Woman in Jail
by Marilyn Grace Hart
It is 2016, I am 29 years old, and I am increasingly aware of how dangerous being a woman is today. As a social work student committed to social justice, I am concerned about where women’s rights stand in America. Like many issues social workers deal with, this problem has many facets branching into areas such as our economy, safety, and basic human dignity. My society tells me I should be grateful and proud of how far women’s rights have progressed. I should feel lucky to be an American woman. And in some ways, I am. But mostly I am scared, and sorry, and angry.
I remember being taught, as a young girl, about how women won their rights to vote with the 19th Amendment. But it was not until much later that it became truly acceptable for women to join the work force and pursue higher education. But look at us - we did it! We should be proud because we won, right? This is where women’s rights begin and end. Yes, those movements were huge, but ultimately they feel like a patronizing pat on the head. These rights are waved in front of our faces like we should be satisfied with what we have, but there is still so much more for which we are fighting. Thanks for letting us join the work force, but why are we STILL fighting to receive equal pay?
But I should feel lucky because I have so much freedom living in America. I guess when you compare me to a woman in India who can be doused in kerosene, set on fire by her in-laws for her dowry, and die with no hope of justice being served to her murderers (Koutsoukis, 2015), then yes, I feel lucky. Or when I think I could have been a 13-year-old girl in Pakistan, whose brother can rape her, murder her, and be out of jail within six months (McCoy, 2014), I guess I start to feel lucky. Furthermore, a murder of that kind is committed only after the family decides that the girl’s lost virginity is a blight on the family’s honor, and the only means of restoring that honor is to kill her. Also, the rapist is often elevated to hero status for cleansing the family of such a disgrace (McCoy, 2014). I don’t want to feel lucky for those reasons.
One of our problems is we see articles in the paper or hear stories about atrocities like that, and we think those are things that ONLY happen in other parts of the world. Nothing that horrific could ever happen to women in America. But it does. Even when we see something on the news or in a paper of an incident that has happened here, we treat it as though it is an isolated act of violence, rather than the continual wave of women being mistreated, abused, or killed in America.
I read an article in The New York Times last year, after the mid-term elections, about the effect that instating anti-abortion and personhood laws in states like Florida, Tennessee, and even in Washington, D.C., had had (Paltrow, 2014). The article focused on women who had miscarriages. These miscarriages were either spontaneous, after an accident occurred in the home, or in one case, they focused on a woman who was terminally ill. ALL of these women had every intention of carrying their pregnancies to term, yet they were stripped of their civil rights to decide what happened to their bodies, and to their babies. Though in many of these cases, the miscarriages were completely out of these women’s control, they were arrested on charges of “fetal homicide.” I think that the terminology in relation to this situation bears repeating - “fetal homicide.” With the woman pronounced seriously ill, the state believed it was its duty to protect the life of her unborn child of only 26 weeks gestation. For those who may not know, 26 weeks in the womb is often not far enough along in the pregnancy to thrive outside of it. The woman was forced to undergo a cesarean, even though the state was aware that the procedure would be dangerous for her. This procedure resulted in the deaths of both the mother and the child.
In September of this past year, I had a miscarriage that required a surgical procedure afterward. Although I would not wish this level of grief on any of you, imagine for a moment the pain and anguish that comes from losing a child. Now add blind panic. I flew into a frenzy. I burst into tears again, when it occurred to me that I was unfamiliar with Connecticut’s abortion and personhood laws. I frantically started asking the nurses if I was going to be facing criminal charges because I was having a miscarriage. I pleaded with them to understand that it was not my fault. Of course, the nurses and my husband were able to calm me down fairly quickly. But for a moment, I imagined I would wake up, cuffed to my bed after surgery. I found myself feeling a profound sense of relief that I was not headed to jail, and then that feeling was quickly replaced with revulsion for myself.
