In This Episode
Lizz Winstead is best known as the co-creator of The Daily Show, a program that reinvented late-night, and showed a new generation of comedians how to combine news with satire and activism. Her next act was founding Lady Parts Justice, now known as Abortion Access Front, an organization that travels the country, supporting abortion clinics and the people who work there.
She sits down to offer some practical suggestions for what we all can do about the new Texas anti-abortion law, and what to look out for as other states try to pass similar legislation.
To learn more about Abortion Access Front, go to aafront.org
Ana Marie Cox: Hi. I’m Ana Marie Cox and welcome to With Friends Like These. We have a very candid conversation for you this week. I sat down with Lizz Winstead and she knows how to stir it up. She’s a radical. She’s an old fashioned radical. Lizz co-created The Daily Show back in 1996. I am fairly certain there are some of you listening who are not that old. She went on from that to form the activist organization Abortion Access Front. She did a bunch of other stuff too, but right now she’s doing the Abortion Access Front, which is needed now more than ever. We talked about her career in comedy and, you know, the abortions she’s had, and why she’s proudly taken a radical stance on the issue. Lizz is not pro-choice. She’s not pro-reproductive health. She’s pro-abortion. And I will say that she makes a really convincing argument about why all of us who believe in the access to abortion, maybe we should call ourselves pro-abortion. Later on, we get to the big question for you, which is what the fuck can we do in Texas? And some other suggestions for your activism. Some of them are really easy. Stay tuned.
Ana Marie Cox: Lizz, welcome to the show.
Lizz Winstead: Thanks for having me.
Ana Marie Cox: So I kind of, I mean, I know you. I feel like I know you pretty well, but I had to do a little research just to catch up some. And I was reading your bio, and there’s a lot of founding involved in your career, right?
Lizz Winstead: Yeah, I would say that’s fair.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. There’s a lot of founding, or co-creating, or creating.
Lizz Winstead: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: There’s the Daily Show. There’s Air America and there’s Lady Parts Justice which became—
Lizz Winstead: Abortion Access Front.
Ana Marie Cox: Which became—I’m counting those as two kind of—which became Abortion Access Front. So I’m curious, how did you become the kind of person that, like, founds things?
Lizz Winstead: I mean, honestly, a lot of it had to do with if you’re not going to hire me, then I’ll make it, because I’m a woman and it was just always like—it was shocking that actually Comedy Central allowed two women to co-create The Daily Show, considering there was a bunch of men who are always just chomping at the bit to do that, you know? Of all of, like there’s hardly anyone that does even political satire in their stand-up, and especially issue-based stuff. And so I was one of a few women that did it. But a lot of people don’t even know that about me because my fan base knows, and they just pick all the men. So I was just like, I want to do this kind of work, and so if you’re not going to hire me, then I’m just going to make it, and then hire other people. And so that’s what I did.
Ana Marie Cox: And that’s the story of it, is just basically, if you won’t hire me, I’ll found it.
Lizz Winstead: Kind of. I mean, it’s if you, like, the direct correlation, like The Daily Show is kind of the only “I’ll found it” thing—well, that was sort of pre-Internet.
Ana Marie Cox: Right.
Lizz Winstead: And then once technology was available to me and I could teach myself how to make graphics and how to edit and how to do a bunch of stuff, then I just taught myself all the skills so that I could create sizzle reels, or create the content that I needed to create. And then I think I just utilized all of the platforms that had come to be, because so often you were beholden to casting directors or executive producers who, if they liked you, they liked you, or if you could get in their room, great, possibly get a job. But now you could just create an audience from whole cloth. And I think that’s what happened a lot with, you know, especially, well Air America, it was kind of weird because we had done a show for the Oxygen Channel, called 02Be that was a satire of sort of the Today Show and the Kelly Ripa talk show, and it was a hybrid show and it lasted six episodes and then they canceled it. So it was serendipitous to what am I going to do now? And it was post 9/11. It was like 2003. And as everybody who is of a certain age—and you are the younger version, younger end of that certain age—remembers you couldn’t challenge the government after 9/11 for a lot of years. And so it was really hard to say we want to do satire that takes on everything about how garbage our government and the media is. A people are like uh uh, we just want feel good things. And so coincidentally, Air America was in the percolating stages and they’ve been talking to Al Franken, and Al suggested reaching out for a Lizz Winstead-type. So literally, I got a call from a radio guy, being Al Franken give me your number because we’re looking for a Lizz Winstead-type. And I was like, is that because I’m a monster? And you want someone sort of like me, but with nicer qualities? And the guy was like, no, we just figured you wouldn’t want to leave TV for radio. And I was like, I’m about to do an MTV Spring Break show so I can pay my rent so let me say that I would like to throw Lizz Winstead actual hat in the ring. And then I got that job and then, you know, then that led to all the other things. Then I did a Planned Parenthood tour to raise money for Planned Parenthood and then I learned about independent providers and how they’re doing the lion’s share of the work and they were kind of like Planned Parenthood sort of like Trader Joe’s and then there was this cool, the co-ops and all the cool like farmer’s markets where the independent clinics and they needed support. So when I learned about that, I was like, I want to do this work. I think I need to be centered on this issue and bring humor because I know it works. And so with Twitter and Facebook and everything, I just did it, and then brought on my comedy friends and producer friends and said, we have to do this. And we did it.
Ana Marie Cox: And I’m curious, which came first for you as a kid, politics or jokes?
