Occasional Essays on Women and Politics. . . .

 

"Making America Great Again--Women's Edition, Or, The 115th U. S. Congress" 
 

In the kick-off to a year when American women will almost surely face challenges and set-backs and hostility on a number of fronts, it is important to remember that women are still woefully under-respresented in the U. S. Congress. Only 19 percent of the members of the new Congress are women. Yup, that's right--19 percent. 

 (And just in case you were wondering, 51 percent of the U. S. population is female.)

 Here's one view of what the numbers look like:

                     Graphic from The Hill, 17 November 2016

 

Of the 535 members who will take their seats when the 115th U. S. Congress convenes today for the first time, only 104 of them will be women. And that's exactly the same number as in the last congress. Women made no gains at all in representation.

Numerous sources proclaim--accurately, to be sure--that this will be the most racially diverse congress ever (see, for example, Christina Marcos's piece in The Hill). And while this is a good thing, it's important also to note that these "record" numbers are still pretty lame: 49 African American members (up from 46), 38 Hispanic members (no change), 15 Asian American members (up from 11), and two Native American members (no change). (For a profile of members of the 114th U. S. Congress, click here).

In other words, 102 men and women of color will hold seats in the 115th U. S. Congress--19 percent. For the record, racial and ethnic minorities account for 39 percent of the U. S. population. (For the Kaiser Family Foundation's March 2016 figures, click here.) And many of those candidates of color are women--the new congress is still overwhelmingly white and male (almost 80 percent).

In addition to the number of legislators who represent racial diversity, there are 7 LGBTQ members of the 115th U. S. Congress--again, no change from the previous Congress.  

But, hey, in international rankings, when it comes to the numbers of women in our national legislature, we're tied for 100th place with Krygystan! And, while we might have lost out to Greece and Kenya (tied for 98th/99th place) by .5 of a percentage point, at least we beat out Tajikistan by .2 of a percentage point! Yay us!

Of course, Cuba ranks 3rd on this list, Nicaragua 5th, Mexico 8th, Costa Rica and Grenada tied at 31st, El Salvador 34th, Trinidad and Tobago, 42nd, the Dominican Republic 58th, Canada 63rd, Honduras 64th, and. . . Well, you get the picture. But at least we're not the lowest-ranked of the countries in North America--we rank higher than Panama, at 103, Jamaica at 109 . . . And we're definitely better than Beliz, at 180, and Haiti, at 187.  (For the Inter-Parliamentary Union rankings of women in international parliaments, click here.)

One more fun fact. While the fall 2016 elections brought no gains for U. S. women when it comes to representation in our national legislature, the fall election in Iceland resulted in women holding 48 percent of the parliamentary seats. (The top 3 countries on the list--Rwanda, Bolivia, and Cuba--mandate levels of representation for women, though women's participation exceeds the mandated minimums. But there are no constitutional requirements for women's representation in Iceland, fourth on the list of 193 countries.)

So, as we look ahead to Making America Great Again, Women's Edition: fasten your seat belts, ladies--it's going to be a bumpy year . . . 

 

 

(This brief note has been reposted from my blog, The Monstrous Regiment of Women: A Women's History Daybook, originally posted 3 January 2017) 

 

"Women and the 114th Congress--Good News, Sorta (Or Is It Bad News?")

The Center for American Women and Politics (Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey) has issued its "Election Watch" report for the 2014 election: "2014: Not a Landmark Year for Women, Despite Some Notable Firsts." While there is some improvement in representation for women, the pace is glacial.

So, first, the good news: "At least 101 women--and possibly as many as 105--will serve in the 114th Congress" (CAWP). And then the bad: even with 20 women in the Senate and 81 in the House, women will still hold only 18.5 percent of the combined 535 seats in the U.S. Congress. If all five women whose races have not yet been decided (1 in the Senate and 3 in the House of Representatives) are ultimately elected, this percentage could climb all the way to 19.5 percent.

By way of contrast, there were 99 women serving in the 113th Congress, 20 in the Senate and 79 in the House.

 

This graph is from Slate's report on the election

The figures for statewide elective office aren't cause for much optimism either. While the highest rate of representative for women in statewide elective offices is 41.1 percent (Vermont), the lowest rates are grim (South Carolina, 10 percent; Louisiana, 12.5 percent; Oklahoma, 13.4 percent). 


As Gail Collins notes in her post-election op-ed, "Always Look on the Bright Side," at its current rate of growth, American women can expect to achieve equality of representation "sometime around 2078." That's about twenty years after women might finally achieve equal pay: the Institute for Women's Policy Research calculates that, if change continues at the same slow pace it has since the passage of the 1963 Equal Pay Act, it will take another fifty years, until 2058, for women to finally reach pay parity. 


Unlike Collins, I pretty much never look on the bright side.

