– Mary Wollstonecraft,
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1797
– Marie Shear,
New Directions for Women, 1986
Georgia State Rep. Terry England, speech on the floor of the Georgia State Legislature, 2012 (Arguing in favour of House Bill 954, which imposed a ban on abortions after twenty weeks gestation. England was pushing for a similar law to apply to women carrying stillborn foetuses, or foetuses unlikely to survive, to full term.)
In recent years in United States, there has been a not-so-quietly waged internecine conflict that has come to be known as ‘The War on Women’. That is not an inaccurate term on its face, but it is something of a catch-all phrase and easily dismissed by those who are actually making this war. It is nothing less than a frontal attack on the hard-fought gains women have made in the West for their political rights, their social equality, and their very autonomy and authority over their own bodies. It cuts to the heart of women’s very humanity.
Of course, there has always been something of a rumble going on over issues of women’s equality – since time immemorial, really. But this latest – and shrillest – contemporary round began to be more noticeable, in particular, during the time of the 2010 mid-term elections when the Tea Party began its rise. It came to power, not only in Congress, but across the country in state legislatures, as a far-right faction of the already hard-right Republican Party. While they had run mainly on a ‘fiscal responsibility’ and job-creation platform, upon taking power they almost immediately began furiously churning out floods of anti-woman legislation.
To paraphrase Neil Finn, describing the waves of misogyny happening in the US these days is like trying to ‘catch the deluge in a paper cup’ – it can quickly become overwhelming. However, to evoke a sense of it, I present some of the War On Women’s Greatest Hits, as it were, in the major areas of concern.
This is the big battlefield, of course, and skirmishing continuously flares up all over the country. Only a small handful of states (mainly in the far West and Northeast) do not restrict abortion significantly. Most other states have been churning out literally thousands of anti-choice bills since the beginning of 2011.1 Not all of these bills have passed, of course, but it seems like the people’s business in many states and in the US Congress has lately been to get all up in women’s business – if you know what I mean. Some representative samples:
• In numerous states around the country, ‘personhood’ bills, which give the full rights of citizens to fertilised eggs, have been introduced. Arizona passed a bill – later thwarted by the courts – which started counting gestaabortion at 18 weeks gestation and, in my opinion, basically criminalising menstruation.
• In South Dakota, a bill was introduced in 2011 to expand the state’s definition of justifiable homicide to include those who try to harm an unborn child. The bill’s sponsor, a long-time abortion foe, explained the intent of the bill was to protect pregnant women from assault. But such circumstances are already considered in current language. The bill would provide cover, argue opponents, for anyone who murdered an abortion doctor to claim defence of an unborn child – the bill was ultimately tabled.
• A number of states adopted ultrasound provisions mandating that women seeking abortions must first have an ultrasound before the procedure. A hotly contested measure in Virginia requiring that the ultrasound be transvaginal, that is, an ultrasound wand must be inserted into the patient’s vagina, was passed in 2012. It is a measure copied in a number of states since. Virginia’s legislation also required that the abortion provider make a copy of the foetal image and include it in the patient’s file.
The nexus of abortion and violence against women is interesting, if creepy. There seems to be a dark connection in certain minds between fathering a child and the redundant locution of ‘forcible rape.’ It is worth noting here that 32 states give parental rights to rapists for any offspring that might be a result of their crimes.
• Both North and South Dakota have attempted over the years to ban abortion with no exception for rape victims, incest victims, or cases where the mother’s health or life are in danger. Their justification is that rape pregnancies are vanishingly ‘rare’. Studies have shown that pregnancy from rape is as common as, or greater, than pregnancy from consensual sex. In the 2012 election cycle, this long discredited canard was brought back to life and would not die – no matter how much the one who spoke it got slapped around.
Todd Akin, a Missouri Congressman and candidate for the US Senate, was the first Republican candidate to bring it up. He claimed that victims of ‘legitimate rape’ rarely became pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.’ When the predictable firestorm erupted, Akin clarified by saying that, of course, he meant ‘forcible rape’ (apparently, there is a hitherto unknown distinction between that and ‘consensual rape’). Akin refused to withdraw from the race, which he eventually lost. At least six others, in various states tried riffing on this same theme in their races. They all lost as well.
