Three Views: The Battle Over a Woman's Right to Choose

Becoming an Activist

Jane Kenner talks about how she came to be an activist within Div. 39 in the face of what she saw as the increasing challenge to women’s reproductive rights.

By Jane Kenner, PhD

In this brief paper, I hope to convey my experience last year of creating a committee of dedicated women. I am very grateful to the Section IX listserv for being there—for serving as a conduit so a lone individual like me can make contact with others. Although I had previously been quite outspoken about situations that struck me as unjust, I had acted on my own. In 2009, after raising two children and devoting years to becoming a psychologist and psychoanalyst, I was ready to engage with all the pressing matters in the outside world when I joined Section IX.

In becoming a participant, I felt like I was diving in, making an exhilarating but frightening arc into a world of strong opinions. I felt both the safety of being reduced to the disembodied linearity of the internet and the fear of crashing into silence and a sense of defeat if my heartfelt words went out there and there was no response (Teitelbaum, 2010). Initially, I threw my energy into opposing Division 39’s active support for Melba Vasquez’s candidacy for APA president. But I was really born as an activist on January 1, 2010, when I wrote an email to the listserv stating my distress/anger/disillusionment at the attitude toward abortion I detected during the Senate debates on Obama’s proposed health care reform. The word “abortion” seemed like some sort of hot potato tossed back and forth among senators, yet disconnected from human beings—i.e. women—and their struggles and concerns. I could not stomach—or should I say I could too easily imagine?—how expendable and forsaken thousands of women in need of abortion were being made to feel.

In calling attention to reproductive rights, I was wary about venturing outside the bounds of the psychologists-and-torture theme that had riveted Section IX. But I got wonderful responses; I heard from women who resonated strongly to my continuing emails about the shrinking of abortion services in the US and the passage of ever more punitive laws at the state level aimed at women wanting abortions. Joining me were women who had devoted themselves to bettering other women’s lives and to supporting women’s strengths and talents: Marilyn Charles, Marilyn Metzl, Jane Hassinger, and Susan Gutwill. Later, I invited Leanh Nyugen to become the sixth member of our committee.

As the newcomer, I took on the task of keeping the dialogue among our members simmering. A mutual sense of purpose took shape when we were accepted as a roundtable at the October 22-23, Annual Conference of the Association for

the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society. I felt humbled and proud to be in the company of women who had distinguished themselves through their perseverance in confronting the painful realities of dehumanization. In dialoguing with them on the listerv, I was often awed by how much is required of the individual who can stay with what it means for others to be oppressed and can face such realities as ongoing and increasing worldwide brutality against women.

Over the months, our committee developed, through a process of what I would call “fanning out.” We began with our mutual outrage at the attack on reproductive rights and, gradually, we each developed an individual, but related, theme to present at the APCS Conference. Our topic became, “Claims on Women’s Bodies and the Struggle for Human Rights.” Susan, associated for many years with the Women’s Therapy Center Institute in New York, would speak about the political roots of the attack on reproductive rights in the US; while Jane H. would be speaking about her research topic of many years—the undermining and violent atmosphere in which abortion providers do their job. Marilyn C., co-chair of the APCS Conference, and with many years experience bringing people together to share ideas about psyche and society, became interested in corporations’ “ownership” of individual human genes and the resulting prohibitive cost of treatment for women with certain types of breast cancer. Marilyn M, President of Section III (Women), wanted to share her outrage at the “clean” (as opposed to brutal) oppression of women in the US and discussed an article about the objectification and sexual exploitation of teenage girls by high school boys. Leanh questioned whether she, a human rights advocate, belonged in a round table on the control of women’s bodies and decided, yes, she would address the importance of taking the reproductive rights outside the category of “women’s issues” and broadening it into part of the struggle for human rights worldwide.

As for me, I asked my “eternal questions”: Why are women hated? How can we address the psychological reality that the twofold power of vaginas, as source of life and of sexual pleasure, generates primitive fear and hatred in both men and women, especially in regard to mothers? For a sense of what faces anyone who wants to change the way women are treated, I refer you to a passage by Lacan, quoted in Chasseguet-Smirgel’s final book (2005, p. 72), which was greeted with astonishment when I read it aloud. I am proud to announce that our round table was deemed a great success, and in closing I ask all my readers to share their thoughts about the course to be taken next.

The mother’s desire is not something that can be tolerated just like that, that you are indifferent to. It always causes damage. A huge crocodile between whose jaws you are--that is the mother! You never know what may suddenly come over her and make her shut her trap. That is the mother’s desire. So then, I tried to explain that there was something reassuring. I am telling you simple things. I am improvising, I have to say. There is a cylinder (rou-leau), a stone one of course, which is there, potentially, at the level of her trap, and it acts as a restraint, a wedge. It is what is called the Phallus. The cylinder protects you, if, all of a sudden, it snaps shut. (Lacan, 2002, Seminar VIII, p. 14

- Jane Kenner


Chasseguet-Smirgel, J. (2005). The Body as Mirror of the World. NY: Free Association Books

Teitelbaum, S. (2010). The echo injury: Narcissus and Echo online and the loss of body cues in electronic communication. Unpublished paper, presented at the Session, Longings for Recognition, 2010 IARPP Conference: Expanding the Relational Context, San Francisco, February 27, 2010