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Have we no shame?


5:26 pm - November 6th 2009

by Laurie Penny    


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I was struck by this article, in which American journalist Penelope Trunk defends her decision, despite an unanticipated global barrage of hate mail, to post the following to her Twitter feed:

“I’m in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there’s a fucked-up three-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin.”

That right there, in >140 characters, is possibly the most succinct and effective piece of feminist gonzo journalism I have ever read.

Personal, factual, shoving the meaty political details of women’s everyday life right up in your face. Plus, it quite delightfully manages to combine in 32 words most of the big taboos of modern misogynist thought: women bleeding in the boardroom. Women being candid about the parts of our physical lives which aren’t to do with fucking but also matter to us. Women’s bodies being, in fact, more than just tools for baby-making and delivering sexual pleasure to men.

Women being outspoken and proud about reproductive self-determination. Women reacting to the termi,nation of unwanted pregnancy not with horrific, life-stomping mental breakdown but with what most of us actually feel: relief. The radical truths that women, with their bleeding, messy cunts, can hold high-powered jobs, make decisions about our own bodies, own our own moral compasses and face pain and humiliation with our heads held high.

Still, Ms Trunk was somewhat surprised at the vehemence of the uproar that followed. “Television, blogs and newspapers around the world reported what I had written. People posted critcisms on my blog. My boyfriend’s extended family called to make sure he was dumping me… I was even interviewed on CNN where the news anchor asked me, “Young lady, do you have no shame?””

To which the obvious retort is: why, was she expected to? Was she expected to be ashamed? Of what? Of suffering through a miscarriage? Of not wanting a third child? Of doing both of these things whilst having the temerity to have, gods forbid, a job?

Shame about our bodies and our choices is inculcated in women from birth. We like to think that, because you can turn on MTV or open a newspaper on any given day and look at scantily-clad ladies gyrating appealingly for the camera, we live in a sexually open society.

We do not. And there are certain aspects of bio-female experience – miscarriage, for example – which are still horrendously taboo, about which we are still expected to feel shame – moral shame, physical shame, political shame. We are expected to shut up about it, get on with it in private, clear up our own mess and not ask for any help or understanding, because we are women, and shame is our birthright.

Well, fuck that, and fuck the thousands of busybodies who saw fit to try and foist upon Penelope Trunk the shame that she so bravely and publicly refused to own. This is not about privacy, or modesty, but about shame, and what we are and aren’t expected to feel shameful about.

Hundreds of thousands of women use the internet to discuss their sexual exploits in detail and are not condemned. Belle De Jour talks about her experiences as a middle-class sex worker, and there has been no witch-hunt over her lack of ‘shame’ – indeed, books and a TV series have been made about her life. Penelope Trunk posted about experiencing the pain of miscarriage at work and the emotions that that stirred in her in the same way that she posts about her life on a farm in Winsconsin, her upcoming marriage, her work as a journalist and mother. All of these things are part of her life; why should she feel shameful about them?

Down with shame. Down with ignorance, secrecy and silence, down with female experience being lived in fear and embarrassment, and down with shame. Penelope Trunk should be considered a feminist hero for her contribution to telling women’s truths without apology or embarrassment, as John Stuart Mill advocated in The Subjection of Women:

The knowledge which men can acquire of women …is wretchedly imperfect and superficial, and always will be so, until women themselves have told all that they have to tell.

“And that time has not come; nor will it come otherwise than gradually. It is but of yesterday that women have either been qualified by literary accomplishments or permitted by society to tell anything to the general public. As yet very few of them may tell anything whic men, on whom their literary success depends, are unwilling to hear.

For anyone who still thinks that Penelope Trunk is unfittingly ‘shameless’, immoral or simply self-promoting, I’d ask you to consider that George Orwell was talking about women as well as men when he said that “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

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About the author
Laurie Penny is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a journalist, blogger and feminist activist. She is Features Assistant at the Morning Star, and blogs at Penny Red and for Red Pepper magazine.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Feminism ,Media

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Reader comments


This all feeds into the question of whether there are some things you shouldn’t joke about.