 

(This brief note has been reposted from my blog, The Monstrous Regiment of Women: A Women's History Daybook, originally posted 6 November 2014)

 

 

"Are Women Human?" (posted 29 August 2012 and modified 9 September 2012) 

Last March, just a month into the spring semester, a shy student who usually sat quietly in the back of the room came dancing into the classroom, waving a handful of papers over her head. Instead of climbing over desks and other students and backpacks on her way to her usual retreat in the last row of desks, she came right up to me, where I was standing in the front of the room. What was she so excited about? She had a photocopy of Jessica Winter’s Time essay, “Are Women People?” in her hands, and she was excited because she thought it was a perfect piece for our class discussion.

She was right—it was perfect for our discussion. We had just finished reading Christine de Pizan’s fifteenth-century defense of women, The Book of the City of Ladies, on the very day that Winter’s essay had been published. And the question of women's humanity was very much on Pizan's mind as she wrote. But the fact that Winter was struggling with that same question more than six hundred years later was deeply unsettling. Are women people? “I’ve always assumed that women are fully autonomous human citizens—who vote, even!” Winter wrote, “but now I’m not so certain.”

The question of whether women are, rightly considered, “people” has a long history. Winter certainly isn’t the first to wonder. And her wonderful piece, which appeared in the midst of the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke controversy, is smart, articulate, and funny. (Are women people? “Only when they’re pregnant.” “They’re more like really expensive blow-up dolls.” “Not quite—they’re objects with certain people-like traits.”) But Winter doesn’t address the long history of the question she was confronting.

Are women human? Philosophers, theologians, biologists and physicians, lawyers—well, all men, really—have been asking this very question for millennia. And for more than two thousand years, their answer to that question has pretty much been the same. Are women human? Sort of, maybe, well, in a way, but not really, no, I don’t think so.

My students had been shocked when they first began reading The City of Ladies. There, in the opening pages, Pizan’s first-person narrator, “Christine,” is reduced to the depths of self-loathing:

I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which . . . is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. . . . I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature.

My students were horrified. How could a woman write such things about women? How could Pizan suggest women were "vile" or "abominable," much less conclude that they were the source of "every evil and vice"? Why would she even suggest the possibility that women were “monstrosities in nature”? And why would “Christine” pray to God in her agony, asking, “Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a male.” That’s when we had to stop to look at the complex, contentious, ugly history of the question to which Pizan was responding in 1405. Are women human?

When Pizan, through her first-person narrator, refers to women as “monstrosities in nature,” she’s quoting Aristotle, whose profoundly influential views about women still reverberate in today’s political debates. From Aristotle’s perspective, men and women are clearly so different that it might well be asked whether they even belong to the same species: “One might raise the question why woman does not differ from man in species, when female and male are contrary and their difference is a contrariety” (Metaphysics). Although Aristotle ultimately decides that women do belong to the same species as men, he rejects the views of earlier philosophers that women, like men, contribute “seed” to reproduction. Women are cold, infertile, and passive; they contribute only matter or “stuff” to reproduction. Men alone contribute seed, soul, life force—in other words, the right stuff.

But Aristotle’s most influential “truth” about women is found in his biological work (On the Generation of Animals). A woman may be the same species as a man, but she is by no means his equal:

Just as it sometimes happens that deformed offspring are produced by deformed parents, and sometimes not, so the offspring produced by a female are sometimes female, sometimes not, but male. The reason is that the female is as it were a deformed male.

So there it is. Are women human? To be fully human is to be male. To be female is to be deformed, a failure of the reproductive process. To be female is to be almost human, just not quite.  

And thus another question arises. What is the place of this almost-human-but-not-quite creature in society? To be male is to be fully rational—the human species is distinguished by its rationality, according to Aristotle. But to be female is to be irrational. Women have some rational faculties, but only within limits (Politics):

A question may indeed be raised, whether there is any excellence at all in a slave beyond and higher than merely instrumental and ministerial qualities. . . . Since they are men and share in rational principle, it seems absurd to say that they have no virtue. A similar question may be raised about women and children. . . .

Yes, a woman has some rational faculty, Aristotle decides, but her limited rational faculty is “without authority”—the child also has some rational faculty, “but it is immature.” Presumably, a male child’s rational faculty will mature; a girl’s will not. Without authority, a woman is bound to obey. She is a “natural subject”: just as the “free man rules over the slave,” “the male rules over the female” (and “the man over the child”). A woman’s “virtues” are silence and obedience.

The influence of Aristotle’s view of woman is incalculable. The Roman physician, Galen, adopted Aristotle’s conclusions about women. Women were necessary for reproduction, certainly: “there needs to be a female,” Galen concedes. “Indeed, you ought not to think that our Creator would purposely make half the whole race imperfect, and as it were, mutilated, unless there was to be some great advantage in such a mutilation” (On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body). The “advantage” to her “mutilation” is her role in reproduction. A woman can give birth.

Galen would remain the foremost medical authority well into the early modern world. Aristotle, meanwhile, was so important that he was, throughout the Middle Ages, known simply as “the philosopher.” No name was necessary. Thus Dante does not need to name him in the fourth canto of Inferno—there, in the middle of all the great philosophers, Dante writes, is “il maestro di color che sanno,” “the master of those who know.”

