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Two Pink Lines by Mari Ellis Dunning

19 Sep 2022 7 minute read
Pearl & Bone and Mari Ellis Dunning

Mari Ellis Dunning

When I first saw those two pink lines appearing, like small fish rising to the surface of a pond, there was no way of knowing I would be undergoing half my pregnancy, the entirety of my labour and the majority of the first year of my son’s life under strict lockdown conditions.

The range of emotions and new experiences brought about by becoming a mother for the first time, compounded with it happening during a global pandemic, pulled poetry from me like water from a tap.

It also led me to reflect on how sidelined and marginalised new parents, particularly women and mothers, were in amongst the full scale of the pandemic.

I spent seemingly endless hours labouring alone, then spent a week on the postnatal ward while my premature baby strengthened in SCBU, with no physical support from family, friends or even my husband.

Meanwhile, friends sent selfies from the pub. This marginalisation didn’t feel like an isolated incident – at best, we were overlooked.

At worst, the situation showed total disdain and misogyny from the government and policy makers, who consistently prioritised retail and ‘the economy’ over the health and wellbeing of thousands of new parents.

Forming the vast majority of primary caregivers, women and mothers bore the brunt of this dismissal.

Women’s work

Despite being necessary, vital and gruelling, the greater part of care work, largely considered ‘women’s work’, remains unseen, unrecognised and devalued.

Studies indicate that stay-at-home mothers work, on average, the equivalent of 2.5 full time jobs, and yet these hours are generally unacknowledged by policy makers, society at large, and women themselves.

My sudden immersion into this world – that of a full-time caregiver in the middle of a pandemic when baby groups, cafes and libraries were firmly closed – led me to consider the rights of women globally, particularly in regards to reproductive rights. As I looked more closely, I was startled, but not surprised, by the violence and vitriol surrounding the issue of female bodily autonomy.

We are living in a time in which a presidential candidate brazenly bragged about sexually assaulting women and was still elected.

He then proudly posed for a photo depicting himself signing away women’s rights to their own bodies, stripping funding for sex education and access to safe, legal abortion.

Since its introduction in 1984, The Global Gag Rule has put millions of women’s lives at risk, particularly poorer women, and counterintuitively resulted in higher rates of accidental pregnancy and an increase in dangerous and deadly abortion procedures.

At the time, the impact of this withdrawal of funding under America’s anti-abortion rhetoric had far-reaching consequences beyond restricting reproductive rights, impacting on contraceptive services, antenatal care, HIV testing and treatment, and screening for cervical, breast and prostate cancer across Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria and South Africa.

In her essay, ‘A Nation Divided on Abortion’, Zoë Brigley described the 2020 presidential race as a ‘referendum on abortion’.

That The Global Gag Rule ultimately increases the number of abortions by reducing access to contraception is not just an unfortunate irony – it reveals the way in which women’s bodies repeatedly become political spaces used to control and coerce.

An empty womb

In spring 2022, just before going to print with this collection, a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion suggested the court could be poised to overturn the historic Roe v. Wade ruling, leaving the legal status of abortion entirely up to individual states, again compromising millions of women’s lives in a bid to control and claim ownership of all female bodies.

With this in mind, I wrote many of the poems included within this collection, including the final poem ‘The Womb Speaks’, which speaks back to The Global Gag Rule, and to the fear surrounding an empty womb.

What is it about women’s bodies that drives the state to repress, control and undermine our choices?

Is it the power we hold as women and child-bearing people to create, grow and nourish new life? To sustain a collection of cells from conception to birth?

Does the ability to occupy the space between life and death, the almost supernatural magic of pregnancy and birth, ignite fear in some government officials and heads of state?

Enough fear to repeatedly strip us of our rights to our bodily autonomy?

Witch trials

In November 2019, an Ohio bill ordered medical practitioners to re-implant ectopic embryos into a woman’s uterus or face charges of ‘abortion murder’, despite the procedure being physiologically impossible.

In the same year, an Alabama woman, Marshae Jones, was indicted for manslaughter after losing a pregnancy having been shot in the abdomen, while her shooter remained free.

She was charged on the grounds of having ‘provoked’ the attacker.

Similarly, in El Salvador, women who suffer the tragedy of miscarriage and stillbirth still face prison sentences on charges of murder.

Most people would say we’ve come a long way since the infamous witch trials of the 16th century, and while we don’t typically hang women in market squares or burn them at the stake on unfounded charges anymore, many of the same issues of fear and control abound today.

A 2022 study by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership found that one in three men across thirty countries believe feminism does ‘more harm than good.’

America has yet to see a female president – indeed, during Hilary Clinton’s campaign she was repeatedly referred to as ‘The Wicked Witch of the Left’ – the gender pay gap remains unresolved, and bias against women in medicine is rife.

How much has really changed, in terms of attitude, since Heinrich Kramer launched a violent attack on women, claiming in the Malleus Maleficarum ‘when a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil?’

What he, and other witch finders, seemed to fear most, was the notion of a powerful, independent woman. Can we really suggest anything has changed in regards to cultural attitudes towards women, particularly in regard to law-makers, heads of state and religion?

That woman

Most people will be aware of Monica Lewinsky, a twenty-four-year-old White House secretary who was vilified following an affair with then-president Bill Clinton, who quickly reduced her to no more than ‘that woman’ in his infamous speech.

While Clinton will be remembered for numerous events, Lewinsky’s name will always be synonymous with the affair.

Her story mirrors, to some extent, the woman at the heart of the Profumo affair, a major scandal in 20th-century British politics.

Her name was Christine Keeler, and I am grateful to Fionn Wilson for granting me permission to use her painting of Keeler on the cover of this book.

Keeler was just nineteen when she embarked on an affair with John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government.

In a pattern we have seen time and again, Keeler, having been essentially groomed and manipulated by some of the most powerful men in the world, was publicly shamed, mocked and ridiculed.

I am fascinated by Keeler, by the public’s treatment of her, particularly as she aged, and by the lack of any conceivable change in cultural attitude even sixty years later.

A series of poems in this collection are dedicated to Christine Keeler, her story interweaving with my own.

She is emblematic of the women world-over who have unduly suffered due to the media, the state, the government, public perception and cultural attitudes.

These issues – of medical bias, gendered violence, misogyny, control over women’s bodies and reproductive rights, the praising of chastity and virginity, and the notion of female bodies as vessels alone – are far too much for a foreword in a poetry collection to tackle, and too vast an issue to explore through poetry alone, but this collection, Pearl and Bone, is my starting point.

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