Friday, April 20, 2012

Commands. Not Choices.

By Caryn D. Riswold

My inner Bill Maher is coming out … New Rule:  If you don’t support choice for all women, regardless of class, race, and sexuality, then you don’t get to use that word.  Ever.  

The first tweet from @AnnDRomney in response to CNN contributor Hilary Rosen’s careless statement that Romney had “never worked a day in her life” was this:  “I made a choice to stay at home and raise five boys.”  In a Fox News interview, she kept on with the choice rhetoric and said emphatically that: 

“My career choice was to be a mother.  And I think all of us need to know that we need to respect the choices that women make.  Other women make other choices to have a career and raise a family, which I think Hilary Rosen has actually done herself. I respect that, that’s wonderful.... We have to respect women in all those choices that they make.”

Respect.  Women.  Choice.

Really?  (now there’s my inner Amy Poehler)

Rachel Maddow pointed out at length one irony of Romney praising Hilary Rosen’s “choice” to have a family when the Catholic League later tweeted dismissively that “Lesbian Dem” Rosen “had to adopt kids” but that Romney raised “five of her own.”  Note:  HAD TO vs. HER OWN.  Republican Sean Spicer tried to take the Catholic League to task for that language by praising all “parents who are blessed to raise these children,” an unfortunate public statement for the Communications Director of the Republican National Committee, which in fact opposes the right of lesbian women like Hilary Rosen to choose adoption.  The Catholic League’s dismissive comments about adoptive mothers have not received enough attention in the rush to re-cast the mommy-wars of twenty years ago.

Michelle Bachmann jumped blindly on the Republican-women-choice rhetorical bandwagon at the same time.  On Meet the Press, she was totally unaware of the implication of her statements about her problems with Obamacare:

“What we want is women to be able to make their own choices ….  Women don’t need anyone to tell them what to do on health care.  We want women to have their own choices, their own money, that way they can make their own choices for the future of their own bodies.”

No!  You don’t believe that!  Stop saying it!  Bachmann is firmly and thoroughly on record as being completely opposed to the right to choose abortion in any and all cases.  So it is stunning that she actually says these words and believes them to only apply to the things she wants them to, namely the Affordable Care Act which she hates vehemently.

Even Sarah Palin, on the campaign trail in 2008 tried to celebrate her daughter Bristol’s “choice” to have her baby as an unwed teenager.  Never mind the fact that Bristol’s mother would see to it that she and every other female in the country was forced to carry every pregnancy to term.  No choice.

What this twisted word game misses is this:  Choice never happens in a vacuum.  All options are not available to all women.  Republican women and men are deeply invested in restricting choice for all women, and use a variety of tactics to specifically target poor women and women of color.  Conservative campaigns have used racist rhetoric and tactics in billboard campaigns featuring African American children in many places around the country, which Loretta Ross rightly calls a “misogynistic attack to shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion, alleging that we endanger the future of our children.”

Hilary Rosen’s comments were actually about poverty and social class, and about the women who do not have the luxury of choice when it comes to working in or outside of the home, with or without pay.  Mitt Romney didn’t in fact want to afford this luxury or even uphold the value of staying at home for women receiving welfare assistance in his state of Massachusetts, as he explained in January when suggested that “even if you have a child two years of age, you need to go to work” because “I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.”  

Did he suggest to Ann that she do the same thing?  

We’re in the tailwinds now of the faux-religious-freedom arguments against contraception as preventative healthcare by conservatives, especially Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians.  It will continue to take different forms as the general election continues.  For all of it, there is a powerful underlying religious ideology and theology at work that seeks to ensure constitutional personhood for zygotes (and corporations) while striping rights from women and girls.  It is a view of the relationship between God and the world, and of divine power, that is deeply patriarchal and domineering.  That is something that conservative Christians have in common whether Baptist or Catholic or part of the Quiverfull Christian patriarchy movement.  A Father-God dominates man.  Man dominates woman.  Woman submits, accepts her “choices” and cheerfully defends them.  

Except they’re commands, not choices.  So stop calling them that.

Image: from the Flickr photostream of Gage Skidmore

Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition, and Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. She is participating in the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress, launched in March 2012.  Her most recent book, Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave, is available in print or for Kindle.  Follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.


  1. This is such an important message right now. We can't let conservatives claim ownership of the concept "choice" when it comes to women's issues.

  2. I definitely agree with you, and with the crux of Caryn's article. It's tricky for me, though, as I have argued a lot in the past against progressives being satisfied with the "pro-choice/pro-life" dichotomy, as it was largely a product of aggressive (and damnably clever) conservative marketing efforts. To that end, I tend to prefer terms like "pro-reproductive rights" or other language that denies conservatives the edge they gain from being able to frame arguments over women's health in their own terms. But again, in this context, I couldn't agree more with you or Caryn.

  3. I'm just blown away by the fact that someone who claims to be a theologian, much less a Christian, can also have an "inner Bill Maher," who is not only foul and offensive, but is also an atheist. You lost me there.