In my last post, You’re Beautiful When You’re Angry, I discussed my thoughts on the panel that Rep. Darrell Issa, of California, assembled, ostensibly to discuss the compromise offered by President Obama concerning a mandate for Catholic employers to cover birth control. I say “ostensibly” because I believe the conversation held by that panel was less about religious freedom than it was about female freedom. On this particular issue, the potential for blurring that line has always existed. It seems the panel decided to see if they could step right over it.
This panel was held in the midst of a charged political climate around women’s rights: it’s only been a couple of weeks since the Susan G. Komen public relations fiasco concerning Planned Parenthood, we’ve got Rick Santorum spouting politics and misogyny as if they go together like love and marriage, and there are bills popping up all over the place that would define “personhood” at the moment of conception. In my previous post, I suggested that some of the misogyny out there is just political posturing and should be ignored. Some readers are—understandably—of the opinion that we need to engage with all misogyny, because it needs to be met head on and stopped. I certainly sympathize with this viewpoint, and there are times when we absolutely must take action. But I also believe that sometimes the correct play is to treat nonsense like nonsense. So here’s a breakdown of some of what’s out there, along with my gut reactions.
Foster Freiss, a rich dude who has given a lot of his money to Rick Santorum, suggested in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that women keep their legs closed (by holding an aspirin between them) to avoid pregnancy. The proper response to this silliness, in my opinion, is a big fat eye roll. If you’ve already given him the time of day (by, say, interviewing him on national television—or listening to his interview), don’t do it again. If he buys himself some air time, switch the channel. This dude is so out of touch that he thinks he can demean a composed female reporter on NBC. She’s got more power than he realizes—in fact, all women do. Let him slowly sink in the mire of his own irrelevancy.
This is where I believe that panel lands, and here’s why: eight dudes gathered to complain about birth control in the name of religion. One of them reportedly said that birth control had martyred him. That was the level of conversation in that room.
My gut says these guys aren’t that much more relevant than Foster Freiss talking about aspirin between the legs. Why? They didn’t really bother to hide the fact that their discussion—which was ostensibly about religious freedom—was actually about reproductive freedom. And, as I’ve seen many people comment over the last couple of days, that conversation, when it comes to birth control at least, should be a done deal. (Of course, in some ways it seems not to be…more on that later.)
The big difference between these guys and Mr. Freiss, of course, is that they do have some power. But so do a lot of other, rational people—women and men—who could have called the conversation out. One way of doing that is to convene another panel about birth control, which most people do not want to be debating right now, including the people asking for another panel. By convening a second panel, we unwittingly give credence to the idea that such a panel should exist, and we agree to have a fight in which, like Andrea Mitchell, we have more power than our opponents realize we have.
Instead, we could have let these eight dudes throw a tantrum in a room by themselves. My guess is that the level of discourse in that room wouldn’t have produced much worth worrying about. However, I could be wrong, since it is undoubtedly people like these men who have brought bills to the table, such as House Bills 1 and 462 in Virginia, that are misogyny unleashed. Which brings me to…
Out there on the front lines, some scary stuff is happening. And we must engage with it, swiftly. Here are the two bills I’m concerned about, currently up for consideration in the Virginia legislature:
- House Bill 1, or “The Personhood Bill”: This bill would define a person at the moment of conception, and it has already passed in the House. Which means…yep, we’re right back at the birth control debate. But this one isn’t hiding behind religion—it’s saying that a zygote (a fertilized egg) is a person. The bill “…provides that unborn children at every stage of development enjoy all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of the Commonwealth.” When you stop to think about the ramifications of this bill, you realize that women will be at the mercy of potential zygotes from now until the end of overpopulated time.
- House Bill 462: This bill would require a woman seeking an abortion to have a “transvaginal ultrasound.” That’s a fancy term for having an instrument about the size and shape of a small microphone inserted into your vagina so that the doctor can get an image of the embryo within the womb. Even under the best of circumstances, this procedure is invasive and far from pleasant. A woman forced to undergo this procedure for no medical reason would most likely feel both violated and shamed. Which, I believe, is the point of the bill.
I have signed petitions against these bills, and I hope you will do the same. I know young women, students at the university where I teach, who went to Richmond this weekend to protest the bills, and I am proud of their willingness to take action.
These bills are undoubtedly the product of fussy sexists, and for that reason I can see an argument for engaging with every bit of what’s out there. But it seems to me that if we are to get to a point where bills like these are no longer a possibility—in other words, sexism might still exist but people know better than to introduce laws based on it—we need to be able to distinguish between the ludicrous, the incendiary, and the actionable.
For one thing, sexists love to mock an angry woman, and to dismiss her points. That doesn’t mean women shouldn’t or can’t get angry—we should and can—but wouldn’t it be fun to watch their reactions if, instead of treating their nonsense like it was worthy of our conversation, we treated it like it was beneath us? Unless and until it becomes a threat, that is—and then we deal with it swiftly.
Secondly, we really do have a good bit of power. We need to have confidence in our moment in history, and in ourselves—this is 2012, not 1912. That doesn’t mean that frightening things can’t still happen—for example, those two bills could be signed into law—but it does mean women can influence, make, and execute decisions affecting our bodies and our potential children. We even have statistics on our side, when it comes to birth control (for example, a recent decline in teen pregnancy rates is linked almost exclusively to better contraceptive use).
I’d just like to see us walk with a little more swagger now and then, ignore the nonsense that’s beneath us, and save our energy for the real fights.
The trick, of course, is being sure we know the difference between a tantrum and a threat.