A recent spate of legislation, much of it directed by Republicans, has targeted women in a variety of ways. Described by many progressive bloggers and editorialists as a “war on women”, this trend disturbingly seeks to curtail the rights of women in various ways. Best of the Blogs poster Red State Progressive, reposting from MoveOn.org, lays out ten of the “attacks” on women and their rights that have happened in recent days. I have summarized a few them here.
1. 1. Attempting to redefine “rape.” Under the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, only women who are victims of “forcible rape” would be able to seek abortions. After considerable protest, HR3’s main author, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), promised to remove the language from the bill, but as of Feb. 9, the Huffington post reports that it is still present. Now another amendment has been included that would allow a hospital to refuse an abortion to a women even if the pregnancy costs her life. Itshould be noted here that the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, already forbids the use of federal funding to pay for abortion services. It applies only to funds allocated by the DHS in their annual budget.
2. 2. A Georgian lawmaker, Rep. Bobby Franklin, wants to change the language of state criminal codes so that people who report rapes, sexual violence, stalking, and domestic violence are referred to as “accusers” rather than “victims.” However, other non-gendered crimes such as burglary or assault still refer to victims as such. This further stigmatizes victims of sexual crimes, making it more unlikely that the perpetrators will ever face a charge.
3. 3. South Dakota Republicans proposed a bill that would make the murder of an abortion-providing doctor a “justifiable homicide,” further criminalizing both women who seek abortions and those who provide them.
4. 4. A bill in front of the Georgia House of Representatives would require women who miscarry, at any stage in pregnancy, to undergo an investigation to ensure that there was “no human involvement whatsoever.” Physicians would be required to examine a woman who suffered a miscarriage within 72 hours and present their findings to the police.
5. 5. In Maryland, legislators voted to end funding for the Head Start program, which provides early childhood care and education for children of low-income mothers. The reasoning behind this measure came from voices like that of Commissioners Paul Smith, whose wife stayed at home “at significant sacrifice,” to raise their kids, and Kirby Delauter, whose educated, able wife gave up a career to stay at home for 18 years and be a mother. What these gentlemen suggest is that women should be at home raising kids, not working, and thus early childhood care for their offspring is unnecessary.
6. 6. The most recent House budget proposal contained an amendment that removed all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, one of the biggest providers of birth control and gynecological services to women who cannot seek it in another medical facility. While House Republicans are thrilled that no more women can seek abortions at Planned Parenthood, people around the country are protesting the loss of other essential services, such as free birth control, condoms, gynecological exams, STI screening, pregnancy tests, prenatal health care and information, pap smears, mammograms, and counseling about sexuality, safe sexual practices, and sexual negotiations.
Taken separately, legislation such as this is almost laughably doomed to failure. The House budget bill will almost certainly fail in the Democratic Senate; facing outcries from various segments of the population, including the Black and Latino communities, the legislators (mostly men) responsible for these have promised to change or remove the more objectionable parts of their provisions. However, taken together, these point to a disturbing trend: in recent years, as the US faces a recession, high employment, and an aging population soon to hit retirement age, women’s rights have been increasingly coming under fire.
The motivations behind this trend are not clear at this point. Certainly the rise in the populist and nativist Tea Party, with their strong conservative beliefs and Christian allegiances, has contributed much angry rhetoric to the ongoing feminist debate. Indeed, House Republicans were unpleasantly surprised when their freshmen colleagues, many of whom were elected in 2010 on Tea Party platforms, held firm and demanded even stronger budget cuts than incumbent and historical Representatives liked. But it is also possible that these attacks on women’s abilities stem from less political and more sociological motivations.
As the competition for existing jobs becomes ever fiercer, men and women find themselves at odds, seeking the same jobs where once they were separated by social gender-based barriers. Is it possible that the desire to keep women limited to childbearing and –rearing, homemaking, “barefoot and pregnant,” as it were, stems from some fear of losing workplace prominence?
