For A is For founder and actress Martha Plimpton, the shock of the rhetoric surrounding the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke controversy, as well as the success of the ensuing advertiser boycott, inspired her to gather a group of friends to brainstorm a strategy more formal than clicking “like” on Facebook. The group was united in their outrage and their growing awareness that the status of women’s rights was by no means a done deal. In fact, things that we had all taken for granted, like, um, access to birth control pills, were very much at risk of being gone in our own lifetimes. Our own children, planned or unplanned, may not have the same choices we had when wanting to start, or wait to start, their own families. What could be done to have a real impact?
Plimpton promptly founded A is For, an organization that unifies the diverse voices and issues in the new women’s movement under the reclaimed symbol of the red letter A --that instantly recognizable symbol of excoriation and shame that heroine Hester Prynne was forced to wear in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter. Used by Prynne’s Puritan Boston community to brand and shun both her and the baby girl she had out of wedlock, the A stood for Adultery -- and the double standard to which women were held. The group A is For takes back the A by re-appropriating its meaning to one of dignity, defiance, and autonomy, and encourages others to reclaim the A to define what it means to them. A is For Awareness, A is For Affordable Health Care. A is For Ass-kicking. You get the idea.
Immediately, Plimpton proposed starting an “A” ribbon campaign in direct response to the shaming of Sandra Fluke in the attempts to silence her. The group agreed that the new movement needed an ongoing unifying symbol, the red letter A, to serve as a bold historical reminder that women will not be shamed into silence. One major goal would be to distribute the A to every person and organization fighting for women’s human rights in this country and around the world to wear proudly in solidarity. As for immediate change on the ground, within a month of starting the organization, A is For partnered with The Center for Reproductive Rights to be their direct action partner. Money raised via donations for the ribbons would go to CRR to fulfill their mission of “advancing reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right that all governments are legally obligated to protect, respect, and fulfill.” Now A is For had found a way to have a real impact (besides the Facebook “like” button). CRR is currently winning one major battle in their fight at the front lines to keep the one abortion clinic left in the state of Mississippi open.
By now, everyone has heard the “War on Women” stories: Susan G. Komen vs. Planned Parenthood; Rush Limbaugh vs. Sandra Fluke; state-sanctioned rape in Texas with mandatory and medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds; a Walgreens pharmacist in Albuquerque refusing to fill a woman’s birth control Rx due to his “religious beliefs”; comedian Tosh.0 proposing that a female audience member offended by his rape jokes be gang-raped by male audience members. The list --unfortunately -- goes on and on.
What gets lost in the relentless headlines are the personal experiences that inform the passion behind these issues. Personal stories unify and connect women in a way that those without the experiences or the same body parts may never truly understand until they’re awakened by directly hearing them. These experiences are the bond that constitutes the mighty heft of the social media muscle behind the new women’s movement, which I watched executed with glee during the Komen flap, and with pride during the Limbaugh boycott.
Many of the issues are experiences I’ve personally had. Though you probably couldn’t tell by looking at me, I’m kind of the Forrest Gump of social ills and sexual abuse. I’ve survived child molestation, rape, and mental illness. I’ve recovered from alcoholism and crack addiction. I’ve been gang-raped, was impregnated by it, carried the baby to term, and am now a single white mother raising a lovely girl with caramel-colored skin in a still-racist and sexist America. I’ve been on public assistance more than once. I’ve been homeless in New York. And Nashville. I’ve done a lot of things to be ashamed of, but have worked hard not to live in shame. Incarnating the problems of society, then recovering from them may not be as exciting as it looks on TV, but it has kept me busy.
My first conscious memory is at 5 years old, being molested (the first time) by a distant adult cousin with cerebral palsy whose name was -- wait for it -- Uncle Dick. It’s not a good way to start the mind off in a life, to live with a weird secret right off the bat. But I eventually told, and will continue to tell. Having survived that, and other weirdness and creepiness, and then gang rape, hearing about something like the Tosh.0 incident hits me differently than, say, a person who feels that you should check your political correctness at the door when you go to see a comedy show. And truly, before I personally experienced gang-rape, and as someone who came from a controversy-loaded midwest punk scene, I am pretty sure I may have thought of it the same way. The thinking was along the lines of the fake 60 Minutes Point/Counterpoint pundit in the disaster spoof “Airplane,” who declares, in pure Hannity forefathering, “They bought their tickets, they knew what they were getting into. I say, ‘Let ‘em crash!’”
I’ve come to find that my abuse was not unique or uncommon, even in my own family. In fact, I have many friends and family with heartbreaking stories. One friend agreed to let me anonymously share her story here for the first time, in the hopes it might help other girls come forward and get help. My friend was first molested by a relative at age 7, then she was repeatedly raped by the same relative for many years until she was finally old enough to find a way to ward off the attacks. Her abuse started at such a young age and went on for so long that she is now unable to have children. She is trying to have her eggs harvested so she can have children via a surrogate. So when someone tells a rape joke, these are the experiences and tragedies that jump to her mind. When she hears a news story about a law being passed that won’t let you get an abortion even in cases of incest or rape, that is the trauma she remembers and feels. Put yourself there. In her shoes. Just for a minute. See? Having someone take that choice away from you violates you all over again.
I’ve had two abortions. I was married then, and we weren’t ready to have children. The journey I made to carry out the rape pregnancy and raise my baby alone was a different choice, and not done for wholly valiant reasons. But it was what I ultimately chose this time, and I am so grateful every single day to have my incredible daughter in my life. I love her to pieces. But what I chose is in no way the right choice for everyone. I don’t know that most people could take it -- I almost couldn’t sometimes. It was often physically and mentally brutal and almost destroyed me and my family. It certainly would have been an unthinkable choice for my friend. Oh, and fuck you Rick Santorum.