So famous and influential is Aristotle that when Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies in 1405, she didn’t need to identify the source of the view that women were “monstrosities in nature.” That wasn’t her view, or the view of “Christine,” her first-person narrator—that was Aristotle’s view and the view of all the male authorities who followed him. No matter what else they disagreed about, philosophers, theologians, legal scholars, doctors, poets, and politicians could “all concur in one conclusion.” They all “judged, decided, and concluded against women.” Women were the “vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice.” They were “monstrosities in nature.”

And it wasn’t just the Greeks and the Romans, of course—Christian theologians were also pretty clear on the subject. Consider the views of St. Augustine, for instance. On the one hand, he seems to reject a woman’s femaleness as a physical defect, rendering her less than fully human (male). “There are some who think that in the resurrection all will be men,” he writes, considering the view of those Christian thinkers who argued that, in heaven, imperfect women would find themselves perfected, losing their female bodies and becoming male. Augustine disagrees: “I think that those others are more sensible who have no doubt that both sexes will remain in the resurrection” (The City of God). He agrees that, after resurrection, “all blemishes of the body will be gone,” but a woman’s sex “is her nature and no blemish.” Both men and women inherit grace; “You created male and female, but in Your spiritual grace, they are as one” (Confessions).

But what happens after the resurrection isn’t necessarily true in this world, and while spiritually male and female “are as one,” that doesn’t quite translate to full equality. In his commentary on the meaning of Genesis, Augustine clarifies his position. How were Adam and Eve created, he asks. Adam is made in the image of God; he is complete, perfect. Eve, created from Adam’s rib, is not created in the image of God. What is her role? “Is it to work the earth with [Adam]?” Not at all, for “if the need was there, the help of another man would have been preferable.” Is it to be a companion? To be a comforting presence, in case “solitude weighed on him”? No again. “To live and to talk to each other, how preferable is the companionship of two male friends than that of a man and a woman!” Then what is a woman good for? What is her purpose? “I do not see for what goal woman would have been given to man as a helpmate if not for generating children.”

Are women human? Well, if to be fully human is to be made in the image of God, to be a helpmate in work, to be a companion in solitude, then no. A woman is sort of human. She is useful for one human function—she’s necessary for making babies.

In the centuries that followed, Christian bishops debated whether women could be called “human beings” (homines) since the word homo, used in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, meant, strictly speaking, “man” (just as adam is the Hebrew word for “man” of “mankind”) and whether women had souls. Some of these debates may be rumored or mythic—according to one such story, the Council of Nicea (323 C.E.) debated the issue of whether women had souls and took a vote, with the women-have-souls side “winning” by only one vote. Another such account has the Council of Macon (585 C.E.) deciding that women don’t, after all, have souls. Apocryphal or not, these stories were believed, their "truths" about women perpetuated through the centuries.

Meanwhile, Aristotelian “truths” were melded with Christian thought and belief. The greatest medieval thinker, Thomas Aquinas, asks a question that can at first seem rather startling to a modern reader: “Whether the woman should have been made in the first production of things?” (Summa Theologica). The answer is a foregone conclusion—the Christian God could never have made a mistake. In his answer to this question, which thus really isn’t a question at all, Aquinas replies that woman’s creation was “necessary.” He agrees with Aristotle that women are defective, and that women are “naturally subject to men.” Women are “the occasion for sin,” but if God had “deprived the world of all those things which proved an occasion of sin, the universe would have been imperfect.” God created women so that sin would exist! Oh, and women are also needed to be a “help” to man—their “matter” is needed for men’s “seed” in the process of reproduction.

Of course academics and scholars and linguists have contextualized, rationalized, explained, translated, retranslated, and interpreted these authors, their texts, and even their words for generations. And of course I am pulling quotations out of much larger contexts here. Of course I am not dealing with the nuances of the original Greek, Latin, and Hebrew texts. But what I have indicated here is exactly how these “truths” and authorities have always been quoted, rationalized, explained, interpreted, and understood. That’s why we see them so clearly in Christine de Pizan, who wrote to defend women against such misogynist “truths.” 

To the question “are women human,” Pizan responds unequivocally and unambiguously. Yes, women are human: “There is not the slightest doubt that women belong to the people of God and the human race as much as men.” she asserts. They are not “monstrosities in nature.” They are “not another species or dissimilar race,” they are fully human.

But Pizan was fighting a losing battle. Perhaps nowhere is that lost battle more obvious than in an anonymous pamphlet published in 1595, A New Disputation against Women, in Which It Is Proved That They Are Not Human Beings (Disputatio nova contra mulieres, qua probatur eas hominess non esse). Whether or not it was originally intended as satire, it was not widely read as satire—it was reprinted, answered, translated, plagiarized, and adapted, including a 1647 variation attributed to one “Horatio Plato,” Che le donne non habbino anima e the non siano della specie degli huomini, e vienne comprobato da molti luoghi della Scrittura santa (Women Do Not Have a Soul and Do Not Belong to the Human Race, as Is Shown by Many Passages of Holy Scripture), which itself was then translated and republished. Indeed, the Disputation remained in print well into the eighteenth century (a French edition was published in 1766).

