Chatting with Martha Plimpton about A is For ASSSSCAT

Martha Plimpton is an amazing woman. She’s a brilliant actress, hilarious comedienne and a staunch advocate for women’s rights.

Along with Maureen Herman, Gina Loukares, Kelly Overby, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, Sarah Thyre and Lizz Winstead, Plimpton founded A is For — an organization that fights for women’s reproductive rights in an era where they are being threatened.

Tonight, A is For is joining with the Upright’s Citizens Brigade to present special shows on both sides of the United States to promote A is For and spark laughter. Lena Dunham and Lizz Winstead are guests in the New York show and Busy Phillips, Julie Bowen and Martha herself are doing the Los Angeles one. 

I was lucky enough to chat with Martha about A is For, the importance of speaking up and the UCB shows.

Meghan: For people who may be unfamiliar with the organization, what exactly does “A is For” stand for?

Martha: The A in A is For is the Scarlet Letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book of the same name. In the story, it’s a symbol of shame worn by a Puritan woman, Hester Prynne, who has had an affair out of wedlock and borne a child. When she is expelled from her community, and forced to sew the A for “adulteress” onto her breast and wear it for life, she raises her child in isolation from her family and the life she knew, and forges a life of extreme independence and fortitude.

A is For seeks to use the symbolic A, which is recognizable to many people as one of shame and humiliation, as a symbol of strength, pride, and independence, much the way Hester Prynne changes its meaning in her life as the story progresses.

When we wear the A, it can mean whatever we want it to mean: Activism, Authority, Allegiance, Anything.

Meghan: You’re one of A is For’s many awesome founders…do you mind sharing the backstory of how you ladies were inspired to get together and start the campaign for women’s reproductive rights?

Martha: Back in March 2012, a few of us women got together to talk about what we could do in response to the insane verbal assault that Rush Limbaugh laid down on Sandra Fluke when she testified in Congress on the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. It really pissed us off. Here was a smart, very well-informed law student and private citizen who had been called to testify – and she was initially turned away when she showed up, in favor of an all male panel. None of whom were doctors, just FYI. She was there to talk about the reality that contraceptive care is basic health care for the majority of women in this country, and that it should be covered by our insurance, that we pay for.

Millions of women use contraception. It is basic preventive health care, as defined by pretty much anyone who knows how it works. There are many, many reasons why women use birth control, and here was Limbaugh, and a growing chorus of ignorant bullies, calling Ms. Fluke a prostitute and a slut who wanted taxpayers to pay her to have sex.

It was completely appalling. Not to mention ignorant, to put it mildly. And it just released this hideous floodgate of woman-hating. Even from other women, which is always depressing – women hating on women is a sure fire tool of misogynists to keep us from unifying.

Anyway, here they were piling on this woman who had done nothing more than exercise her right and privilege as a citizen. She had DARED to speak, and she was being excoriated for it. She was being put in her place, if you will. It was enraging. So, finally, people were starting to pay attention to the fact that hey, wait a minute, there are LAWS being passed preventing us from exercising our Constitutional rights, every day, in states all over the country.

This moment is just the tipping point, really. What Rush did was finally reveal to a national audience what is at the heart of so much of the current conversation about women’s health: a deep seated and virulent misogyny. For that alone he deserves some credit.

We wanted to respond to this in a way that had lasting meaning, that would be instantly understood by anyone who saw it, and we wanted to do it in a way that would directly aid those who work every day to protect and provide women with access to their Constitutional right to abortion and reproductive health care, like the Center For Reproductive Rights.  So we we got a bunch of wine and some quinoa salad and we talked long into the night. Call it a modern consciousness raising session like they used to have in the 70s. We brainstormed. We already knew that it was in the zeitgeist, as it were. People were already saying things on Twitter like, “Why don’t they just slap a scarlet A on us and be done with it?!” And we thought, “Hey, that’s actually not a bad idea. Why DON’T we all wear a scarlet A and show these morons just how many of us there are?”

So that’s where the idea came from and it’s how we got started.

Meghan: I actually know a lot of smart women who feel like “war on women” isn’t happening and don’t want to get involved. Either they haven’t heard about some of the recent legislative attacks on female reproductive rights or they have personal beliefs that are in line with anti-abortion laws. What would you say to those women?

Martha: To people who don’t believe a woman should have a right to choose I can only say that I would fight just as hard if the day ever came when my government would force any woman to have an abortion against her will.

You see, when the state can tell you it owns your body, it can do whatever it wants with it. This is not okay with me, in any case, ever. The state has no place making these decisions. The end. Whether it’s in China or the United States, it is not the role of government to interfere with a woman’s reproductive life.

For people who might otherwise be indifferent or think there’s nothing here to really worry about, ie: “Hey, Roe v Wade is the law of the land. It’s not going anywhere.” I just mention a few facts, and I get a response that I can only describe as “amazement.” Here are some of them: In the United States, 87% of counties lack an abortion provider. This means that the majority of American woman of child bearing age do not have access to an abortion provider. And that percentage is growing. Five states have only one provider left. However, 1 in 3 women will have an abortion, for personal or medical reasons, in her lifetime. Right now, today, more states allow same sex marriage than allow unrestricted access to abortion. This year alone, and remember, it’s only the start of March, has seen over 400 bills proposed in state legislatures restricting women’s access to abortion, a Constitutionally protected medical procedure that 1 in 3 women will have. Since 2010 it’s something like 2000 bills. More than for any other area of our lives. More than for jobs. More than for education. Women’s reproductive lives are the most heavily legislated and restricted aspect of public health, by far. So this isn’t something we can ignore anymore. Roe v Wade left a lot of wiggle room to the states, and anti-choice politicians and activists are making steady ground chipping away at it every single day on the state level. These are critical things to know and pay attention to.

