FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHTS
Lizz Winstead Helped Create ‘The Daily Show.’ Now She’s Fighting for Women’s Abortion Rights.
Comedian and activist Lizz Winstead talks to Amy Zimmerman about her new docuseries, ‘Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order,’ abortion rights, and shitty male comics.
“Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show, is furious.”
So begins the press release for Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order, a new docuseries that shows how the activists and comedians at Lady Parts Justice are harnessing fury in the fight for reproductive rights.
Winstead founded Lady Parts Justice in 2012, using her experience as a political satirist to “raise the alarm.” Then came Lady Parts Justice League in 2015. “Part USO, part Habitat for Humanity,” LPJL “travels the country doing comedy and providing aid and comfort to independent clinics in hostile states.” While Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order opens on reminiscences of election night 2016, the series is an important reminder that the right has been waging a war on reproductive rights long before Trump was elected—a war that has paid off in the form of shuttered clinics and severely restricted access.
In the series, we follow Winstead and her fellow organizers as they protest, fundraise, and provide in-person and financial support to independent clinics across the country via the 16-city “Vagical Mystery Tour.”
Winstead spoke to The Daily Beast about the midterm election results, “systemic bullshit” in the comedy world, and bracing for a post-Roe v. Wade world.
Hey, how are you?
You know, living the dream. Just living that abortion-rights dream.
So I wanted to get the really depressing stuff out of the way—I was hoping you could speak to the two ballot measures adding restrictions on abortion that were approved in Alabama and West Virginia.
Well there were three, you know, the fact that Oregon got it on their ballot was scary, but Oregon rejected it. So that was good. But the ballot initiative in Alabama passed, redefining the fetus as a person, with all the rights of a living person. A little known thing that also happened in Alabama: there’s a guy named Tom Parker who was on the Alabama Supreme Court, was just elected Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. And he makes Roy Moore look like Cecile Richards. He is total, terrifying garbage, and his whole mission on the court was to take every abortion case that came, anything that had to do with the death of a fetus, and he would write the opinion, and the reason that he wanted to do it was so that when one of these laws eventually makes it through our court system to get to the Supreme Court to challenge Roe, there will be a body of evidence that says we already live in a country that has laws that define fetal personhood. And that’s really scary. And so this ballot measure is just one more notch in that greater plan that the right has. Was that too much information?
Perfect amount of information!
And West Virginia just passed their ballot measure that says that the West Virginia state constitution does not guarantee the right to an abortion. And the ballot measure in West Virginia took language from a ballot measure that passed in Tennessee, I think in 2014. So now we have two states that claim in their state constitution that a person that lives in that state is not guaranteed the constitutional right to an abortion. So those measures passed and passed handily. We door-knocked in West Virginia this summer to try to talk to people about it. And it was really hard. So while there’s a lot of excitement around the election, I feel like…I mean, it’s not nothing to take over the House in those margins because if garbage laws aren’t proposed then the garbage laws can’t get passed in the Senate, and that’s good news. We’re not going to bring up a Planned Parenthood defunding bill in the House, so that’s great.
But as for abortion, you know, I didn’t start this organization because I was panicked about Trump. I started this organization in 2012 when I was panicked about the fact that, myself included, the American public does not understand the stranglehold that state legislatures have on the issues that most people care about most—health care, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, over-policing…So I wanted to raise the alarm about what happens in state legislatures and who the people are that are proposing these laws. And here we are!
And as you pointed out, pro-lifers are already planning for a post-Roe v. Wade world.
Well I’m going to correct you, I say anti-choicers. I’m pro-life, so is everybody I know. We care about life!
I think there are seven states that have trigger laws that say that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, that abortion will immediately be illegal in their states. I think that we have to look at the way the courts were packed under Trump—the circuit courts, federal courts. And the Supreme Court, and with RBG falling down—like somebody call up Adam so we can replace her ribs, I am nervous! But we’ve been sitting with a Supreme Court powder keg for a long time with our heads in the sand about it, and now it’s very real.