According to this argument, not even a woman’s reproductive capacity qualified her as sort of human— “the smith is not able to forge a sword unless he has the help of his hammer,” “the scribe is not able to write unless he likewise has the help of a pen,” “a tailor is unable to darn unless he has the help of a needle.” Just so, “a man is not able to beget unless he has the help of a woman.” But just as hammers, pens, and needles are so clearly not human, neither are women. And this is only one of the fifty “invincible” proofs offered to show that “woman is not human, nor is she saved.”

The uncertainty about women’s humanity—or, rather, the certainty that whatever they are, women aren’t fully rational, equally human—is at the root of so much of the institutional inequality that women faced and still face. When Thomas Jefferson included the claim that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, he certainly didn’t mean female persons in his construction of “all men.” It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that women gained some measure of legal, political, and economic equality, presumably a measure of their humanity, and not until early in the twentieth that they finally got the right to vote. Reproductive rights took longer yet. At the end of the twentieth century, it almost looked as if, in the United States at least, we were ready to answer the question “are women human” with an unambiguous “yes.”

But lately things have taken a turn for the worse. Much worse. Here we are now, in 2012, right back where we started. Women have been reduced to their reproductive capacities. They are irrational and incapable of making decisions for themselves about their own lives. They can’t be trusted to know whether they’ve been raped or not—is it really “legitimate” rape? Or “forcible” rape? If they wind up pregnant, it's proof that they haven't been raped—women's imperfect, deformed female bodies have magical powers to prevent pregnancy if they are truly victims of rape. (The medical view that pregnancy cannot result from rape goes back to the Middle Ages—at least to the thirteenth century, when Thomas Aquinas was asking whether God made a big goof when he created women.)

If women can't even be trusted to know whether they've had consensual sex or been raped, what decisions can they be trusted to make about their own (imperfect) bodies? If they don't know what kind of sex they've had, surely they can’t properly make decisions about whether and when to have children. Those decisions must be taken out of their hands and placed in the hands of wise (male) humans. Like those of George Bush and the rest of these guys, shown here signing yet another bill limiting women's healthcare and reproductive decisions. 

Are women human? The Sanctity of Human Life Act (HR 212), introduced into the 112th Congress by Todd Akin and Paul Ryan, among others, declares that “the life of each human beings begins with fertilization.” According to the definitions helpfully provided in the bill, a “human zygote, a one-celled human embryo” has all the legal rights of a “human” or “human being,” by which the bill means “each and every member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of life, beginning with the earliest stage of development, created by the process of fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent.”

Is a zygote human? According to this definition, a zygote is clearly and unambiguously fully human.

Are women human? Their autonomy, bodily integrity, and independence guaranteed under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment? Are they thinking beings? Are they entitled to make decisions about their own lives? That, unfortunately, is not nearly so clear. 

The Violence Against Women Act expired at the end of September 2011. After nearly a year of wrangling, it still has not been renewed. Women are apparently not human enough to guarantee their protection from from violence. (Sixty-eight U.S. Senators thought women were worth protecting, passing the renewal of the VAWA. In the U.S. House, meanwhile, 221 members, a majority of those voting in May, agreed that, while some women might be human enough to bother about, Native American women, LGBT women, and undocumented immigrant women were definitely not quite human enough to worry about; the House version of the VAWA left them out. If they have to be included, well, it's just better to forget about the whole thing. There has been no reconsideration of the Violence Against Women Act in the House since.)

Meanwhile, the Equal Pay Act was first passed in 1963, its aim to end wage differences based on sex. In that year, women earned 58.9 cents for every dollar earned by men. Today, nearly 50 years later (!), women earn just 77.4 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gain of less than half a cent a year. Are women human? Not according to our value of their work.

And while they may have been "given" the vote, God forbid women should talk about what and who to vote for. Overcome by the sound of women's voices at the Democratic National Convention, CNN's Erick Erickson responded, "First night of the Vagina Monologues in Charlotte going as expected." Although more than 30 men also spoke during the Tuesday session, no one tweeted "First night of the Penis Lectures going as expected" or "First night of the Dick Sessions going as expected."

Men are human—they have ideas, opinions, hopes, and dreams. We should listen to them. Are women human, worth our attention? Of course not. They are merely reproductive organs, useful for sexual intercourse and childbirth, not for thinking. Or, God forbid, for talking.

Are women human?

The answer still seems to be sort of. Maybe. Well, in a way, but not really. No, I don’t think so.

Or, as Jessica Winter concludes, “they’re objects with certain people-like traits.”

 

. . . . . . 