Lizz Winstead: So it’s funny. I’m going to say a third answer, and the third answer is I was more the, first it was more the class cynic than the class clown, and I think because I grew up in Minneapolis and I didn’t have one of those sort of like mean girls high schools. Our high school didn’t have like—
Ana Marie Cox: No, you had a bunch of passive aggressive girls. That’s the Minnesota, the Minnesota movie of Mean Girls would be Passive Aggressive Girls.
Lizz Winstead: 100%. But it was like there was the pretty girls and the popular girls and there, but they weren’t mean to anybody, they just hung out. And like I was on the dance line, I was the captain of the dance line, but we danced to Joan Armatrading and Stiff Little Fingers. Like we did our crazy halftime to like crazy musicians, that people were like, what’s happening right now, what’s this music? And it’s like we’re just kicking around and doing some jazz and everybody’s just got to deal. But I didn’t fit into one club and a lot of the things I liked were gender not-specific things. I was always a music head. I had older siblings who loved like Velvet Underground and Bowie, and so I had music in me. I had theater in me. I had, I really love Monty Python. And so there was, when I wanted to do something that was like male-perceived, I always got sort of kicked out. Like I didn’t particularly love kids so when I wanted to make money pre-16, the the boys at my school who were altar boys were making great bank doing weddings and funerals. They’d get tipped out huge. So I’m like, I want to do that. Like, that’s a good way to make money. And they were like, no, you can’t. And I was like, why? I don’t have to carry an anvil, there’s nothing physically that would stop me. So there was just always these roadblocks that made me annoyed. And then I would just sort of like, be cynical about the oppression, and then that cynicism became humor. And so I think that it was, maybe it became a tool to call out hypocrisy at first. And then I kind of just used it all the time in my personal life, just being sarcastic. Because I was going to teach history. That was my, that was my thing. I wanted to be a history teacher because my dad was in World War II, served in the 1st Marine Division of Guadalcanal. Never talked about it again. And I needed to know why these lapses in my dad’s self were happening. So I just wanted to study it.
Ana Marie Cox: I love that answer because—
Lizz Winstead: It was long winded, I’m sorry.
Ana Marie Cox: There’s no such thing. Because it aligns with something that I’ve wondered about for myself, because I never thought of myself as funny. You know?
Lizz Winstead: But you’re really funny.
Ana Marie Cox: Apparently. Yes. But kind of growing up, like I was a nerd and I also, I don’t think I explicitly saw myself as political. I mean, my high school, you can kind of, you might claim some labels—but my politics early on, like when I was just, like, mad at people for making jokes about certain—I lived in, I grew up in Texas, please imagine what the jokes were about, using words we do not use. And I would get mad about that. I didn’t think of that as being political. I thought of that is like keeping people from being jerks.
Lizz Winstead: You know, it’s funny. I have that same thing in Minnesota where—and this is the good news, bad news about Minnesota is I’ve always believed that the weather brought on a practical side in people that would have to force them to just be nicer because it was an invitation.
Ana Marie Cox: You’re trapped with each other, you have to be nice. Or you’re passive aggressive, as the case may be.
Lizz Winstead: 100%. But even in that, I didn’t like bullies, and it was and I remember growing up in high school, we, if you don’t know about Minnesota, it’s like Lutheran martial law there. And the good news about the Lutheran Church is that they did a lot of sponsoring of refugees among Cambodian Vietnamese, and we had a lot of Vietnamese and Hmong refugees in my high school and they were having a really hard time adjusting and people weren’t nice. And it was, I would just see people being mean to people who were just struggling. And it made me feel really bad. And so watching, you know, watching that happen, was just very weird.
Ana Marie Cox: But I think it’s interesting. I want to follow this thought a little further, because I think what happened for you, I can see sort of, again, it explains a lot for me, which is that it’s not so much being funny, and it’s not so much being political, as using your sarcasm against bullies. And like I remember in high school, I was asked to perform some comedy and I was like, no, because there’s no targets. Like, I can’t, like I need a, I need—it just didn’t occur to me that you could just walk up somewhere and have some jokes that you told. Do you know what I mean?
Lizz Winstead: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I do. And it was funny because someone dared me to do stand up. A friend of mine in college, you know, you should try doing standup. And the one thing, my act, I didn’t start out being political, I would do a little bit of jokes about feminism and sexism, but there wasn’t a whole lot of politics inserted. But then I had this weird thing happen where I was going along, doing my jokes that were about dating and they were fine, and all of a sudden they stopped working. And I was like, this joke is a solid, gets a solid laugh. And I think that, they were jokes like, one of the jokes was whenever I play Monopoly with bald guys, they always pick the hat.
Ana Marie Cox: All right.
Lizz Winstead: Yeah. Clever. Fine. What evs. A joke like that stops working. I go, I start recording myself, and then I hear myself saying, I think whenever I play Monopoly with bald guys, they always pick the hat, or I think—when I started asserting “I think” subconsciously, and the audience hated that. And it was really crazy. Just saying, I think, was this assertive, aggressive thing. And it’s a radical act to be a woman on stage anyway, just to decide that you have something to say, but when I realized if I just said I think and inserted an innocuous opinion that that was still as offensive to the, mostly men, in the audience, I was like, I might as well just start saying shit then. Because they have the same feeling, like this is dumb. I might as well just have my opinions because I’m going to get the same reaction anyway, and then just start weeding out the people that don’t like me, and promoting who I am, and realizing that I’m going to take a hit for a while on just generic people coming to my shows and being mad. Like, I don’t want them anyway. So there was a rebranding of sort of what I needed to do so that I could get people to come.
Ana Marie Cox: I do want to talk a little bit about The Daily Show’s legacy, which I’m sure you’ve been asked about before. But I just saw an article making this argument, so I was reminded, which is there’s been like this weird, like hot taking of late night comedy where people are like, no, actually, it’s bad, right? Like, it ruined America, ruined politics, ruined comedy. There’s a lot of late night comedy ruined whatever. I saw a: late night comedy made Trump possible.
