Over the Top? Or Not?

I’ve never been one of those feminists who sees patriarchy in every corner of the culture, or a sexist leer in every male smile. While I certainly consider myself a feminist–defined as one who believes that men and women should be entitled to equal legal rights and judged on our individual abilities–I’ve always assumed that resistance to a fuller role for women in society is mostly a product of the more general resistance to change and nostalgia for a bygone (largely imaginary) past.

But I’m beginning to think that “the war on women” may not be hyperbole.

Yesterday, Slate Magazine had an article on the now infamous attack on Girl Scouts by Indiana Representative Morris. That article included the following paragraph:

“The escalating hysteria around modern Girl Scouts is due to the increasing polarization in this country around the concept of women’s equality. In an era where the right is putting contraception back on the table as a controversial topic, girls getting together to build self-esteem and learn skills that might make them competitive with boys and men in school and the workplace is bound to get the right wing freak-out treatment. We’re talking about the same movement perpetuating the argument that the purpose of sex education is to get teenagers and young adults “hooked” on sex so that the non-profit Planned Parenthood can rake in the big bucks. Of course they look at little girls gathered around the campfire and fill in lurid fantasies bordering on the Satanic. We’re watching the death throes of male dominance, and no one should expect such a thing to look pretty.”

Before this year, I would have dismissed this as an over-the-top reaction to an attack by one clearly disturbed lawmaker. But I have to concede that this bizarre incident can’t be viewed in a vacuum.

There’s the effort in Texas and Virginia to condition a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy on her submission to an invasive, medically unnecessary “transvaginal” probe.  In the twilight zone we currently inhabit, this requirement is being voted on at the same time that Republicans like Rick Santorum are on record opposing funding for prenatal testing. (They’re willing to invade my body to punish me for wanting an abortion, but ensuring the health of my fetus is too expensive??)

The assault on Planned Parenthood has been ferocious, and despite the predictable rhetoric, it can’t be attributed to abortions, which are 3% of what the organization does. Republicans have been vicious in their efforts to de-fund Planned Parenthood entirely, despite the fact that thousands of poor women depend upon it for reproductive health services, breast exams and family planning.

Irrational and improbable as it seems, it is now clear that “family planning” (aka birth control) is actually what they are attacking.

The so-called “Personhood” bills being introduced in several state legislatures would classify a fertilized egg as a “person,” making the most-used methods of contraception “abortions,” and thus illegal under most circumstances.  The manufactured hysteria about requiring insurance companies to cover contraception–portrayed as an affront to the “religious liberty” of employers–confirmed that there  really is a concerted effort to deny women the right to control their own reproduction. (I’ll admit to being stunned that there really are people living in the United States in the 21st century who believe that “religious liberty” means they have the right to impose their religious beliefs on women who do not share those beliefs. Shades of the Taliban…)

In 1971, I was one of a small handful of women in my law school class. I was the first woman hired by the law firm I joined, and thanks to a progressive mayor, the first woman to be Corporation Counsel of a major American city. I was the only skirt in the room more times than I can remember, for more years than I can now count. But during that time–despite the patronizing behavior of male colleagues, despite the female “friends” who warned me that children of working mothers all turn out to be drug addicts, despite snide remarks about castrating females or offensive suggestions that the only way I could have gotten these jobs was by “putting out” –I never doubted that women would continue to make progress. The old guys with the archaic attitudes would die off, the increasing participation of women in the workforce would make us less of an anomaly, and we would provide healthier, more capacious role models for our children, male and female.

Time and patience were our allies. Progress–however incremental–was inevitable.

I still believe in that progress. I still believe male privilege and domination are inevitably doomed. But I had no idea how hard the troglodytes would fight, and how ferocious the backlash would be.

