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“I will defend Planned Parenthood. I will defend Roe v. Wade. And I will defend women’s rights to make their own healthcare decisions.” In the third debate, Hillary Clinton pronounced her unequivocal commitment to women’s right to abortion. And when moderator Chris Wallace posed the question of “partial-birth abortion”—using the anti-choice neologism for late-term termination, with its implication of infanticidal butchery—Hillary refused to back down.
In fact, she doubled down. She had met women who’d faced ending a pregnancy at a very late stage, and their decisions were among the most painful and difficult imaginable. Such decisions, Clinton stated in only somewhat politer phraseology, are none of the state’s damn business.
Donald Trump translated Clinton’s words for his beloved “poorly educated”: “With what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother.”
As reporters and doctors leapt to clarify the following day, there is no such thing as a ninth-month “abortion.” There is no “ripping” involved. Trump’s gory and characteristically fact-free description of late-term abortion, Slate’s Christina Cauterucci commented drily, “highlight[ed] why it makes more sense for women to make medical decisions with their doctors, rather than bloviating sadists who aren’t sure how babies exit the human body.”
Virtually no politician has had the gumption to support abortion without caveats.
But the exchange provided more than just another reason not to elect the bloviating sadist. For many women, like me, who have impatiently waited for the subject of abortion to arise in the campaign—and who have supported Hillary in part because of her unwavering championship of reproductive freedom—her statement was positively elating. “I’ll confess I felt a small thrill,” blogged New York Times Magazine staff writer Emily Bazelon. “More than at any big moment since the convention, Mrs. Clinton owned her feminism. She sounded like the first woman running for president, defending other women—our autonomy and our control of our own bodies.”
Miraculous: before 71.5 million viewers, the Democratic Party candidate for president of the United States defended abortion without apology.
Have pitchfork-wielding mobs of abortion opponents come for Clinton’s hide? Only the same old pitchfork wielders. Have her numbers plummeted? On the contrary. The last debate appears to have pushed critically important voters into “I’m With Her” territory, from “I Can’t Stand to Be Anywhere Near Him.” A Gallup poll showed the Democrat gaining on voters’ perception of “presidential” demeanor and likeability; a majority called her inspiring. In that poll, two-thirds of women, versus 54 percent of men, said she won the third debate. Not even FBI Director James Comey’s ambiguous revelation about what may or may not be Clinton’s emails appears to have done little to alter these perceptions.
Importantly, Clinton seems to be closing the deal with young voters. According to the massive GenForward study by the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago, Clinton has in recent weeks gained enough support among millennials that she is poised to win 60 percent of their vote—the same percentage Obama enjoyed in 2012.
Clinton’s statement on abortion was unprecedented. Until now, virtually no politician has had the gumption to support abortion without caveats. As Adrienne Lafrance noted in The Atlantic, every putatively pro-choice candidate, from Geraldine Ferraro to Barack Obama, has couched support for choice with distaste for abortion.
That caution was a victory of decades of anti-abortion activism. In the 1970s, as some state legislatures began to decriminalize abortion, they replaced outright bans on the procedure with restrictions on when, how, and under what circumstances women—and only certain women—could end a pregnancy. Radical feminists at the time demanded repeal, not reform. We wanted abortion “on demand and without apology.” At one meeting, the brilliant abortion-rights leader Cindy Cisler waved an empty sheet of paper in the air. “This,” she shouted, “is the abortion law we want.”
Roe v. Wade wasn’t that blank sheet. It probably reflected popular opinion: since the 1973 ruling just over half of Americans have supported abortion, but with limits. As a senator, Clinton voted for restrictions on late-term abortion. In the debate, she didn’t exactly come out for abortion on demand. But she didn’t express distaste for it either.
Down-ballot candidates seem equally emboldened. In tough races they have trumpeted their pro-choice cred and hammered opponents who have championed the barrage of arbitrary burdens heaped on abortion and contraception in recent years.
In Pennsylvania, with support from Planned Parenthood USA and NARAL Pro-Choice, Democrat Katie McGinty is pummeling Republican incumbent Pat Toomey on his anti-choice votes. Pro-choicers have stepped out aggressively in the gubernatorial and U.S. senatorial races in New Hampshire, where funding for Planned Parenthood has become a frontline issue. Missouri Democrats have filed a complaint against the campaign of Republican Senator Roy Blunt for illegally coordinating with the conservative Susan B. Anthony List’s anti-choice PAC, Women Speak Out.
Abortion opponents are not taking this lying down. A national organization called Created Equal is using plane banners, billboard trucks, and TV ads to blanket the swing states of Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio with images of aborted fetuses. But for the first time I can remember, they are on the defensive. In Pennsylvania—a state that earns a perennial “F” from NARAL for the number and severity of its anti-abortion laws—the president of the Pro-Life Coalition mewled with Trumpesque self-pity, “Democrats declare war over abortion, Republicans declare a truce, so the pro-life cause, we do the best we can.”
‘Nasty women are tough. Nasty women are smart. And nasty women vote.’
This boldness on abortion is related to Pussygate. Trump’s boast, and subsequent outcries from alleged victims of his assaults, unleashed a flood of female rage at male sexual entitlement and violence. That rage, as rage often does, killed self-censorship. Thousands of women, sometimes for the first time, spoke aloud about their experiences of being verbally assessed and threatened, groped, flashed, fingered, tongue-fucked, or masturbated upon.
This vast female cri de coeur expressed more than rage, however, and more than relief to get the secrets into the open. Here, finally, was a repudiation of humiliation—the aim of sexual assault—and a refusal of shame, the perpetrator’s guarantor of cover. Pussygate was a nationwide speak-out like those in the sixties, when women revealed the illegal abortions they had had, and the secrecy, shame, and peril they would no longer abide.
Then Trump muttered, “Such a nasty woman.” This inchoate female rage coalesced into a feminist movement. Instantly, “Nasty Woman” was a social media hashtag, a T-shirt, and, as the Huffington Post put it, “a viral call for solidarity.”
“Yeah, get this, Donald,” proclaimed Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on the stump in New Hampshire. “Nasty women are tough. Nasty women are smart. And nasty women vote. We nasty women are going to march our nasty feet to cast our nasty votes to get you out of our lives forever.”
Yet nasty is not just tough or smart, angry or uppity. In the vernacular nasty is sexy (the Nasty Woman T-shirt Katy Perry wore at a Nevada rally was tight). Likewise, contraception and abortion are not just “healthcare,” as Clinton called them; they’re not just the instruments of “planned parenthood.” They are inextricable from modern sex for women of childbearing age, requisites of a full and satisfying erotic life free, if they wish, from parenthood.
Nasty women do not just vote. They fuck. And if they are going to fuck without fear or apology—or, for that matter, if they’re going to recover from sexual assault without penalty—women will always need abortions. Abortion is the cornerstone of women’s existential equality, an inalienable part of which is sexual freedom. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t say all that, but it was exhilarating to imagine her in the White House, defending women’s right to be as nasty as we want to be.
Judith Levine is the author of five books and countless articles exploring politics, policy, and public emotion, especially at the intersection of sex and justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and a small town in northeastern Vermont.
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