 

 

 

 

"Rand, Ryan, Republicans, and Rape: A (Brief) Rant" (posted 20 August 2012)

Okay, I promised myself I wasn’t going to get into the whole Ayn Rand-Paul Ryan thing—I had nothing new to add to the conversation about why so many teenage boys love The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

Really, who could add anything more to the assessment of blogger John Rogers, whose insightful comments, from a 2009 post, pretty much say all that ever needs to be said:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Or, as Sara Robinson noted last spring, even before Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate, “All this Ayn Rand libertarian me-first-and-the-rest-of-you-go-to-hell stuff—the there's-no-government-like-no-government theology that's now being piously intoned as Holy Received Truth . . . —is, very precisely, the kind of politics you'd come up with if you were a 16-year-old boy trying to explain away his dependence on Mom.” 

Now let me be clear before I go any farther here—I’m not saying that some grown women aren’t hanging onto their teenage fantasies about how special they are. I’ve watched too many episodes of Say Yes to the Dress for that. There are a whole lot of women out there—women well into their 30s, 40s, and even 50s—who still think they inhabit a pink and sparkly fairytale world. How do you want to look on your wedding day, the Kleinfeld consultant asks. “I just want to be a princess,” the simpering bride gushes. Please, sister. But these deluded, aging Ariels are planning a wedding, for crying out loud, not hanging onto some Disney-fueled fantasy as a roadmap for running the whole damn country

But Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” bring new insight into what all of these boys-gone-wild have in mind for us. Whatever their fantasies about individualism and self-determination and despite their I-can-be-whatever-I-want-to-be bullshit, those who are entitled to individualism and self-determination and being whatever they want to be aren’t female.   

Both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged fetishize and eroticize rape—in both novels, rape is a major plot point. In each, the female protagonists are the victims of violent, nonconsensual sex. But in Rand’s fantasy world, it’s not “legitimate rape” because Dominique Francon and Dagny Taggart really like it! Rand herself famously dismissed questions about rape in The Fountainhead by saying that if Dominique was raped, it was “rape by engraved invitation.” 

So there it is. That’s at the root of what all of all these would-be Howard Roarks and John Galts are thinking when it comes to women: there’s really no such thing as “legitimate” rape. It’s all really “rape by engraved invitation.” And if that’s what they’re thinking, then why should we be surprised at what they’re saying? The breezy certainties Senate-candidate Todd Aikin (R-Missouri) expressed on Sunday, 19 August 2012 about “legitimate rape” and, just a few days later, Paul Ryan's own shocking dismissal of rape as "a method of conception" are only the most recent of a whole series of such right-wing remarks. Why are we even surprised at this point?  (For more such comments, see below, “Lysistrata and the War on Women,” and Katie J.M. Baker’s “The Office Guide to Legitimate Rape”

But if you add all of these Randian-fuelled rape fantasies to the Republican party’s increasingly repressive views of women, stir in Paul Ryan’s long-standing opposition to abortion even in the case of rape, and mix it with his sponsorship of a House bill granting full “personhood” to a fertilized egg, well, you’ve got a truly toxic brew. 

For the Randian Ryan—and all his buds and bros—“individualism” is the only true good: 

"Individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights—and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members." (Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness)

Or, as Ryan himself puts it, "only by taking responsibility for oneself, to the greatest extent possible, can one ever be free; and only a free person can make responsible choices—between right and wrong, saving and spending, giving or taking. These moral characteristics inhere in individuals, growing from the coupling of freedom and responsibility; and this in turn is the root of the Nation's virtue" (Paul Ryan, "A Choice of Two Futures," The Roadmap Plan: A Roadmap for America's Future).

Despite Ryan's gender-neutral "one" here, he and his fellow Republicans have taken Ayn Rand’s pronouns literally. Although they won’t admit it, they clearly believe that only a man (or a 15-year-old boy) is entitled to be an “independent, sovereign entity” with the “inalienable right to his own life.” Only someone with a penis can "ever be free." A "free person" is allowed to choose between right and wrong. No such "freedom and responsibility" ever "inhere" in women's bodies. A woman has no right to choose. She can't be trusted to make a responsible choice.

A woman isn’t, and can never be, an “independent, sovereign entity.” She can't be independent and sovereign because she doesn’t have control over her own body—she can be penetrated and violated by any man who chooses to do so. Of course, according to Rand, it isn't rape. She really wants to be overpowered and brutalized and violated. She likes it. It's not "legitimate" rape. (And, remember, it was Paul Ryan who co-sponsored the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," the bill that had that pesky language about "forcible rape." It passed in the House on 4 May 2012. Oh--his partner and co-sponsor on that bill? Todd Akin.)  

From this viewpoint, a woman is either too weak to preserve her physical integrity or too stupid to know what she really wants. Either way, according to Ryan et al., she isn't worthy of individual rights and self-determination. How can she be trusted to make choices for herself? 

In the unlikely possibility that there is a pregnancy as a result of a "legitimate rape" (according to Akin, "from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare"), well, then, no worries because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Thank you, Todd Akin, proud member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  

And if her poor, stupid female body doesn’t shut that whole “really rare” thing down, well, then, obviously she must really want to be pregnant, no matter what she might say or think, just like she really wanted to be raped. Must have been illegitimate rape. Or nonforcible rape. Or she sent an engraved invitation to rape. Whatever. It clearly wasn't rape-rape.

