War, Part Two

Since the “war on women” began I have heard several friends, pundits, politicians express disbelief that access to contraception and women’s empowerment are in any way correlated. This is a shocking assertion to me because research has consistently shown that women’s empowerment and reproductive freedom are inextricably tied.

With the advent of affordable, easily accessible and reliable contraception, pregnancy is no longer the defining fact of a woman’s life. For many Western women fertility is now a conscious choice and this single fact has opened worlds that were formally dominated by men—education, government, leadership, business—to the near equal participation of women. This has forced society to change its paradigms and rewrite the contracts on which gender roles and relations have traditionally been built.

So threatening reproductive freedom also threatens the gains women have made in education, government, leadership and business–once again, biology may become our destiny. And there are those who believe this should be the case (cough cough, Rick Santorum) who are desperately trying to shove the genie back in the bottle. Make no mistake, this is an ideology based on the dominance of men and there are dire consequences to returning to a world where women are hostage to their reproduction.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows that the status of women–and that includes women’s autonomy and reproductive freedom–dramatically predicts the incidence of violence against women. Researchers have quantified the status of women through four composite indices: women’s political participation, employment and earnings, economic autonomy and reproductive rights. States where women and men are the most unequal–where there are the highest number of restrictions on access to abortions–report the highest rates of violence against women. Similarly, the higher the status of women, the lower the rates of rape and domestic violence in a state.

There is a message that society sends when women are given full bodily autonomy–it is a message that women are fully human and have the right to physical integrity. This is why feminists and people who care about violence against women are so concerned about the war on women’s reproductive freedom. It isn’t just a fight about abortion rights–this a battle over women’s role in society. There is legitimate fear that the sustained “conversation” we’ve had about reproductive freedom has cast doubt in the minds of some on whether women have the right to bodily autonomy and are thereby, fully human. Indeed, America is already seeing the fruits of the war on women in policies that threaten the physical security of women.

Topeka, Kansas, for example, decriminalized domestic violence. Virginia proposed a law in February that would require a transvaginal ultrasound for all women seeking an abortion with or without their consent. Some compared this to state sponsored rape, saying that under any other circumstance the penetration of a woman without her consent would be illegal. There was not even an exemption for women who were seeking an abortion as a result of rape. After tremendous public outcry, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell reversed course and sent the bill back to the legislature without his signature. However, this same legislation has been implemented in Texas and proposed in Idaho. Or the Violence Against Women Act, a piece of legislation that has been reauthorized by unanimous consent every time it has come before the Senate, now might not get renewed because Republicans have refused to reauthorize the bill as it stands.

It is no coincidence that what started as a sustained, coordinated effort against reproductive rights has taken the country to a place where the de-criminalization of domestic violence is seen as an appropriate measure to solve fiscal problems, the Violence Against Women Act can be gutted or not renewed because of the opposition of a mainstream political party, and where several state legislatures and governors approve of a measure to penetrate a woman without her consent so that she can receive a medical procedure that is still legal in this country. The war on women not only devalues women before the law but it also jeopardizes how American society views the status of women.

We do not have data yet on whether there has been a uptick in violence perpetrated against women but it will be surprising to absolutely no one if there is. Because while male pundits and politicians have been arguing over whether women have the right to control their own bodies, perpetrators have already decided that they don’t. And the fact that this is even an issue up for debate only validates the misogynistic worldview of abusers and rapists.

This fight is about so much more than whether women have access to birth control through their medical insurance. This is about our humanity. Yes, birth control is connected to female empowerment–it has allowed the fortunate among us to get an education, pursue a career or just be better mothers to the children we already have–but it has given us more than that. Reproductive freedom has set our status as women at equal to men’s, it has given us physical autonomy and security and made us fully human in the eyes of the law and society. If we lose this war, we will have lost everything.

Academic References

  1. Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B. P., Gupta, V. & Prothrow-Stith, D. (1999). Women’s status and the health of women and men: A view from the states. Social Science & Medicine, 48, 21-32.
  2. Koenen, K. C., Lincoln, A. & Appleton, A. (2006). Women’s status and child well-being: A statelevel analysis. Social Science & Medicine, 63, 2999-3012.
  3. Yllo, K. (1983). Sexual equality and violence against wives in American states. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 14, 67-86.
  4. Yodanis, C. L. (2004). Gender inequality, violence against women, and fear: A cross-national test of the feminist theory of violence against women. Journal of Interpersonal Violence19, 655-675.

Mraynes

Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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25 Responses

  1. CatherineWO says:

    Once again, this is superb research and writing. I entirely agree with your conclusion. Thank you!

  2. Diane says:

    This makes me angry on so many levels. Republican proponents claiming the sanctity of life. Give me a break we don’t take care of children that are already here. Hello, I was 8 years old when I went into foster care. Didn’t come out until 18. Yes, I love institutional neglect. If they really think this is a great option lets place their children in the system. Maybe this will change their minds.

    RRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHH

    • mraynes says:

      Your experience is a powerful example, Diane. I would find it easier to buy the current Republican argument that this is about sanctity of life and not controlling women if they backed those words up with any action or policy that made the lives of children easier. Instead many of them have stood in direct opposition to programs that have been documented to be beneficial to children: HeadStart, WIC, CHIP, even school food programs. It is actions like these that show just how morally bankrupt this agenda is.

      • Emily U says:

        Indeed! Their mantra is all about personal responsibility – parents being responsible for properly raising their children being one example. So it is utterly hypocritic of them to deny women the chance to take responsibility for their own fertility.

        Great post!

      • Libby says:

        YES.

  3. Kip says:

    With the advent of affordable, easily accessible and reliable contraception, pregnancy is no longer the defining fact of a woman’s life.

    So threatening reproductive freedom also threatens the gains women have made in education, government, leadership and business–once again, biology may become our destiny

    Preface: I am totally in favor of birth control and allowing women the freedom to make choices as regards their body, their family planning, their health, etc.

    That said, the tone of this post troubles me a little. It seems like you are making an assertion that without reproduction restricting technology women can not be empowered. I personally feel women and men are as we are created, but this article seems to hinge the realization of that equality on existence and availability of birth control technologies.

    I am curious, how would you make your case for equality and empowerment if we hadn’t developed the technology to allow such ready access to birth control measures?

  4. Kip says:

    I personally feel women and men are as we are created,

    oops, that should read:
    I personally feel women and men are equal as we are created,

    • mraynes says:

      I completely agree that women and men are equal as we are created, every part of my soul tells me that this is true. The point in this post, however, is that the law and/or society does not necessarily see this statement as true. There is well-documented gender bias in both the legal system and society that put up roadblocks to women to live healthy, fulfilling lives in anything outside of the domestic sphere and sometimes fails to protect women even there. The argument that I am making in this post is that women’s reproductive freedom evens the playing field and allows women to participate in a world where being male is normative.

      I think it’s possible that women could be equal with men if the technology for birth control hadn’t been developed but it would take a paradigm shift and a complete rejection of patriarchy. Instead of women bearing the brunt of childbearing and child-rearing, men would have to be just as concerned with these issues as women are. There would have to be true partnership and the acknowledgement of both men and women are equal as they are. Currently, I think our society views women as equal in as much as they are like men. So without reproductive freedom, women would have no ability to participate in the institutions of society.

  5. Annie B. says:

    This all makes me so sad. When I got engaged at 19 I was still not really sure how sex worked, and was under the vague impression that the LDS church considered birth control sinful. I now know they don’t, but for some reason my upbringing or whatever gave me that impression. I went to my mom and dad to ask what the LDS church’s stance on BC was and my dad gave the answer in the form of an outdated book by an LDS author stating that using birth control was bad. He also mentioned that there wasn’t any current info on it and that ultimately it was between me, my husband, and God. With that, I still felt like he was telling me that it was on the sinful side, but I went with my gut and got on birth control. Thank you mom for taking me to that appointment! Me and my husband talked about our sexuality before we got married and he expressed that he felt that after we were married if at any time I didn’t want to have sex with him that he would consider that to mean that I didn’t love him. It’s a wonder to me now that I didn’t just accept that opinion as gospel truth, as my parents had never discussed anything like that with me. Thank heaven he’s now much wiser and was kind enough at that time to listen to me and consider how I felt about it (scared about pain, getting pregnant, ect). If he had persisted with that idea after listening to my side of things I would have considered that to be abusive sexual manipulation. When I think about how things could have turned out I am a little horrified. I’m glad that I had some really good YW leaders who went over things like spousal rape and abuse, because my parents gave me very little (and what little they gave was vague) to go on as far as sex and what was ok/not ok in a relationship. Because of my experience I am all for basic sex education in schools including information about contraception and rape/abuse support. I think kids deserve to know what their bodies are capable of, when they are capable of it. If my loving parents gave me that little to go on even as I was preparing to get married, there must be so many other teens out there with more tumultuous home lives than I have who are getting their sex education solely from dysfunctional/abusive parents or friends with little more understanding than they themselves have.

    • mraynes says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Annie. You’ve hit upon another facet of this war and that is the battle over sexual education. The same people who are trying to limit access to contraception are also the ones who are trying get rid of sex ed in schools. I can’t think of a better way of keeping women tied to the home than to keep them ignorant about their bodies and sex and then deny them access to birth control it is a truly terrifying reality that a lot of young girls are now facing.

  6. Jessawhy says:

    Another great post, MRaynes.

    Laying these issues out clearly is the first step to having a public conversation about women’s place in society. It bothers me that society seems to see the potential for life to be more important than a women’s life. And I agree with Diane that an emphasis on the sanctity of life needs to be followed with a LOT MORE social programs to help poor families and children. Thanks for this post.

