In anticipation of the fortieth anniversary of Roe versus Wade, Planned Parenthood Federation of America commenced a campaign titled “Not in Her Shoes.” The tagline means that because we are not “in her shoes,” nobody should make health care decisions about another woman’s body. The organization also released a video on the website: “Moving Beyond Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice Labels: You’re Not ‘In Her Shoes.’” Under two minutes in duration, the video includes eye-catching and vibrant graphics. The woman narrator’s soothing voice asks viewers to stop using “labels” pro-choice and pro-life in favor of conversations “based on mutual respect and empathy.” The crux of the video’s argument is that abortion is too complex for dichotomous categories:
Most things in life aren’t simple. And that includes abortion… The truth is these labels limit the conversation and simply don’t reflect how people actually feel about abortion… Women don’t turn to politicians for advice about mammograms, prenatal care, or cancer treatments. And they shouldn’t…When it comes down to it, we don’t know a woman’s specific situation. We’re not in her shoes.
The campaign targets young women, given the tone of the video and the accompanying pictures of young women next to quotes such as “abortion is about choice and life, so really the labels we’ve previously placed on this term don’t even make sense.” Planned Parenthood has long reached out to young people, particularly through establishing and supporting student organizations on hundreds of college campuses across the country. In this article, I compare the “Not In Her Shoes” campaign to recent scholarship on young women’s feminist mobilization, illustrating the shifting strategies, tactics, and ideologies of feminist and reproductive rights movements.
The online campaign reflects the changing sites of feminist contestation. The “In Her Shoes” video made a splash and rapidly circulated around the feminist blogosphere. To date, the video has already garnered over 38,000 views on YouTube. A “Not in Her Shoes” tumblr page displays photographs submitted by women of their shoes, with messages about the importance of reproductive rights in their own lives. The shift of feminist mobilization to the Internet has created tension among feminists. When Nancy Keenan, the executive director of NARAL made remarks in a 2010 Newsweek article questioning the devotion of young women to issues of reproductive rights, she created an avalanche of protest from online feminists. Blogger Stephanie Herold wrote in response:
Whether we tweet feminism or blog about it, young feminists use the Internet to expand and explore what it means to be involved in the feminist movement. We usually do it in addition to other feminist work, using the Internet to launch campaigns, reach new audiences with our message, and create a sense of feminist community” (Herold 2010, paragraph 4).
I, too, found that the most dedicated feminists in my research on college feminism were involved in face-to-face feminist organizations, but also spent significant time engaged in online feminist mobilization. Online, they were part of feminist communities, read feminist news, discussed current events related to feminism, and debated with anti-feminists. Offline feminist and reproductive rights mobilization can only be fully understood with a consideration of the Internet, just as online mobilization can only be fully understood within the larger context of face-to-face organizing.
The Planned Parenthood campaign employs long-standing ideologies of reproductive rights movements, as well as a new tenor. It echoes the “my body, my choice” slogan, updating it with the phrase “in her shoes.” Advocating for the elimination of the “labels” pro-choice and pro-life signals a different strategy for the organization, however. To support this argument, the website cites statistics such as: “40% Say Their Personal View of Abortion ‘Depends on the Situation’” and “Nearly One-Quarter of Voters Do Not Identify With Traditional Abortion Labels.” Sound familiar? Feminists of color and reproductive justice advocates have long been vocal about the limits of the pro-choice rhetoric (Smith 2005). These scholars argued that abortions should not only be legal, but accessible, affordable, and a viable option for pregnant women no matter their socioeconomic background, some also advocating for a human rights framework (Ross et al. 2002; Luna 2009).
