The Contraception Debate: Is Misogyny on the Rise?
Here is some of the evidence.
In Virginia, the State Legislature was poised to pass and Republican Governor Bob McDonnell to sign a bill requiring a vaginally-invasive medical procedure be performed on any woman seeking an abortion until a massive demonstration of female voting power caused them to “modify” it very slightly. In the United States Congress, Republican representative Darrell Issa of California called to order a House of Representatives hearing on women’s health care, but only men had been invited to testify at this hearing. A 30-year-old female law school student at Georgetown University named Sandra Fluke, whom the Democrats had invited to appear before this committee, was ruled by Mr. Issa not to be “a competent witness” and so was disqualified. The nation’s Roman Catholic Bishops, objecting to the fact that Roman Catholic hospitals and universities were required, under the new healthcare law, to provide contraceptive care for their female employees, which they believed violated official Catholic teaching, called for and received a compromise from the President of the United States. This compromise moved the cost of that offending aspect of health care coverage from the church affiliated institutions to the health care companies themselves, forcing them to provide this service at no cost to the insured. It was a reasonable solution that satisfied the vast majority of Americans, including many Roman Catholic voters. Not willing, however, to have this emotional issue taken away from them so quickly the misogynist wing of American politics, supported the Catholic bishops, introduced the Blount-Rubio bill in the United States Senate that would allow any company that had moral objections to contraceptive care being provided to their female employees, could opt out of this coverage. That is, mostly male bosses could tell female employees what kind of health care women were allowed to have. The sickness in this country was revealed when this outrageous bill was defeated by only three votes, 51 to 48. That is the evidence that reveals the problem.
Is this a debate about religious liberty and keeping the government from violating religious freedom as the political right suggests? I don’t think so. It is rather a manifestation of a concentrated and sometimes violent attack on women’s rights, especially their right to privacy. What are the data that drive me to this conclusion? First, for some time, these same health care regulations required by states have been in force across this nation with no outcry from anyone, including Roman Catholic Bishops and Catholic institutions. Second, the abortion debate, always emotional, fueled as it is by the religious zealots in both Catholic and Evangelical lobbies, has now revealed itself to be equally opposed to birth control, an issue not debated in this country for almost half a century! So a new assault has been launched on the rights of families to plan and space children. Freedom from unexpected pregnancies has been the major factor in opening career opportunities for women in business, politics and religion, freeing them from the traditional male control over their bodies. There is now ample evidence that this new equality of opportunity is resented by a significant number of males. This is the counterattack.
The hostility unleashed in these attacks reveals its virulence. Women are personally trashed whenever they challenge male power. Recall when Anita Hill challenged Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’ fitness for the court appointment by relating a series of sexually aggressive behaviors that she had been forced to endure at his hands, the response of the defense was to attack Ms. Hill’s veracity and morality, leaving her reputation in shreds. It was one more expression of the old truth that if you can’t deal with the message, you attack the messenger. The same thing happened to the women who accused Republican presidential hopeful, Herman Cain, of sexual improprieties that challenged his fitness for office and his hold on truth, only to find themselves attacked as “loose women out for a quick payoff.” When the aforementioned Sandra Fluke was finally allowed to testify, not before an official House Committee, but before an informal, yet well publicized Democratic hearing she was called a “slut and a prostitute” by Rush Limbaugh, a well known, four-times married, right-wing radio talk show host, whose Viagra, I note, is covered by his health insurance. The pattern is consistent.
For centuries, women have struggled against male power and male-imposed definitions that were written into law to keep women in servile, second-class status. In China women’s feet were ceremonially bound, resulting in severe physical deformities, but justified by the male culture since it served to keep women from escaping the dominant male’s control. In biblical days women were defined as property, which enabled men to justify polygamy – for surely it was a man’s right to “own” as many women as his wealth would allow. Even though monogamy came to be the marriage pattern of the Christian West, it was not a marriage of equals until very recently. The English prayer book of 1662 and the prayer book of the Episcopal Church until 1928 required the woman to take a vow of obedience to her husband at the time of her marriage.
