A Tweet Too Far?

by Philippa Willitts // 19 November 2009, 18:53

Tags: abortion rights, miscarriage, periods, twitter, women's bodies

As an avid tweeter, I'm not sure how I missed this story when it actually happened, but I became aware of it about a week ago.

Penelope Trunk, a woman in America, was widely condemned after sending the following tweet:

I'm in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there's a f**ked-up 3-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin.

The main criticisms aimed against her seemed to be that:

1. it was insensitive to those who had had miscarriages and were devastated about it,
2. that it was an inappropriately detailed message, which her many followers did not want to read, and
3. that she was heartless and abortions are bad.

I think these are all different points, and the former certainly has more validity as a criticism. A miscarriage can be an utterly awful experience for a woman who wants the baby. And indeed women who aren't sure. There is huge grief, loss, fear and hopelessness. Penelope Trunk herself has experienced such a miscarriage, and said on her blog

there are many women who want the baby and have a miscarriage. I was one of them. I cried for days. I get it.

In a blog post at the time, she said
I am four months pregnant. But the baby is dead, inside me, and must be removed. I am devastated. I always knew this could happen, in the back of my mind. But you are never prepared for something like this to happen.

This is not a heartless woman talking! In defending her tweet, she says,
To all of you who said I should not be happy about having a miscarriage: You are the ones short on empathy. Any woman who is pregnant but wishes she weren’t would of course be grateful when she has a miscarriage. [...]

But if you have ever had an abortion, which I have, you would know that a miscarriage is preferable to an abortion. Even the Pope would agree with that.


It is clearly a difficult area to negotiate. Some women are devastated at miscarriages, others are relieved. I suspect that very few women who are relieved feel able to speak out about this, their fears confirmed by the attacks on Ms Trunk.

But if you have just miscarried a wanted child, I can only imagine how awful it would be to have read it.

On to point 2, it was detail that people did not want to know, it was gory and personal, and who wants to hear the details of that?

This is where I defend Ms Trunk absolutely. Women's bodily functions are normal and natural, not dirty and shameful. I talk openly about my periods, about the joys of using washable sanitary towels, and about having endometriosis and PCOS and the problems that come with that. About spending 4 days of each cycle in agony and unable to move. About the amount of blood that comes out.

As a teenager I was as coy about it as everyone else my age was. But then after several years of medical tests, investigations, interventions and surgery, I realised that it was ridiculous that I was not supposed to talk about *that*, whereas if the problems I was experiencing were in most other parts of my body, people would not shrink away from hearing the details.

For centuries, women have been taught that their periods, along with other 'women's things' should be kept quiet. And why should they? One of my favourite things is reading feminist radical menstruation writings and looking round the Museum of Menstruation site. Partly because I like breaking patriarchy's rules, and partly because it is fascinating.

I have no doubt that while some people would prefer I kept it all quiet, I have every right to talk about bleeding, and I will continue to do so.

Why, then, should Ms Trunk *not* talk about her miscarriage? If I want women to be free to talk about periods, breastfeeding, childbirth, and other 'women-only' subjects, so we all know we are not alone, then miscarriage must come into that too. She should not have to keep it quiet in order to not offend the sensibilities of delicate men who are reading. Miscarriage is a fact of life, and it is often painful and messy and emotional. And the more women feel able to discuss it, the less isolated and alone other women will feel, whether the miscarriage is, to them, a relief or a profound loss.

The third point is perhaps the most enraging. How dare she feel relief at miscarrying? How dare she be planning an abortion at all? How dare she complain about abortion provision?

I'm not going to use this post to argue about why women deserve ultimate control over their own bodies. But we do. I hope I'm preaching to the converted, but if not, the debate occurs in so many places that it should not be necessary here.

Ms Trunk's situation does, of course, brings up issues of access to abortion. For a woman to have to be relieved to miscarry, because getting an abortion is so fraught with difficulties, is a really appalling situation.

I will not condem Penelope Trunk for sending that message. Not at all. At worst, it was perhaps insensitive, but this is a woman who was miscarrying in the middle of a board meeting. She might have been relieved, but it would nonetheless have been a difficult, awkward and painful situation. Sometimes women need to stop putting everyone else first and express themselves as they need to.

She had every right to feel relieved when she realised what was happening, and she should never made to feel shame at feeling that, nor should she be, or feel, silenced by others who find it distasteful.

Her body was going through something that millions of women experience. Some of those women are devastated, others are ambivalent, and some are glad. Some, like Penelope Trunk herself, miscarry more than once and feel very differently about each instance. And this is all common.

