Heidi Allen telling her abortion story in the House of Commons on Tuesday, June 5
Heidi Allen telling her abortion story in the House of Commons on Tuesday 5 June

Opinion 

When women tell their stories, they can change the world

This week, Heidi Allen and Jess Phillips became the first-ever politicians to share their abortion stories in the House of Commons. It was a moment that showed the power of women’s testimony

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By Lynn Enright on

There’s a bit in Nora Ephron’s Heartburn – a novel she wrote based on the painful real-life events of her husband leaving her for another woman – when Rachel, the protagonist standing in for Nora herself, explains the power of stories.

“Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?” Rachel’s therapist Vera asks.

Rachel puts it plainly:

“So I told her why.
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn't hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”

She might have added: “Because if I tell the story, I can change the world.”

Never before has it felt more obvious that when women tell their own stories – their own knotty and complicated and brilliant and painful truths – they have the power to bring about change. Last month, when voters were asked what had the biggest impact on how they voted in the Irish abortion referendum, they were clear: it was women’s stories. Sixty-six per cent of voters in one poll said that hearing personal testimony was the single biggest factor in deciding how they would vote. 

Of course, though, there are stories left untold, truths that are too painful to be offered up. And it can feel frustrating as well as empowering, this reliance on our testimony

For weeks and weeks, in the lead-up to the referendum, women had told their stories. On the radio and on TV and in newspapers and magazines, women had spoken of being forced to travel for abortions. They had talked about the harrowing process of learning that the babies they were carrying would not survive birth. They had reached back into their pasts, dredging up painful memories, to help a country face up to its cruelty. They had told their stories as tears rolled down their cheeks, as sobs crawled up their throats and as anger coloured their cheeks.

This week, as politicians in the House of Commons debated whether or not the UK’s Abortion Act 1967 should be extended to Northern Ireland (where abortion remains illegal, even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality), two MPs told their stories. Jess Phillips and Heidi Allen became the first politicians to ever speak openly about having an abortion in the House of Commons.

As pressure mounted on Theresa May over Northern Ireland’s punitive abortion laws, Conservative MP Allen, who represents South Cambridgeshire, told her own story. “I was ill when I made the incredibly hard decision to have a termination,” she said, her voice wobbling. “I was having seizures every day. I wasn’t even able to control my own body, let alone care for a new life.”

She stood there – in front of her colleagues, in front of the media, in front of people watching the debate on TV or on the internet – and she offered up a personal and painful truth, hoping that it would make life better for other women.

Stories have the power to reach people in a way that data can’t. When the allegations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced last October, Ashley Judd’s testimony resonated with women all over the world. The New York Times’ first piece of investigative reporting into Weinstein included the line: “‘How do I get out of the room as fast as possible without alienating Harvey Weinstein?’ Ms Judd said she remembers thinking.”

And women who had endured sexual harassment at work, who had felt helpless in the face of a leering and powerful boss, nodded in grim recognition. Their experiences had been articulated.

Soon, the stories abounded, on Twitter and Facebook, in offices and in families, with women talking about the pain they suffered, the behaviour they had been forced to endure. The #MeToo movement, which has women’s stories at its centre, was born.    

Of course, though, there are stories left untold, truths that are too painful to be offered up. And it can feel frustrating as well as empowering, this reliance on our testimony. Why can’t a statistic have the same impact as my story? Why can’t people care about abortion rights and sexual assault without seeing a woman’s tears? We must be careful about who gets to tell their stories, too, and ask ourselves: do we pay particular heed to the stories of white middle-class women?

So, it’s not perfect, this storytelling. But, sometimes, it is the best we have. I remember when I was going through a crisis pregnancy, I googled “Nora Ephron abortion”. There wasn’t much online, it wasn’t a subject she had written a great deal about. And now, years later, it seems like a strange thing to have done. But I wanted her to tell me a story, to help me understand my own.

Life is hard and women’s experiences, in particular, are too-often sidelined and overlooked and minimised and denigrated. But when we tell our stories, we control the version, we make people laugh, we make it hurt less, we allow ourselves to get on with it. And we change the world.

@lynnenright

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Heidi Allen telling her abortion story in the House of Commons on Tuesday 5 June
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women in politics
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