So much for her individualism and her individual rights. But that egg—it sure as hell will be an “independent, sovereign entity” with an “inalienable right” to self-determination, thanks to Paul Ryan’s "fetal personhood" amendment, which would give legal protections and full rights, under the U.S. constitution, to fetuses from the moment of conception. 

At its website, the Ayn Rand Institute proudly proclaims, "To date, more than 1.4 million copies of . . . Ayn Rand novels have been donated to 30,000 teachers in 40,000 classrooms across the United States and Canada. Based on a projected shelf life of five years per book, we estimate that more than 3 million young people have been introduced to Ayn Rand's books and ideas as a result of our program."

Sheesh. I don't know about you, but I think we'd all be better off if someone, somewhere, decided to send off copies of The Lord of the Rings to classrooms across the country instead. 

 

 . . . . . .

 

"Lysistrata and the War on Women" (posted 10 April 2012)

Even before the 61-year-old Rush Limbaugh demanded that Sandra Fluke post sex tapes online—revealing more about the nature of his own adolescent sexual fantasies than any reality about the lives of "college co-eds"—I was dreaming of Lysistrata.

Lysistrata is the title character of a Greek comedy by Aristophanes, first produced in 411 B.C. In the play, Lysistrata engineers a conclusion to the Peloponnesian War by uniting the women of all the Greek city-states. While their men engage in constant battle, the exasperated women agree to a boycott—they will withhold sex from their husbands and lovers until peace is declared. The endless war ends quickly.

I can’t remember now when I started wondering whether Lysistrata—and her successful strategy for reforming the men of Greece—might offer a solution for the threats that twenty-first century American women are now facing.

The litany of attacks on contemporary women is now so long that it is impossible to rehearse here: the efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, the wrangling over contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act, the relentless assault on abortion rights by the imposition of increasingly draconian obstacles for women seeking to end a pregnancy, the ongoing offensive against comprehensive sex education in our schools.

More recently, the "war against women" has opened new fronts. The Blunt Amendment would have allowed any employer with a "moral" objection to veto any provision in health-care coverage, not only contraception but also prenatal testing, mammograms, and Pap tests. Then there are all the so-called personhood laws being introduced in state legislatures across the country, laws that would make any kind of family planning and birth control the legal equivalent of infanticide. And don't forget the "fetal pain" bills, laws that utterly discount any pain that may be experienced by adult women who have been raped or who are victims of incest or who are carrying stillborn foetuses. In the first quarter of 2012 alone, as the Guttmacher Institute reports, "legislators in 45 of the 46 state legislatures that have convened this year introduced 944 provisions related to reproductive health and rights."

But, of course, the new fronts in what columnist Maureen Dowd has called "the Global War on Women" (GWOW), extend beyond the battlefield of reproductive rights. The US Congress has so far refused to reauthorize the violence against Women Act, first passed in 1994 and renewed in 2000 and 2005. The House-passed Republican budget makes drastic cuts in spending on programs that help low-income women and their children, including funding for education, childcare, nutrition assistance, job training, and health services. As just one indication of how deeply such cuts disproportionately affect women and children: nearly half of those who receive nutritional aid tghrough SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are children; 62% of the working-age adults who receive assistance are women.

Things in the states aren't looking any better. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has just signed a bill repealing the state's 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act, despite the persistent pay gap experienced by women in the workplace. (In 1966, when the National Organization for Women was founded, women earned 57.6 cents for every dollar earned by men; today, 46 years later, women are earning 77.4 cents for every dollar). According to Glenn Grotham, one of the bill's sponsors, pay equity has nothing to do with gender discrimination. It's just that "money is more important for men." In Alabama, meanwhile, a 2006 law designed to provide penalties for people who endanger children by exposing them to methamphetamine production has been used to arrest some 60 pregnant women with substance abuse problems.

The Pengaton, forced to acknowledge reality for once, finally agreed to "allow" female soldiers to be assigned formally to some of the combat-related jobs they had been doing anyway as "temporary attachments"; it kept in place its ban on women in combat. Never mind the fact that, after decades of Pentagon promises to reduce rates of sexual assault in the military, the number of assaults—reported assaults—continues to climb. The Pentagon has calculated that there are about 19,000 sexual assaults in the military each year. And as if all that isn't enough, the PGA Masters Tournament, in 2012, is still being hosted by a Georgia club that bars women from membership.* (I'm surely not the only one who thinks this sounds like Augusta National ought to just be done with it and rename itself "The He-Man Woman Haters Club.")

Add to all this the crazy talk—Limbaugh's denunciation of Fluke as a "slut" and a "prostitute" seems almost sane compared to what's been coming out of many men's mouths recently. There's Georgia state legislator Terry England's rambling speech comparing women to livestock; farmers deliver stillborn calves and piglets to cows and pigs all the time, so forcing women to carry dead fetal tissue until their bodies expel it isn't cruel, it's just God's way. To this compelling argument, he added an impassioned coda noting that he had met a young man who was willing to give up cockfighting—and all of his beloved fighting chickens—if only the state of Georgia would make abortion illegal. While Wisconsin state senator Glenn Grothman was busy rolling back pay equity legislation, he took some time out of his busy schedule to introduce a bill that identifies single moms (and dads, though in Wisconsin single mothers outnumber single fathers by a rate of 5 to 1) as child abusers. His proposed legislation requires that the state's Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board "emphasize" that "nonmarital parenthood" is "a contributing factor to child abuse and neglect." 