Sure, baby murdering is distasteful (unless you’re a certain kind of leftie, in which case it’s desirable), but is it really something you’d want to be posting in a public forum?

Especially in a work context. If one of my colleagues posted something like that on work time, I’d expect them to be frogmarched to HR to explain themselves.

And in this case, I don’t think “Oh, I’m a feminist” would be an adequate defence.

Still, I would definitely have RTed it, you know, for the lulz.

Well, it all depends on what you find distasteful. I hardly think being relieved about a miscarriage is akin to ‘baby-murdering’…

Laurie, I don’t disagree with the essence of anything you’ve said, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that publicly celebrating a miscarriage may be a tad distasteful. A large proportion of those who suffer miscarriages are quite upset — even devastated — by it. Penelope Trunk is clearly not one of those women, and there is no reason she should be condemned for that. But such public relief is perhaps a little tactless?

The witch-hunt is insane and condemnation of her for feeling as she does is equally misplaced. But I find her method of communicating the news a little questionable.

It does show that Twitter is not an ideal forum for expressing complex emotions I suspect. When I first saw the tweet I did wince a bit – it’s a very flip way of describing something that the women I know who have experienced a miscarriage found a shattering experience. It was like reading ‘Dropped my baby on its head and killed it. Ooops lol.’

But when I read what was behind it, and what the actual story was, I had nothing but sympathy for her. And the response to everyone telling her she should be ashamed etc is ‘what the hell’s it got to do with you?’

Sure, but some of us don’t particularly want to hear those kind of details about other people’s lives, male or female (call me Mr Prude if you like). And I’m not sure this kind of thing was what Orwell was referring to.

As others have said, the tone of the tweet was misjudged a bit, I think.

But not worth the ridiculous reaction.

Andrew, you do know that you can choose not to follow people who tweet in that much detail, don’t you?

I’m normally a big fan of your positions, I like your bombaste too, but support for her is to misrepresent what the aim of our fight, if that aim is liberty. Also the words of middle class sex workers are not the kind of words our standards of taste should be set by, and the argument ‘well she does it…’ should not sit well with people who’s standards are based on a little more meat.

There is the point, brutally portrayed in that film Ginger Snaps, that men fear vaginas and cycles, and view women, even if at an unconscious level, as werewolf-like (excuse *my* bombaste), but I honestly don’t see what is up for grabs for the feminist lot with the abortion tweet. I’m sure my aversion to this, for reasons of taste, and liberty, are not linked to any misogonyst inklings.

Sure, baby murdering is distasteful (unless you’re a certain kind of leftie, in which case it’s desirable)

Only if they’re right-wing babies, obviously.

@Sunny H:

With Tories eating left wing babies, and lefties “protecting their reproductive rights” on Tory babies, it’s remarkable anybody gets born at all.

I agree with most people here – a bit insensitive & potentially triggering to women who found miscarriages traumatic (in that sense a bit like men telling rape jokes) although it should be noted that she had herself experienced a traumatic miscarriage earlier in life (so in the vast majority of cases the comparison ends there). However, Laurie’s wider point that women are expected to find miscarriages traumatic and no other reaction is “allowed” is also important, so in the sense that this tweet challenged that, it’s a good thing. Whether the value of the challenge outweighed the potential for harm is difficult to say.

Certainly the over-reaction can only be explained by the causes Laurie identifies.

@1: it’s the bit about posting on work time that invalidates your whole argument, really. Because see, the board meeting she was at? She’s the chairman of that board. It’s teh board of her company. The one she started. Her time, her HR, her board.

The fact that this wouldn’t even occur to you (and that you didn’t bother to look Trunk up before wading in) speaks so loudly about where you think the relative place of women naturally falls as to drown out any sanctimony about “taste”.