I recommend this post on the subject at DoubleX. She says,

not talking about a miscarriage or an abortion—or all the complicated feelings that can get rolled up in both—because it's just too personal is fine. But not talking about it because no one else ever talks about it—so maybe we're just not supposed too—is not.

We need the freedom to discuss the things we need to discuss, to continue the work of the feminist health collectives of the 70s and truly liberate ourselves.

Comments From You

earwicga // Posted 19 November 2009 at 19:03

Definately not a tweet to far - in fact very pertinent considering the circumstances.

There was a good post on LC too: http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2009/11/06/have-we-no-shame/ (with the obvious moron male comments following it).

Philippa Willitts // Posted 19 November 2009 at 19:36

Thanks for that link earwicga, it's a great post on the subject.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 19 November 2009 at 20:15

'Feminist menstruation' or something of that nature is consistently one of the top google searches that brings people to my blog. And I only have one post on this. It clearly is a topic that women want to talk about (or at least read about!)

Victoria // Posted 19 November 2009 at 20:40

Thank you for such a great post on this subject. I have always been a passionate supporter of abortion rights, even though all of my pregnancies have been wanted. My first pregnancy ended in miscarriage and I was extremely upset, but what upset me even more was others attempting to appropriate the feelings of women such as myself to promote an anti-choice agenda. I remember reading something along the lines of "try telling a woman who's miscarried that it's not a baby" and thinking a) I wouldn't dare compare my grief to that of a parent whose child had died and b) neither would I selfishly project my own sense of loss onto others who have their own feelings about their pregnancies and their bodies. Not carrying a baby to term the first time did make me bitter, but it didn't make me lose my entire moral compass.
You are absolutely right that it's important that miscarriage can be talked about freely and openly. One thing that annoyed me in the aftermath of my loss was ever having followed the "twelve week rule", whereby you're not meant to tell anyone you're pregnant as long as the risk of miscarriage is high. Sure, the secrecy spares others embarassment if things go wrong and allows them to never have engaged with your pregnancy as a real thing. But it reinforces the impression that miscarriage is rare, even though it's incredibly common, and allows people to dismiss the physical and psychological complexities of women's reproductive lives.
Ultimately I think there's a cruel, crude mythology surrounding these issues along the lines of full-term pregnancy = real pregnancy and real baby, abortion = no pregnancy (just "inconvenience") but real baby (that you "murdered"), miscarriage = nothing (woe betide any woman who's had a miscarriage to say "when I was pregnant ...". It embarrasses the hell out of everyone).
I really appreciate Penelope Trunk for bringing so much of this out into the open. I now have two lovely children and no, unlike Julia Black, Miranda Sawyer, Naomi Wolf and no doubt other feminists whose attitude to abortion proved bizarrely unthinking until they had a twelve-week scan, having successful pregnancies did not make me question the right of others to feel and act differently. It just made me feel lucky that things worked out for me and that I've had to suffer neither an unwanted pregnancy nor unwanted infertility. But clearly, in the minds of others, god forbid that what happens in women's own bodies is ever to do with what they might actually want.

polly // Posted 19 November 2009 at 22:19

I'm not on Twittter, but AFAIK, people have to sign up to 'follow' you. So why on earth did this story make the Male, the Grauniad etc, etc, etc.

Yes I'm sure women who've had miscarriages may have been upset by it, but they would only have known about it if they were twitter followers of Penelope Trunk, had it not been repeated by all media outlets, everywhere.

The other point is that, distressing as miscarriage is, women are not under an obligation to other women to have attitudes to their own fertility that don't upset them. I know someone who has had several miscarriages who thinks that this gives her the right to lambast other women for having abortions. It doesn't. Penelope Trunk's attitude to her own fertility is basically her business and no one else's, because it's HER body.

gadgetgal // Posted 20 November 2009 at 09:08

This is a subject quite close to my heart - I've had two abortions and two miscarriages and either way it's painful. But one thing that made the pain that little bit worse was the difference in attitude to having had an abortion. Although my friends were sympathetic, on the whole I didn't get the same level of support I received for either miscarriage, and although it's hard to compare four very different pregnancies with varying problems, I'd have to say the second abortion I had was the worst, and I could have done with more help that time.

I completely agree that the big problem is people not being able to talk about it. But another big problem is the difference in attitudes towards abortion and miscarriage - I'm still made to feel that I don't have the right to say "when I was pregnant" if I'm referring to my abortions, but I can if it's referring to the miscarriages. And I have to say that that attitude includes a number of pro-choice people too - as much as the anti-abortion people want to deny me my right to talk about it because they think it's wrong, I think it still makes a lot of pro-choice people uncomfortable because it brings up the issue of pregnancy and babies, which can be difficult for them too.

