Monday, June 4, 2012

A War on Women Protects Male Power

By Caryn D. Riswold

It’s a fictitious war on caterpillars!  It’s a manufactured issue!

Except it’s not.  And two of the Republican women senators whose names Senator Mitch McConnell used to make the latter claim have themselves criticized their party for its excessive focus on women’s reproductive health, calling it an “attack on women” that is in fact a “retro-debate that took place in the 1950s.”

The May 19, 2012, New York Times editorial delineates four areas in which the attack is quite real, and happening on Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the country:  abortion, access to health care, equal pay, and domestic violence.  It concludes:

“Whether this pattern of disturbing developments constitutes a war on women is a political argument. That women’s rights and health are casualties of Republican policy is indisputable.”

I have a new proposal:  Let’s call it what it is.  The GOP war on women is entirely about protecting male power.  Specifically, the power of white Christian men to create and control life as well as prevent women from exercising power.  

In his New York Magazine article on March 25, 2012, Frank Rich describes “the aggrieved class” as “white men with less education and less income, a displaced demographic that has been as threatened by the rise of the empowered modern woman as it has been by the cosmopolitan multiracial male elites symbolized by Barack Obama.”  It comes as no surprise, then, that a reflexive exertion of their power dominates American politics right now.  Rich shows how this current moment continues a backlash tradition that began decades ago in response to the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1960s.  For example, in 1972, the Republican party platform stated that “every woman should have the freedom to choose whatever career she wishes” but in 1980 the party “took a patriarchal stance, applauding mothers and homemakers for maintaining the values of this country.”  A sentiment that has continued and solidified in the decades since.

These political gender warriors have clear Christian religious motivations.   The Quiverfull movement is the most fully realized example of the future that they would like for all.  It resurrects some classical Christian teachings on the purpose of men and women, and the purpose of sexual intercourse itself.  Early church father St. Augustine of Hippo stated clearly that “The union, then, of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage.”  What made sense according to social and biological norms of the fourth and fifth centuries was reinscribed in the thirteenth century by St. Thomas Aquinas: 

 “… the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex;  while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature’s intention as directed to the work of generation.”

And more recently, Pope John Paul II issued Evangelium Vitae in 1995, discussing at some length as part of his “culture of life” platform the “negative values inherent in the ‘contraceptive mentality’” which he contrasts with “responsible parenthood.”  It seems that nothing has changed in the Roman Catholic Church’s position on the issue of artificial contraception since the fourth century.  (Other than the fact of Catholic non-adherence to the teaching.)

What we know now, however, is that this religious-political position of protecting male power and “the active force in the male seed” is not limited to the Catholic Church.  In her article on Quiverfull, Kathryn Joyce describes how this ideology in part accounts for the appeal of Rick Santorum as a presidential candidate.  She lays out their positions, quoting Rick and Jan Hess that “our bodies are meant to be a living sacrifice,” and Mary Pride asserting that as a woman, “my body is not my own.”  

Read those words carefully.  Living sacrifice.  Not my own.  This is a vision of what the gender warriors would most like to impose on all women.

Of course, the vision does not impact all women the same.  Consider the public celebration of the very Christian, very married, very heterosexual Duggar family and their nineteen children, alongside the public shaming of Nadya Suleman, divorced and single mother of fourteen children, daughter of an Assyrian Iraqi father, equated with a marine animal when she was dubbed “Octomom.”  Certain women (white married ones) are mandated to reproduce, and other women (single and nonwhite ones) are shamed when they do so.  The history of forced sterilization of Native American women and other women of color, and current efforts to sterilize poor women on welfare clearly shows the class and race-based preferences of the gender warriors for who may reproduce and who may not.  In all cases, white and male persons hold the power to decide.

Protecting male power to create and control life (ala the classic Monty Python song “every sperm is sacred!”) is most egregiously illustrated by the fact that criminalizing abortion and making contraception inaccessible and illegal protects the power of even a male rapist to determine that life begins.  Without safe and legal contraceptive options and morning-after back-up, without access to safe and legal abortion, life begins when any man and his seed says it does.  Even the rapist.

In a critique of French philosopher Sylviane Agacinski, who put forth arguments about gay parenting as unnatural, feminist theorist Judith Butler points out that for Agacinski, and I suggest for these gender warriors, “heterosexual coitus, regardless of the parent or parents who raise the child, is understood as the origin of the child, and that origin will have a symbolic importance.”  To say that heterosexual conception has symbolic importance is to point out that it transcends and functions far beyond the biological and the social levels.  Given the campaign these warriors are waging, something transcendent certainly seems to be at stake.

Because if my body is not my own, whose is it?  If women are meant to be sacrifices, to and for whom is the sacrifice offered?  We need to name those waging this war, those whose power is in fact being protected:  the male politician, the male husband, the male sperm-producer, the male rapist, the male god.  Driven by anxiety over money, race, and gender, alongside the decreasing power of the Christian religion to determine absolutely the laws and cultural trends in the U.S., the new gender warriors are fighting an old battle to do no more and no less than protect white Christian male power to control life.
And women are paying attention.

Photo: from the Flickr photostream of Fibonacci Blue

Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is associate professor of religion and chair of gender and women’s studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois.  She is the author of several books, including Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave (2009), and one of twenty leaders participating in the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., this year.  You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.

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