I’m writing today to introduce Jenna Bush Hager to an intersectional analysis. Here at Reproaction, we have written quite a bit about intersectionality as a core practice of the reproductive justice movement, and a critical driver of our work. For a deeper explanation of that topic, first read What is Intersectionality and Why Do You Keep Insisting that Movements Must be Intersectional? by my colleague Evonnia Woods.
A self-described “proud feminist,” Bush Hager worked in education and public health for years, collaborating with UNICEF on HIV/AIDS treatment and education programs for low-income women and families in Central and South America. This is a feminist goal and worth applauding, which is why her recent work stateside is frustrating: On September 19, she’ll be headlining a fancy fundraiser for a crisis pregnancy center in Tennessee.
Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) are fake clinics that exist to shame and talk women out of having abortions, often preying on low-income women of color and using junk science to push their agenda. I wrote a series of blogs about them last month, but for now, you need to know that there can be no feminism that includes deceiving or even outright lying to women and stigmatizing them for making the choices they deem fit for their bodies and families. Some CPCs claim to offer a variety of services to families in need, but disappear after the pregnancy has been brought to term, or have a very low dollar amount they’re willing to spend on a single client. The Hope Center, where Jenna Bush Hager is speaking, has an umbrella organization that’s a Baptist charity purporting to provide resources to needy families, which may cause some to see them as a scrappy, grassroots, friendly organization just trying to help with what little they have. CPCs trick people with this charade every day, often with horrible consequences.
In reality, The Hope Center is a member of Care Net, a huge and well-funded CPC network with millions in assets. One of The Hope Center’s program highlights is abstinence-only sex education, and Tennessee allocated over $1.7 million in taxpayer dollars to similar programs in 2016. This is all while the state failed to expand Medicaid, which is a barrier to reproductive and sexual healthcare for millions of people, including low-income women of color, but about which the movement behind CPCs has been completely silent.
Tennessee’s sex education curriculum was passed by state legislators in 2012, who wanted to emphasize the prohibition of “gateway sexual activity.” Tennessee’s sex ed programming is particularly malignant, as it’s one of only two states which fines educators for not complying with their abstinence-only mandate, which trades in slut-shaming and narratives of sexual purity, feeding lies to impressionable pre-teens and teens about the efficacy of birth control methods. Bush Hager has spoken in favor of comprehensive sex education in the past, including in her 2007 book Ana’s Story about an HIV positive teen in Panama. So why isn’t she demanding the same comprehensive sex ed for Tennessee’s teens? Never mind the multiple studies that prove abstinence-only sex education has a high failure rate, whereas comprehensive sex education even correlated to delaying first sexual activity.
Jenna Bush Hager said that she was a feminist, and went on to claim that her father George W. Bush is one, too, which exemplifies a key misunderstanding of what feminism is, and what we should look for in our feminist idols. Despite President George W. Bush’s record of promoting ineffective abstinence-only sex education domestically and internationally (often at the detriment of HIV/AIDS program funding), reinstating the Global Gag Rule (now resurrected again, and expanded), banning a type of late-term abortion procedure, and passing a half-baked workplace regulation that hurt working parents by redefining the meaning of a “management” title to force more workers to stay longer hours for no extra pay—but she believes he is a feminist because he empowered her and her sister to achieve success and be confident.
Here’s the thing: feminism doesn’t work if it’s just for you, or just for people who look like you, think like you, and make decisions the way you do. An intersectional lens is necessary to live truly feminist values, and the voices and needs of systemically oppressed people must be centered for the movement to be effective. Without working to improve the lives of all women — be they women of color, trans women, low-income women, undocumented women, or women who have a different religion or way of thinking about the world than us, we’re failing to help the women we claim to value and frankly, limiting the success of our movement. Feminism means advocating for people living at all the intersections of identity to have bodily autonomy, access to comprehensive sex education and sexual health resources, and the ability to make the right choices for their healthcare, regardless of their zip or country code. And in this case, feminism means not allowing an organization that misinforms and shames women and minors about their sexual health, bodies, and lives to make money off your name.