For reasons only sociologists will understand, Americans have chosen this particular time to revisit issues about the status of women that I thought we’d settled decades ago.
There are a lot of parallels with racism. We elected a black President, but–faced with that stark evidence of progress–the not-inconsiderable numbers of remaining bigots crawled out from under their rocks. So this President “isn’t American” “wasn’t really born here” “is Muslim” and must be defeated at all costs, even if that means opposing measures that are demonstrably good for the country.
Here in Indiana, gubernatorial candidates have each selected a woman running-mate. At the federal level, our Secretary of State is a woman; when the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, a woman (gasp!) was Speaker. Everywhere you look, there’s evidence that women really have “come a long way, baby”–a long way from the days I still remember. When I went to law school, women couldn’t even have credit ratings separate from those of their husbands, there were still cultural barriers to women entering the workforce, and young women had few if any role models if they wanted to be anything other than wives and mothers.
Equal pay for equal work? Forget about it!
Family planning? Well, there was the rhythm method and condoms….
What really set women free, what really opened opportunity and set us out on a road to equality was an invention called the Pill. When women had access to reliable contraception, when we could control our reproduction, the world changed.
But just as the election of a black President horrified the throwbacks still clinging to white privilege, women’s steady progress has infuriated the throwbacks clinging to male privilege. (Not that the two categories are mutually exclusive.) There is no other explanation for the eruption of legislation aimed at rolling back the clock. That legislation has attacked women’s rights on multiple fronts (including, unbelievably, equal pay laws), but it is no accident that most of the assault has aimed at our ability to control our reproduction. That ability is the foundation of our equality, and the old men who resent that equality know it.
In this morning’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd takes on the Bishops of her own Catholic Church over their claims that HHS regulations requiring health insurers to provide birth control violates their religious liberty. The column is well worth reading, but her final sentence really sums it up: “And the lawsuit reminds the rest [of us] that what the bishops portray as an attack on religion by the president is really an attack on women by the bishops.”
Jefferson was right: liberty requires eternal vigilance. Those of us who thought the fight for women’s rights had been won had better go dig out our battle gear.