The US is currently in the grip of political uproar after Missouri Republican congressman and Senate hopeful Todd Akin suggested in a TV interview that women's bodies are biologically geared to avert pregnancies in cases of "legitimate rape." Akin has since apologised but refused to stand down as his comments came under fire from both Democrats and Republicans.
Although Republicans - including White House challenger Mitt Romney - have attempted to distance themselves from his position, Democrats have pounced on the scandal as evidence of the GOP's so-called "war on women." In the article below - written in March this year (before Romney secured the Republican presidential nomination) - Tanya Gold investigates the impact of US politics on women's rights: a debate that now seems more pertinent than ever.
The economy is struggling, Middle Eastern governments are imploding and yet the US election is being fought over women’s rights – by men like Mitt Romney. Tanya Gold investigates.
You may think American politics has nothing to do with you; you are wrong.
The US presidential election is on 6 November this year. We know Barack Obama, the incumbent president, will run for the Democrats and the Republicans are in the process of choosing their candidate from a pool of old white men called Mitt (Romney), Rick (Santorum) and Newt (Gingrich). And the election has suddenly, horribly, become all about reproductive rights and women’s bodies. Even the most moderate of the trio, front-runner Romney, staring out at you on this page, last week spoke of his plan to ‘get rid’ of Planned Parenthood and the contraceptive services it offers. He also ‘converted’ from being pro-choice to anti-abortion on becoming governor of Massachusetts in 2003.
If you believe that women have the right to abortion, to use contraception, and indeed to have an active sex life of whatever kind they wish, America is now a chilling place. You may have thought this debate was over; women won their sexual freedom in the Sixties, when the invention of the pill and the sexual revolution consigned the dutiful housewife, with her bright smile and private sorrow, to dust.
Women could choose – to work, to not work; to have children; to not have children; to stay with a husband; to leave. A woman who had sex outside marriage was not an outcast, a fallen woman, a slut. This is no longer the case. It seems we must have the argument all over again.
A Woman's Choice
First, abortion. Abortion has been legal in every American state since 1973, with the famous Roe vs Wade case (when it was ruled that abortions are permissible up to 24 weeks, possibly later to protect a woman’s health); before that it was illegal in 30 states. I’ve written about abortion in Stylist before and my thoughts are these: it can be a tragedy, but it is necessary. A society that forces pregnant women to give birth is a tyranny. Abortion must be a woman’s choice; anything else is barbarism. But that’s not what many in the Republican Party think.
Newt Gingrich says that abortion should be illegal – although, to be fair, he also thinks we should put a colony on the moon. Rick Santorum wants to see abortion criminalised. He is the favourite candidate of the religious right, who think that abortion is murder and should never be allowed, even in cases of rape and incest. Their views on abortion are closely linked to their views on women: they should be in the kitchen, caring for their children because they can do nothing else. These are the people who protest outside abortion clinics – and not only in America. As I write, an anti-abortion group called 40 Days For Life is protesting outside a clinic at 26-27 Bedford Square, London and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service has said that women and staff are being intimidated by a “new era” of protests. The group has requested that all protestors sign a “statement of peace, abide by the law, and remain prayerful”. That is, don’t shoot the evil women – and that’s in our own liberal capital city.
“A law has been proposed that, if passed, would allow employers to fire women on the pill”
Since 2010, conservative Republicans have been gaining seats across America. Katha Pollitt, a leading American feminist says, “They [conservative Republicans] control the US congress [the parliament] and they control many state legislatures and governorships. Thus, they are in a position to push many of the laws they have been promoting for a long time.” They are trying to recriminalise abortion; making it harder, more expensive and more shameful to access. Six American states have already passed laws requiring abortion providers to take an ultrasound picture of the foetus; in three states (Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina) a woman has to look at and listen to a description of the foetus, then go home for 24 hours before she is allowed the abortion. Pause and wonder – how would you feel if it were you? In Virginia, women were to be forced to have a vaginal probe take the photos, but after an enormous outcry, it was dropped. Intrusive vaginal examination before an abortion is allowed? Medical necessity – or punishment?
No Birth Control
It is not only abortion. Birth control is also threatened. As I write, a new law has been proposed in Arizona that, if passed, will give employers the power to fire women using contraceptive pills – which some call ‘whore pills’ – unless they prove they do not facilitate casual sex. I can understand why some people are angry about abortion – but birth control? Surely birth control is just sensible? Not if you are living in America; the very idea that women might be able to control when they have children is now at risk.