  7. April says:

    This topic is so hard for some men to understand–because people of male gender are never slaves to their own fertility. Many men don’t bother to even find out if the sperm they deposited in a woman resulted in a pregnancy. Others choose to abandon their female partners when they become pregnant or have children. Fortunately, most men are above this bad behavior, and when their partner becomes pregnant, they do step up to the plate and choose to take responsibility for the child. However, even for these responsible men, the consequences of pregnancy will not affect them in the way it does their female partners. They will not experience the physiological changes of pregnancy or lactation; it will not be visibly apparent to their employers that they are expecting a child, so they will not be at risk for discrimination; they will not need to take any time away from their careers to recover from childbirth or establish breastfeeding, nor will they need to seek any special accommodation for lactation at work.

  8. Alisa says:

    I don’t know this for sure, but I feel that the drive to take women out of the workforce and indirectly force them back into the domestic sphere is what is driving the current war on women. The birth control issue started out as a religious freedom issue (can a religious institution be required to provide the option of birth control to its employees and its employees dependants?). Suddenly, the religious issue was all but dropped and the right for any woman–even a monogamous married mother–to use contraception was brought out for debate.

    I think it’s because in tough economic times, we look at simpler, more prosperous times, such as the 1950s when many women left the workforce and stayed at home. I think that nostalgia is driving this in part.

    As the accidental sole provider for my family, I am threatened by this underlying motivation. It’s directly attacking my way of life and my family’s only source of income. I work hard in a society that does not make being a working mother easy by any means. It’s heartbreaking to see that through tying me down to having limitless children with very little affordable care while I work, many people would take from my family its only source of income.

    • mraynes says:

      I absolutely agree, Alisa. I think there is a subset of the American population that long for the “simpler” times of yore. I didn’t include this in the post but there have also been attacks against women’s economic autonomy as well. For example, Maryland shut down its HeadStart program because the male administrators believed that women should be at home with their children. I don’t know if it has passed yet but the Wisconsin legislature was voting to repeal their equal pay for equal work law. It seems to me that those who are pushing this war are doing so because they feel their way of life is slipping away. Hopefully we’ll make it through this recession without too many reactionary policies being put into place but I’m afraid that at least in the short term, life will get harder for women.

  9. LovelyLauren says:

    When I hear about initiatives to take away women’s reproductive rights, I am always struck by the way that female bodily autonomy isn’t recognized and how that can be. I can choose how to color my hair or who I want to touch my body or what to pierce or whether to take vitamins or eat too much fast food, but I can’t make decisions about my own fertility?

    I can house a human being for awhile, hopefully when I choose, but this is still MY body. Why don’t these people understand that?

  10. Tara says:

    Very well written Mraynes. What I want to know is what can we do about this? These posts make me itchy for action. I want to go out on the street and march with signs, or become trained as an assassin….It feels like we need action!

  11. Bradley says:

    Like the article, disagree with the “equal to men” notion. Women sell themselves short by wanting to be like men on men’s terms.

    The fundamental issue is, I think, that women have a right to define what it means to be a woman. And since reproduction is so central to that, contraception is their perogative. This places reproductive rights on par with civil rights.

    If conservatives want more babies, they should stop blowing them up in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    • mraynes says:

      Interesting point, Bradley! As I said in my comment to Kip, I believe that women are absolutely equal to men just as they are. I am in no way saying that women should become like men in order to gain equality. I do believe, however, that women should have equal opportunity as compared to men and I believe that one way to guarantee this is reproductive freedom for women. I also believe that society should also put structures in place that support women’s unique needs such as free maternity care, comprehensive maternity leave and subsidized daycare. These types of policy would get rid of the awful bind womena currently face and allow women to pursue both family and career in a way that fully empowers us. Thanks for your comment!

    • amelia says:

      Bradley, while I completely concur with your statement of the fundamental issue, I do want to take issue with your objection to women claiming equality to men. It is an old anti-feminist canard to claim that what feminists mean when they claim equality is that they want to be “like men on men’s terms.” I want nothing of the sort. I’m perfectly happy being a woman. I would not want to be a man. I don’t want to be like men, whatever the hell that means. I want to be myself. And I am absolutely the equal of every other human being out there, regardless of their gender or sex. Claiming equality is about worth, opportunity, access, etc. It has absolutely nothing to do with trying to turn myself into the exact same thing men are. And I personally do not know of any feminist that claims that “equal” means being “like men on men’s terms.”

      Sorry to sound like I’m jumping all over you. That’s not what I intend, because as I said I completely concur with the basic point you’re making. But I get so very tired of people (whether overtly and actively anti-feminist or not) attributing to feminists the desire to be just like men and dressing up that notion in the “equal” means “same” mischaracterization.

  12. david says:

    The debate isn’t about the right to birth control but rather who should pay for it.

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