“Sure, baby murdering is distasteful (unless you’re a certain kind of leftie, in which case it’s desirable)”

Unlike the wingnuts who like to see the baby born, and then deny them health care and watch them die slowly.

Which is why parts of the US which are the most anti abortion have some of the worst infant mortality rates in the western world.

But of course once the baby is born it becomes an economic issue, not a moral issue. And once wing nuts move to economic issues it is all about the market.

@12 “But of course once the baby is born it becomes an economic issue, not a moral issue. And once wing nuts move to economic issues it is all about the market.”

If only we could make abortion profitable. That’d really provide right wing christians with a dilemma.

I had a colonoscopy recently.

What they do is they stuff a tube up your arse and……. if someone would tell me how to get on Twitter I’ll give you the rest of the story.

What do you mean, you’re not interested.

Down with shame. Down with ignorance, secrecy and silence,,,,,,,,,,

Seriously, why do people give a fuck what someone said on twitter?

I’m with Laurie in so far as I find the media reaction hypocritical, and I think it should be pointed out. We’re prepared to tolerate the most gruesome of sexual predilections in the name of a free society – e.g. coprophilia, beating women during sex and so on – why the hell does someone point to their own miscarriage shock anyone?

The other thing that deserves ridiculed is the sense of proportion. 23 CIA agents convicted in absentia of essentially assisting torture. The sham democracy of Afghanistan tumbling down. Any number of global events and what are we focussing on? What someone said over twitter. Not a political treatise, 160 characters on a website the majority of the country, never mind the world, doesn’t use.

Pah.

16. The Grim Reaper

I just find celebrating a miscarriage to be incredibly distasteful myself. Whether it’s offensive is for women to decide.

and what are we focussing on? What someone said over twitter.

She’s using it as a hook to talk about the issue itself, in the same way we may use what someone said on a blog to write about an issue.

So her unborn baby just died. And she is happy/relieved/making jokes about it.

Imagine how women who have gone through a miscarriage or multiple miscarriages or cannot even conceive would feel upon reading that tweet.

Never mind Belle de Jour – this woman is an attention whore – you don’t write something like that and then wonder why there is a hullabaloo.

Next time – if she’s happy and she knows it – keep shtum!!!!!!!

@Pagar – 14
Yes, dear, but do you have to drive hundreds of miles, face a lot of prejudice and judgement and fight the medical system to get that operation if you need it? Are you conditioned to believe that that operation should mess you up for life, that you should be ashamed of it? No?

Personally I’m happy for you to tell us all about your bottomly adventures, but please don’t imagine there’s some sort of ideological equivalence?

#18

But maybe another woman, who felt she couldn’t have an abortion, but didn’t want a child & ended up miscarrying, would feel relieved that it was okay not to feel shameful about it, that it was legitimate to feel a different way.

I’m not sure if I’d have tweeted it, but then I’ve never had a foetus growing inside of me. Yes, there are downsides to her tweet, but there are upsides to her honesty too.

@ 20

Laurie, my point was not to try to defend the abortion arrangements in Wisconsin (which sound deplorable) but to argue that there are some personal events where, though they are not shameful, it is tasteless to relate the details.

Clearly some on Twitter are arrogant enough to believe that every part of their life is so important that others will be interested in it and, as Penelope Trunk has a large following, many people clearly are interested.

I’m not.

The other wrinkle is that I don’t follow the logical thought process by which publicising her miscarriage in this way becomes empowering to women.

http://www.theonion.com/content/news/women_now_empowered_by_everything

I do see how appearing to take a callous or indifferent attitude to an event that many women (who want to have a child) would find distressing is challenging to our view of traditional gender roles.

But that is the same mechanism whereby the motives of a rapist or child killer challenge our view of humanity.

“shoving the meaty political details of women’s everyday life”

There’s clearly a meaning of “everyday” which I was previously unaware of.

