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This month marks the 40th anniversary of Congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the Constitution that grants equal rights under the law to U.S. citizens, regardless of gender. On March 22, 1972, after a very long battle beginning when the bill was first written in1923, the ERA passed the Senate (after a protracted battle in which it passed the House twice). It was not ratified by enough states to become an amendment. This bill didn’t pass at the height of the women’s rights movement in the United States. We have been dealing with the repercussions ever since. Sexism might have very well still been abundant, but perhaps we’d be closer to true equality if such an amendment were passed. It is one thing to say you believe in equal rights for women, but the reality illustrates an alternate picture. In recent weeks, women’s rights have entered the political foreground, and I’d like to take the opportunity to address the crucial issue of women’s rights in this blog post. As trite as it sounds, “women’s” rights are human rights.
On Wednesday night’s episode of “The Colbert Report”, Stephen Colbert had a hilarious and very timely bit concerning the recent strides in the development of male birth control pills. He declared that if men are to use such pills, then the morally right thing to do is to force them to endure an ultrasound probe into their urethras in order to see the face of every sperm—yes, you read that right. The importance of seeing the face of each sperm cannot be discounted because, according to his logic of reproductive morality, each sperm is a potential life. Taking birth control pills to render voluntary impotency is killing potential life. If the men could see the faces of the millions of sperm they are destroying—nee, the potential human life that is being destroyed—maybe they would think differently. “If they survive” having a huge probe rammed up their pee holes, that is, Stephen said.
As unbelievably ridiculous as this sounds, it could’ve been the reality for millions of Virginian women. If a woman wanted to get an abortion in Virginia, she would have had to undergo a 24-hour waiting period, be subjected to a line of emotional questioning, and submit to a transvaginal ultrasound. The normal ultrasound is a non-invasive one placed on top of the woman’s abdomen. This is not the ultrasound that would’ve been given. Transvaginal means a large probe is stuck up the woman’s vagina for no medical purpose whatsoever. Pursuant to the wording of Virginia’s laws, forcing an object into a woman’s vagina against her will for no necessary purpose is tantamount to rape. Think about this: If a woman were not in a doctor’s office, and someone forced an object up her vagina without her permission, this would be called rape by instrument. It is a crime. It is traumatizing, very possibly painful, and intended to shame a woman into not having an abortion—or at the very least, to preemptively punish her even if she does go through with the procedure. What if a woman is pregnant as the result of a rape? The violation of a probe after such an event is even more traumatic—unimaginably so. As if all this isn’t bad enough, pictures of the fetus were to be permanently placed in the woman’s file. The alleged compromise at the time was that the woman wouldn’t be forced to look at the photos if she didn’t want to—even though they were being shown on a screen right next to her face. How considerate. They are only placed in the file as a permanent reminder. Because the act of getting an abortion is so easy, right? It’s not already a terribly tumultuous time emotionally for the woman involved. Of course not.
While the most obviously offensive part of the bill was overturned, other tenets of the bill were not. After a tremendous outcry from millions of women as well as men, on the gross invasion of privacy and sheer violation such a practice would entail, Governor Bob McDonnell (known for his lifelong commitment to curtailing women’s reproductive rights) scaled back the bill. The bill is no longer up for a vote in the immediate future.
One of the recent precursors to this bill was McDonnell’s proposal that women be given “morality tests” to judge whether they could make the right decision about getting an abortion. Don’t many Republicans claim to belong to the party of small government? Don’t they hate mandates and government intrusion and claim it’s the big, bad Democrats who want to make your decisions for you? That “Obamacare” gets in between people and their doctors? (Fact check: it doesn’t.) There’s a very good reason that it’s been said that Republicans want small government—small enough to fit inside a woman’s uterus. It’s empirically true.
Similar bills are already on the books in several other states. That’s right—this proposed Virginia law was not an isolated case.
The other big story in the news recently was the opposition to sections of the Affordable Healthcare Act that stipulate that costs for methods of birth control and family planning, such as birth control pills, be partially covered by employers offering health insurance to their employees. The Catholic Church bucked at the provision that it should pay for birth control for female employees of Church institutions such as Catholic schools, hospitals, and charities—that this was a matter of conscience. In lockstep with several Church elders, many Republicans framed the “debate” as a demonic, overarching president infringing on the religious freedom of individuals—and institutions—opposed to such practices as they view as not only immoral, but unconscionable. I could get into all the hairy details about how this was almost entirely a calculated political move and had very little to do with “liberty”, but I would end up going off on a very long tangent. Even when the Obama administration promised a compromise wherein the insurance companies would pay for the costs, the fight continued.
A Congressional panel was formed to discuss religious freedom vs. “Obamacare”. No women were invited to speak on women’s health issues. A woman who had been invited by the Democratic minority to speak was shut out by Representative Darrell Issa. Forget partisan bullying and obstructionism. This was sexism, pure and simple.
The next step was a vote on the Blunt amendment. I would recommend watching Jon Stewart’s synopsis of this vote from his Thursday night show. If passed, this bill would have allowed employers to deny healthcare coverage to employees based on religious or moral convictions—whatever those might be. The bill failed—by only 3 votes.
