Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) asked the question at the now infamous male-only hearing on contraception as preventative health care chaired by Republican Darrell Issa (R-CA) on February 16. She and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill) subsequently walked out. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) spoke to the issue later in the day. “Imagine they’re having a panel on women's health, and they don't have any women on the panel – duh!” Chairman Issa insisted that the hearing was not about contraception, it was about religious freedom.
And it was: The freedom to deny covering contraception, widely accepted to be essential for women’s preventative health care.
As the media picked up on the gender gaffe and ran with it, networks were unable, however to see their own ironic images. A screen shot of the Morning Joe segment the next day on MSNBC about the hearing shows no less than five men commenting on how terrible it was that no women were invited to speak at the main Congressional panel. The title of the segment, at the bottom, reflects the producers’ stunning lack of awareness: “Where are the women?” Indeed, MSNBC.
When that week’s Sunday morning political talk shows on NBC and ABC featured exactly one female guest each on panels of five to discuss the politics of the contraception hearing, it was just another Sunday: In 2011, women were 21.7% of guests on all Sunday morning shows.
Beyond the media, it isn’t much better. Women make up 17% of Congress overall, and the 2010 election brought a net loss of women serving at the national level for the first time since 1987. Women have about 15% of the bylines in opinion journalism in the U.S., and The Op-Ed Project aggregates weekly data tracking major U.S. newspaper bylines by gender. It’s usually not good news.
Here’s the thing that only a few will also dare to point out: The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops is 100% male. The specific organization to which the Obama administration made concession in the logistics of the Affordable Care Act and women’s health has zero women. Why is this legitimate?
I know. Religious freedom. As a non-Catholic, it’s not really my business if the Roman Catholic Church wants to have an all-male priesthood. (There are organizations for those who have determined it to be their business, however, like the international group Roman Catholic Womenpriests.) If I don’t like Catholic theology and ethics because it forbids contraception, then I don’t have to be Catholic. And I can speak out on why access to contraception is, in fact, important for women. But I don’t have to accept the legitimacy of U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops’ position on contraception, especially when it impacts the implementation of public policy in a way likely to burden women and privilege men. As we know, there won’t be separate paperwork for erectile dysfunction medication coverage.
Even Catholics themselves overwhelmingly understand their Church’s position on contraception to be anachronistic. Despite the few who swear by natural family planning, and its potential for creating and undergirding a loving marriage of respect and self-control, Catholic women use contraception at almost exactly the same rate as non-Catholic’s. 99% of U.S. women have used contraception at some point in their lives, and this is true for 98% of Catholic women. This specifically refers to methods other than natural family planning. Guttmacher clarified this now widely reported statistic recently to reinforce it, and point out further that the number of women in the 2011 study “currently using” contraception is 88% overall, and 87% among Catholic women. Again, official church teaching makes no significant difference.
Disobedient Catholic women aren’t the only ones to think this way. A significant historical point has yet to meaningfully rear its head in this most recent debate: In 1963, Pope John XXIII established The Papal Commission on Population, the Family, and Natality. Six men, three clergy and three laity, studied the issue and recommended relaxing the absolute ban on artificial contraception. These were trusted and educated leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. But even their recommendation was not sufficient to overcome millennia of tradition. Unhappy with this result in 1964, Pope Paul VI expanded the commission to 72 Catholics, included only five women, and weighted the commission presumably in his favor with majority clergy and bishops. In 1966, the Commission concluded, and “the overwhelming majority (including nine of the 16 cardinals and bishops) favored not only approving the pill, but lifting the ban on all forms of contraception.” The Holy Father simply rejected this, and reiterated the total ban on artificial contraception in 1968.
Among other things, this history reveals that it’s not just about including the women. It’s about grasping the reality of people’s lives, and working for equal access as well as justice.
When Darrell Issa added two women to the afternoon panel of his hearing on the religious freedom to deny women coverage of preventative health care, they were not women in support of the mandate. Achieving justice for women is not just about adding women to the pot of patriarchy and stirring. Nevertheless, efforts of The Op-Ed Project to increase the diversity of bylines in major newspapers, of Emily’s List to elect more women to office (Democratic pro-choice women in their case), and of the advocacy group Women in Media and News to increase “women’s presence and power in the public debate” are important. As this most recent episode fades in memory, we need to keep asking of the media, of our electoral ballots, of our churches: Where are the women?
Or, we could just take advice from the Twitter feed based on The West Wing character, deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman, on February 10:
“72 women serve in the House. 17 in Senate. My idea: all bills about women’s health have to pass the Women’s Supercommittee.”
I second that motion.
Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition, and works as Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. Her most recent book, Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave, is available in print or for Kindle. You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.