There was an interesting article on the mothersforwomenslib website about questions that hurt which ties in nicely with this article - there they were exploring how people asking intrusive reproductive questions can hurt and that people really shouldn't unless the information is offered. But its good that here you presented the flip side of that, which is if the information IS offered there isn't anything bad or wrong about that, in fact it can be a good thing, and no one should be made to feel that they shouldn't. It's a personal choice for everyone.

Hannah // Posted 20 November 2009 at 14:25

This was a good post and I agree with most of what was said, but I disagree with your take on the second point. Perhaps I'm not going to make myself any friends here by saying this, but I don't think it was an appropriate thing to put in a tweet. Before people rip me to shreds please let me explain! I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise if you don't think my argument's any good. In the post you only consider one explanation of why people thought the tweet was inappropriate, which was that they were afraid or disgusted by 'women only' subjects and thought these ought to be kept secret, but there's another explanation that seems more obvious to me, one which also relates to the blending of the public and private on sites like twitter and facebook.

A lot of my 'friends' on facebook are people who have added me after only one or two meetings, and who I don't know very well. I try not to say on facebook things I wouldn't say to someone in person, and since it just isn't appropriate to complain about period pain or some non gender-specific problem, shin splints, migraine, whatever, to a person you've just met - mainly because you look a bit whiny and will bore them - it's perhaps inadvisable to say it on facebook or twitter. I think what went wrong here wasn't that Trunk talked about something inappropriate, as I'm all for normalising these subjects as topics of discussion, but her mistake was the very easy one of forgetting how public a platform a status update or a tweet is. I hope I've made the distinction clearly enough!

Kate // Posted 20 November 2009 at 14:57

Hannah, that's your interpretation of netiquette. Personally it's one I follow for my own social networking sites, but I recognise that people differ. If Ms Trunk is in the habit of tweeting every moment or thought of her day than why shouldn't she send an update about this one too. But the acres of postings that have been generated across the web about it indicates people do not see it as on a par with posting about shin splints.

Incidentally, Ms Trunk has aspergers so she may well have a different sense of propiety in any case.

In a general sense I fully support anyone who wants to talk about their experiences of miscarriage, abortion or birth, especially if they don't fit with how we're supposed to think/talk about these things.

gadgetgal // Posted 20 November 2009 at 15:26

@Hannah - I think you make a fair point - I have a few friends who aren't really "friends" as such, so I'm careful (ish) too. But I don't take it offensively when other people want to post about their grottier moments, that's up to them, and I still think the subject matter played a big part in why a lot of people did find it offensive. There were a lot of factors at play here, it would be tricky to try and pin it down on one thing only.

@Kate - I think the Aspergers could have played a bigger part than has been mentioned too. One of my young relatives is autistic, and I know from first-hand experience that he doesn't necessarily understand the social mores we all take for granted - he says or does things most people wouldn't, and then doesn't say or do things when most people would! I know Aspergers tends to have less noticeable symptoms than my nephew's autism, but the difficulty in socialisation is still one of the things that affects both quite severely.

BareNakedLady // Posted 20 November 2009 at 16:07

Hannah: "I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise if you don't think my argument's any good."

I just had to post to say that I love that you said that. It's so refreshing. I am as guilty as the next person of sometimes forgetting that my own opinion could and should be able to change, as well as trying to change other people's, and the bullheaded 'You have to back down because I am right' mentality is seen so often on internet blogs and the like. The Fword blog is no more (in fact a lot less) guilty of this than most sites, but it still is so cool to see someone be that open, and I just had to applaud you. Nice one.

irina // Posted 20 November 2009 at 16:56

"But if you have miscarried a wanted child, I can imagine how awful it would be to read it".

I'd disagree. it is being over-sensitive out of fear of upsetting somebody.

A woman who had miscariage wouldn't necesserily care or offended if another woman, a total stranger to her, would have a miscarriage and would be relieved about it - any more that I, who had an abortion, am not offended when a friend decided to carry on with her unplanned pregnancy. Somebody else's situation is not necesserly a personal affront to you.

EKSwitaj // Posted 20 November 2009 at 19:19

As a woman who is, like Ms. Trunk, an Aspie I get very frustrated with the commenters here (and at her own blog) who have attributed the difference in notions of propriety largely to her Aspergers. I realize that you probably think you are being empathetic, but it comes across as dismissive. Rather than considering the very legitimate reasons why such things can and should be discussed irrespective of the neurologies of the people involved, you are happy to classify it as difficulty with socialization.

