The Personal is Political: Angelina Jolie Edition
In a New York Times op-ed today, Angelina Jolie publicized her recent decision to surgically remove her ovaries after learning she was at a heightened cancer risk.
Jolie discovered in a blood test two years ago that she carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that brought with it an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. Shortly after receiving this information, she underwent a preventative double mastectomy— a decision she also publicly announced in order to spread awareness about options available to women with the same genetic mutation. In today’s op-ed, Jolie explicated the complicated decision-making process that led to her choice to remove her ovaries (a surgery that forces the body into premature menopause, carrying with it a host of side effects).
Her letter is truly an example of bravery. Not only has the award-winning actress and humanitarian undergone a life-altering procedure, but she has shared a highly personal decision that affects her body, mind, future and family.
That act is empowering for all women. In an age where we are still seeing (mostly male) legislators try to exert control over women’s medical choices, Jolie owned the narrative about her own body and health. She spoke about her reproductive capabilities, her ovaries, her breasts, her uterus. And, most importantly, she did not apologize for it, as women are socialized to do in the name of delicacy and “privacy”— itself, a construct that perpetuates the silencing of women’s experiences.
In speaking up, however, Jolie was careful not to fall into the second-wave-feminist trap of speaking for all women. She said:
I did not do this solely because I carry the BRCA1 gene mutation, and I want other women to hear this. A positive BRCA test does not mean a leap to surgery. I have spoken to many doctors, surgeons and naturopaths. There are other options. Some women take birth control pills or rely on alternative medicines combined with frequent checks. There is more than one way to deal with any health issue. The most important thing is to learn about the options and choose what is right for you personally.
By making this statement, Jolie has exemplified a nuanced feminism that recognizes the full humanity of women. Women are not a monolith with singular health care beliefs, needs and options. Rather, each person must independently make decisions that are right for her unique situation and history.