I woke up in Washington, D.C., Monday morning with the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” stuck in my head. Indeed the dreams of so many progressives had been achieved, and the changes President Barack Obama promised as a candidate had taken place. I could almost see the smiles returning to the faces of my fellow progressives. Out of the darkness of the 8-year winter under George W. Bush, we had forced the spring. As I walked down the street with a dear friend and fellow activist, I joined in the chorus of the thousands of Facebook status updates and Tweets about the reform. “A historic morning, in a historic city, with a woman who will make history,” I wrote.
As soon as I did so, I realized it wasn’t true because while change had come for me, for my friend and millions of other women, much was still the same. In an emotional moment, still lost in the elation of a political victory so many activists had spent countless years fighting for, I lied to myself. True, it was historic and unprecedented for all Americans, but very much similar to countless instances in history, the change also came at the stake of women’s lives and livelihood and reflects three major themes that are far too common in the saga of gender politics.
The first is that women’s bodies, as a collective, have always been used as bargaining chips in politicking between and within nation states. Whether in modern day politics or in ancient Greece, while women have been a valuable part of political negotiating, they’ve never been full participants. Rather, their bodies are negotiated upon, given and taken, and in some cases, sold, for the sake of political negotiation. While last Sunday’s decision reflected this very theme, such themes have played out many, many times over in history and, sadly, will continue to play out until the culture of political objectification of women’s bodies is banished.
From the warriors of Easter Island to the Mamelukes – ancient soldiers who waged battles against one another in representation of their nation states, the prize for winning warriors had always been women. Depending on their ranks and accomplishments, these warriors were given women as trophies and rewards, not only for their only sexual gratifications, but also to create families, thereby strengthening nations. From ancient history to modern-day warfare, women in war and politics were seen as political assets, the people with control and access to their bodies as having political power, and nations with women as having the ability to flourish, both biologically and politically. Yet, in each case, women were seen as political objects, given and taken by leaders of nation states as a way of political negotiation.
While the days of trading women’s bodies for political gains are over for the most part, the same practice still happens on political levels. True, women’s bodies are no longer owned by those making political decisions, but on very personal levels, such decisions still affect deeply and profoundly the bodies and lives of women.
Whether it’s Bart Stupak’s decision to support the healthcare bill after bargaining against women’s reproductive autonomy, or George W. Bush’s support of the Mexico City policy to limit women’s reproductive choices in global south nations, forcing non-governmental organizations to cease giving advice to and giving women choices on abortions if they wished to continue receiving economic support, each political decision was made with women’s bodies as political bargaining chips. While politicians become heroes for such decisions, women are often left without choices and the power to make decisions over their personal lives. The heroes, in this case, go on to flourish while women, unseen because they are seen as tools to political power, continue to suffer.
Women’s bodies, then, are seen as valuable political tools, but because they are seen as tools rather than belonging to fully-functional human beings, how political decisions affect them is not a matter politicians place great emphasis on. As such, women are stepping stones, bargaining chips and a means to an end. That’s the way it has always been, and unless the left stands up against it, that’s the way it always will be.
The political objectification of women’s bodies, however, would be much harder achieved if, in America and throughout the world, the systematic attacks of women, as a collective, weren’t so easy accepted from both the left and the right. This easiness of these attacks, then, reflects a second theme: in creating public policies, women’s issues and, through that extent, their bodies, are always fair game. While the attacks on women’s reproductive choices on each first Tuesday of November are frustrating for both the feminist and reproductive justice community, such attacks have become a fact of life for those outside of the abortion debates – and there are a surprising amount of them – because the majority of the public has grown desensitized by such political violence against women’s bodies.
Whether it’s the anti-choice movement’s attempt to define where life begins through legislation, or various states defining terms and limits of abortions, to include limiting funding for maternal and pre-natal care, such blatant attempts to limit access to women’s reproductive rights have been shrugged off by politicians on both the left and right. Rather than being outraged by such attacks on human rights, Americans – and particularly non-voters – see them as yet another way of doing politics, despite that fact that such politics have profound effects on women’s personal lives and choices, and, in the end, prevent America from moving on to other issues that require just as much of our legislative attention.
Such specific and precise attacks, of course, would not be acceptable on any other group in America. If a group were to circulate a petition aiming at limiting the rights of Muslims, or children, or the elderly, both the left and right would be just equally as outraged, and would come together to legislatively defeat any attempt on such personal attacks. Equally, those responsible for such attacks would be ostracized from political circles, left and right, because their values would be cited as being inconsistent with the very freedoms that define America. But because both personally and politically, women’s bodies and concerns have been socially constructed to be fair game and a matter of public debate, both the left and right have learned to accept any and all attacks. Just as we’ve learned to accept violence in American pop culture, we’ve also sadly learned to accept political violence on women’s bodies, without any shock.
It would be easy to explain this phenomenon by simply attributing it to America’s misogynistic culture – that in America, women’s bodies are visible, but their challenges and concerns are not. This, however, is simply not true. The facts are that politicians from both and left and right, as well as activists in both the pro- and anti-choice communities, understand very deeply the impact of setting limitations on reproductive justice and its relations to the lives American women live each day. One possible explanation for such acceptance of attacks on women’s bodies, then, is in how various societies view women and their roles in politics.
