I Hope Obama Wins, But I’m Still Mad at Him
Leigh Ann Wheeler is the author of "How Sex Became a Civil Liberty" (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Associate Professor of History at Binghamton University and co-editor of the Journal of Women’s History.
As in elections past, women’s rights issues and the gender gap are playing a prominent role in the 2012 presidential race. If the most recent New York Times poll is to be believed, a majority of women are lining up behind President Obama and a majority of men behind Governor Romney.
This might not seem surprising given positions taken by the political parties and candidates on issues of women’s rights.
President Obama touts his endorsement of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, his support for women’s right to abortion, and his insistence that health insurance plans cover prescription birth control.
By contrast, Governor Romney opposed the so-called “Lilly Ledbetter Bill,” supports a constitutional amendment to protect life beginning at conception, and opposes any law that requires insurance companies to cover contraceptives. No wonder more women like Obama.
But focusing on these obvious differences between the candidates obscures some disturbing commonalities in their approaches to women. In fact, while Obama and Romney take clear positions on a number of important women’s rights issues, they both articulate a disturbing approach to women, one that makes the differences between them less great than they might at first appear.
Those of us who really care about gender equality should be alarmed by the ways that both candidates and the parties they represent have been discussing and using women’s rights. For efficiency’s sake, I will call their approach instrumentalist; they are using women’s rights as instruments for achieving other ends.
To be sure, 2012 will long be remembered for candidates who have distinguished themselves and the Republican Party for their wrong-headed and misogynist beliefs about women’s bodies.
There is, of course, Todd Akin, a candidate for U.S. Senate in the “Show Me State” of Missouri who denounced abortion even in the case of rape. On what grounds? That no woman who has been raped could need an abortion because, during a rape, the female body assumes physiologically magical contraceptive abilities. I guess Akin showed them!
And then there is Richard Mourdock, the frontrunner for the U.S. Senate seat from Indiana, who disagrees with Akin that rape never results in pregnancy but only because, to his mind, sometimes God overrides the physiologically magical contraceptive abilities that rape produces in the female body.
These two Republican fellows differ in their understandings of the God-given and God-limiting wonders of female physiology, but they end up with the same policy position: abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape. That two twenty-first-century men are espousing these ridiculous fantasies about how women’s bodies work to explain their denunciation of abortions that even many anti-choice die-hards would grant -- and that they are doing so as serious contenders for the U.S. Senate on the eve of Roe v. Wade’s fortieth anniversary is surely sobering if not downright scary.
One way to understand the perspectives of those who oppose choice -- or women’s right to abort unwanted pregnancies -- is that they consider women’s bodies a means to an end, be it preserving the moral fabric of our nation, reproducing upstanding citizens, or honoring the rights of the fetus.
But those on the anti-choice right aren’t the only ones who view women’s bodies and women’s rights as a means to an end. Consider both presidential candidates’ responses to Katherine Fenton who asked, in the second presidential debate, what each candidate would do about ongoing workplace inequality that disadvantages women.
Obama and Romney both acknowledged the problem, but neither prioritized women or women’s rights for their own sake. Obama advocated employment equality for women, not because the law requires it, women deserve it, women are people too, or anything along those lines. Rather, he endorsed equality for women in the workplace “because women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family.” As if to distinguish his support for workplace equality from women’s rights, Obama went on to explain, “This is not just a women's issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle-class issue, and that's why we've got to fight for it.”
Romney also subordinated women’s rights to family roles. After crassly and hypocritically admitting that he himself had used affirmative action to come up with “whole binders full of women,” Romney went on to argue that achieving equality for women in the workplace would require that employers recognize and adapt to women’s domestic obligations by granting them shorter hours, flex-time, etc.
For both candidates in the second presidential debate -- Democrat and Republican -- women’s rights were less of a concern than families’ needs. Their real concern seemed to be how government policies can best help women serve their families, not how government policies can best attain and preserve equal rights for women themselves.
But it’s not only in the domestic sphere that women’s rights matter to presidential contenders in 2012. They also serve U.S. foreign policy interests. Indeed, women’s rights have become a major justification for each candidates’ muscular approach to the Middle East. Romney cites “gender equality” and Obama points to “the rights of women” as something the U.S. should champion as a strategy for resisting terrorism and promoting development in the region. Once again, women’s rights serve a higher purpose, a greater end -- this time, peace in the Middle East and security at home.
Even someone as sensitive to women’s rights issues as journalist Nicholas Kristof has climbed on the bandwagon of hitching women’s rights to a higher purpose. In last Sunday's New York Times, Kristof declared that “women’s rights and reproductive health shouldn’t be reduced to a ‘women’s issue,’” because men with “wives and daughters, mothers and sisters ... have a pretty intimate stake” in women’s issues. Plus, men love their female family members.
Each of the approaches taken here by Romney, Obama, and Kristof treat women’s rights as instruments for achieving other ends -- establishing the financial stability and serving the domestic needs of families, defending U.S. national security and shaping development in the Middle East, and finally, protecting the feelings and interests of men who love women.
Women’s historians have long recognized the pitfalls of such an instrumental approach to women’s rights. Sure, this approach can be politically expedient as it was between 1920 and 1965 -- the year the Supreme Court declared laws against birth control unconstitutional -- when activists defended birth control as a matter of physicians’ rights, a means of population control, and a tool for sexual liberation (men’s as well as women’s). Their arguments may have gained the birth control movement powerful allies, but they also limited the extent to which birth control could and still does serve the cause of women’s rights.
In part because birth control activists and policymakers treated birth control as the means to ends other than women’s rights, women’s access to birth control came along with dependence on physicians and pharmacists, vulnerability to state and private efforts to control their sexuality and reproduction, and greater pressure to be sexually active and available.
The difference between treating women’s rights as a means to another end rather than as a goal for its own sake -- for women’s sake -- may seem subtle. However, the consequences are anything but. Before women can lay claim to full citizenship, their rights and reproductive health must be elevated, not reduced, to a women’s issue.
Women may be a key voting demographic in the election of 2012. If recent polls accurately reflect the electorate, most women hope President Obama wins another term. But let’s not settle for that. Let’s demand that political and public opinion leaders stop invoking our rights and reproductive health to serve other ends.
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