Lizz Winstead: Oh yeah. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: And I’m going to just, I don’t think the arguments are very good, but I’m curious about your response to them. And I feel like there’s sort of two general flavors. One is that—and this is not just The Daily Show, right, this is like Samantha Bee, this is Colbert, this is, you know, all of the ilk.
Lizz Winstead: The spin offs from The Daily Show.
Ana Marie Cox: Right, right, right. Most of them by people who are on The Daily Show. Yes. Made politics a matter of sport. And made it too much about laughing at the other side. Like, we’re not just, we don’t just disagree with other people, we think they’re pathetic. We think they’re to be made fun of, right? Do you want to take that one first before I get to the sort of other kind of argument?
Lizz Winstead: Sure. I mean, what I, what I—I have no patience for people who blame comedians for anything that’s wrong. If where you went was the comedians decided to make fun of what’s happening in the world instead of, oh, my God, the information sources that asked me to trust them to bring you the news have failed us so miserably that the comedy shows that decide to bring some information are also dragging terrible people for filth, and that’s your problem!? That’s your problem!? These comedy shows exist because the people that are supposed to be helping educate us, failed us. The Daily Show been on for 25 years because the media didn’t learn its lesson. If it’s responding and reflecting on how we get information, that means there’s still kinks in the system. You can’t blame a comic, who decided to do a comedy show based on the news. The news is a thing. It’s supposed to give you the news and facts and be accurate. So don’t blame the comedy show that decides to talk about current events, and making things cynical, because that means we put way too much weight on the comedians, and not held accountable enough, the people who went to school for journalism and promised that they were going to investigate and bring us stuff and stay on story. So no. So that’s my hot take.
Ana Marie Cox: So your hot take is is dovetails real well with the other reconsideration of The Daily Show and its ilk. Which is sort of exactly what you said, which is that late night comedy in taking on the news, in doing its own kind of reporting—and I think we can agree, like especially these days, like shows like John Oliver’s, like that’s a reported show—made people distrust regular media. And I’m not saying they shouldn’t distrust them. I’m really not. This one you could say it is the fault of the journalists, right? Or the fault of us assholes in the audience.
Lizz Winstead: Well, comedy is a take. Like this is, this is the part that—the news isn’t supposed to be a take.
Ana Marie Cox: But we got spoiled, let’s say. Because I don’t want to watch, if I can watch John Oliver talk about plastic’s you know, I’m not going to watch a fucking documentary. I’m not going to watch, like, the News Hour’s, like the latest on plastics, right?
Lizz Winstead: But that’s not the fault of Jon Oliver.
Ana Marie Cox: No, I know, I, but I mean—
Lizz Winstead: But I mean that’s what—
Ana Marie Cox: Let’s not say it’s the fault. Let’s just say—
Lizz Winstead: But that’s what people are trying to say. I mean, I’ve heard that, too. It’s like comedy made people cynical. And it’s like, um, or did the news make creative people like me cynical, and then I made The Daily Show. Because that’s the trajectory of how The Daily Show came to be, is that I became cynical with the bullshit information I was given and then I in turn, just created content that was a response to that. So I think media folks should always be looking at if there is somebody doing it better that didn’t study it. And if people are trusting comics, um, you know, they never promised to not be opinionated. Their promise is first and foremost to be funny. I think that you can decide that some people aren’t good at breaking down an issue or talking about policies, and take cheap shots, but I would just say how many jokes about Trump were actually, would dive into—like I would do jokes about Trump’s cabinet. I would lay out like cabinet jokes on what’s happening. But how many jokes about Trump were just literally analyzing a sociopath? And that could be anybody, it happened to be President.
Ana Marie Cox: Or, about his weight. Which really—
Lizz Winstead: Well, that whole boring, John Boehner’s old march, Donald Trump has a weight problem or—
Ana Marie Cox: It’s not funny. We don’t make fun of people’s looks when they’re normal people. Like, let’s just go ahead and like, I don’t know, it’s know, you know, fat phobia.
Lizz Winstead: Especially when somebody is handing you a platter—
Ana Marie Cox: Of other shit. Yes.
Lizz Winstead: They need to be dragged. And I just feel like. You know, that’s just, that’s just lazy. You might not like lazy comedy, and when you’re doing monologue jokes versus breaking down into segments like John Oliver or Sam or, The Daily Show, like, those are all different animals. And so I would also just like to point out that before Trump, the late night shows wouldn’t book political stand ups, didn’t have much politics in their monologues at all. And what, would specifically say that’s not what we do? And all of a sudden it came to be because a, there’s a target that’s a clown. You know, this big Macy’s balloon became president, and now it’s OK. And, you know, it’s just interesting how it becomes OK when it’s, when there’s a volatile, cheap target to take on instead of trying to make a point.
Ana Marie Cox: I will add, for the sake of full disclosure, I have a lot of nerve bringing this up. [laughs]
Lizz Winstead: No. I think—
Ana Marie Cox: Since, no since I was a part of that. Like what I did in my earlier career was just lay into people for laughs. Not for laughs, actually. Again, I often don’t think of what I do is being funny. Like what I do is try to take on bullies, right, and humor’s really good way of doing that.
Lizz Winstead: Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: But definitely wonkette. I mean, almost the name itself, right. Like . . .