I think I’m going to re-answer your question in a different way. The right has already been planning, and has done a really good job since 1992 with the Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which said that states have the right to curb access to abortion as long as there wasn’t an “undue burden.” So they have been utilizing that Supreme Court case to their advantage because nobody defined undue burden until 2016, when Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt happened at the Supreme Court, trying to narrow and define what that undue burden looks like. And they did that successfully on several of these pieces of legislation that have been created to do nothing but shutter clinics and end abortion—laws like, there’s a trend now in states of saying that you have to bury your medical waste or cremate your medical waste of abortion. And the caveat is you can’t pass the cost onto the patient. So clinics have to bear the burden of literally trying to find ways to dispose of this. The whole thing is a mess.
So that’s one way that they’re going to try to get around Roe and have clinics close down, is to force them to do really expensive things with medical waste. There’s all these weird—like, I’m so in the abortion weeds right now, I can't even believe it!—but there’s all these weird inroads that the right is trying to do right now that have nothing to do with overturning Roe, it’s like, holy shit, you know, we don’t really even have Roe now. If people can’t get admitting privileges to hospitals, and clinics are only going to go up to 12 weeks or 16 weeks and Roe says you can go up to 24…You know, we’re not even exercising our rights now.
In the series, you talk about how the “Vagical Mystery Tour” is a response to countrywide tours and efforts made by the anti-choice movement. I was hoping you could speak to the strength and commitment of that movement, and why there isn’t as strong of a grassroots, nationwide countermovement?
I think that the right has been building this massive anti-abortion movement forever and they have been able to do so partially by playing on the fact that we go on the defensive when we talk about abortion. People are like, “I’m pro-choice, I’m not pro-abortion’ and it’s like, why do you say that? How many people’s morality around abortion is dictated by the talking points of the right? I would say a lot. I think people don’t think about what they mean when they say things like, well at least we should have [abortion] for rape and incest. And it’s like, no, we should have it always. Because how someone gets pregnant isn’t the point here. The point here is access to abortion should be legal because it’s safe and fine and not murder. And when I see pro-choice people not wanting to confront the anti-abortion people or even be abortion-positive in their language, I feel really worried about that.
But I also think that patriarchy is real, man, and it governs everything that happens in our world. And so when you look at the fundamental needs of the patriarchy, the first thing that happens is you have to completely paralyze those that want to overthrow it. And the first way to curb a woman or a person with a uterus’ emancipation is to take away their access to birth control and the decision of when and how they want to have kids. So having a strong anti-abortion movement is vital in keeping the patriarchy alive. What we have discovered on our tours is when we show up to counter their narrative, their language immediately leaves abortion and goes to calling us lesbians, shaming us, calling out Muslims, calling out brown people, calling out LGBT people. It stops being about abortion and starts being literally, they just go down a list of everybody who is not like them and how they are going to destroy their world. And I think that my message to all activists is identify the anti-abortion zealots, and then understand that they are also the leaders of all of the other movements. Because “saving the babies” is noble. It’s really an easy way to just be a vitriolic asshole. You can just be like, I’m here to save that baby who I’m never going to meet, who I’m never going to take care of. I’m just here with this fake morality all day long.
Part of our strategic plan in the next couple of years is to raise money to make it affordable for all these other cool activist groups that we work with all around the country to come and be a secondary force that is as strong and as powerful as theirs. You know, they really bank on our apathy, and I am determined to prove them wrong.
There’s a moment in the series when you’re talking about the beginning of Lady Parts Justice, and how you called up other comics that you knew and were like, you’ve gotten an abortion, come show up for reproductive rights. Do cis male comics show up for Lady Parts Justice as well?
Absolutely, they show up. It’s kind of great because our shows are a reflection of who needs reproductive care, as well as the people who support it. So if you were to do a ride along with us on tour, on stage at every show you would see queer people, trans people, black and brown people, cis women, cis men, queer men. To be able to have a trans man talk about abortion or a trans woman talk about the reproductive care that she needs and can’t get—when we tour, that shit’s super important. And also how fun is it to be a queer person, and to come to Wichita, Kansas, to see a show where there’s literally a black queer man, a trans man and a trans woman and like, a South Asian woman!
But yeah, Ted Alexandro, Andy Richter, Jeff Ross…I can name a million cis dudes who show up. Alonzo Bodden. The first show Alonzo did with us, I think it was the first show, it was in Chicago and he got to talk with Dr. Willie Parker for a really long time backstage and they struck up a really great friendship.