Chuck Winder, an Idaho state senator and sponsor of a mandatory ultrasound bill for women seeking abortions, defended his bill's lack of a rape exemption by suggesting that women might be a little confused about whether they have been raped or not: "I would hope that when a woman goes in to a physician with a rape issue, that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in marriage or was it truly caused by a rape." Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus tried to brush off all of women's perceptions about a "war on women" by comparing them—or, rather, all the legislative activity aimed at controlling women's lives—to a "war on caterpillars." How do these guys come up with this stuff?

In light of all of this, Rick Santorum's insistence that sex is only "supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal . . . but also procreative" and his considered judgment that contraception is "a moral grievous wrong" and his fears that women shouldn't be allowed into combat because of "emotional issues" and his conclusion that single mothers are "breeding more criminals" and his assertion that a woman who has become pregnant as the result of a rape must bear this "horribly created" pregnancy as a "gift" and "make the best out of a bad situation" and his dismissal of the idea that a college education is a good way to help poor women improve their lives (this "notion" is "just wrong," he asserts)—well, compared to all the talk of women as sluts, farm animals, and caterpillars, so ditzy that they can't decide whether they've slept with their husband or been raped by a stranger (silly women!), Santorum doesn't really seem all that nutty. How scary is that?

No wonder I've been dreaming about Lysistrata. And I'm clearly not alone, as it turns out. Women in state legislatures across the country have been attempting to turn the tables on men, hitting back where it counts, aiming at men's bodies and reproductive "rights." In Oklahoma, state senator Constance Johnson offered up an amendment to Senate Bill 1433, a piece of personhood legislation that extends to a zygote "all the rights, privileges and immunities available to other persons, citizens and residents of this state." Johnson's proposed "every sperm is sacred" amendment to the personhood bill would have "interpreted and construed" an act that results in a man's sperm being deposited any place outside a woman's vagina to be "an action against an unborn child." In a similar vein, George state representative Yasmin Neal has drafted a bill that would prohibit men from getting vasectomies because, in the words of her proposed legislation, "Thousands of children are deprived of birth in this state every year because of the lack of state regulation over vasectomies."

Other women legislators, hoping to show men how it feels to be a woman these days, have proposed laws restricting access to Viagra or imposing obstacles to men who are seeking Viagra, like making them watch a video that graphically illustrates the horrific dangers of the drug and of its possible side effects. Maybe that—or a compulsory rectal ulstrasound for men who want a prescription—would make them think twice. Virginia state senator Jan Howell, for example, sought to amend the state's controversial mandatory ultrasound bill for women seeking an abortion. Her amendment would have required that men get a rectal exam and undergo a cardiac stress test before they could get a prescription for an erectile-dysfunction drug. They would also have had to get a certificate from a sexual partner that verifies that they have been experiencing problems with erectile dysfunction, and the bill required men seeking a prescription to see a sex therapist for counseling before they could get one. The proposal was defeated, but the vote was close. 

And then there's the organization known as the Liberal Ladies Who Lunch. The group is organizing a week-long "Access Denied" protest, scheduled to begin 28 April. Just as Lysistrata managed to convince her Greek sisters to deny men sex until they could be brought to end their war against men, the group has called for a sex strike to protest the "war against women: "when we lose our reproductive choices, so do they," the Ladies proclaim.

The goal is a good one, and the tactic certainly worked for Lysistrata. But as soon as I saw my dream of Lysistrata looked like it could be coming true, I realized how really wrong it all is. A sex strike isn't the fulfillment of a dream—it is, instead, just another manifestation of women's nightmare reality. In the twenty-first century, is this what we have been reduced to?

Aristophanes' Lysistrata isn't a demonstration of grrrrl power, a glorious vision of feminist achievement. It's a misogynist fantasy. Lysistrata can hardly keep her quarreling group of women together, and although they ultimately achieve their goals and bring an end to war, it's a Pyrrhic victory. Women's "power" is once again limited to their sexuality. And so, the more I thought about it, the more I put aside my daydream about Lysistrata. For a dose of reality, I turned, instead, to Valerie Solanas.

If she is remembered at all today, Valerie Solanas is reduced to one moment in her life: on 3 June 1968, she shot Andy Warhol. If her 1967 SCUM Manifesto is recalled at all, it is for the shock of her opening challenge: "Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex." After compiling a comprehensive list of all the political, social, economic, and psychological ills for which men alone are responsible ("The male . . . has made of the world a shitpile"), Solanas offers women a way out.