Lizz Winstead: I was always a fan of wonkette, and I’d loved, I love when you were on Air America. And I just loved, like, this extension of commentary and news and reporting, that didn’t, you didn’t purport to be anything other than what you were, and that is the difference. Like what was interesting, I know! And what was interesting to me about it was when The Daily Show started catching on and you could see traditional like cable news saying, oh, OK, people want funny graphics. It’s like no, they don’t, that’s not, that wasn’t the point. The point—that’s what we do. You are supposed to actually just be good at your job. So like even the interpretation of why The Daily Show worked was sometimes lost on the people that were in the media. So I feel like there’s a million different ways to get people engaged. And I will say having gone and espoused all this stuff, I think the reason that I transitioned from just being responsive is that I always did want to say, if I’m going to fill you full of information that’s going to enrage you and make you laugh, I also want to be the person that can tell you what to do about it. Because I started to feel like an anger fluffer. You know I would just like, get people so riled up. And that’s why I think with, you know, abortion, Lady Parts Justice League, Abortion Access Front, I’m able to do all the things I love to do. I’m able to call out hypocrisy on an issue that people still shy away from more than they should because we’re here, because it’s only talked about in crisis. And even the smartest people I know who are hosting shows in primetime and doing kind of stuff, get it wrong sometimes: use the vernacular of anti-abortion extremists, still gender the issue, don’t understand the details, don’t talk to the people who are actually fighting the fight. And so I felt like I’ve never been more fulfilled in a weird way because I get to do all the things.
Ana Marie Cox: Thank you so much. This is actually a perfect time for us to take a short break because I want to talk more explicitly, and maybe I need to use the word explicitly, about Abortion Access Front. And we’re going to be right back.
Ana Marie Cox: So, yes, let’s talk about abortion. Abortion! Let’s talk about abortion, abortion, abortion, abortion.
Lizz Winstead: Abortion, abortion, abortion.
Ana Marie Cox: Let’s just say the word as many times as possible, because I know that one of the reasons that your organization exists, one of the purposes of the organization is to destigmatize abortion.
Lizz Winstead: Indeed.
Ana Marie Cox: Now, I’ll ask an obvious question, but I’m curious to hear your specific answer to it, which is why is that important?
Lizz Winstead: I think it’s important for a number of reasons, and in a larger scale, I think abortion stigma grew because we allowed anti-abortion extremists to define how abortion was talked about, what the narrative around abortion was. And I don’t think that we ever did a self-check in on how do we feel about abortion, why does abortion exist? And so I’m not even, I’m not even talking about like the extremists who are out there saying terrible things, I think we who believe that abortion rights exist have done a terrible disservice to ourselves. And I have seen the harm that it’s caused people like me who’ve had abortions, people who provide them, and I don’t think people really think about phrases that they say. When they say, I’m, no one’s pro-abortion, I’m pro-choice. And I often say, like what, what compels you to make that really strong stance that no one’s pro-abortion? Because I am pro-abortion. I, I don’t find anything morally wrong with abortion. And so if you say that, you are inferring a caveat that there is something wrong with abortion, that it’s something bad. And people who provide abortions, it’s a kick in the gut for them any time someone says that. Or at least in the cases of rape and incest, we need abortion. It’s like, why are you purporting that there’s good abortions and there’s bad abortions. There isn’t. There’s only the abortion someone needs.
Ana Marie Cox: I like to point out I know what they’re saying when they say no one’s pro-abortion because they are making this weird leap that being pro-abortion means everyone gets abortions. Everyone! All everyone. You get one and you get one and you get one. But what we mean, I’m pro-casts for broken arms. You know? I am pro-pacemakers for people that need pacemakers, I am pro medicine for people who need medicine. And it’s just, an abortion is just like those things. It is exactly like those things. No one would ever say I am like, I don’t think anyone should ever get a cast for their broken arm because that’s like interfering with nature. You know?
Lizz Winstead: But there’s no morality tied around that.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes. Exactly, no and there shouldn’t be. That’s why you’re pro-abortion in the same way in pro-cast.
Lizz Winstead: Yeah, and I think that for me, even for people, I say anybody should have an abortion and they should be free. You know? I think that the only thing that we should be, and when we talk about prevention of abortions, it’s you should use condoms. You should use things that help you prevent STDs. But abortion is safe. I mean, I have a radical stance on abortion, and I am more than happy to put it out there in the universe.
Ana Marie Cox: All right. I officially apologize for trying to radicalize your stance a little bit.
Lizz Winstead: No, it’s quite all right.
Ana Marie Cox: I because I really like my . . . [laughs]
Lizz Winstead: I like your pro-cast. I think it’s fine.
Ana Marie Cox: You want to get out there. You want to get out there with your stance. Yeah.
Lizz Winstead: Yes, I would like. And also understanding that sometimes you are going to have to be the person that people are like, that’s too much, you’re a bridge too far. And bang it down so that we can get to a point where abortion is 100% normalized. Because what 100% normalized looks like is everybody gets an abortion when they want one. If you want to have abortions, have them, have several. I don’t care. It’s not my business. It is, just isn’t. My business is if you need an abortion, you should get one because you’ve made the decision that you need an abortion and because it’s safe and it’s, the morality, it’s not it’s not my job. It just isn’t. Like there’s so many circumstances in the naked city that, you know—and also it’s not just about abortion because they’re trying to criminalize birth control. They’re trying to conflate plan B and IUDs with abortion. There’s so much—they’re trying to say that you can reverse your abortion mid-abortion. Nine states require a doctor who doesn’t believe it’s true to have to say, may I counsel you on abortion reversal? It’s, we are just living in abortion conspiracy theory-land. Why, and that’s what’s happening is that there is wild conspiracy theories around fetal development, pregnancy—I mean, it is, it is really an unbelievable time that we’re living in.
