We have come a long way from the kitchens which were the centers of our post-war mothers’ and grandmothers’ lives. Equal rights sojourners—of which, in some small way, I was one—gained a lot of ground for themselves and their sisters in the seventies, eighties and nineties. But we all know we are not there yet. We have a long way to go; and it’s in the minds of right-wing rabble-rousers across the country to give us a push-start for that long journey—but in the WRONG DIRECTION.
Why now, almost forty years after Roe v Wade and the ERA shone the spotlight upon fair and equitable treatment of women in our society, are we witnessing a surge of anti-feminism? What makes today’s political ground so fertile that individual state legislatures have succeeded in passing a record number of anti-choice bills in the past twelve months? And what has put it into the narrow minds of the extreme right-wing that it is now safe to advance their agenda on the federal level? And to expand their list of social sins to include not just legal abortion, but birth control, health resources for poor women, and equal pay for equal work?
Certainly we can blame this fiasco on the continued efforts of the GOP to court the votes of the far right. To my knowledge, the practice began with the Reagan campaigns of the 80’s. Throughout both of his election campaigns, Reagan paid all sorts of lip-service to issues important to the Religious Right—abortion rights and school prayer being the chief hot topics of the day. I remember with dismay the pastor of our small Pentecostal church exhorting his flock from the pulpit to go out and “vote for the Ronald Reagan of your choice.” But Reagan was no fool. As soon as the ink was dry on the votes sweeping him into office, he dropped those issues like a hot rock.
Fast forward thirty years, and the GOP has pulled out all the stops to be all things to all conservatives, without regard to HOW conservative. The Bush years saw a truly amazing metamorphosis of the Republican Party, wherein every GOP lawmaker was pressed into lockstep with the party line. The perfection of this tactic formed the GOP into a formidable force. In majority, they were unstoppable; and in minority, they were the ultimate obstruction. Centrists locked arms with extremists and stood their ground. For almost a decade, Republicans managed to maintain and wield that control like a laser. Until the 2010 mid-term elections, when right wing extremists finally woke up to the fact that their concerns were not being paid much more than lip service by the Republican Pary at large. And the Tea Party was born.
Now the GOP finds itself infected with a massive case of “Tail Wagging The Dog” Disease. And instead of trying to amputate the tail, they’re determined to bargain with it. I’m sure in the minds of mainstream Republicans (if such a beast still exists) there’s no harm in trading off the civil rights of a few powerless minorities in order to maintain the Party’s ability to guard the only things that are REALLY important: Money and Power. And don’t think the Religious Right doesn’t know this. They are poised to take full advantage of the GOP’s attempt to ward off gangrene by making peace offerings to the tail.
Unfortunately, they’ve made a possibly fatal mistake, in that they’ve allowed themselves to believe that American women are nothing more than a “powerless minority.”
So, yes…the political ground for rolling back Women’s rights is more fertile than it has ever been in the forty years since Roe v Wade. But I wonder: Doesn’t some of the blame for society’s rejection of feminism fall squarely on our own shoulders? Perhaps we have proudly presented to our daughters and granddaughters a hard won, carefully wrapped gift, which they opened and threw aside because they thought they already had one. Because we did not teach them about the beauty and fragility of this gift, and how to use it to expand their lives and enrich the world.
By the middle of the 20th century, modern American women were expected to excel in school, go to college and/or get jobs and leave home. Then they were supposed to find husbands and give all that up, get married, have kids and keep house. Then, when the kids were all in school, they were pushed to rejoin the work force and contribute to household income so that the family could enjoy a better quality of life. Oh, and they were still responsible for keeping house and minding the kids. Is it any wonder that women of our generation rebelled? We saw what a raw deal our mothers had got. Why would we want to grow up to be just like them—used and abused, overworked and underpaid? There was massive inequity going on here, and we determined to change it.
We knew that we were every bit as smart, talented, motivated and worthy as our brothers. But our roads to success were complicated by choices that men never had to make. A woman had to face the social stigma of choosing a career over a relationship or marriage; or risk an unwanted or ill-timed pregnancy short-circuiting her career goals. And recreational sex was out of the question. Then the 1970’s brought us access to safe, legal abortion. And The Pill. Reproductive freedom put us within striking distance of equal footing with men. At long last, we would have the opportunity to climb the ladder of success beside men, rather than leaning our shoulders into their posteriors and pushing them to the top. Or standing at the bottom holding the ladder.
I’d like to say we took that freedom and did it justice. We became doctors and lawyers, reporters and scientists, mathematicians and historians, ministers and astronauts, generals and legislators. There wasn’t a previously male-dominated field that we didn’t pursue; without fear of reproductive repercussions, we had the time and the luxury to pound on any door until it opened. Was it a walk in the park? No. But for the first time, it was possible.
But when we did eventually produce daughters, what did we teach them? Did we hand them the feminist manifesto with reverence? Did we arm them with the knowledge of how to use it to enhance their own lives and the lives of women across the globe? Or did we fail to communicate the responsibility that went along with the freedom, as all freedoms confer responsibilities?
Because, honestly, when I look at the culture of today’s young American women, I’m certain there has been a major malfunction of the baton-passing process. Currently, forty percent of all births in the US are to unmarried women. Forty percent. Why do so many sexually active young women choose, not to “start a family,” but to “have a baby?” (There’s a difference.) Babies and “baby bumps” have become 21st century fashion accessories. Do our daughters and granddaughters even know about the tools for reproductive choice we so cherished forty years ago?
Recently a Portland couple won a $3 million dollar Wrongful Birth suit against a prominent hospital. It seems their child was born with Down’s syndrome, even though doctors assured the couple that prenatal testing did not show a problem with the baby before delivery. It came out during the trial that the couple would have certainly terminated the pregnancy had they been aware of the baby’s condition. Is this why we fought so hard for safe, legal abortion? So that a young presumably secure married couple could produce and reject fetuses until they got one they liked?
And why are today’s women so eager to sexually objectify themselves? Plastic surgery practices are booming. Billboards lining the freeways tell us where to go to get a tighter butt, a lineless face, a flawless figure. Teenagers ask for breast implants for their birthdays. High school kids “sext” during class and post explicit photos of themselves on social media. We wanted the freedom to choose to have sex. But our daughters have chosen to be slaves to sex. Why?
Taking all this into account, I don’t wonder why folks might entertain the idea of going backward. If the sexual revolution visited all this evil upon our society, can’t we just take it back? Pretend it never happened? Go back to the good old days?
Of course, the answer is, “No.” Going backward is never the answer. You can’t recreate the good old days; we have knowledge and experience that we didn’t have then. We’ve learned lessons we can’t unlearn. The point now is to put that knowledge into practice.
So, in a certain way, I welcome this fresh assault upon our sovereignty. Perhaps this will show our daughters that the freedom they have taken for granted (and squandered) not only hasn’t always existed, but could, under certain deplorable circumstances, be taken away. And perhaps we will get a second chance to polish off the pure ideals of feminism and hand them to our daughters the right way this time. Reverently and deliberately, and with emphasis on the responsibilities that come with the victory. I think maybe we could all come out the better for it.