The only birth control a woman was allowed until relatively recently was abstinence and this fact actually encouraged the role of mistresses and the use of prostitutes, since abstinence did not appear to be desirable to men. Wives encouraged both mistresses and prostitutes to minimize the number of children they would be forced to bear. Men did not allow women to vote until 1920 or to enter universities in the West until the 20th century and only then because they were a source of cheap labor. Women became school teachers because that profession did not pay enough to attract males, nurses because they could not only be low paid assistants, but could do the menial tasks that male doctors were no longer willing to do, and secretaries to free the male “bosses” from typing and filing. Though it represented exploitation it was through these doorways that women gained their first toehold on economic power. It also needs to be noted and stated that in each of these secondary roles, women were regularly harassed and sexually abused by the male bosses who employed them. The rising consciousness regarding a woman’s rights exposed this gross behavior and in the process helped to raise the kind of male anger that we are now witnessing politically. This battle has little to do with religious sensitivities and the violation of religious freedom on the part of the government. That charge is nothing but the rhetorical perfume being applied to cover the continuing struggle to achieve male domination.
There are many other factors in this equation, some of them conscious and others unconscious. It was not until 1724, for example, that Western science discovered that women have an egg cell and thus are the equal co-creators of every life that has ever been born. This fact challenged the prevailing male “wisdom” that the woman’s only function in procreation was the secondary role of nurturing the male seed into maturity, as mother earth nurtured the farmer’s seed into a new crop each year. The old understanding turned out to be ignorance, but not before it had taken deep root in Western religion and was used to put “God’s” imprimatur on the second class status for women that marks vast parts of our religious heritage, whose traditionally all-male hierarchies still suppress women’s rights in the name of an overwhelmingly male deity.
There are other elements in the emotional male fears of women, which are too complex to do anything other than file them by title in this column. There are the male dependency fears that root in our childhood memories of being helpless in the care of our mothers. There are the menstruation fears that express themselves in the taboos developed against a woman’s menstrual flow. That was a strange female power in a day when people believed that life itself was located in the blood and in which the word “bloodshed” was a synonym for death, yet here were women who bled regularly and who did not die. Males clearly envied that power, while seeking to protect themselves from it. Whatever the source of this male fear of women, it is time to stop seeking to mandate politically that women’s bodies be subject to male control, whether that control be exercised by their husbands, their bosses, the members of the United States Senate and perhaps above all by the misogynist, all-male hierarchies of medieval religious organizations.
I find it frightening that we are having this discussion in 2012! Once it did not worry me that the United States Supreme Court has a six-to-three majority of Roman Catholic judges on that bench. In the light of the current debate on birth control it now bothers me a lot
I note that every Roman Catholic university, hospital and charitable organization receives massive federal funding from taxpayer money. America’s taxpayers make it financially possible for these Catholic institutions to do the good work they do. These taxpayers do not require that their taxes support only the things they approve of morally or religiously. The majority of Catholic Americans do not share the attitude of their church toward women. Does this church then have the right to take this money and to impose its values on their employees? Are we now to follow Senator Santorum’s 17th century idea that Church and State ought not to be separated? Are we to ignore his assertion that Catholic President John Kennedy’s attempt to draw a distinction between personal belief and public responsibility made Santorum want to throw up? Is the current debate the last gasp of a dying patriarchy or the opening debate in a new dark age?
I find it a frightening time through which to live and it calls out to women and to men alike to flush, yes to flush, out of public life this “religiously perfumed,” but cruel, continuing oppression of women. It needs to be flushed equally by an aroused constituency of both Democrats and Republicans and the Christian Church needs to climb out of the Middle Ages and begin to call “sin” that which some still call “ancient truth,” or “sacred tradition.”
~John Shelby Spong