November 29, 2012
November 29, 2012I laughed out loud when Barak Obama won the 2012 Presidential Election, and not just because he won, though I was very happy that he did. I laughed because I had, for more than a year, been following the election through two lenses: that of a history teacher, and that of a seasoned feminist. Obama's victory boosted the power of many American citizens, and offered renewed hope for American women. We are moving in a positive direction as a nation. Here is my analysis.
Early during every term of my World History courses, I give my students some basic terminology. Pointing to Ancient Athens, I explain that Democracy aspires to grant political authority equally to all. Though fundamentally patriarchal and operating within the same stratified societies as other forms of government, democracies offer opportunities for groups without power to find their voices and transform power structures.
I then turn to Ancient Rome, and explain that a republic is a state where most adult citizens play some role in government. I discuss the Roman senate, where wealthy elite presided over a stratified society wherein plebeians had limited political power, and slaves had none. In its most basic form, republican government does not guarantee, or even suggest, equality. More than that, almost all republican governments have been patriarchal, with women of all classes barred from power, at home and in government.
The United States is , at least in theory, a democratic republic. I was amused how closely the 2012 election exemplified the history lessons I have taught my college students for nearly thirty years. Never, in my lifetime, have the lines been so clearly drawn. The Republican Party wanted a republic, wherein a tiny number of wealthy entities controlled both the government and the economy. Voting rights would be limited, and some groups of people would have no rights at all.
The Democrats argued for a democracy, wherein all people have rights, and the function of government is to ensure that (a) people's voices are heard, and that (b) their basic needs are met. Barack Obama wanted a government by the people and for the people. On many occasions he encouraged Americans to e-mail and tweet their Senators and representatives about particular issues. He encouraged community organization and supported labor unions. And, he supported women's right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term.
The fundamental issue of abortion was one of the most pivotal issues in 2012. The Republican platform explicitly banned all abortions, regardless of how a woman got pregnant.
Besides a college teacher, I am a product of the feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s. I cut my political teeth in the National Organization for Women. I attended "consciousness raising" sessions, where I learned that women's control over their fertility is their most basic power. I cheered Roe v. Wade, and assumed that safe abortions would forever be available for women who wanted or needed them. I joined the fight against the "pro-life" movement, which chipped away at Roe v. Wade.
In those days, feminists did not identify with one political party or another, and were skeptical of all male-dominated institutions. There were always a few pro-choice Republican women, and some pro-life Democrats. However, the 2012 Presidential election served as a centrifuge. Most feminists, even some who supported Republicans earlier, gravitated to the Democratic camp. The Democrats were unequivocally the pro-choice, pro-women's rights party.
Obama's message to women was clear on Roe v. Wade: "[T]his Supreme Court decision not only protects a woman's health and reproductive freedom, but also affirms a broader principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters. I remain committed to protecting a woman's right to choose and this fundamental constitutional right." (President Obama's statement marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, January 23, 2011).
Republicans who, despite noise about small government by their Tea Party minions, supported an authoritarian government run by rich and powerful men and corporations that would restrict women's power. Indeed, the government they wanted would be very small - consisting of a few very rich entities. It would, however, have tremendous power, and would include mechanisms to control the health care options and personal lives of all citizens under its tutelage.
Such a government would be truly republican in the classical sense, but certainly not democratic. Those on the bottom of the economic pyramid would have no rights or power at all. Women across the board would not control their bodies. The government and its related law enforcement mechanisms would control the economic purse strings of everyone. To make matters worse, they wrap their economic arguments in religious and moral garments to remain above criticism in the public's eyes.
The 2012 Republicans included in their platform an endorsement of the medically unsupported claim that fetuses can feel pain before they are viable. More than that, the platform stated "the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed." (GOP Platform). And, even though some Republicans censured Todd Akin for making insensitive remarks about rape and abortion, they supported a platform that makes no provisions for victims of rape and incest.
The Republicans did not stop with abortion. Their "sanctity of human life" proposal also opposed "the non-consensual withholding or withdrawal of care or treatment, including food and water, from people with disabilities, including newborns, as well as the elderly and infirm, just as we oppose active and passive euthanasia and assisted suicide.... (and) We oppose federal funding of embryonic stem cell research." (GOP Platform) So, not only would women be forbidden to seek abortions, people making end-of-life decisions would be impacted also, not to mention people who might be helped by embryonic stem cell research. According to the GOP, the rights of fertilized eggs supersede those of suffering adults. The same strictures would cover women seeking access to contraception, and couples pursuing in vitro fertilization, all of which would be forbidden if Republican lawmakers prevailed.
The 2012 Democratic victory made sure that, for now, Roe v. Wade will stand. Despite setbacks, women will be able to get legal abortions, although the cost will not be covered by Obamacare. So, why am I talking now? The Democrats, after all, won the presidential election. Obama supports Roe v. Wade, opposes parental notification for young women seeking abortions, and supports Planned Parenthood and embryonic stem cell research. The support of Obama and most Democrats does not, however, guarantee rights to anyone. Republican legislative initiatives will continue, and anti-abortion organizations, such as the infamous "Crisis Pregnancy Centers," will continue to pound their messages into vulnerable women already making difficult choices. There are still plenty of organized pro-life Democrats. As Jo Freeman, one of the first feminist scholars I read in the 1970s and 80s, points out, Democratic women might be forced to curb their commitment to their own agenda in favor of the party's goals, if those goals change from Obama's supportive stance. (Jo Freeman, "Who You Know Versus Who You Represent," http://www.jofreeman.com/polparties/femifluence.htm).
This is not, therefore, a time to bask in the 2012 Democratic victory. It is time to reload. We, the women who want to control our fertility, who demand affordable health care and end of life options, support democracy and all efforts to expand, not constrict ct, political power. We must forge new alliances and find new forums for our voices. We must not allow further er4osion of Roe v. Wade. We must maintain control over our fertility. It is our right, as members of this democratic republic.