Polly // Posted 20 November 2009 at 19:24

"""A lot of my 'friends' on facebook are people who have added me after only one or two meetings, and who I don't know very well. """

This may be the case Hannah, but surely you made the choice to add those people as friends, as followers of penelope trunk made the choice to follow her. We often read of celebrities putting personal information on Twitter (Stephen Fry springs to mind). We don't ever hear of Fry being castigated for talking about his mental health do we?

I think Trunk was castigated because she expressed a sentiment it isn't acceptable for a woman to express - relief that she was no longer pregnant. Even women who have abortions are meant to display regret, not relief.

polly // Posted 20 November 2009 at 19:39

Caitlin Moran wrote a brilliant piece on the pressure on women to feel guilty about abortion here

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/caitlin_moran/article1645946.ece

Rita // Posted 20 November 2009 at 20:00

I must admit that my first reaction to reading that tweet was, ' how blunt'. And was taken aback. But this reminds me of a story my lecturer told us about a woman who went into therapy, told her therapist that she had got a divorce and immediately the therapist said, 'you must feel upset'. The client said was feeling ecstatic.

Anyway, my point i guess is that there is stigma attached to these subjects that when one is so direct, it hits some of us hard. Honestly, i would not tweet it myself, simply because i'm very private. But i guess, in any case someone would share the experience with someone else, the only difference is that this lady was on twitter and very honest about it.

gadgetgal // Posted 20 November 2009 at 20:39

@EKSwitaj

I'm sorry if I came across as dismissive, that certainly wasn't my intention at all. And you're right, the important thing here is about other people's reactions to her discussing it, not why she might have done it. Thanks for pointing me back in the right direction:)

I think it would be better if we felt more able to talk about things like abortion and miscarriage openly, and not be made to feel like you've done something wrong because you do. I've had to be careful who I say anything to, I actually saw one of my friends recoil in horror when I told him. I've been made to feel stupid and selfish and morally low at a time when what I needed was someone to talk to. And not just to state to them what happened, but to talk about the horrible icky stuff as well that you never tell anyone. Because you feel you can't. So I support Penelope Trunk rather than her detractors - maybe it'll start people talking, like it has here!

aimee // Posted 21 November 2009 at 12:03

I don't think there's anything wrong with this at all. Women have very different experiences of pregnancy, miscarriage and abortion. There's not one feeling associated with any of them, even though we're told there are supposed to be. I think this woman is brave and probably helped a lot of women who have been releived about a miscarriage who thought that their feelings were invalid, or that they were evil for thinking them. It's all very well saying 'how would a woman who has had a miscarriage feel when reading that', but then we should also consider how a woman who didn't feel how she's 'supposed' to feel about a miscarriage feels when reading only stories about women who were completely devestated? All women's feelings are valid. Why shouldn't this woman's be?

Ppyro // Posted 23 November 2009 at 15:29

Just echoing Victoria's sentiment about how going through a miscarriage does not make you lose your moral compass (very well put, btw)

I had a miscarriage in August. Reading the tweet, my first thoughts were that miscarriage is a horrible messy thing, with lumps and clots and not without pain, abortion isn't a pleasant physical process either, but it was the comment about the three week hoop jump that struck me. I agree with the authors comments on access to abortion, feeling relived that living through an unpleasant experience is preferable to facing all the hassle one might have to go through when trying to access abortion services is what struck me, not that it was morally abhorrent to feel relieved.

From my experience, miscarriage is supposed to automatically instil in you a great sense of loss. Undoubtedly the experience is very hard for some women, no one would argue against that, but al I found was that it left me with a profound sense of confusion.

I found that accessing advice and information on miscarriage, the stuff out there makes so many assumptions about you and your situation. It speaks of emotions and grieving and looking to your partner for support - important stuff but alienating to some women who didn't want to be pregnant, don't have a partner or just want information. Again and again I found resources that glossed over the physicality of the situation (Hell, even doctors gloss over that... "You may feel SOME discomfort...") and that told me to lean on my non-existent other half for support and maybe plant a tree, or something.

The most useful resources I found where real women relating their experience of miscarriage. This wasn't my first, so physically I had some idea of what would happen, but when looking up information on falling HCG levels and whether or not it's a bad idea to flush products of conception down the toilet, I felt I was trespassing onto the territory of women who really wanted their pregnancies, I felt like an intruder.

I can't empathise with the sense of relief this woman felt, because my experience just left me confused and frustrated. But I can't see anything wrong with her sense of relief. Their her feelings, she's entitled to them; the rest of the world can jack off.

As for tweeting it, well that's again down to the individual, but if she hadn't, we would not have started this dialogue about how everyone seems to be so het-up and secretive about the female reproductive process.

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