Before the recession hit, we saw many articles about how women were overtaking men in colleges. Liberal arts colleges became infamous for having high girl-boy ratios, and since scholastic success was increasing more rapidly among girls than among boys, many feared that equal opportunity policies, rather than increasing equality among the sexes, was instead contributing to the gap between. Like race-based equal opportunity practices, gender-based EO was viewed with suspicion by many. Now, with a recession driving thousands out of work and with Republican-supported tax breaks widening the gap between rich and poor, middle- and lower-class men are seeking to gain back some of their power over their own futures – by controlling the futures of their female counterparts.
Abortion has long been a contentious subject in American politics. The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, already makes it difficult for low-income women to obtain an abortion, and many states place heavy restrictions on abortion providers that, for practical purposes, many women cannot obtain them. Even in places where abortions are legal, women who seek them at clinics such as Planned Parenthood face protesters, slurs, and even violence at the entrance to an abortion-providing building. Abortions must often be preceded with sonic ultrasounds, detailed descriptions of the fetus, false information about the purported breast cancer-abortion link (which was proven false), counseling against depression or other psychological disorders, or prayer. The morning-after pill (Plan B), which serves as emergency birth control if taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex, is restricted in many states and can only be obtained with parental permission for women younger than 17. The use of birth control has also been challenged, with many schools refusing to teach sexual education classes that involve condoms or other contraceptives, opting instead for abstinence-only education that still results in high numbers of teenage pregnancies and STI cases. Women who go through with pregnancy face social stigmatization and, thanks to new budget cuts, a dearth of affordable resources, food, and childcare.
The implication of this legislation, and the attitudes behind it, is troubling. “Celebrity” moms and politicians assert that the answer is to get married, stay home, and raise healthy, happy children. Conservatives, backed by religion, say that the easiest way to avoid unwanted pregnancy is to not have sex, and the easiest way to not have sex is to not be a slut. But popular images continue to assert that a woman’s worth lies in her value to a man, namely, her sexuality; women struggle to be both sexually chaste and sexually exciting, according to the demands of culture and society. The implication is that women are incapable of making their own decisions, so they must be made for us: when to have sex (only after marriage, or when a man wants it), how to have sex (with men only; with protection, unless he doesn’t want to), what to do in the event of a pregnancy (have the baby because it’s your fault, you slut). What not to wear (miniskirts or revealing tops or tight dresses). What not to do (go to bars, walk alone, get drunk). It seems as though men want to exert so much control: directly, in the form of legislation, and indirectly, through fear, intimidation, and shame. How does this contribute to our growing economical problems? Does legislation like this really help us solve our deficit problem, our soaring debt, our corrupt corporations and industry?
My argument is that it does not. House Republicans came into office in 2010 promising a solution to the unemployment crisis, vowing to cut government spending and get our country back on its (conservative, Christian) track. But once they got there, the focus changed to the curtailing of rights for which women have been fighting for years. Faced with the true difficulty of balancing a budget, frustrated by the complexity of the issues facing us with an aging population and increasing rates of globalization, threatened by the influx of people and ideas that challenge nativist sentiment, Republicans have decided to exert control where they think they can: over women and their sexual and reproductive rights. And Democrats, still stymied on whether or not to back Obama’s progressive-by-comparison new policies, have been silent on these issues. Women have become a powerful political platform since Sarah Palin’s rise to fame in the 2008 campaigns, and Tea Party darlings like Michelle Bachmann and Christine O’Donnell have put a deceptively female face on these anti-woman issues. We must not forget that real feminism does not purport to tell women what they should and should not do with their bodies, and that real American spirit does not only come from white, wealthy men. Think about what you hear on the radio or see on TV. Seek out contradictory evidence. Challenge. Question. Decide for yourself what you believe and what you’re going to do. Remember that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is, and that almost nothing good comes without someone else’s expense. Hiding from the problem of inequality doesn’t solve it: we, as a society, need to face these problems, challenge these abuses of legislative power, and accept ourselves as women, for better or for worse.