free" urine to people who want to pass drug tests.

Of course, just about no one questions why in a country which purports to be "free" we have such police-state intrusions into our lives.

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