Speaking of Women's Rights: Behind the Battle Lines of the "War On Women"

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Behind the Battle Lines of the "War On Women"

As the “war on women” escalates in Congress, I’ve been pondering its underpinnings. Many would probably say it’s merely an aspect of the famous (and real) vast right-wing conspiracy, but that strikes me as too facile an analysis.

To be sure, it’s tempting to see the so-called war everywhere, whether in the enormous gap between women and men in obtaining jobs as we slog toward economic recovery, or in the preference of parents in the United Kingdom to have their sons, rather than their daughters, move back home. Both those findings reflect deep-seated stereotypes about women, I fear (though I’d like to see more data about the jobs gap, given that men disproportionately lost their jobs, at least early in the recession). Yet that sort of stereotype is different from the world view that leads members of Congress to single out women’s health care and related programs and services for massive cuts.

Jon Stewart probably said it best, when he noted that House Republicans have decided that instead of cutting services to “people” they are cutting them to “women,” bringing to mind the famous saying that feminism is the radical notion that women are people. Except apparently we aren’t real people, at least to those politicians and their supporters.

How can it be acceptable for Congress to slash money for basic food aid to women and their children; to prefer that women die, rather than be able to obtain a safe, legal medical procedure, even in the face of an impassioned and eloquent speech from one of their own colleagues; for Planned Parenthood – which has provided needed, safe health care to millions of women – to have its funding taken away, making it impossible for millions more to get that care?

This is actually not a political war. Rather, it’s a holy war: an effort by religious extremists against liberty and progress, a rear-guard action aimed at establishing (or in their view, returning to) a society in which women are entirely subservient to men. Certainly the politicians voting for these heinous measures are gung-ho soldiers in this war, and many hold the same beliefs as the overtly religiously-motivated extremists. But we can’t simply dismiss these actions by saying "they hate women." It’s not just about animus: it’s about control, about making sure that women stay in their assigned role, and do not/cannot usurp men’s authority and power.

That’s why I say it’s a war on liberty and progress. It’s the same motivation that underlies opposition to marriage equality. Yes, they find homosexuality opprobrious. But what they find more offensive is the notion of equality among all people. Women’s – and men’s – liberty to be the persons they want to be, without being constrained by that religiously extreme world view, is what’s at stake in this holy war.

The holy war presents more than one risk, of course. Yes, if they were to win and impose that medieval (or even more archaic) societal structure, that would be very, very bad for all of us. But in addition, the world view underlying this effort harms other religious persons and institutions, both by claiming to be “the only holy truth” and by making religion appear hateful and reactionary. That’s a disservice to many people of faith, yet it’s almost inevitable to some degree. As someone brought up with mainstream Protestant dogma, I find watching the words of “Onward Christian Soldiers” turn into political reality not only disheartening, but terrifying.

Worst of all, at least to me, is the unrelenting assault on our Constitution and on the founding of this country. We don’t just have freedom of religion and separation of church and state: we’re supposed to have freedom from religion. That’s as holy an ideal as any, preserving as it does both the independence of organized religion, and our sacred liberties.