Rhetoric such as the contention that back in his day, “women held an aspirin between their knees” and called it birth control (a statement declared by Rick Santorum’s largest donor Foster Friess) is despicable. His attempt at a cutesy folk reference literally means that when he was younger, women didn’t need actual birth control because they kept their legs closed. It cuts to the heart of true sexism. It is an entrenched way of thinking not unlike the racism of certain southern conservatives whose opinions of those of color hasn’t changed all that much since the time of slavery. It’s a wink and nod, old boys club, women shouldn’t want to be desired or else they’re sluts, sexism. It’s couched in religious rhetoric and it’s not necessarily confined to regionalism. Republicans have been at the forefront, but it’s not a partisan sexism. There are even women who subscribe to this same ethic of gender inequality.
This is a huge problem. I have dealt with the idea on a daily basis that if I wear clothing that shows off my body, then I’m “dressing slutty”, that if something were to happen to me (this something is always hinted at, but it means if I were to be attacked—raped or molested—by a man), then I’m asking for it. I can’t be too pretty by wearing a lot of makeup, whatever that means. I can’t be too sexy. I’m just too tempting. I’m asking to be raped. It’s my fault. The man can’t help it. He’s so horny that he just can’t control himself. This is what we tell girls and women in our society. The goal is to be desired because you need to have a man, but you better be careful because men aren’t to be trusted. This bipolar ideology governs women every day in the United States.
Another recent point of contention was in response to Rick Santorum’s view that he worries about women in frontline combat in the U.S. military. His claim was that he worried about the emotions involved. He clarified his statement by saying that it wasn’t the women he was worried about who would fall to pieces, but the men, who have been taught to protect women, to subscribe to a kind of chivalrous ethic in which they keep women out of harm’s way. While the overwhelming military view is that female service members in Afghanistan and Iraq have been just as capable and tough as men in combat, we should be looking at another issue entirely. If anyone is worried about women, they should look at the appalling rates of sexual abuse women suffer, both in the military and as military contractors. Those men are certainly not chivalrous or protective.
This brings me to my main underlying point. The prevailing view—whether subconscious or not—is that in many instances, the victim is seen as the aggressor or the instigator. We look down on cultures that force women to cover themselves up so as not to be sexually objectified, yet it is rarely explained why we do that. Clothing and not wearing a head covering is more than a matter of choice, of self expression (though these things are certainly important to developing a sense of identity and feeling less constrained). I’m not only referring to Muslim cultures. In addition to Muslims, Orthodox Jews and various Christian sects as well as members of the FLDS engage in such practices in the United States. Orthodoxy, fundamentalism, extremism (whatever you want to call it) often breeds sexism. Whether women are encouraged (or often forced) to wear head coverings, wigs, or wear their hair in non-sexual styles, the theme of not tempting men with long, lustrous hair is repeated. Men have a biological attraction to long hair on women. Healthy hair, in general, is a sign of fertility and men will have a response to this. It’s encoded in their DNA. A woman’s curves have a similar effect. This is natural! Women should not hide who they are! They shouldn’t be made to obscure themselves so that men won’t be tempted to have their way with them. Girls should not be made to iron their breasts or undergo female genital mutilation in African and Middle Eastern countries because men might desire them or rape them. How is this the reality we live in? How is this accepted? None of this should be allowed to continue. None of these sexist practices should be perpetuated. I know, I seem so intolerant. How dare I compare wearing a hijab or a long, shapeless skirt to a young girl’s clitoris being cut off and/or her vagina sewn up? One is minor; the other barbaric, right? I don’t care. I’m sick of being silent. I’m sick of being politically correct. The message beneath any practice that alters who a woman is so that she protects herself from the animal instincts of men is abhorrent. As a society, we should disavow such practices immediately. It is disgusting that women in Orthodox communities in Brooklyn are made to feel unclean when they have their periods because of an ignorance perpetuated by men who are so fearful of any upheaval of the status quo that they relegate women to the status of sub-human animals. They routinely treat women as filthy. Men want women to remain uneducated, to be servants, to be subservient to men. The U.S. law doesn’t intervene in such practices because it protects “religious freedom”. How about human rights? I am of the firm belief that individual dignity trumps religious freedom. Even when taking religion out of the equation, entrenched sexism constantly surfaces. A similar ethic of women as second class citizens or as weak or merely as things to be objectified is illustrated by the oft-repeated “bitch, make me a sandwich” line or the ubiquitous use of the word “pussy” in the male vernacular.
I’ve been called a cultural imperialist. I think I’ve proven that I believe Western and American culture has a long way to go and is far from perfect. I certainly don’t think I’m living in a utopia in which gender is not a source of prejudice and ill treatment. Human beings have the faculty of reason and the capacity to practice ethics. We have laws. Men can certainly control themselves and must do so. Women should not live in fear and should not have to take extra precautions against the animal instincts of men. If anything, it is the men who should be constrained, not the women. I believe that we live in a world in which everyone should be treated equally.
Women have to deal with all kinds of sexism. The last place women should have to worry about this is to have it written into the law.