Ana Marie Cox: And I want to get to Texas in just a second.
Lizz Winstead: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: I love that you’ve taken this intentionally radical stance. I really do. It does make me wonder if your stance evolved from anything else. Has your position on abortion changed over time? Were you ever any less radical than you are now?
Lizz Winstead: I think I was. And I think it was, I had respectability people telling me that I couldn’t have those feelings because it would, you know, the same kinds of people who shamed me when I called for justice for Monica Lewinsky in the ’90s. Shamed me when I supported Barack Obama over Hillary the first time. Shamed me, telling me that I wasn’t a good feminist because this is what we had, and this is how we have to do it. And there’s many paths to take. And there is always, the path of the radical always matters because I don’t want to get invited to the parties in D.C., I don’t care if I ever get a conference in a room with any lawmakers. That is for other people. I want to get people their abortions and I want abortion providers, while they’re constantly under siege, to know that there’s an organization that is gathering volunteers that is going to bring them love and joy and bring their community to them all the time, as they provide this care and to this work. And I’m not, and I’m especially not interested in people who have told me that the way that I talk about things is is doing harm, when I haven’t seen any progress in the way they talk about things. You know? If we can’t name it and we can’t normalize it, how do we fight for it with the fervor that it needs to be fought for? I can’t, no one’s legislating a pro-choice. And by the way, it’s very convenient to say pro-choice when that’s a position of privilege. There’s many people who would, who consider abortion, who are poor, people of color, who consider abortion because of their economic circumstances. If we aren’t going to value all pregnancy outcomes, if we’re not going to say to that 15-year old whose belief say, I want to have this baby and I’m pregnant. If we’re not going to value that pregnancy as it comes into the world, as it lives in the world, then we’re not doing anyone—there’s no choice in that. That person didn’t get to make a choice. That person had an abortion because we did not provide and do not provide the care and the tools for that person to have a healthy family and to thrive. And if we don’t provide the tools and the financial wherewithal to someone who says you want to know what, I need to have an abortion—if we’re not going to honor that, then we’re just, there’s no choice. There is no choice.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s interesting to me you did mention kind of offhand a second ago that you have had an abortion . . .
Lizz Winstead: I have more than—
Ana Marie Cox: Oh, all right. That you’ve had abortions.
Lizz Winstead: I’ve had abortions.
Ana Marie Cox: But you are already radical, or did those have an impact on how you felt about the process, the procedure, the politics?
Lizz Winstead: You know, I was brought up Catholic, and I think that I was probably, I would probably say I don’t, I don’t remember abortion as a thing until I got pregnant, the first time I ever had sex.
Ana Marie Cox: From a toilet seat, though right? No, sorry.
Lizz Winstead: I caught it. I caught it six feet away from somebody. I wasn’t wearing a mask. So, and I ended up at one of those fake crisis pregnancy centers that I thought was a clinic because it was 1979 and back then pregnancy tests were really expensive. They weren’t widely available. And so you had to find a place to get pregnant. And I’d never been to the gynecologist, you know, I’ve never been anywhere. So I saw an advertisement on a bus and I went to it and there was a woman dressed up in a lab coat and I thought she was a doctor and she showed me pictures that we all see outside those clinics, those mutilated fetuses, and said, this is what you’re contemplating doing. And it was terrifying. And I remember the reason I got to have my abortion was because I got back on a bus and I saw an ad for a place that was a legit clinic. And I was, it wasn’t Planned Parenthood, it was called Midwest Health Center for Women. And I went there and, you know, it was, I was scared. But also it took like two seconds and I didn’t feel any pain. And the people who counseled me there—and this was the part that I found, I think that what made me be somebody who thought abortion was the right choice for me, at least at the time, and then it evolved—was that they asked me questions that I could have answered either way and decided on a different pregnancy outcome for myself. It wasn’t leading questions. They weren’t like, of course, you want this abortion, right? It was like, what are your plans for your life? Do you have a supportive partner? Do you have supportive parents? If you were to go home and tell your parents this information, how would they react? And all this kind of stuff. And it was just like all the questions led me to say I don’t want kids. And I never liked kids. Even as a little kid, I was like, don’t give me a doll. That Easy Bake Oven thing? Why are you giving me chores as toys? I feel like all of this is the worst. So it was never, motherhood or parenting was never anything I fantasized about ever as a kid. And so I was steadfast in my knowing that, like, this is not something I want. And to this day at age 60, I didn’t have kids, and I never wanted them. So I think I became more radicalized when I had people who were, and I’m air quoting pro-choice, caveating my abortion constantly, and my abortions, oh, I just, people are just like, why don’t you use birth control? Oh, why didn’t you do this? Like, oh, you must have a lot of regret or that must weigh heavy on you. You must have really thought . . . you know? How do people do that? And it’s like, I’m done. I’m done with you making me feel like garbage, you know? And it’s like abortion puts people on, it’s not going to solve all your problems, but if you decide you need an abortion, it will, the access to it can at least put you on the path that you initially thought you were going on. And I think everyone deserves that option. And so I can tell you right now that my life would have been 100% different if I would have decided to not terminate that pregnancy. I was in an abusive relationship. I was in high school. I couldn’t tell anybody, he was a popular guy who just beat me up, on the reg. I didn’t know how to get out of it. And the one thing that I knew for sure was if I had a kid with this person, that I would never escape the abuse. I didn’t know how. But I did know that I could, I could hopefully figure out a future without this person if I wasn’t going to be parenting with this person. And so everyone else can be damned. It’s like I made a tweet where I was like, if you have ever enjoyed The Daily Show at any point in your life, you can thank abortion. Because I can tell you one thing right now that there would be no Daily Show if I hadn’t had an abortion.