It seems unfathomable to me that a person can be criminalized for experiencing one of the most painful and traumatic events of her life. I remember how heartbroken I felt when they told me we had lost the baby. But I also remember the paralyzing fear, when I thought that I could be essentially accused of murdering my baby and then be imprisoned for it. But the part that I am most ashamed of is unwillingly feeling grateful that that could not happen to me in Connecticut. At least not yet. I am still not over my grief, and a part of me never will be. I can’t imagine how those women are enduring with their grief from the inside of a jail cell, for something that was completely out of their control, isolated from their loved ones and a strong support system. I know I would not be here speaking today without the help of my husband and the amazing social work professors I had last semester. That is why I feel sorry. I am just so sorry for all of these women.
I ask myself: How many times will I have a conversation arguing about the inequity of health care? Why can insurance companies justify being a woman as a pre-existing condition? Why is Viagra covered by insurance, when birth control is not? Why can Rush Limbaugh call Sarah Fluke, a Georgetown student, a “slut” and a “prostitute,” in response to her testifying for lower costs of contraceptives, and still have a job? (Fard, 2012) I exhaust myself repeating incident after incident. I tire of how many stories the news cycles through with clear evidence of social injustice regarding women’s rights, and yet we have not put a stop to it.
I find that underneath it all, I am seething with anger. I want to clarify right now that I am not a man hater, nor do I condone those sentiments. I do not blame one political party over another, either. I am equally mad at everyone who would deny basic human rights to someone who is different. What’s even more maddening is woman-on-woman hate. There are plenty of women who would burn other women at the stake for setting foot inside a Planned Parenthood facility, or receiving state assistance while raising a child on her own. I am mad at anyone who feels entitled to use personal beliefs as the foundation of a wall between a person who is in need and a program that is built to serve that person.
Ultimately, these infringements of women’s rights are treated like a myth. They fall into the same category as global warming, over-fishing the seas, or the idea that racism still exists. Some people are aware that the road to social equity and economic harmony is a long one, while others are going to stand firmly opposing aid to their communities in perilous trouble. What I see is our country backsliding into the era of demonizing women and coat hanger abortions, and it terrifies me.
I have been fortunate enough to meet some incredibly devoted social advocates in the last few years - students, faculty, and outside professionals alike. There are rumblings of great change on the horizon. We are on a precipice that could dramatically change the course our country is taking toward women’s rights. This is the most dramatic election I have witnessed in my lifetime, proposing platforms of completely opposite ideals. On one hand, we have candidates who support building up our middle class and supporting social services, and on the other hand, we have candidates who are aggressively threatening the populations we social workers strive so hard to help. And somewhere in all of those policies and promises, women’s rights will either start to equal those of our male counterparts, or might be further plunged into the dark ages.
As an aspiring social worker, I am pleased there are people who we still see showing a concern for change. As is so often the case, people do not get invested in an issue unless it has touched their lives. My hope is that this is not an issue that has to get worse before it gets better. I hope the number of women being wrongfully imprisoned disappears. I hope slandering a woman who speaks her mind with sexual slurs becomes unthinkable one day. I hope that women from different walks of life can look at each other with empathy instead of contempt and support their mutual cause.
But mostly, if our communities continue to shut each other out, and if our country cannot see fit to elect people leading us closer to equality, I hope there are enough social workers in place to continue the fight.
Fard, M. (2012, March). Sandra Fluke, Georgetown student called a ‘slut’ by Rush Limbaugh, speaks out. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com.
Koutsoukis, J. (2015, January). India burning brides and ancient practice is on the rise. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.
McCoy, T. (2014, May). In Pakistan, 1,000 women die in ‘honor killings’ annually. Why is this happening? The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com.
Paltrow, L., & Flavin, M. (2014, November). Pregnant, and no civil rights. The New York Times, p. A21. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com.
Marilyn Grace Hart is currently earning her bachelor's degree in social work and working in the Office of Diversity and Equity at Western Connecticut State University. She and her husband Alex live in New Milford, CT, and are excitedly anticipating their first child in November. An earlier version of this article won the Ray Strolin Social Justice Writing Competition.