Santorum has said contraception is “not OK”. He doesn’t care that almost all the strides towards equality women have made in the last 50 years (better jobs, better pay, dreams of their own outside the nursery) are built on the truth that they can choose when to have a child. Eternally pregnant women are women at the mercy of men (and toddlers) and, as history and current affairs tell me, men are not always kind. To reject contraception is to reject, totally, any kind of equality for women – and yet, in 2012, in the world’s most “progressive” country, it is on the table. The religious right doesn’t want it publicly funded, even though pregnancy costs the country more money than birth control. They say their religious freedom is threatened.
This debate is riven with disgust for women and their sexuality. Rush Limbaugh, the most powerful radio host in America, recently called student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute”, for campaigning that birth control should be freely available to her. “What does it say about Sandra Fluke,” he asked, “who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex – what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.
She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.” He then said she should make sex videos, and post them online.
Who cares, you might say, if an unhappy man is threatened by any woman who isn’t a meek and married baby machine? (Limbaugh has also spoken of his distaste for educated women). Well, his show is the most listened to in the US. This is the equivalent of the Daily Mail putting “Women Who Use Contraception Are Sluts – Exclusive!” on its cover. This is mainstream antiwomen rhetoric as has not been seen for many years.
Men under threat
Why is it happening now? Rebecca Traister, an author and writer at salon.com, says: “The people who espouse these super-radical conservative beliefs tend to be older white men. Power used to be their exclusive domain. Now, since the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, others are sharing that power. So they are trying what we call a ‘Hail Mary pass’ at getting that power back, in the hope that enough people are nostalgic about the way things used to be”. Could it be that this movement is all about rage – because there is a black man in the White House, with his shouty wife, and he is promoting women in government and the judiciary?
Amanda Marcotte, an influential American blogger, tells me: “Reproductive rights are critical to women’s economic empowerment, which is threatening to the right – but also threatening on an interpersonal level. Women’s independence means we can be pickier about marriage and motherhood. Men who feel entitled to marriages where women worship and obey them without expecting anything in return? They’re finding their prospects diminishing and they’re angry. Consider Limbaugh, who is on his fourth marriage. He knows better than anyone that it’s hard for a pig to walk all over his wife without her taking advantage of her feminist rights to walk out.”
Marcotte also says it’s a class issue. “Having more children than you can afford hurts working class (and increasingly middle class) people in two ways,” she says. “One is that kids cost money, which makes saving and doing better by yourself nearly impossible. Two is that kids burden women’s ability to go to work and make a decent income. Families need women’s incomes just as much as men’s. Not only do women lose income when they take time off work to have children, but that time off often means they miss out on promotions and pay rises. By attacking women’s ability to work full-time by burdening them with more children than they can afford, Republicans are trying to keep the poor and working classes mired in their economic circumstances.”
“Reproductive rights are critical to women’s economic empowerment, which is threatening to the right”
But will it work? It seems unlikely. “They are out of step with the American public,” says Kathy Spillar, the executive editor of Ms Magazine, the American feminist journal.
“Women everywhere want greater access to birth control, and better opportunities for the children they do have. But it is a great way to whip up support among Republican activists in an election year.” It’s all wrapped up in Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms, she says.
Republicans don’t want the state or employers to pay for healthcare and they are zoning in on birth control and abortion to win the argument. New rules removing limits on how much lone individuals can give presidential candidates also ramps up the tension – if a rich ultra-conservative wants to criminalise birth control, he can give a politician $10 million to run on that issue. “We cannot afford to take anything for granted,” says Spillar. “America is ranked only 78th in the world for women’s representation in government. Only 17% of Congress is female. There is no question that there is a war on women in the state legislatures and in Congress.”
But women are fighting back. Feminists have already persuaded many advertisers to withdraw from Limbaugh’s show and women are on the streets, protesting in vast numbers. “Even in conservative states, women are coming out of the woodwork. They [the conservative right] have gone too far and they know they have gone too far,” says Spiller.
And what of England? It’s been 45 years since abortion was legalised in the UK, by the Abortion Act of 1967. It is legal up to 24 weeks, unless the mother’s health is at risk or the baby is severely disabled. In May 2008, there was a parliamentary debate over whether the limit should be reduced from 24 to either 22 or 20 weeks but no changes were made. Last year a group of MPs tried to force women to have independent abortion counselling, as if they were dirty, fallen children, rather than women who know their own minds. This, as feminists have noted, is all about shame. We do not know who will win in America in November, but as the most powerful nation in the world whittles away at women’s rights, we should all be afraid.
Do you agree with Tanya? Should we be afraid of the Republican candidates and their attitudes to women and abortion? Let us know your thoughts on American politics by commenting below or tweeting us @StylistMagazine