"It’s really terrifying": Lizz Winstead on stealth antiabortion laws and fighting politicians in "their last grasp of hanging on to unearned power"

Salon talks to the "Daily Show" co-creator on Lady Parts Justice League and using humor to help abortion clinics

Published March 1, 2016 11:59PM (EST)

Lizz Winstead   (AP/Charles Sykes)
Lizz Winstead (AP/Charles Sykes)

Earlier today, a Super Tuesday-themed video made the rounds of the Internet. It wasn't directed at candidates and their platforms, but instead used the premise of a beauty pageant to highlight the differences in abortion access across all the states voting today. Contestants representing Vermont and Massachusetts touted the freedom in their reproductive legislation, while models representing Texas, Alabama and Alaska noted their restrictive laws. The clip, dubbed "2016 Miss Super Tuesday Pageant!," was just the latest comedy-as-education clip from Lady Parts Justice League, the grass-roots reproductive rights organization founded by Lizz Winstead, co-creator (and one-time head writer) of "The Daily Show" and former program director for Air America. The organization is a champion for reproductive rights: By producing videos featuring outspoken comedians such as Sarah Silverman, and more grass-roots activities—workshops, comedy shows, going on the road to visit clinics –Lady Parts Justice strives to educate, galvanize and support with comedy.

"Our whole philosophy is, we want to be able to create action items that feel like you incorporate it into your life, not something you go do," Winstead says.

In fact, the Super Tuesday video also put an exclamation point on the organization's February series of videos, which were all aimed at exposing—and explaining—the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws passed by 24 U.S. states. These laws take aim at abortion clinics and providers and "have been designed, basically, to make it so impossible for [them] to stay open," Winstead explains. "Like financial burdens, things that are just impossible to attain that have nothing to do with keeping abortions safe. They’re just designed to be so prohibitive that clinics need to close down. Things like you have to get admitting privileges to a hospital, if you don’t have enough patients the hospital won’t grant you admitting privileges, and because abortion is so safe, they can’t present a case load to make it beneficial to the hospital, so they deny them admitting privileges. So the clinic has to close. Shit like that."

On its website, Lady Parts Justice League has an entire section dedicated to these laws—and tomorrow (March 2), the organization (and a busload of supporters from New York) plans to be part of a rally on the Capitol steps, as the abortion-access-throttling 2013 Texas law popularized by Wendy Davis' filibuster goes before the Supreme Court. Such gestures may seem different from Winstead's TV and radio work—but to her, they're all along the same continuum. "I don’t do anything different in my whole career except now I have the freedom to make the comedy I want to make, about the subject matter I love most in the world, and to have the creative freedom to present it the way I want," she says. "And now the creative community that I know has a place to come and be part of messaging [where] they trust the person making it."

Winstead spoke to Salon a few weeks ago from Gainesville, Florida, where she was attending a communications conference, and spoke about what LPJ does and what it hopes to achieve, as well as why she's so passionate about these causes.

When did the idea for Lady Parts Justice come about?

I’ve always done benefits and been an activist. I share my abortion story all the time about being pregnant the first time I ever had sex in high school. So I’ve always been outspoken. I took time off to finish my book in 2010, and I moved back to Minnesota to finish it, which is where I’m from. I packed up my dogs and I went back home, thinking that if I got back to Minnesota and out of New York for, like, six months it wouldn’t be a distraction. Apparently I thought they still had covered wagons and no cable. [Laughs.] I don’t know what I was thinking!

When 2011 happened and that Tea Party Congress got sworn in, the first thing they did was try to defund Planned Parenthood. I was just like, “This is fucking crazy.” Then, when it failed, I watched all of these state legislatures coming up with the same bills—defunding, defunding, defunding all over the place. TRAP laws, all of this crazy shit. And I was like, “This thing’s orchestrated and weird, and nobody really knows what’s happening.” And so I called up Planned Parenthood when I was done writing my book, and said, “I’m gonna drive back to New York. I was thinking maybe I would drive across the country and do some benefits for you guys along the way.” And they were like, “Who are you?” And I was like, “Look, it doesn’t matter, how about if we just do this.”

So I was doing shows, and what was weird was, half the audience would come for Planned Parenthood, and then half the audience came because they knew me. People who came for Planned Parenthood didn’t understood how far-reaching the situation was. They kind of knew about their own state, but they didn’t understand how bad it was in all of the other states. And the people who came to see me didn’t understand how bad it was at all. I would go to benefit after benefit, and then what started out as six benefits for Planned Parenthood grew into me realizing that the independent clinics were really hurting, so I started adding independent clinics into my fundraising repertoire. Now I’ve done something like 80 benefits for clinics across the country.

