A Tweet Too Far?
Philippa Willitts // 19 November 2009
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.