The Lady Parts Justice League is bringing its Vagical Mystery Tour to Iowa City on June 20 at The Mill at 8 p.m. The performance will feature Lizz Winstead, musician Tina Schlieske of Tina and the B-Sides and comedians Alex English, Dina Nina Martinez and Joyelle Johnson. The 19+ show is co-presented by Little Village and The Mill. General admission tickets are $15.
I had the chance to talk to Winstead, the League’s smart, funny, passionate founder and chief creative officer, on an oddly cold Monday afternoon.
What’s your 30 second summary [of Lady Parts Justice League]?
We are a non-profit cabal of comedians, writers, activists, musicians who decided we wanted to use our work to do things. We’re part USO, part Habitat for Humanity — and all heart.
What “things” are you most interested in doing?
1: Expose laws in all 50 states that are coming down on reproductive justice.
2: Go on the road to find providers who feel abandoned and isolated due to rhetoric, laws and news. Listen to them. Bring attention to the good work they do.
3: Take on the local guys. I have some Joni Ernst jokes on tap that I can’t wait to share.
4: The gathering can create community: we like to grow activist bases, have escorts.
You focus on abortions and abortion services in particular, more even than women’s health in particular. Why do you insist on a term that is so divisive?
We talk around abortion, and there’s shame around that. Someone who decides to have one also has to feel shame or stigma. Women shouldn’t feel like it is something clandestine. It is common. We should put abortion back in its proper place: something that people can choose in their reproductive lifetimes.
How do you see your role as advocacy, when so much seems to be reactive — against anti-abortion, against the new laws?
The silence that we’ve been living — the shame, the stuff around it — it is because well-meaning people, even people who are pro-choice, have ceded the ground to those who are anti-choice. We are all pro-life. If your movement wants to shame women, you’re not pro-life. If you’re not considering a pregnant human, you’re pro-fetus. But this is a war that’s also waged on a lot of people and their agency. It’s a war on trans people. It’s a war on women. On gay folk. On anyone who has been marginalized and just wants to be treated with dignity. There’s a need for a backlash around it. There’s a basis in cruelty and judgment, not science.
So part of your work is informational?
Yes. It is important to clear up rhetoric about what abortion is. We can’t cede the rhetoric of who has abortions, or what they are. I couldn’t take a moral stance if abortions were coerced, or if they were murder. To have a conversation about abortion, you need to to include people who have them. Late term abortions are tragic, when someone cannot carry a child to term due to danger to the mother or because of an unviable fetus. But this gets generalized into an entire arc that wants to insist that nobody likes abortions —
You like abortion?
I like it because it is safe, because one in three people have one and because someone has decided to not carry a child to term (due to an inability to provide financially, etc.). If we don’t honor and trust when a woman doesn’t feel like they can be a mother, it shames someone instead of trusting them to make a decision for themselves in their full humanity. Abortions provide women with the option to know what is best.
So when you say you “like” abortion, you don’t mean to say that you wish everyone could have one.
Of course not. I mean, nobody prefers to get a wisdom tooth pulled — but you still prefer to have accessible dental care. If you are pregnant and don’t want to be — you should have it without shame, stigma or having it define you. For me, that’s crucial.
Unintended pregnancy forced into a birth takes that decision from the only person equipped to make it. The option to decide when and if you want a family is one of the first decisions someone can make, and everyone needs a fair chance to make that decision. Abortion should be an option for people. Putting someone in a position to force parenting and family onto them takes away their civil and human rights to make a decision.
But why focus on abortion? Why not focus more on eliminating unwanted pregnancies through other means?
First, we need to focus on abortion until it doesn’t seem unusual to focus on it. Abortion isn’t a problem or a dirty secret. But, more importantly, you have to consider the social circumstances around abortion. People assume that everyone has birth control, that there’s access, that you can afford it, that you found one that works for you. But when you’re someone who discovers you need an abortion — where is the help? Where is the place where healthy women thrive? Not everyone gets to have conversations about healthy pregnancies, healthy families. And those who are left out are disproportionately poor women and women of color.
How do you think comedy and music help make the work of supporting clinics easier?
With the assault on services that is happening, clinics tell us that they have three roles: to provide care, to fight laws and to correct the record against pseudo-science. Correcting the record occurs in lots of ways — for example, you have people saying Plan B or IUD is an “abortion” when it is birth control. It stops a pregnancy. You can’t have an abortion if you’re not pregnant. Anyway, it’s hard to do all three tasks, so they tend to focus on the care portion — but that means they need people to focus on the other pieces.
At our comedy show, we have a fun night and do a talk back with the clinic, hear what that specific clinic needs and then have people pledge to support them. On a practical level, we can do gardening, add artwork, take people out for lunch or dinner — we can celebrate them and expand local emotional support for care providers.