Every single time I would do a benefit, a couple of things happened. Those questions kept coming up, like, “What can I do?” And I kept saying, “I don’t know.” And I felt like I was back at "The Daily Show" or Air America, where I would raise people’s consciousness by telling stories and being funny and giving information, but I didn’t have any solutions. That was really always an unsatisfying thing for me. I was like, “This is really great, but then I can’t tell people, ‘Here’s some action items you can do.’” That wasn’t my role.

And I kept saying, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?” And then I was like, "Well, maybe I can do something." So I called up some comedy friends and I was like, “You know what? What if I were to create a hub where I called on you guys to help me do messaging that's out there about all this shit, because it’s really bad.” And people said, “That’s great, because I want to be able to respond to this, and I don’t want to be silenced, and I don’t want to be edited. I want to be able to say what I want to say, in the way that I say it.” And I was like, “Great, that’s what I want too.” Because the bottom line is, the healthcare providers should be providing the healthcare, those that want to lobby politicians should be doing that, and then the rabble-rousers should be free to be making a lot of noise. Unencumbered. And we’re communicators, it’s what we do, so we know how to do it in a way that gets people’s attention and doesn’t feel wonky and it feels right.

So I raised a little money on Kickstarter and I made a video that was about a woman getting a transvaginal ultrasound. One of those TRAP laws is that you have to look at your ultrasound screen, and when she looks at the ultrasound screen it’s a politician inside her uterus, saying, “Well, too bad! I’m 2017 weeks along and you’re stuck with me.” I wrote a little piece for BoingBoing about it, and the video went up, and it got almost 700,000 hits. Then I was like, “I want to do more videos,” and so we raised some money and we made this big website that has interactive maps on it, and then it came off to the races. And here we are.

What's frustrating is that there are all of these oppressive laws going into effect, and you don’t know what to do. There’s so much hypocrisy involved with all of them, that you don’t even know where to begin sometimes.

The other part of the story that really propelled me into expanding more was…the thing that really got me in the gut every time was that there was somebody from the clinic. Sometimes it was the owner of the clinic; sometimes it was the doctor; sometimes it was maybe an LPN that worked there. And they all said to me, “Thank you for coming. No one ever comes. No one ever comes to be nice to us. People run away from us. People pretend we don’t do abortions; people pretend that abortions are not a necessary part of healthcare. We feel the stigma, and our patients feel the stigma. It’s really hard to walk a gauntlet of protesters every day, to see patients, and have every one of those people say, ‘Thank you for helping me. You saved my life,’ and then to have everybody run away, it feels really awful. So thank you.” That was another really big catalyst.

The second component of what we do … We started last year by going to Alabama and Mississippi. We got in the van and we drove down and we helped as patient escorts. One of the people on my team had started her own escort team in New Jersey. So we went down when all of these horrible anti-choice extremists were going to Montgomery, Alabama, [to an] independent clinic. We went down there to literally throw a party for the workers and the clinic defenders and to help them escort and run their errands, to help them do whatever they needed to get done. They were there around the clock, because these [protesters] were there around the clock, so we got them food and anything anybody needed and then we had a party for them to let them know that their work is awesome.

From that we also started a postcard-writing program called #thankbank, where we encourage people to send postcards — not letters, because you don’t know what’s in a letter — to clinics to let them know that you’re happy they're part of the community and that you’ll be a part of their community when they need you. Eventually, in 2016, we’re growing that into doing some workshops around the country where we go in and do a comedy show, provide the aid and comfort for the clinic, but then also bring the clinic and the community together, so people who support the clinic can make a commitment to that clinic. Say, “We’d like to start an email list so that if a bunch of people show up and you need someone, you write me and we’ll send an email chain out we’ll get people there. A couple of times a year, we’ll take you guys out, bring you food, let you know that you are loved and wanted in the community.” Because the thing that’s so crazy—and you’re not even going to believe this when I tell you, but it’s 100 percent true—no one in the history of this movement has started a program that provides support for the clinic workers.

What tangible impact have you seen from the work you’re doing?

The tangible impact is people understanding that getting to know their local clinic is important. Poor Planned Parenthood—they just became this brand, like Kleenex, they just represent everything. Part of our awareness raising is to say, “Planned Parenthood is part of a really strong abortion community, but how about you get to know these other local clinics, too? Because they’re amazing, and sometimes they don’t get the help." For example, the last clinic in Mississippi is an independent clinic, so we want to make sure when that clinic's under attack that we are providing our love and our resources to Jackson Women’s Health Organization. So that they know that they're loved, so that they know we know when they can reach out, that we gave our money to them also.

So re-explaining what the larger community of reproductive health justice is, I think that’s been really impactful and great. I think just actually telling the story, and the storytelling aspect, which I’ve been part of a lot, has been very moving for young people. My staff is 65 percent women of color, and I would say 80 percent women under 32. So what’s really cool about what we’re doing, and what I’ve heard from them, is that the reason they like what we do is that we actually stop to ask them about how this issue affects them now, instead of being a person who wants them to fight the battles that I fought, or that the women who came before me [fought].