Ana Marie Cox: Your radical stance, when I said I love it, one of the reasons I love it is there should be people making radical stances.
Lizz Winstead: Yeah!
Ana Marie Cox: There should be. I am one of them. Often, I’ve argued and been pro-national health care for 20 years, perhaps longer. And I remember people saying, oh, you know, Ana Jesus, that’s, I mean, what are you, a communist? You know?
Lizz Winstead: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Like, that’s never going to happen. And of course, we lived through the Clintons, you know, pratfall on that. And then, like, I just remember Bernie running and me being like, see!
Lizz Winstead: Yeah, exactly.
Ana Marie Cox: See. This is thing that people want to talk about. And so that brings me to the changing of minds. You mentioned offhandedly that people sometimes criticize you because your opinion will turn people off. Right? On the other hand, there is an argument for moving the Overton Window with extreme stances. But then there’s today. What do you say to someone who feels like abortion is gross and ugly and shameful? How do you maybe persuade them? And before you answer, I will posit that this person probably thinks of themselves as a good liberal, like so many people do, who I have met, good people who think they are good progressives, good liberals, etc., but who use, whisper when they say abortion, and do the thing where they say I’m pro-choice and not pro-abortion and think of it as a tragedy, you know, etc., etc.. I find that to be extremely common with people who share so many other political values with me. So I’m not giving you a high bar.
Lizz Winstead: That’s OK. What I often say to those people is we need to have conversations with people who have had abortions and with abortion providers because the stance that is said like that often comes from not talking about it. And people who are in your life who’ve had abortions probably aren’t talking to you because you’re putting up a judgment wall that you didn’t even understand was a judgment call, because it sounds reasonable and it sounds reasonable because we didn’t lay down the actual reasonable conversation around abortion. We have been basing all of our internalized stigma on somebody else’s blanket viewpoint and morality around abortion. And that’s a problem. We wouldn’t allow that in other issues. You know, we wouldn’t do that. And so we need to talk more because if you’re comfortable saying that, there hasn’t been enough conversation with the right people.
Ana Marie Cox: So I said we would get to Texas. We have arrived in Texas.
Lizz Winstead: We have arrived in Texas.
Ana Marie Cox: I am in Texas.
Lizz Winstead: Are you in Austin?
Ana Marie Cox: Yes, yes I am.
Lizz Winstead: Awesome. Perfect.
Ana Marie Cox: So Texas, I have written here Texas: what the fuck are you going to do, please?
Lizz Winstead: Oh, my goodness. Well, there’s a lot. And full disclosure, I am on the board of Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, which is a clinic that is one of the plaintiffs in trying to fight this. So—
Ana Marie Cox: Oh, I don’t—that’s full disclosure? That’s awesome. Like, you’re the perfect person to answer this question. Because yes, I mean that when I, that’s not a funny, silly question. What are we going to do?
Lizz Winstead: What are we going to do?
Ana Marie Cox: What are we going to do?
Lizz Winstead: Well, I think, um, I think, the—there’s so many answers to that and there’s so many things that we need to do, right? And I think that as activists, what we’re trying to do right now is, I often use the fire analogy and I every fire department that is, works in the movement should be putting their hoses on Texas and then helping get people out of Texas to get abortions where they need to get them someplace else. That is a stop-gap. Let me be clear. That is something that just needs to be done so people can get their procedures. The larger scope goes back to a couple of things. One, stigma. If we don’t talk about abortion and we don’t normalize it and we aren’t coming forward with our abortion stories and we are not centering abortion in our activism and in our politics with politicians, holding them accountable—you do not get my vote unless you are actively going to protect abortion access—that’s how politicians respond. Now, we have Texas that has so many crackpots. I mean, you guys like, you know, there is Texas politicians whose names I could rattle off, but—Tony Tinderholt and Briscoe Cain, and these—Briscoe Cain who is one of the authors of this bill has in his Twitter bio, “proud hunter of baby killers” or some such thing. So we have to understand that if we do not stop electing state and local politicians who center abortion, we are going to just be in a cyclical, repetitive case, I mean, of doing this. So we need to stop, and also, it’s really great to just make that as a goal because honestly, they’re the same people who are bringing you COVID, you know—
Ana Marie Cox: Fucking up the planet.
Lizz Winstead: Mucking up everything. And they lead with abortion, but they’re doing every other horrible thing, too. So if you just find out who the anti-abortion people are, you will solve many, many, many liberal/progressive issues by making sure they don’t get elected. So, also, understanding that the anti-abortion movement, the crackpots are getting elected. It’s not just a fringe people out in front of clinics, and they are actually—those people are becoming elected officials. We need to figure out a way that, I mean, our, we’ve been screwed for a generation, if not more, on the court system that brings cases to the Supreme Court. So I guess back to a, we can’t elect these people because they are going to push laws through a court system that is hostile to abortion and we could be hosed. And we need to loosen regulations on how we access care. Medication, abortion, it’s easy. It’s classified by HHS as this drug that you can’t via a prescription, or just get, it’s in this classification all of it’s own, that it has to be prescribed by a doctor, which is trash. It’s safer than aspirin. So we need to declassify that. We need to tell the HHS that they need to declassify medication abortion, and so that you can get it from, in a prescription. And we need to, we need to make sure that our communities have our abortion providers. I think abortion needs to also, and I’m still unclear—as somebody has done this work for a lot of years—I’m still unclear why abortion provision was parsed out into clinics that provide abortion, and didn’t just stay in general practice. I’m still unclear about that. We need to say if one in four people who can get pregnant have had, will have an abortion in their lifetime, it’s a procedure that people need. And it’s safe and it’s, and I think that we don’t activate on it in a way that matters. I think we’ve done a disservice in shutting CIS gendered men out of the conversation instead of—I mean, I don’t need a man speaking for me on abortion or legislating abortions—but we do need people who can’t get pregnant to understand that if you say you care about human rights, that you need to center this because literally forcing somebody into a decision that will change the course of their life forever when they have told you they don’t have the capacity for it, is a form of bondage. And we need to be against that. And we need to be as outraged about it as it sounds. You know, and I just feel like if you actually care about this, you’ve got to act like it and it has to be incorporated into your life in a loud way.
