7 Ways to Be a Better Advocate For Women (Including Yourself) On The Issues That Affect Us Most
Standing up for yourself and what you believe in can be scary, and, honestly, intimidating. Despite all the progress we've made equalizing the genders, women are still expected to be the peacemakers, the mediators, the pacifiers. Even when it comes to making decisions about our own bodies, namely whether or not to have an abortion, we're supposed to steady the boat, not rock it. But what if those very skills the female gender naturally has in spades — listening, empathizing, conversing, negotiating — are the real keys to solving our most controversial and polarizing problems like abortion?
In Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight , author Aspen Baker passionately and intelligently states that what the country needs to stop the abortion wars is compassion, understanding, and human interaction. Baker is the founder and Executive Director of Exhale, an organization whose mission is to create a stigma-free culture around abortion. In fact, she just gave the first TED Talk on abortion at the 2015 TED Women Conference. Sharing her own personal abortion experience as a jumping-off point, she advocates that listening to and sharing stories is the way for society to have a non-judgmental dialogue about abortion and the other conflicted issues we care about most. Achieving peace "demands a shift away from judgment and toward empathy, and it requires treating others as we would like to be treated ... [even] in the midst of a heated, passionate, high-stakes fight," Baker writes.
So how can you be pro-voice in your own life and become a more effective advocate for yourself and other women? By following the seven steps below based on Baker's idea of focusing on the actual people behind the polarizing political issues. Eventually this will help society have "a future abortion conversation known for its openness, respect, and empathy," writes Baker. Using pro-voice and our natural knack for actively listening, women can take the leading roles in creating a more inclusive, peaceful future. And to that I say, you go girl.
This may seem totally obvious until you think about the last time you had an argument with your mom, or SO, or sister — do you actually remember anything they said? Or were you just waiting for your turn to unload? "What I want is for you to think about how you would want to be treated when you found yourself in the throes of the most passionate and important argument of your lifetime," writes Baker. You want to be heard and respected, and whether you are pro-life, pro-choice, or somewhere in the middle, your opponent wants the same thing. Really listening can be the solution to many of the arguments in your life, but when it comes to finding a middle ground on far-reaching social issues like abortion, it's imperative.
Putting a human face on a contentious issue like abortion takes it out of the political arena and back into the personal one where it belongs. In order to do that, though, women and men have to be willing to share their experiences.
"Hearing stories, especially vulnerable, hard-to-talk-about ones, opens up something within us, and we can't help but find a way to connect," writes Baker. "Often, we connect by sharing our own story." Even when you find yourself on the opposite side of an issue from someone, finding out why they feel they way they do can be a powerful reminder that we're all just people making mistakes and doing the best we can. Sharing personal stories can be a powerful catalyst for change.
Cultivate a Stigma-Free Zone
Baker strongly advocates the importance of women not passing judgment on themselves or the decisions they make when sharing their story with others. Baker points out, "[S]tigma [is] the barrier that prevents a woman from freely expressing herself, whatever her feelings maybe be." Being able to express our emotions, without fear of labeling, condemnation, or judgment is critical to creating a compassionate culture.
"Every woman who has an abortion should be getting assurance from all sides that whether her abortion was the best or worst choice of her life, it is possible for her to experience well being afterward," Baker writes. Keeping stories and discussions ambiguous allows people to imagine themselves in someone else's shoes, creating understanding and forging connection.
Let Go of Anger
Ever notice what an utterly useless communicator you are when you're mad? Anger can be an excellent motivator if you're, say, running a marathon, but it doesn't do you any good when you're trying to practice pro-voice. Issues like abortion naturally inspire intense and passionate emotions, but that's no reason why we can't hear each other out.
"Humans have a history of overcoming their differences, of improving themselves and finding creative ways to deal with conflict, violence, oppression, and trauma," observes Baker. As I mentioned above, it's all about the R-E-S-P-E-C-T, people. Be prepared to be pleasantly amazed at how much you have in common with the people on the other side of your issue, after you stop being mad. Which segues nicely to...
Find Kindred Spirits
This means making friends with the "enemy." What you're probably going to discover is that you have way more in common with the "other" people than you think. According to Baker, the politicalization of issues like abortion has resulted in a stark, us-versus-them dynamic. In reality, "most Americans identify as both pro-choice and pro-life, symbolizing the public's ability to embrace nuanced realities," she writes.
Most people know that there is nothing black-and-white about abortion, but they feel forced to take a side. When you reach across the divide you're bound to discover that the majority of people want to reach a peaceful, respectful, understanding. Baker relates the story of how she cultivated a relationship with the Episcopalian pastor of a tiny, conservative, rural church in Texas whose congregation was being fractured by the abortion issue. Baker discovered that, "We were both seeking to stay in relationships with our friends on both sides of hostile divides while taking big risks to find common ground. We were kindred spirits." So bridge the gap, people. It's the only way we're going to get a solution.
If you take care of yourself, you'll naturally have the energy, will power, and motivation to take care of others. You can't fight the good fight if you're exhausted, emotionally drained, or burned out. "To build the world we want, we must practice the behaviors that embody our values and our aspirations today, even against great odds," writes Baker. To that end, she recommends knowing what's sacred to you to avoid "becoming a victim of the situation." Whether that's observing strict break hours on the weekend or blowing off some steam with your besties on a regular basis, knowing what keeps you feeling bright eyed and bushy tailed will ultimately only benefit the people and the cause you're fighting for. Baker writes "You get to be happy, well, and whole no matter how broken the world is," and then you can share your sense of wellbeing with others.
And for the Win — Follow the Golden Rule
As I was reading Baker's book, what really struck me is how simple yet totally profound her message is. She references the golden rule early on, writing that "Instead of seeing how much pain I can dish out to those I disagree with ... I seek to follow the golden rule and use my words and behavior to create more of what the world needs: love, compassion, and connection."
Considering her life's work, you can imagine that Baker receives far more than her share of misdirected anger and vitriol. Instead of throwing it back at her haters, she takes the high road and continues to treat everyone with respect. Can you imagine what our world would be like if we really all treated each other with the respect, compassion, empathy, and understanding that we want for ourselves?
Abortion, gender and race equality, gay rights, poverty — these are all inarguably complicated issues, but by listening, sharing, and following the golden rule, we may just be able to find a light at the end of the tunnel for everyone, and build a culture of respect in the process.