At first her solution seems to recall another Greek myth, that of Amazons—at the outset of her manifesto, Solanas declares that it "is now technically possible to reproduce without the aid of males . . . and to produce only females. We must begin immediately to do so." She comes back to this Amazonian project later, saying that "it doesn’t follow that because the male, like disease, has always existed among us that he should continue to exist." Like these fierce women warriors, whom the Greeks found so threatening, Solanas knows that women can fight back by picking up men’s weapons: "if SCUM ever strikes, it will be in the dark with a six-in blade." In her own defense, Solanas claims, a woman might decide to "sink a shiv into a man’s chest" or pick up an icepick to use as a weapon.

But, while Solanas’s manifesto is most often read—and remembered—for her shiv and her icepick and her knife, her actual proposal for making the world safe for women is by means of a brilliantly simple and largely non-violent plan. Women should just quit participating: women "could acquire complete control of this country within a few weeks simply by withdrawing from the labor force, thereby paralyzing the entire nation. Additional measures, any one of which would be sufficient to completely disrupt the economy and everything else, would be for women to declare themselves off the money system, stop buying, just loot and simply refuse to obey all laws they don’t care to obey." Their combined refusal to participate would overwhelm the system: "The police force, National Guard, Army, Navy, and Marines combined couldn’t squelch a rebellion of over half the population, particularly when it’s made up of people they are utterly helpless without." If women "refused to have anything to do with any of them"—with any man, all men—"the government . . . and the national economy would collapse completely."

Women must unite and become what Solanas calls "the unwork force, the fuck-up force." Women should "unwork," refusing "to obey all laws inappropriate to a truly civilized society." "Fucking up the system," she argues, will bring it down and bring it down fast. I am at once struck by the simplicity of Solanas’s plan and of her prescience. In 1967 Solanas already knew the critical role of the media and of new technology in SCUM’s program of fucking-up and unworking. The key to her plan was the need to "take over the airwaves—radio and TV networks." We now know the effect of emerging technology in social and political movements—witness the role of the Internet in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004), the uploading of political protest videos on YouTube by Sudanese dissidents (2008), the use of Twitter in the Iranian political protests of 2009, the significance social media in the ongoing Arab Spring that began in late 2010, or, more recently and closer to home, the power of Facebook in bringing the case of Trayvon Martin to national attention. Who needs a radio station or a TV network? Imagine Valerie Solanas today, armed with an iPhone instead of a shiv, and with access to Facebook and Twitter instead of a television station.           

Once the complete system collapses, there is no need for the knife, the icepick, or the shiv: "After the elimination of money there will be no further need to kill men; they will be stripped of the only power they have over psychologically independent females."  Women can then get on with it: "women will be busy . . . completely revamping educational programs so that millions of women can be trained within a few months for high-level intellectual work that now requires years of training (this can be done very easily once our educational goal is to educate and not to perpetuate an academic and intellectual elite); solving the problems of disease and old age and death[;] and completely redesigning our cities and living quarters." As women "become accustomed to female society and as they become absorbed in their projects, they will eventually come to see the utter uselessness and banality of the male."

And so I am no longing dreaming of Lysistrata. As I look at the students in my college classrooms, most of them female (62 of my 70 students this semester are women), at the women on the staff of my university who earn shockingly little money but who do most of the real work that keeps the university running, at the women filling my prescription in the Group Health pharmacy and checking out my groceries in the Albertson’s and taking my cash at the Chevron where I fill up my car with gas, at the woman who reads the electric meters in the small town where I live, at the woman letter carrier who delivers my mail, and as I talk with the women on my block in my neighborhood, where I've lived for more than 35 years, I imagine what we could accomplish if we decided not simply to stop working but to actively unwork. Or, even more radically, if we decided just to go out tomorrow and the day after that and deliberately screw stuff up. How long would it take before we could end the "war" against women and begin to set things straight?

Maybe we could change it all. As I said, I am no longer dreaming of Lysistrata. I'm beginning to think Valerie was right.

 


 (This bit of graffiti, found on a wall outside a sex shop in Sweden in 2009, was photographed by Eva Ekeblad and posted on flickr. It is reproduced here under the Creative Commons agreement.)

An update: As of 1 June 2012, 604 reproductive-rights related provisions have been introduced into state legislatures, each aimed at limiting, restricting, or blocking women's access to reproductive services. On 5 June 2012, the U.S. Senate failed—yet again—to pass the Fairness Paycheck Act. (The bill was defeated in 2009 and 2010 as well.) Only 52 of 100 senators voted in favor of this effort to ensure equal pay for women. On 7 June 2012, in Michigan, state representative Bruce Rendon introduced a package of three anti-choice bills (HB 5711, 5712, 5713) aimed at eliminating women's reproductive rights. According to Rana Elmir of the Michigan ACLU, Rendon's stealth legislation—which allowed for only an hour-and-a-half hearing—was "a blitz executed with cold precision."

*One further update: On Monday, 20 August 2012, Augusta National Club announced that, for the first time in its history, two women had been accepted as members, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Darla Moore, a partner in the private investment firm Rainwater, Inc.