Do you find it problematic that the Lady Parts Justice League has to defend “lady parts”? Do you see your focus on women’s bodies as empowering women to become attuned to their bodies as a valuable thing? Do you fear that it comes too close to reinforcing social tropes of objectification where women are reduced to bodies that they don’t even have rights to possess?
In a perfect world there would be a reframing of the morality around abortion so you wouldn’t have to defend your choice to have one.
I didn’t reduce women to bodies. There’s the whole rhetoric of “I’m not a vagina.” Society is limiting your full potential. If we don’t live in a country that honors a woman’s full potential, which includes her choice to have kids and when to do it, then that argument is out the window. If the government thinks that they know better and lay out the paths she can have, that’s the government reducing her to someone who has to have children. Women become a weenie garage or child birthing machine, and nothing more.
I know that your background is in comedy, including your work on The Daily Show, but is there a more specific reason why you think that satire helps to promote justice?
Lady Parts Justice is sometimes satire and sometimes just hilarious. It is ridiculous that laws and lawmakers don’t know how anatomy works — so exposing this through humor makes sense. We can expose the hypocrisy of claims to safety or thinking about things. Humor is a good way to do this.
What’s an example?
Just to get people to think about it. I mean, so, you want to eliminate abortion and your plan is to focus on women and get rid of birth control — it isn’t hard to smell bullshit. It works because people listen to jokes, and people like people who are fun and funny. It’s an undeniable emotional response that you can’t fake. If someone makes you laugh, you enjoy them. It’s infectious.
So the comedy is primarily to expose problems and to get people to like you?
Well, more importantly, comedy can get people thinking in a new way. At our shows, we take the comedy hat off and disclose the truth of it. Smart, interesting comedy is a nice companion to authenticity and calls to action: You can weave in storytelling, truth and seriousness and it is organic and right. Like wine and dark chocolate.
What happens to Lady Parts Justice League once you win, and abortion becomes an unexceptional and unstigmatized part of the world that — like the rest of health care — is available to everyone? What other forms of justice do you think are important?
In a perfect world, there’d be resources to support mothering. They’d be able to have a community where there’d be grocery stores in communities, raising kids without fear of police, clean water from the tap. Reproductive justice means schools that are safe. So: environmental justice, economic justice, etc., so that people can healthy families.
What do you think underlies the misogyny that seems so perennial to be part of American culture?
We have a history of the same sort of person being in charge for a long time, and people in power are threatened by those who call bullshit. Those who smell the bullshit must be destroyed.
But that’s true of power in general. Why women?
It’s a proactive war on the vulnerable — it’s not just women, but also trans, gay, Muslims, immigrants, etc. Anyone who challenges the power structure is getting it. It happens to a lot of people, and women are part of that coalition who have their rights trampled along with everyone else. What’s interesting is that we hear, even from the left — and right, but even from allies — that there’s a disconnect between economic justice and reproductive rights … There are not sort-of pregnancies and we can’t have sort-of rights. People equate sharing and taking — “take the country back” instead of sharing in a community of equals.
But why are women targeted? In almost every culture, in almost every time period? Even communities of marginalized people?
If I had the answer, I’d be killing it. The why is hard — I don’t know why. You’ll have to ask the haters. Is it a fear of power? Is it because they can bear children? They’re shat upon almost more than anyone. Not sharing the power and not hearing women and what we can offer will always be problematic. Now that women aren’t taking it, things will change. We haven’t stopped marching.
Given that clinics in Iowa are currently being shut down, how would you advise concerned men and women support the need for Lady Parts Justice? What’s the most effective way to join the league — in addition to funding you directly through your website?
By growing a community of supporters that is taking the lead from the clinics themselves — we’re not trying to form gigantic chapters everywhere, but to have local people gather with friends, in community, and talk to other activists in town to hear what’s happening and to support the people providing abortions while also holding politicians accountable, and do their darndest to make sure they don’t have a job next time around if they don’t listen. It matters. A human right that is taken from a person — it means everyone isn’t free in the country. If someone literally
Why prioritize Lady Parts Justice over other social justice movements?
It’s all interconnected — the reproductive justice means that you actually care about what happens to everyone and everyone’s lives. This is all part of it. When you talk about black men being killed on the streets — it is reproductive justice. Are we creating a world in which we have safety for black and brown women? That’s part of reproductive justice.
If it’s all interconnected — why focus on Lady Parts?
Everyone needs to work on what moves them, and we should be motivated to achieve justice for people. The piece of reproductive justice I focus on is the first step of the choice to have a family coming from an autonomous place.
Do protests/counter-protests really work?
State capitals are important. What we see in 2018 will be interesting. We have marched, we’ve seen Indivisible groups pop up, we’ve seen people talking about midterm elections, town halls from the left. Now we’ll see. If that actions translates to votes in 2018, it will be a change from anything we’ve known in the past. Midterms have always been low — we’ll see if it works.
Any final thoughts?
I’m excited to come to Iowa — I’m from Minnesota. I’m excited to visit the Emma Goldman clinic — they’re a great group of people who are amazing.