Ana Marie Cox: A friend of mine, or somewhere I heard a better thing to call the so-called pro-life people: pro-forced birth.
Lizz Winstead: Yeah, I think the forced-birth movement is an incredibly powerful phrase. I love that. I do. I love it so much.
Ana Marie Cox: I kind of want to do like a list for people almost about things you can do once you finish listening to this podcast. Dear listener, I sincerely would like you, if you do nothing else, to stop using the term pro-life.
Lizz Winstead: That would be great.
Ana Marie Cox: Just, in any conversation, whether it’s with a friend who is also pro-choice or whether it is with a family member or a stranger, whatever, you don’t have to use pro-forced birth if you want because, you know, like that might be a lot. But you could say anti—
Lizz Winstead: Anti-abortion.
Ana Marie Cox: Anti-abortion. Anti-reproductive health. Anti-health equity is another one that I have heard. But if that is one, the only thing you do, that will be a service.
Lizz Winstead: Ana, I love that so much. I love that so much because, and being somebody who has had loved ones—including myself—loved ones, be murdered, people have had their clinics firebombed, vandalized, followed home, children harmed. I know an abortion provider who didn’t hang curtains in their home because if the person who had repeatedly tried to murder them was shooting into their windows, she wanted them to see her and not her children. Do not—and that’s why I couldn’t agree with you more—that’s why they just do not deserve to be called pro-life in any way, shape or form. It’s a movement that co-signs on that.
Ana Marie Cox: And then let’s just do a little list for people, because I would say another thing that people could take action on immediately if they wanted to after—while you’re still listening, dear listener—give some money to an abortion access fund.
Lizz Winstead: Yes! And if you just go to—
Ana Marie Cox: Yes. Tell us, tell us more about that.
Lizz Winstead: So if you go to NNAF, that stands for National Network of Abortion Funds, there’s a pull down and it lists all the states. I would say assess where you live, and if you live in a great state that’s like doing great work, maybe give to a fund in Texas, maybe give to a fund in Oklahoma. Maybe—
Ana Marie Cox: The south. Just throw a dart at the south.
Lizz Winstead: I mean, but also Ohio. And then what we’re going to be faced with, and what you’ve got to track, is there something called practical support funds which are helping provide the transportation, lodging, child care—those practical support funds are often navigating with a patient to help them find the fund that will help them pay for their abortion, help them get out of the state, get the travel they need, get them back home. And so as we are listening, as you’re listening to this, your immediate thing you should do is to stop saying pro-life, donate to an abortion fund, and the third thing I’m going to tell you to do is to sign up with my organization, which is Abortion Access Front. And the reason that I say that to you is that the big part of our work is to direct people where they need to go as things develop. And so, when there’s a big story that happens in Texas, if you go to our website right now and click on resources, it lists every single abortion fund in Texas. It lists all the practical support funds that are helping folks in Texas get out. It gives you a bunch of information, and dos and don’ts. Don’t refer to it as the Taliban, it’s the Christian extremism that has led us to this. Don’t try to be Islamophobic and do that stuff. So we can guide you as things are happening, where there’s rallies. We have a great adopt-a-clinic program. So if you live in an area and you and your friends want to get together and help out with the needs of a local clinic, we can hook you up and we provide those resources. And so there’s all sorts of things that you can do all the time. And we help track constantly where you need to be paying attention, because sometimes you’ll get bombarded with a whole bunch of emails from places that aren’t actually doing the work in the place that is needing it. And what we can do is laser point you there and that’s our function.
Ana Marie Cox: I love that so much because the politics part, I feel like if you’re listening to the show, you’ve got that, right, you know the voting part of it. But being able to do something with your feet, you know, to move, to make a connection.
Lizz Winstead: Yes!
Ana Marie Cox: With a person perhaps, who is in this world, you know?
Lizz Winstead: And so much of sustained activism comes from making those connections, and being on the ground. And been on the ground for five years. I mean, we’ve been to 30 states. We visited over a 100 clinics. We have done, we we do their lawn, we repaint their clinics, we do this Habitats for Humanity program that works with clinics. And then we find local contractors who can help sustain the work, because a lot of folks don’t realize that if you’re providing abortion, especially in a place that’s hostile, you can’t get a gardener, you can’t get a plumber, you can’t get a roofer, you can’t get a paver. And so we will go in and do large and small projects because my team is really cool. It’s like people have all these mad skills. And then when we do our shows, we’ll do like comedy music shows that are really fun, and then we’ll bring the provider on stage and the activist on stage and have a conversation, and they will do direct asks. And every single show we find a contractor or a gardener. And I’ll never forget this guy in Oklahoma City was like, Wait, are you telling me that activism is I get hired to do landscaping at the clinic? And I said, yes, your van parked outside of a clinic, says I support these people being here and you get paid. And it’s like a light bulb goes off in people’s heads, and it’s really cool.
Ana Marie Cox: You mentioned this when you were talking about Abortion Access Front, that you do shows.