We have to remember why Roe v Wade came before the Supreme Court in the first place. Before Roe established a woman’s Constitutional right to abortion in the first trimester, women were dying from illegal abortion. Women died a lot more often than people today realize. Because what banning abortion doesn’t do is end abortion; it just drives it underground. Women will have abortions, whether her state Senator likes it or not. And when you make it harder for them, you only make it more dangerous, and harder, really, for poor women; women who have fewer resources, who can’t travel or pay a huge sum to an illegal abortionist. Again, 1 in 3.
Meghan: Where did you guys get the idea to have the A is For shows at UCB-NY and UCB-LA?

Martha:We wanted to have a benefit and Sarah Thyre and Shannon Woodward had both done a ton of stuff there, and I’ve done ASSSSCAT once in New York and it was one of the most fun things I ever did. And it worked out great! They were happy to have us and we feel so lucky we got such a brilliant group of performers to do it.
Meghan: I know that ASSSSCAT often has monologists and special drop-in guest performers. Would this be a spoiler or can you say if Lena, Lizz, Julie, Busy and yourself are giving monologues or playing with the improvisers?
Martha: Lena, Busy and Julie are all guest monologists. Lena is doing the New York show and Julie and Busy are going to be in LA. Lizz Winstead and and I are sort of hosting in New York and LA respectively. We’re really excited that they all said yes right away. We asked them because every single one of them is not only brilliantly talented and funny, but smart, game, and prepared to speak up. I love them all for doing it.We all should have the same guts these broads have to not only show up and give off the cuff monologues but do it for their sisters. I am incredibly grateful to them, but I know they’d tell me to shut the hell up for praising them so much. They feel the same way I do, I think. And they know we all have a job to do here. They’re fantastic.

Meghan: For people who missed out on getting the VIP tickets, can they still see the show? How can people who can’t go to the shows this weekend get involved with A is For?

Martha: If you didn’t get tickets, you can’t see the show, unfortunately. UCB very wisely doesn’t allow filming and anyway, it’s better, because that way the monologists and performers feel more free and easy. It’s way more relaxed. But I’m hoping they’ll let us make it an annual thing. We sold out pretty fast so that’s a good sign. And people can still get involved. That’s what we want more than anything. They can go to our website, www.aisfor.org, and they can donate or visit our online store or read more about that’s going on around the country. They can check out pics of the show once they’re up. And they can write to us, suggest blog posts or comment on whatever.

And most importantly, everyone who donates $5 or more gets an A ribbon. That’s the most important way people can help. By getting that ribbon and wearing it, every day. To the store, to school, to work. Wear it on your jacket, your backpack, your whatever. And get people talking. Tell people what your A means and encourage other people who might otherwise not have thought about what it means to have control over your body, and what it would feel like to lose that control by law. Imagine what life would be for you if the government told you what you could or couldn’t do with your own body. That’s the deepening reality for women in this country today. Then wear that A and say no. No way.

Meghan: Finally, as horrible as it is to admit, I often find myself scared to speak up for myself and my beliefs if I feel they are against the norm. You are quite honestly one of the most courageous women I can think of. Do you ever get nervous about backlash for expressing yourself and if so, how do you find the bravery to keep going?

Martha: Sometimes I get nervous. I won’t lie. But I am a United States citizen. And I am a woman. And I am a human being. If I don’t say it, who am I expecting to say it for me? I trust myself to speak for myself better than anyone. So I do. Any time I feel the need to speak up for myself, I do it. And I believe that is my birthright.

But there’s nothing courageous about speaking up when my rights are in jeopardy, when they are truly threatened in a way they never were before in my lifetime. It’s simply what must be done.

Think about it: If my sisters in Mississippi and Arkansas and North Dakota and Indiana and Texas and yes, even in California (check this link if you don’t believe me: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/01/31/all-states-except-oregon-now-limit-abortion-access/ ) do not have the same freedoms I do in New York or Oregon, that is a problem for me. The same way I will speak out and fight for my LGBT friends and family to have the same rights I have IN EVERY STATE. The same way I believe that my gay and lesbian friends have the right to marry and have kids and benefit from legal marriage in all its glory. I will speak out for MY OWN rights and MY OWN freedoms and MY OWN right to equal protection under the law. That is the meaning of feminism. It’s not a dirty word. A lot of people have fought over that word and there’s a lot of drama around it, but when you get right down to it, what does it mean? Equality. That’s what it means. Everything else is semantics. Equality for all, WOMEN INCLUDED. And women cannot experience equality if we do not have the ability to control our own bodies as we see fit. Every single American has that right, and we have a responsibility and a duty to show up when ANY American’s rights are infringed. Because we’re all in this thing, this life, together.

A is for ASSSSCAT is tonight at 7:30 pm at the UCB-NY Theatre and at 7:30 pm at the UCB-LA Theatre.
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