Sometimes having a window on Front Street is like having the best live-action television show imaginable. I never know what is going to happen. People singing, couples fighting, children racing … they all cycle by like an old-time film strip.
Then there are the regulars: the window washers, the buskers and the street preachers. Last Saturday I noticed a group congregated out front: four women in red capes with white bonnets obscuring their faces.
“Handmaids!” I gasped.
I received emails about women dressing as the handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s famed 1985 book, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (now a harrowing TV series on Hulu). They were marching through the streets in protest against the increasingly startling legislation targeting women’s healthcare. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d see them here, in Wilmington. Yet, there they were in the flesh, courtesy of Women Organizing Wilmington (WOW!). They posed for pictures with copies of Atwood’s dystopian horror novel.
The story takes place in Gilead, a country that once was the United States but is ruled by an extreme right-wing religious-political alliance who stripped women of all their rights. It details the lives of child-bearing women who are forced to serve as “handmaids” for wealthy couples incapable of reproducing—much in the vein of the Jacob and Rachel tale in the Bible. It is gruesome. Perhaps the scariest part is the description of the slow erosion brought to the main character, Offred, who becomes a handmaid. It didn’t happen overnight—but bit by bit. To me, that is most horrendous: the way Atwood portrays the chipping away at life, with a normalization and acceptance of the growing horror surrounding citizens of the U.S.
“This is really Stacey’s idea,” Lynn Shoemaker, one of the founders of WOW said, and nodded toward Stacey McPherson.
The next day I was invited to Lynn Harris’ magical workshop on Third Street for a meeting of “The Birthers” of Women Organizing Wilmington: Lynn Harris, Lynn Shoemaker, Debbie Shoemaker (“We’re Sister Resisters!”), Elli Klein, and Stacey McPherson. Harris’ space was taken over by red fabric and white bonnets in various stages of readiness, draped on every available surface. WOW bought all the red fabric in town they could find—except from Hobby Lobby. McPherson looked up from the project in her hand and grinned at Shoemaker. She’s a person in constant motion. If forced to sit still, her eyes betray the project she is plotting in her head.
“I don’t know how long ago Hulu started their plans [for the show], but it dropped at an appropriate time,” she noted. “I read some women in Texas showed up at the state legislature dressed as handmaids, and I said, ‘We need this!’”
Last Saturday the handmaids began appearing around town, handing out flyers for their protest on Monday in front of City Hall. Later the same evening they headed to Satellite Bar & Lounge to watch the first few episodes on Hulu.
“People shunned us and treated us like Pirahãs,” Shoemaker observed. Indeed at Satellite, two handmaids sat on a three person bench. “You could sit with the handmaids,” Shoemaker suggested to me. I felt my body retract in fear. But nodded and walked toward the bench. Once seated the women next to me disappeared: I couldn’t make eye contact with them because of their wide bonnets that hid their faces. We didn’t speak. They simply ceased to be anything other than furniture.
That’s it. That’s how quickly dehumanization can happen. We don’t see what we don’t want to see. We don’t connect, and soon we stop noticing or caring. With the donning of robes and bonnets, two women I have known and respected for years became nonentities. Time elapsed: less than a minute.
McPherson noted one of the more frustrating conversations she had as a handmaid was with a man who asked, “Well, what rights do you not have?” Perhaps that question is a better illustration than first meets the eye.
We all see the world through our own lens. It might be easier to ask a few hypothetical questions: How many restrictions are placed on men’s bodies regarding access to contraception or reproductive healthcare? How many laws have been passed regarding vasectomies? How expensive or difficult is it to buy condoms? Is it easier to get a prescription for Viagra than it is for a woman to get a prescription for contraception? Why is tax paid on one and not the other? Has a doctor had to go to court to defend writing a Viagra prescription? How many doctors who prescribe Viagra have picket lines outside their offices, with gauntlets their patients must run through to receive medical care? What are the statistics regarding men dosed with date-rape drugs and the medical care they need afterward?
At present the ultrasound record of an abortion performed after 16 weeks must be put on record with the NC Department of Health—which raises some serious questions about privacy. Is there any imaging record required of a vasectomy to be filed with the North Carolina Department of Health? Or is that information still covered by HIPAA?
Shoemaker pointed out how WOW galvanized five years ago when our county commission refused a grant from the state to pay for IUDs for women on a waiting list at Planned Parenthood who couldn’t take oral contraceptives. Two of the commissioners at the time commented how women who didn’t take oral contraception were irresponsible and wouldn’t need IUDs if they just wouldn’t have “the sex,” Shoemaker recounted. “As if the only reason a woman can’t take oral contraception is irresponsibility?”
Within 24 hours notice a protest was organized on the river in response to the decision. In addition to 300 people in attendance at the rally, the outcry from the public and in the local press was overwhelming. “We were able to put enough pressure on them the next week that they held a meeting to accept the money,” Shoemaker said with a smile full of pride. Afterward, Senator Thom Goolsby was part of amending the Motorcycle Safety Act in 2013 to limit access to abortion clinics and procedures in North Carolina. WOW set up a regular Monday lunch-hour protest in front of his office in Wilmington.
“For 69 consecutive Mondays in rain, sweating heat and freezing cold, we were out there. They called the cops on us every week.” Shoemaker recounted when Goolsby invoked a rule requiring protesters to be 15 feet apart, it backfired on him.
“We measured 15 feet in pink and purple ribbon attached to wine cork and put them in the grooves of the sidewalk. Everyone stood at a cork. It stretched us all the way to the river. The Cape Fear Community College students started coming out, asking us what was going on—and joining us!”
WOW will continue the Monday protests in front of City Hall. “You know you are accomplishing something when you have been added to the trolley and carriage tours,” Shoemaker told the crowd at Satellite. Considering the provisions in the recent repeal and replacement on the Affordable Care Act—which as of press includes defunding Planned Parenthood, not to mention allowing states to waive ACA’s requirement to cover health benefits like mammograms and vaccinations, and allowing health insurers to increase rates or refuse coverage for those with pre-existing conditions—which could include pregnancy. Yes, pregnancy. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When read thoroughly and taken as a whole, it seems to make being born female a medical disability.
In essence, WOW has a lot to protest these days. They encourage the community to join them every Monday at noon in front of City Hall.