Throughout history, and as recently as last Sunday, when Bart Stupak and Barack Obama shook hands in making a deal to trump women’s access to abortions, a third and final theme can be extracted: women are often asked to make sacrifices of their own progress in favor for the “common good.” Time and again, since that bittersweet evening when we all took a collective groan at the agreed-upon executive order, pundits from the left have advocated such a deal had to be made for the good of the nation, that a deal was needed to ensure we moved forward as a nation, and that, because of the long 60-year fight over healthcare, the politics of give-and-take had to be put into play.
While it’s understandable and accepted that in politics, the art of negotiating and giving-and-taking is a must, what pundits and Hyde Amendment apologists fail to mention is that this is just yet another instance of asking women to take a step back so others could take a step forward. The last time Americans saw this play out on a national stage was in 2008, when then Senator Hillary Clinton, engaged in a long and hard battle in the Democratic primary, was pressured by left-leaning Americans and politicians to call it quits, not because she lacked the tools to win the nomination and move on to defeat Republican nominee John McCain, but because such a long and expensive primary had the potential of causing damage to the Barack Obama campaign, draining it of monetary resources and time needed to focus on McCain. Just like last Sunday and too many other times in history, women were asked to take a step back for the greater good.
Time and time again, in America and throughout history, this has continued to happen.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, where the lack of gender equality has been the source of men’s violence against women, coalition and occupying forces, fearing that talks of gender equality would be seen as an attack on Muslim culture, focus instead on reconstruction issues that, for the most part, ignore gender issues. Once again, for the good of those nations, women are asked to step backward, as their nations progressed.
Even when women are intentionally included in the public spheres, such intentions are not a reflection of an intentional focus on improving women’s lives, but for the good of the nation.
During World War II, when women were moved from within the private to the public spheres, millions at a time taking jobs at factories and offices across the nation, the reason had little to do with women’s rights, but rather, because America needed women’s support in the home front, while men were shipped off to war. Women’s advancement in the work force, then, wasn’t a result of a desire to do what was good for women, but what was good for a nation. For too long, it seems progress made in gender equality issues are accidental rather than intentional, and that the small steps made in gender equality were not made for women, but rather, their nations and the “collective good.”
In their approaches to improving global south nations, non-governmental organizations, rather than focusing on gender issues for the sake of women, advocate microloans and the inclusion of women in governments and economic development because including women means nations stand a better chance of growing economically. While said soft approaches might an effective under-the-radar solutions to improve women’s lives, the lack of focus on women’s issues for women themselves reflects a “nation first” mentality that, for too, long has harmed women. In short, while these nations progress by including women in the public spheres, women’s personal lives are still stagnant. Change, it seems, comes for everyone else but women.
So what to do as feminists and progressive thinkers? How can we, as a movement, make women a valuable part of politics, and not as bargaining chips or political tools to move forward a nation, but as autonomous, complete human beings whose issues are just meaningful and serious as those of other marginalized groups in America?
We must start by truly being serious about women’s issues, and creating a culture that no longer sees women’s progress as a “divisive” issue among America’s left and right. We must, from the left, start treating any and all attacks of women’s health and progress with outrage as we would attacks on any other groups in America. Rather than just working within our own small communities of feminists and reproductive activists to defeat those who stand against women’s progress, we must also reach out to other communities, in creating alliances that will speak out against these attacks, whether they be presented politically or personally. Just as it would be political suicide for politicians to support bills that are racially insensitive, we must create a culture in which it would be just as suicidal to create and support bills that are insensitive from a gender perspective – and it starts with Bart Stupak, and, yes, Barack Obama.
More than politically, however, we must also take on the attacks on women from a culture perspective. Too often, as progressive feminists, we focus on legislative actions and organizations, and leave the cultural perspectives to be monopolized by those with poisonous views about women, to include those like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter. There is no reason that America successfully ousted Don Imus after making racially insensitive comments, yet continues to accept that misogynistic, anti-choice comments made by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.
Lastly, we must continue to support young feminists – and particularly young women feminists – in their quests to enter politics. Moreover, we need to encourage young women to be a part of the political process, not simply as activists and voters, but as policymakers and politicians. For too long, the left has tried to mobilized young people to be a part of the political process, but there seems to lack the encourage for young people to get into politics. Without a doubt, the activism and legislative lobbying from women have had a profound effect on the political culture of gender equality, but true power is in holding political offices that can make direct impacts on women’s progress and health. If the right’s stereotype of a political leader is an old, white male, our movement must, too, create our own image of our political leader: smart, accomplished young women (and men) of all colors who stand for reproductive and gender justice. Now, more than ever, the political landscape requires us to make the creation of the next political leaders within our progressive movement a science, rather than sitting around for another 50 years, waiting for another Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
Until we do so, until our movement turns activism for gender equality into a precise science, and until we start working together as one group, the legislative violence against women’s progress will continue to take place, and once again, we’ll continue to take collective groans and have bittersweet political moments, as our nation progresses, while women’s rights and autonomy regress.