Disgruntled Feminist Workers of the World Unite!

Posted on 5.07.2012 by Chantal

A recent post on Abortion Gang has got me really excited. You know that excitement that can only come from shared misery, disappointment, and rage? Well, if you've ever worked in reproductive health (or if you identify as an anarchist), you probably know what I mean.

The post, entitled "Toxic Work Environments in the Reproductive Rights, Health, and Justice World," explores one of the most taboo subjects in the women's health community. Perhaps even more taboo than abortion itself.

As a former abortion care provider, this post struck a chord with me. I've been lucky enough to surround myself with a group of amazing women (and men) who are fellow advocates of abortion rights and reproductive justice. Many of them are also current or former providers. When we're all in a room together, our conversations buzz with all the usual topics: late-term abortion, our contraception of choice, the financial and emotional struggles that our patients face, and how best to approach those difficult questions that inevitably come up in an options counseling session. (What? That's not what you and your friends chat about over beers?)

But this post touches on something different. As feminists and abortion care providers, we face an often heavy burden. We care deeply about our work and the women we meet each day, many of whom are in crisis. We face the daily stress of being asked that all-too-innocent question, "So what do you do?" Our workplaces, our peers, and our role models are the targets of violence and hate. The work that we do and the women we serve are stigmatized. And now more than ever, the movement we care so deeply about is in jeopardy. So really, it's not that surprising that we're shy to admit that we don't always love our jobs.

Don't get me wrong. Deciding to work in abortion care was undoubtedly the best and most important decision I've ever made. It was bittersweet when I left my job as a counselor, in part to pursue a career in medicine so that I can some day be a doctor and provide abortions myself. And also in part because I had spent a year and a half working full-time (that's 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year x 1.5 years, roughly 3,120 hours) in an environment that was at times exhilarating and at times empowering, but in the interest of full disclosure, most of the time, it was infuriating.

Toxic. That's the word that's used in the Abortion Gang post that I think is, perhaps, one of the most important blog posts I've read in quite some time. As Steph writes, "everything is bait for antis." In an environment in which abortion and reproductive rights are almost constantly under attack, how can we speak up about the fact that our workplaces are sometimes...toxic? How do we simultaneously love and honor the work that we do without sacrificing ourselves in the process?

The saddest realization for me was that my fantasy of the abortion clinic as the ideal feminist workplace was just that, a fantasy. (Judging by the dozen or so comments on the Abortion Gang site from current and former disgruntled feminist workers, I'm not alone on this one.) I imagined a place in which supporting a woman's right to bodily autonomy also meant supporting and respecting the women and men who dedicate their lives to keeping that place running. Steph does a pretty incredible job of capturing the reality of what it can be like to work in a supposedly feminist-oriented workplace. Just to highlight a few key points:

You're expected to treat your members/patients/donors better than the way your boss/upper management treats you.

You're afraid to confront your co-worker/your boss about something racist/classist/transphobic/etc she said for fear of losing your job.

You don't get insurance coverage. The insurance coverage you get doesn't cover pre-natal care, contraception, or abortion. You don't get decent maternity or paternity leave. Yet these are all values your organization supposedly champions.

There is frequent turn over and burn-out because of low pay and high stress.

Your organization primarily works with or on behalf of low-income communities, communities of color, and/or young people, yet those folks are not represented on the staff or on the board. And there are no conversations about class, race, or privilege among staff. Ever.

You find yourself having to mask your work conditions, including poor communication, bad management, and unclear organizational goals, while selling your organization to donors and supporters.

If any of the above are true, Steph says, you probably work in a toxic feminist workplace.

But I want to take this analysis one step further and ask, why do the organizations that we love, that claim to represent our politics and fight for the kind of world we want to live in, treat us like we're disposable? Why do we see such a disconnect between the values these organizations list in their mission statements and on their grant applications and the values that we see lived out in our day-to-day relationships with our bosses, clients, and coworkers? Steph is spot on when she alludes to INCITE!'s incredible book on the outright hypocrisy of the "non-profit industrial complex." Many of the feminist organizations that exist in this country are embroiled in complex relationships ($$$) with individual states, the federal government, non-governmental organizations, and wealthy private donors. An example from INCITE! that I swear I'll never forget: In 2004, INCITE! was offered a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to fund its organizing and advocacy work around the prevention of violence against women of color. The grant offer was later rescinded when the folks at Ford found out that INCITE! openly supports popular resistance in Palestine. At the end of the day, I think that any non-profit, feminist or otherwise, that chooses to accept public or private funding will eventually be faced with the choice of whether or not to sacrifice it's ideals in order to make money. (Thankfully, INCITE! chose not to.)

I agree with Steph that the non-profit industrial complex is at least partly to blame for the fact that so many non-profit employees are mistreated and burnt out. But I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention (again) that, really, the problem here is capitalism. As employees of feminist clinics and non-profits, we know that we deserve better. Higher pay, better benefits, more respect, a commitment to self-care, and radically different organizational structures than the ones we know now. But in the framework of capitalism, these rights aren't just denied to us. They're denied to just about everyone. I don't think our movement is, as Steph's coworker suggests, "the most fucked up." But we do know better. Or at least we should.

So by now you might be asking, how can we begin to change our workplaces now, even within a capitalist system of exploitation? As always, there aren't any clear cut answers. (Other than to destroy capitalism and the state, but gimme a break. I'm workin' on it.) I do think part of the solution is to stop being afraid to speak up about the problems that we see around us. We keep quiet because we don't want to fuel the misogynist, anti-choice flames and because, at the end of the day, we really do love what we do. But just who are we serving with our silence? Certainly not ourselves or our coworkers. I would also argue that we're actually doing a disservice both to our organizations and to the movement in general. We sell ourselves short when we give up imagining, out of fear, fatigue, or just a lack of creativity, that there are other ways for our workplaces and our movements to function. Ways that are made to counteract the hierarchical, paternalistic, and funding-driven models that are the byproduct of capitalism and the state. Don't get me wrong. This is hard work. But if you're a lifer like me, it's most definitely worth it.