And so Alonzo has—he’s always been really politically active and a social-justice dynamo, and now he is so all about reproductive rights, too. My thing is, when you come and you meet the clinicians and the activists in those local towns, and then you go visit the clinic and you find out what their lives are like...This is not hyperbole, even though it’s going to sound like it: people’s lives are changed forever, because you see the little support they get, and the amount of love and service they provide, and you do become driven to do anything you can to help them. I have literally become an abortion evangelist.
And you’ve talked a lot about this idea of being an “anger fluffer” with your comedy in the past. I don’t know if it was one specific moment or more of a gradual thing, but when and how did you become frustrated by the limits of political comedy?
Well, I had really cool jobs. I was on The Daily Show and then I launched Air America Radio, and I’m a stand-up. And I was like, I’m saying all these things and I’m getting people all riled up, and they’re like, thank you for saying that! And I would be like, you’re welcome! And I just wasn’t quite in tune with why I was not one-hundred percent satisfied with just raising that awareness. And then I realized it was because people would say thank you, and then they would say what can I do? And I was like, I don’t know, I’m just a comedian. I wanted to be able to tell people what to do if I was going to give them a whole bunch of information that is triggering and startling and enraging to them
And after a while I started touring, just on my own before I launched the organization, and I would do these fundraisers for clinics and stuff, and the staff doesn’t have time to go and they can’t afford to go. And so I was like, oh, I want to meet the staff. And then I would go meet the staff and they were like, thank you for coming. No one ever comes to visit us. And I just was like, holy fuck. And so I had to make my next move on what I was going to do, and I didn’t know if I was going to pitch another show or what, and I just decided that I was going to be the person that could get my comedy friends together, continue to do the work that I did, making videos and doing stand-up and raising awareness, and then having that extra “and here’s what we can all do together” component built in.
Do you think that every comic, if they want to be doing political material, should have that kind of information and sort of lead their audiences toward activism?
I feel like if the choice is to be a political comic then I feel like you should take that all the way, you know? If you choose to not have politics in your act, go for it. Your responsibility is not that. But if you choose to do political comedy, why would you go into that realm if you didn't want to affect the most amount of change? You don’t have to do it in your act. I don’t give solutions necessarily in my act, but I create a space where you can get solutions after I put you into a frothy rage. Greg Proops does the same thing, you know, he always has tabling at his podcast and at his stand-up shows. And so I think that if comics could even do that much to say, hey, I’m glad you like me, here’s something I really care about, go talk to that table over there. There’s very few jillionaire political comedians and so, if you’re doing it, normally it’s because you don’t know what else to do. Like, I don’t know how to tell other kinds of jokes.
At a time when everyone is talking about comebacks like Louis C.K.’s, I was hoping you could speak to the women who have been pushed out of the comedy world or not had the success that they deserve, either because they were sexually harassed or they just weren’t getting the same opportunities as their male peers
You mean like almost every woman? First, I feel like, hold the clubs accountable for booking these fuckers once they know. This question always goes to women, and I wish this question would go to men more, to say, hey dude, how come you’re not outraged that so many smart, funny people were pushed out because other dudes were shitty and rapey and sexual assault-y? No one asks men that. We don’t hold them accountable to hold each other accountable. And that really pisses me off.
I just started a monthly comedy show at EastVille in Brooklyn called “The Feminist Buzzkills of Comedy,” where anybody who is not a garbage comedian can come and do a set, and they don’t have to worry about that shit. I feel like it’s always us that have to find a different path or another way. We’ve seen this pattern of covering up Cosby, covering up, you know, Louis, covering up all of it. And it breaks my heart that people who are super talented…I’m constantly looking on Netflix for something to watch, and I’m like, oh I liked that actress, wonder what ever happened to her, and then just thinking, that’s probably what happened to her.
I’m over defending other people, as if these fuckers should have some kind of time out movement where it’s like, “They just need a minute!” You know, that’s what it feels like. They literally are so gross and I’m just over it. I’m too old to give a fuck and I’m too young to not fight for every person who hasn’t had a chance, to at least create a little bit of a path for them to walk down that is not riddled with systemic bullshit.