Miscarriage, seriously (whether desired or not) an everyday event?

Well, according to eMedicine: “Early Pregnancy Loss” 75% of women trying to conceive will suffer from an early pregnancy loss, and fully half of all fertilized eggs will be lost in early pregnancy (although not all of these count as medical miscarriage).

So, not “everyday”, but surprisingly common, and likely to affect “most” women in their lifetime. Yes, I think this is something we should talk about.

“but it is not unreasonable to suggest that publicly celebrating a miscarriage may be a tad distasteful. A large proportion of those who suffer miscarriages are quite upset — even devastated — by it.”

Jesus Christ, I can’t stand this sort of argument.

a) Twitter only tweets to people that know the original tweeter (or have chosen to know). Anyone that retweets the message should be responsible for the feelings of those that it may affect, not the original tweeter.

b) If people are offended by it that is their own bias and prejudices causing them to be offended or distressed, not the original message. If people are supposed to self censor over every little thing (and I’m not even talking about racism or homophobia here) then twitter will become even more benign and pointless than some already argue it is.

Lee, it is still public. Yes, people don’t need to follow it, but it is public – anyone can see it. That’s what public means.

And being offended because you’ve been through or have watched someone go through a traumatic miscarriage, is not “bias and prejudice”. It was flippant and she got the tone wrong.

Having said that, people say stupid things they shouldn’t have said all the time, especially when they’re going through something that’s quite traumatic. Anyone who suggests that she should have thought it through first should probably think first themselves. She’s clarified her feelings, and that should be that. The circus around it is ridiculous.

Wow! If I had seen the twit quoted above I would have thought it was odd and wanted to know more. Very glad I read this and the Guardian piece and Penelope Trunk’s blog pieces because they make total sense to me.

Great that women like Trunk exist and are able to articulate clearly on subjects which affect us all.

“If only we could make abortion profitable. That’d really provide right wing christians with a dilemma.”

I would not have thought it difficult to make abortions profitable for the people paid to carry them out.

“Lee, it is still public. Yes, people don’t need to follow it, but it is public – anyone can see it. That’s what public means.”

Only if they search for it, in which case they’re masochists.

“And being offended because you’ve been through or have watched someone go through a traumatic miscarriage, is not “bias and prejudice”. It was flippant and she got the tone wrong.”

It most certainly is bias. It is the subjective projection of your own wishes on to everyone else’s actions.

Tim right wing Textbook “Miscarriage, seriously (whether desired or not) an everyday event?”

Spoken like a true, pompous, obnoxious, middle aged, middle class conservative man. But then we knew that already.

If men could give birth , abortion would be legal the world over.

The only reason trolls are getting their knickers in a twist about this is that they have a very Victorian, hypocritical view of icky woman’s things and would like to sweep it all under the carpet, away from the view of prying eyes.

All this woman did was point out that the miscarriage stopped her from having to answer to a lot of fascist, man made laws which are their to control woman. And as usual the brown shirts don’t like that.

To quote from the article:

“On Twitter, the micro-blogging site, my feed is one of the most popular around. I have tweeted about my sex life, my period, and even a minor run-in with the police. For me, Twitter is a way to make a note about the most important things that happen in the day.”

People who maintain “one of the most popular” feeds on twitter, do not do so in order to keep notes to themselves.

People who state, on one of the most popular feeds on twitter, that “I’m in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there’s a fucked-up three-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin.” do not do so to avoid attention.

They do so to shock people and attract attention. I think that is a perfectly reasonable use of twitter. But I think it a little odd to complain that many of the people whose attention was attracted were shocked.

33. Where has it been asserted that this was intended to be private?

Lee, who did you mean by “33”?

Must have been you, ad…

35. Jessica Asato

Laurie – thanks and thanks again for writing this. Couldn’t agree more.