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney keep insisting that this year’s elections are about competing visions for America. They’re right. And one element of those competing visions is the role women will play. It’s becoming increasingly clear that when Romney and Santorum talk about “restoring” the future, they are talking about returning to a time when Father always knew best, and Mother played a decidedly second fiddle. (That retrograde vision is why so many male Republicans trash-talk Michelle Obama, while consigning their own wives to supporting roles as devoted and adoring props.)

I’ve been there and done that, and I’m not going back.


  1. “In an era where the right is putting contraception back on the table as a controversial topic, girls getting together to build self-esteem and learn skills that might make them competitive with boys and men in school and the workplace is bound to get the right wing freak-out treatment.”

    This “right wing freak-out treatment” has been going on for some time. I had two little girls in the 90s and I remember it well. At the time, I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, and remember reading articles where men were aghast that boys in kindergarten were (allegedly) being taught needlework (what would be wrong with that?), instead of being let to run around like the boys they were. Mommies of boys were furious that girls were making better grades in school in the areas of mathematics and science, which proved to them that their boys were being neglected, instead of realizing that girls were finally getting the attention they needed and deserved. Remember “Take Your Daughters to Work” day, and how the mothers of boys howled at the injustice of it all? Instead of initiating a separate day for boys, it became “Take Your Children to Work” day, and gradually disappeared altogether. The lesson of all this was “girls should NEVER be allowed to better themselves over boys”.

  2. You said something about the “old guys with archaic attitudes dying off”. Well, unfortunately they likely passed their behavioral expectations on to their male progeny before they did so. These kinds of behaviors are both persistent and pernicious, not just the latter. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but I still read comments that have been around for over a hundred years and still won’t go away.

  3. Bravisima gifted and lucid counselor. What is going on in this country is way over the line and I pray for civil discourse that in fact make our communities both stronger and better.

  4. In 1970 at age 32 with five children I was forced to get my husband’s permission and a signed document to undergo a tubal ligation. In 1979 I called the Star to publish my daughter’s wedding announcement and was informed my name would only be listed as Mrs. Earl Kennedy (my daughter’s step-father); if I insisted on using my own name it would not be published. We have moved uphill slightly and slowly since those days but still fight for the rights to our own bodies and suffer insults for speaking our mind on the subject. Can the Republicans get any lower than attacking Girl Scouts of America? Speaker Bosma is to be commended for his on-target response to offset Morris’ bigoted stupidity. Will we ever get these politicians out of our beds?

  5. Unfortunately, this attitude is alive and well in small rural towns. I am a female who graduated from IUPUI with a bachelor of science in public and environmental affairs. As recently as three years ago I was attending a function in a small town. The speaker was discussing the hierarchy of the church and who could pray. First, it was the adult white male, then the teenage boys and then the women. I was extremely offended to hear that I, a college educated female, had to let a teenage boy pray first and be relegated to second class citizenship. I am also a former girl scout. It saddens me to think that someone would portray this wonderful organization which has done so much to promote growth among girls in this manner.

  6. I recently read a blog commenter, male, state that personhood amendments are about “HUMAN rights, not women’s rights”. To this man, women are not human (and the fetus is presumed to be male, obviously). I truly thought we were past the cultural wars over abortion that plagued our society in the 80s. It’s shocking – really shocking beyond my ability to express in words – that so many still see women as inherently unequal to men. I’m a 45year old in a male-dominated profession, and while these days I’m more than welcome at the jobsite as a knowledgeable contributor, the pernicious underlying attitude still exists that “women” – not me in particular but females as an idea – somehow aren’t important.

    I do wonder if it’s the rise of acceptance of homosexuality that is causing so many men to panic and thus backlash to women as a group that might be easier to keep down.

  7. Thank you for this timely blogpost. I have watched the news of late and realize that apparently, the only part of me that is “worthy” of being discussed is my uterus and what it can (or cannot) produce. You are right, shades of the Taliban, indeed. I’m scared to ask what’s next.

    What has become clear is that women (and girls) have become something that certain political action groups feel they need to control.

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