The argument that pro-choice identities do not adequately reflect the complexity of the issue may also ring a bell for those familiar with research on U.S. women’s movements. Feminist identities have been contested since the inception of the movement (Rupp and Taylor 1999; Whittier 1995). Feminism may be less of a fixed identity, and instead either engrained in everyday interactions (Oliver 1989) or dependent on the situation (Aronson 2003; Crossley 2010; Reger 2012). In my recent research on feminist mobilization on three U.S. college campuses, I found similarities between young women’s feminism and the “Not in Her Shoes” campaign. The ideology of these young feminists was expansive, and students incorporated feminism in a variety of organizations that had both women-centered grievances and more general “social justice” approaches to feminism. For them, the intersectional element of feminism was of utmost importance. This also meant that claiming a feminist identity was not always essential. This reasoning extended to resisting identification with a particular “wave” of feminism. In fact, out of the 75 interviews I conducted, only a few students expressed any interest in “third wave” or “fourth wave” feminism. The majority commented that they generally did not like labels or categories. If Planned Parenthood is trying to “sell” reproductive rights mobilization to young women, it has hit the ideological nail on the head in this campaign.
On one hand, moving beyond identity categories is beneficial to feminists, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice advocates. Both abortion and feminism have well-documented stigmas. In order to propel the goals of both movements, perhaps this strategy would invite more mobilized participants. On the other hand, social movements depend on the boundaries between participants and opposition (Melucci 1995). If Planned Parenthood is successful in dismantling the pro-choice identity, they may still be confounded with the problem that legislation restricting abortion is continually escalating, a matter that “conversations based on respect and empathy” would be hard pressed to resolve. Similarly, feminists have been responsible for manifold social change benefiting women, persisting despite varying degrees of societal support (Staggenborg 1996; Taylor 1989). If the embracing of feminist identity plummets, will non-feminists sustain mobilization related to equality of gender, race, class, and sexuality? It is worthy of closer attention. This comparison also speaks to the complexities of movement identities and larger questions of the changing dynamics and tactics of long-lasting social movements.
Aronson, Pamela. 2003. “Feminists or ‘Postfeminists’? Young Women’s Attitudes toward Feminism and Gender Relations.” Gender and Society 17: 903-922.
Crossley, Alison Dahl. 2010. “When it Suits Me, I’m a Feminist: International Students Negotiating Feminist Representations.” Women’s Studies International Forum 33(2): 125-133.
Herold, Stephanie. 2010. “Young Feminists to Older Feminists: If You Can’t Find Us It’s Because We’re On-line” Campus Progress. July 19, 2010.
Luna, Zakiya. 2009. “From Rights to Justice: Women of Color Changing the Face of U.S. Reproductive Rights Organizing.” Societies Without Borders 4: 343-365.
Melucci, Alberto. 1995. “The Process of Collective Identity.” Pp. 41-63 in Social Movements and Culture, edited by Hank Johnston and Bert Klandermans. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Oliver, Pamela. 1989. “Bringing the Crowd Back In: The Nonorganizational Elements of Social Movements.” Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change 11: 1-30.
Reger, Jo. 2012. Everywhere and Nowhere: Contemporary Feminism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ross, Loretta J., Sarah L. Browniee, Dazon Dixon Diallo, Luz Rodriquez, and Sistersong Women of Color Reproductive Health Project. 2002. “Just Choices: Women of Color, Reproductive Health and Human Rights.” Pp. 147-174 in Policing the National Body: Race, Gender and Criminalization in the United States, edited by Anannya Bhattacharjee and Jael Silliman. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Rupp, Leila J. and Verta Taylor. 1999. “Forging Feminist Identity in an International Movement: A Collective Identity Approach to Twentieth-Century Feminism.” Signs 24(2): 363-386.
Smith, Andrea. 2005. “Beyond Pro-Choice Versus Pro-Life: Women of Color and Reproductive Justice.” NWSA Journal 17 (1): 119-140.
Staggenborg, Suzanne. 1996. “The Survival of the Women’s Movement: Turnover and Continuity in Indiana.” Mobilization 1: 143-158.
Taylor, Verta. 1989. “Social Movement Continuity: The Women’s Movement in Abeyance.” American Sociological Review 54: 761-775.
Whittier, Nancy. 1995. Feminist Generations: The Persistence of the Radical Women’s Movement. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.