@31 – if she regularly tweets about sex, periods, run-ins with the police, and people willingly follow all of that without any apparent shock and horror, then mentioning a miscarriage and how much easier it is than the mess of the abortion system really shouldn’t shock any of her usual followers. Anyone else who found out isn’t a usual follower, is likely to have only heard because someone else passed it on to them, and is therefore not someone automatically expected to be reading the tweet.

If any twitter followers actually had a thought process along the lines of “She’s been talking about sex and periods all this time… but I never thought she’d actually talk about something to do with reproduction!” then they need their head examined, not hers. Someone finding the tweet in question particularly horrible when sex and periods are totally okay has some really strange standards, even if they don’t admit it to themselves.

But if we should all start following these standards, I’m going to have to start getting really careful with my blog. Wouldn’t want someone stumbling, lost, out of cyberspace and being massively offended by something I posted to share with *my friends and online contacts*. A fundamentalist Christian might find out that girls go to fetish clubs in short skirts! A strict monogamist could discover that people sometimes have more than sexual partner at the same time! A mormon might find out that I regularly bare my shoulders! Shock! Offense!

Great post Laurie, as always and as if to prove your point some of the comments reflect a tedious mix of male squeamishness and heavy handed judgment making.

You couldn’t make it up.

“publicly celebrating a miscarriage may be a tad distasteful”

Publicly mentioning a miscarriage at all, even if not celebrating it, is considered distasteful.

Talking about what really happens to women or anyone frankly has got to be good.
Miscarriage is one of our last taboos, one reason is that greiving about the loss of a baby that others would abort is considered crass.

Laurie, you are aware that the woman has Aspergers? and just like Brown, patently struggles with social interaction.

If she utters what’s on her mind without an edit button – please don’t suggest its something women all over should start doing!

Love this post, thank you. Glad to read some sense on the subject.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    :: Have we no shame? http://bit.ly/2y0aHQ

  2. La Brigitte

    @Labrigiite Liberal Conspiracy » Have we no shame?: It is but of yesterday that women have either be.. http://bit.ly/3MDWGO

  3. Lee Chalmers

    Powerful piece on shame – a womens birthright? RT @libcon: :: Have we no shame? http://bit.ly/2y0aHQ

  4. Liberal Conspiracy

    :: Have we no shame? http://bit.ly/2y0aHQ

  5. Down with Shame! « Feminist Philosophers

    […] Conspiracy provides a vehement defence of her action, in the face of a barrage of outraged responses. There Laurie Penny attacks such outrage as an […]

  6. Ryan Bestford

    'Have we no shame?' http://bit.ly/6eHNy (via @PennyRed @LibCon)

  7. La Brigitte

    @Labrigiite Liberal Conspiracy » Have we no shame?: It is but of yesterday that women have either be.. http://bit.ly/3MDWGO

  8. Lee Chalmers

    Powerful piece on shame – a womens birthright? RT @libcon: :: Have we no shame? http://bit.ly/2y0aHQ

  9. Tweets that mention Liberal Conspiracy » Have we no shame? -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liberal Conspiracy and Lee Chalmers, La Brigitte. La Brigitte said: @Labrigiite Liberal Conspiracy » Have we no shame?: It is but of yesterday that women have either be.. http://bit.ly/3MDWGO […]

  10. Ryan Bestford

    'Have we no shame?' http://bit.ly/6eHNy (via @PennyRed @LibCon)

  11. Jessica Asato

    Couldn't agree more with this piece by Laurie Penny on why it was right for Penelope Trunk to tweet her miscarriage http://bit.ly/44dNG3

  12. Jack Scott

    RT @Jessica_Asato: Couldn't agree more with this piece on why it was right for Penelope Trunk to tweet her miscarriage http://bit.ly/44dNG3

  13. Jessica Asato

    Couldn't agree more with this piece by Laurie Penny on why it was right for Penelope Trunk to tweet her miscarriage http://bit.ly/44dNG3





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