My daughter is thriving, gifted, beautiful, and funny. I just hope that should this happen to her -- and there’s a 1 in 6 chance that it will -- that she will have the same legal right as I had to choose what is best for her. Because I wouldn’t wish the struggle it’s been on anyone. And for the child of a rapist, first of all, it isn’t easy growing up not knowing who your dad is. But it’s even harder growing up knowing what kind of guy he was.
Having someone or some entity take over control of what’s going on “down there” or threatening to block or take away the human right to decide who or what is going on inside of your body, is a very personal, very visceral violation. It brings up the same primal feelings of humiliation, powerlessness, and abusiveness as rape does -- just in varying intensities. And this is true whether you’re 7 years old or 90. That is why you hear this unified outcry when a male governor signs into law a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound (aka penetration with a 10 inch shaming wand) to punish Texan women for daring to choose a legal abortion in the case of an unwanted pregnancy -- for any reason. I guess it’s more humane than being stoned to death, but at least no one in those societies pretends that being smashed with rocks is a medical procedure.
The “War on Women” isn’t just being fought in Washington, and on the steps of state capitals. It’s being fought in bedrooms, hospitals, comedy clubs -- everywhere girls and women go. The wounded from this war walk among us.They are our sisters and our aunts, our mothers and our daughters, our girlfriends and our frenemies, our bosses and our co-workers. And men are increasingly a part of both the narrative and the movement --and they should be, because reproductive rights are not just women’s rights, they are human rights.
So when we see a backlash at the next thinly veiled legislative attempt at weakening women’s constitutionally-protected right and access to an abortion, those voices are speaking from experience. It isn’t about someone being right, it’s about respecting the validity of individual experience, and how understanding that person’s experience can awaken you from ignorance and transform you to illuminated. So maybe you didn’t know that 1 in 6 women in your audience, maybe in your own family, and certainly in the United States, has been raped, and that 15% of them were under 12 years of age. But now you know. Now you are aware, and so now you are responsible.
I was lucky enough to be at that original A is For dinner party, invited based on my obvious interest reflected in my relentless Facebook “likes” to Martha Plimpton’s withering commentary and brilliant observations. She gave shocking clarity to issues like the ludicrous Republican view of a woman’s body in the personhood amendment debates. She stated, “They may not like the fact of my biology. They may think it’s dirty or shameful or that I should keep it to myself. Or even that I should be tied to it, like a prisoner, as if my biology made me less worthy of respect. But my biology is part of what makes me a human being. And whether they like it or not, I am a person.” At the time I was painfully aware of the need for a unifying umbrella we could all get under and Martha’s passion, dedication, and comprehensive knowledge, made that possible. By the end of the dinner party that night, we had an “A” design done and I had volunteered to have my nonprofit, Project Noise, officially support the campaign.
Soon, Sarah Silverman was wearing the A while speaking at a rally in Los Angeles. Within days, comedian and Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead had joined us. She proudly wore the A on the Rachel Maddow show. She wore it as she toured the U.S. with the release of her new book, “Lizz Free or Die.” In one of her stories, Lizz tells of getting pregnant at 17 - -the very first time she ever had sex. Abortion was safe and legal -- and like me, Lizz exercised the right to choose what was best for her. She has been an avid defender and supporter of Planned Parenthood for many years. Her raw courage in telling her story in her new book opens the door for more women to share the crucial, life-altering importance of having had that choice, and to support Planned Parenthood for being there for whichever option they decided. And really, if Lizz had instead raised a baby at 17 and gone a different life path, The Daily Show would never have been created, and then where in the hell would I get my news? So no, we’re not going to get rid of that.
You don’t know what someone has gone through, unless you ask. I once asked my friend if she ever saw her childhood abuser again. It turns out she had. She was in her mid-20’s. She was going to confront him as an adult. She did. She asked him why. He denied it, then admitted it but claimed it was her fault. She screamed at him. He slammed her head into the wall, and she got knocked out. And raped. Again. She never did tell her family. Silenced. And sadly, like most rape victims, including myself, she partially blames herself for the attack. “Maybe if I hadn’t gone there, maybe if I’d been sober I could have fought back.” Meanwhile our attackers walk free. 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail and 54% of rapes never get reported. Some of those rapes last minutes, some last decades, but the victims are all around you in ways you might never imagine, with lifelong scars both external and internal. Experiences inform us. Listening to someone’s experience informs us. Pointedly asking women in your life about their experiences will inform you.
The members and supporters of A is For proudly wear the A pin to say to the world, “I’m here and I won’t shut up.” We wear it for each other to say, “I’m here for you and I get it.” We hope you’ll join us in fighting for reproductive rights and wear one, too. You’ll look fucking Awesome.
To get your own “A” ribbon to support A is For and Center for Reproductive Rights, just click here. To be a part of the video project “What Does Your A Mean to You?” featuring Sarah Silverman, Martha Plimpton, Tom Morello, Lizz Winstead, and people like you, please send a short video (iPhone video is fine) to firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us what your A means to you. For questions, contact email@example.com. All donations made to A is For are tax deductible. A is For is a project of Project Noise, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. To donate via PayPal: firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about what you can do to help sexual abuse and rape survivors, go to this amazing org, The Rape and Incest National Network, aka RAINN
Maureen Herman is a writer and Executive Director of Project Noise, a nonprofit that serves to amplify the impact of nonprofits and raise awareness about critical social issues. She is the former bassist of Reprise/Warner Bros. recording artists Babes in Toyland and was previously Associate Editor of Musician Magazine. She is lives in Los Angeles with her Awesome and Adorable daughter.