This week, Ohio State Rep. Teresa Fedor (D) stood up during a legislative debate about a proposed abortion ban and revealed publicly for the first time that she had been sexually assaulted, became pregnant, and had an abortion.
“You don’t respect my reason, my rape, my abortion, and I guarantee you there are other women who should stand up with me and be courageous enough to speak that voice,” Fedor told her fellow lawmakers, who are attempting to outlaw abortion procedures after just six weeks of pregnancy. “What you’re doing is so fundamentally inhuman, unconstitutional, and I’ve sat here too long.”
“I dare any one of you to judge me,” she added. “I dare you to walk in my shoes.”
Fedor’s disclosure is just the latest personal admission from a female lawmaker who has determined she cannot remain silent about her own experience while her colleagues debate issues of reproductive rights on the floor.
Earlier this month, Arizona State Rep. Victoria Steele (D) made a similar speech during a legislative debate over a measure that would make it harder for women to get insurance coverage for abortion services. Steele revealed that she had been the victim of sexual assault as a young girl, and later learned that the man who molested her had harmed multiple other victims.
The lawmaker had not planned to disclose her molestation, but she ended up feeling compelled to share her personal story after she was asked to explain why abortion should be considered a medical service. “This is health care. Having the ability to get an abortion,” she said to the committee. “And that’s why I see this as necessary.”
Meanwhile, during Michigan’s last session, State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D) spoke up in a debate over a measure to restrict insurance coverage for abortion — including for women who become pregnant from rape. Before the final vote, Whitmer tearfully disclosed her own history with sexual assault for the first time, telling her fellow lawmakers that she had been raped two decades ago.
“As I was considering what to say in opposition to the rape insurance proposal in front of the Senate today, I made the decision to speak about my own story publicly for the first time ever,” Whitmer said. “I felt it was important for my Republican colleagues to see the face of the women they’re hurting with their actions today.”
Texas voters have also become well acquainted with former gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’ (D) personal history, which she cited during her infamous filibuster against a package of harsh abortion restrictions in the summer of 2013. During that filibuster, she talked about her experience with terminating an ectopic pregnancy, recounted relying on Planned Parenthood clinics when she was uninsured, and explained that there was a point in her life when she wouldn’t have been able to afford to drive hundreds of miles to the nearest abortion clinic. Later, in her memoir, Davis detailed the reasons why she had a second abortion.
The list goes on. Nevada Assemblywomen Lucy Flores (D) talked about her decision to have an abortion at the age of 16 during her testimony in favor of a comprehensive sex ed measure. U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) disclosed her own abortion on the House floor while arguing against a GOP-sponsored proposal to defund Planned Parenthood. Pennsylvania State Rep. Louise Williams Bishop (D) discussed being raped at the age of 12 to explain her support for a bill to strengthen protections for victims of child abuse.
There are two sides to this emerging trend. On one hand, it speaks to the fact that increasing the number of women serving in government can end up influencing lawmaking. There wouldn’t be nearly as many personal stories about issues that disproportionately affect women, like sexual assault and abortion, if legislatures consisted of solely men. Changing the conversation in this way is a reminder that creating more diversity in the halls of power can make a real difference.
On the other hand, even as reproductive advocates celebrate the fact that an increasing number of women are feeling comfortable enough to disclose their stigmatized health care experiences, there are lingering concerns. Is this too high of an emotional cost to demand from women in the public sphere? Do we feel too entitled to women’s personal stories, when we should be able to understand the impact of proposed abortion restrictions without that invasion of privacy?
“I personally resent that women have to tell their deepest, darkest traumas in public, their most private moments in public, in order to get people to understand that these bills, these attempts to take away women’s rights, how devastating they are,” Rep. Victoria Steele, the Arizona lawmaker who disclosed her sexual assault earlier this month, told Cosmopolitan this month. “We should not have to bare that part of our lives in such a public way to be able to access legal medical care.”
Still, although Steele said “it was hard as hell to do what I did in that hearing,” she concluded that she didn’t regret it.