That’s a very different thing. Honoring what women have done before us is how we get to fight for the issues and the circumstances that are happening now. So they feel like they can really connect with what we’re doing, because we are more outspoken, we are in different places than women have been in the past of fighting these battles. So it’s really nice to honor the women who fought before us, and also combine that with really taking on the issues that are different for women now.

At the end of the day it kind of doesn’t matter who gets elected, people are still going to need abortion care. That’s just true, whether the environment is hostile or the environment is less hostile. It feels like we don’t have a whole lot of politicians right now who are pushing to expand abortion access. We'll forward some of the stuff that we’ve lost. I haven’t heard that from anybody who is talking about this issue and understands how important state politics are.

We want to familiarize people with the fact that, I know it seems really boring, but voting for your city councilman really matters. Voting for your mayor really matters, your state representative really matters. Because those are where these horrible laws are coming into play, and where we’ve found ourselves in the position where the antiabortion activists have been stealth at legislating abortion out of existence without making it illegal. It’s really terrifying.

It was totally stealth. It's these provisions being tacked onto budget laws, or other unrelated things, which is so underhanded…

There’s a lot of frustration that I was feeling as I started this, listening to women say, “Oh, that used to be my issue when I used Planned Parenthood, now I don't. Now I've got health insurance or have kids." And I thought, “Well, how privileged of you to be able to say it’s not your issue anymore, when using those services helps you get to where you go.” It’s not something you check out of for me. It's something that I desperately want to make sure that everybody can have access to it, because it’s where you get a fighting chance. If you have an economic house of cards, having a kid, having another kid can keep you out of [being] somebody that could achieve anything forever. And that's just real. So to make sure people without means, women of color, anybody who feels they, for whatever reason, can't have a kid or another kid, should be able to make that decision for themselves. It's not something you check out of. I feel really strongly about that.

I just want to say to all these anti-choice people who scream, “Planned Parenthood doesn’t perform mammograms!" It’s like, “Do you know the process with which you get a mammogram? You have to get an exam. Do you know how expensive exams are? No, you don’t, because you’ve never had a mammogram." To be able to go to a place that will give you an affordable breast exam and pap smear and give you a referral to get your mammogram, is ginormous. That is a ginormous thing.

Why are men and politicians so fascinated with reproductive rights and scared of women?

What I have deduced in my little small brain… As you look at the landscape of those who are so fervently involved in talking about this constantly, there is a correlation between who they are and their last grasp of hanging on to unearned power. When people who have just been given power and they didn’t earn it, see coming down the pike people who have fought really hard and have become smart and are demanding a seat at the table—and are going to start questioning why those people have a seat at the table, and why are those people talking about me when I know more than them—that is a terrifying thing. We’ve seen how unearned power governs horribly. Now we’re seeing how horribly they respond when they’re fighting for the last gasps of it.

That’s my dinosaur analysis of all of it, because otherwise why would they care? Because it always comes further and further away from abortion. It starts out as abortion, and then it becomes, like, “You’re just a slut” and then it becomes “You can’t have birth control.” And then it becomes “Plan B is abortion” and then it becomes, "You just want to control behavior." That’s all. You just want to control people’s behavior. Because sexual empowerment or making those types of decisions smashes the patriarchy.

Either way, all of what you're describing what you do with Lady Parts Justice sounds so much like a grass-roots movement.

The thing that’s so interesting is, like, all these groups that are in the reproductive rights and justice movement, they all do really cool things. Some people work with teams; some people work on legislation; people work on all sorts of really cool stuff. But nobody was really doing what I do, which is responding to hypocrisy through humor, and I just thought, "There’s a void here that I can fill with what I do." So I feel like I’m adding another way to get information in a landscape full of stuff. I don’t want to do what everybody else is doing, I want to fill a void where maybe I can make some impact through humor.

And when we go to local communities, participating with local activists and having them tell us what kinds of things resonate with their community, so we can build humor around what they told us. Not making decisions that we just think, “Oh, this is the way it should be done," because it’s different in every state.

Anything else you want to add?

I just feel really excited and proud that I have this really cool team of people—men, women, everybody on the gender continuum, constantly checking ourselves about what’s important, is everyone represented and are there points of views here that are dominant that we need to make sure that we’re flipping the narrative on. It’s really nice to be having conversations that are intersectional all day every day. It’s really fun. And to have it all be driven by women. It’s a safe space for comedians. It's a safe space for having feelings, feeling vulnerable. It's very powerful.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Abortion Lady Parts Justice League Lizz Winstead Scotus