Lizz Winstead: Yes!
Ana Marie Cox: And you do describe yourself as Habitat Humanity for abortion providers, and part USO, which youngins out there might not know what the USO is. It’s United Service Organization, and whenever you hear people make a Bob Hope joke, probably they’re making a joke about the. Which is, also it continues today and it’s entertainers tour for the troops, they keep spirits up. I think you still see USO, like rooms in airports.
Lizz Winstead: A lot of comics to this day are doing these tours. Comics that you know and love are going out all the time and helping out folks and doing shows.
Ana Marie Cox: So tell us about that part.
Lizz Winstead: So that’s the part that is, I think, the Habitat for Humanity and the USO piece please go together. And so I want to preface this by saying when these laws start happening and Wendy Davis did the filibustering and all that happened 10 years ago, I took it upon myself to just go out on the road with my two dogs and a van and travel around the country and do shows and go visit clinics. And each clinic I went to, they would say to me, with stunned heartbreak: why are you here? Like, no one comes here to visit us. Like I don’t, like, it was like I couldn’t believe it. I was like, that is a problem. So I got back to New York and I had a potluck supper with my friends who are comics and I said, there’s a hole in our movement, and the hole is no one’s looking out for the providers. People are escorting patients. People are raising money for patients. But there is not an organization that is making sure that those who are providing the care are getting any kind of community growth or support. So we decided to travel across the country and do comedy music shows. It’s like, and I’m not talking about we’re going to Portland because it’s cool, right? We’re going to Huntsville, Birmingham, Oklahoma City, Montgomery, Alabama—you know, we’re traveling in these towns. And then we do comedy shows with famous comedians, musicians, and then it’s like a variety show. And then we have a conversation with the activists and the providers.
Ana Marie Cox: And it’s explicitly for the providers. Right? Because I want people to make the connection.
Lizz Winstead: No, it’s for the public.
Ana Marie Cox: I want to jump in here because I want people to make the connection here between the USO and what you’re doing, which is that this is for the spirits, this is to keep spirits up.
Lizz Winstead: Yes. To keep the spirits up for the providers. And the way to keep spirits up for the providers is to call your show Abortion AF, the Tour, and then fill up a room full of fans who love comedy and music and also care. Do a show, and then center them as a piece in the show and have them get applause. Have people care about what’s going on. We have tables in the room. So after the show, not only have they heard from the providers as how their immediate needs can be met, all of the organizations that are working in service of abortion access in that community and want to help with the clinic can sign up and do so. We’ll vet them. We vet the people that are with the clinic so that we make sure there’s not crackpots. And then we built communities along the way. We’ve got a 40% retention rate of people who sign up, which is unheard of. But the craziest thing Ana, is that through the course of this five years and us developing relationships with the clinic and the activists, especially the escorts, we started a database of anti-abortion extremism in each town. And we now have the most robust anti-abortion database. And we’ve brought together and created a coalition of all of these smaller organizations who exchange information about the anti-abortion extremists who are doing stuff. So when January 6th happened, we had been following their accounts with fake accounts on Facebook in places, we identified 30 anti-abortion extremists who were at the Capitol that day and turned them over to the FBI. And so that is another piece of our work now is having that database and working with security organizations to grow the database. And now activists who we work with have access to the database and they can type things in and find out a bunch of stuff. And so that’s also been pretty cool.
Ana Marie Cox: That’s amazing, actually.
Lizz Winstead: Yeah, yeah. They’re leading the anti-mask rallies, they are part of the white supremacy. I mean, there is a group called the Church of Planned Parenthood that is based out of Oregon, that is, they purport to do services outside of Planned Parenthood, but they’ve hired the Proud Boys to be their security. So it is, the intersections are great. And we just want also everyone to know that if you care about—[dog barking]
Ana Marie Cox: Is someone telling us that we’re keeping you?
Lizz Winstead: I do need to go potty, so . . . yeah. That’s Mr. [unclear, dog barking].
Ana Marie Cox: Well, if you’re dog is trying to telling you need to go, we can wrap it up. But I also want to know what’s in your future, Lizz? Are you going to found some more stuff?
Lizz Winstead: Um, my future is kind of exciting because as we’ve just talked about the lack of information on the inconsistent way that we talk about abortion, Abortion Access Front is launching on December 2nd a YouTube talk show once a week called Feminist Buzzkills Live! and it’s going to be funny and smart and have interviews with providers and researchers and activists and comedians and musicians. And we’re going to break down each week the news that’s going on with a lack of access to abortion, the politicians who are doing it, and giving people ways that they can help out. So it’s a weekly talk show that I’m really excited about that we’re launching. And I’m just going to keep fighting this fight until we can move the needle ever so slightly. I feel like this fight needs a good voice and needs a bunch of good people in it. So I think I’ve, I think I’ve landed. I think I’ve landed.
Ana Marie Cox: Lizz, thank you so much for coming on the show. And thank everything you do, actually. Thank you.
Lizz Winstead: [unclear] stuff, but thank you for having me. I loved it.
Ana Marie Cox: A huge thanks to Lizz Winstead for being a leader in this fight and for everything she has done, including coming on the show. You can learn more about the Abortion Access Front at their website, AAFront dot org. And as I said in the interview, if you consider yourself an ally in this fight, there is one incredibly small and easy thing for you to do. Please do it. Stop using the phrase pro-life to describe the people who are actually pro-forced birth. The first step to changing the law and changing hearts and minds is changing our vocabulary.
This show is a product of Crooked Media. Andrea Gardner-Bernstein is our producer. Patrick Antonetti is our audio editor. And please take care of yourselves.