A real lady only says that in the bedroom
Bitch Magazine has put up an article on the debate over the T-shirts that say "I had an abortion." It's a really good, interesting read, going over the various reactions that pro-choice women have when presented with a T-shirt that simply announces that this woman had an experience many women have. The interesting thing is that a lot of pro-choice women who dislike the shirts don't have a problem with the message, they are just upset that it's on a T-shirt.
“Does she want me to think about the fact that she had an abortion every time I see her?” she wondered out loud. “Because if I saw her wearing the shirt, that is what would stay with me, even if she never wore it again.” I asked why she was associating a factual statement with the sentiment of boastfulness. “Because it’s on a t-shirt,” her friend chimed in. “Like the one I have that says ‘No One Knows I’m a Lesbian.’” Her statement was greeted by nods of approval from the other women who were listening to our conversation. Because there are so many t-shirts that function as affirmations of identity, people have a hard time seeing the shirt outside of a preexisting context. The logical question to ask, then, is the extent to which the fact of having an abortion is an aspect of a woman’s identity.
Here's the thing. I don't buy the idea that a T-shirt is a proclamation of identity in and of itself. Like one of my favorite T-shirts says "F*ck Censorship", and no one clutches her pearls and thinks that I'm declaring that I find my identity in my opinions on censorship. If I wear a band T-shirt, I am doing no more than asserting that hey, I like the band. Some people may find their identity in that, but I don't think that it's a common thing for others to really put that much weight on something just because it's on a T-shirt.
It's not where it is, it's what the message says. The reason that others would identify you as "The woman who had an abortion" if you admit to it has way more to do with our cultural definitions of what women's permissible roles and identities are. Women are still dominantly identified through our sexual and reproductive functions, and therefore a transgressive sexual or reproductive act is more likely to be turned into a woman's identity than trangressing other lines. Once you get labeled a slut who had an abortion, it's a hard identity to shake, thus women's silence.
In fact, putting the statement on a T-shirt is an attempt to force people out of the habit of solely identifying women by their willingness to adhere to the sexual standards for women. Rebecca Hyman hits it on the head:
A married suburban mother keeping a distracted eye on the children spilling out of her minivan is just as likely to have had an abortion as a single woman in her early 20s. If it comes as a shock to picture the shirt worn by a middle-aged, middle-class woman, it’s a testament to the success of conservative rhetoric in casting woman who choose abortion as irresponsible, selfish, or overly careerist.
The T-shirts make people uncomfortable not because they define a woman by her abortion, but because they make it so damn difficult to dehumanize and stereotype women who have abortions. A woman in the shirt had the abortion in the past. And then life went on, she had her life, jobs, friends, etc. She may marry or already be married. She may have children already or will in the future. The abortion didn't take over her life and now is consigned to a spot on a T-shirt, where we wear other small facts about ourselves, like what bands we like or stores we shop at.