This hardly begins to scratch the surface, but I’m sure you get the point. I think that often the Tea Partier behaviour has been so over-the-top that people couldn’t quite believe these guys were serious. So while there was predictable outrage, a lot of the reaction also tended to be sarcastic and mocking. For instance, two female legislators in Michigan were gavelled down during a legislative session. One of them, Barb Byrum, had tried to introduce an amendment to a bill that would apply the same restrictions to vasectomies that were applied to abortions. The other, Lisa Brown, during debate on the same bill, had said, ‘I’m flattered that you’re all so concerned about my vagina. But no means no.’ The women were told the following day they were banned from speaking that day – presumably because they had used the words vasectomy and vagina!
Other women soon wanted in on the laughs. Some began lobbing ‘sarcasm bombs’ at the facebook pages of the more infamously anti-choice politicians. Here are a few particularly precious examples:
Still, it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt; and Tea Party policies were guaranteed to hurt. By the end of 2011 – the first year of the reign of the Tea Party – women (and rational men) had just about had it. One of the earliest national-level, grassroots responses was from a group called UniteWomen, founded in early 2012. In February, two Michigan women, friends Karen Teegarden and Desiree Jordan, were decrying the state of things and wishing someone would DO something already! As they spoke, to bed that night, Jordan created a facebook page: Organising Against the War on Women. By morning over 500 people had joined.
Soon they were working with women from around the country to organise protest rallies in every state. By April 28, their organisation – now called UniteWomen – had pulled together 55 rallies in 45 states. Considering that the rally had organised in only ten weeks with little money and no media support, it was nothing short of extraordinary to have covered so much of the country. The crowds were not huge in most states, but considering the paucity of media coverage, they were relatively healthy, with organisations reporting crowds of several hundred in most locations – even in population centres like Los Angeles, where about 300 people came.
The exception to this, and far and away the biggest crowd, was that of Austin, Texas, where an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 people showed up. Texas politicians might have felt somebody walking over their political graves that day. That state – where some of the worst assaults on women’s rights have been made – would be the place where the first big explosion would come. In June of this year, during a special session of the Texas legislature, a bill was introduced at the eleventh hour that would severely restrict abortion in the state. It combined several provisions that had failed to advance during the regular session of the legislature. If enacted, the bill would not only criminalise abortion after 20 weeks, it would also impose restrictions on Texas clinics (where basic health care is also offered) which would force 90% of them to close their doors.
Enter Wendy Davis and a lot of pissed off women.
Davis, a Democratic Senator from Fort Worth, rose to filibuster. She would have to stand and speak – on topic – without stopping, eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, or leaning on anything for as a long as it took to make the clock run out on the bill. That meant midnight of that same day – June 26, 2013.
Blond, slight and dressed in a white suit and neon pink running shoes, Davis began to speak. She kept at it for eleven hours despite attempts by Republicans to shut her down on technicalities. Eventually, not long before midnight, they managed to get her removed from the floor, stating that she had strayed from the topic by mentioning transvaginal ultrasounds – not part of the bill under consideration.
While spectators and Davis’ fellow Democrats erupted in protest, Republicans took advantage of the chaos, trying frantically to force through a vote before the midnight deadline. The vote was completed with an official timestamp of 12:02. The Texas Senate Website, however, reported that the final vote was completed just before midnight and the bill had passed. But with the gallery still packed and an estimated 180,000 people watching a livestream online, the fiction could only last so long. Senate leaders finally admitted that the bill was dead.
Republicans brought the bill back, however, in July – and this time some 5000 people showed up, with UniteWomen (which had continued to quietly, steadily organise since its first appearance on the scene) on the front lines. During debate, the gallery was again packed with both pro-choice and anti-abortion activists. The protests in the rotunda were so loud, state police were issued with earplugs. Troopers searched women before they entered the capitol, confiscating tampons. Thousands waited on the capitol grounds as the bill was debated again – and this time passed. Given the make-up of the legislature, it was probably inevitable. But in the meantime, thanks to Wendy Davis and a lot of Texas women and men, the state – and hopefully soon now the nation – had fully woken up. Midterm elections are approaching, and whatever happens next, it promises to be a thrilling ride. . . . . . . . . . . On Sinead O’Connor’s 1994 album Universal Mother there is a song called ‘Am I a Human?’ written by O’Connor’s then-10-year-old son, who also performs it. It is about twenty seconds long and consists mainly of the boy quietly singing to himself the question ‘Am I a human?’ and answering himself, ‘Maybe I am.’ As I have contemplated this state of affairs for a while now in the US, that song occasionally comes up on my internal playlist and stays there on a loop. I keep hearing that musing little voice: ‘Am I a human? Maybe I am…’ It is a question that can’t help but insinuate itself into your brain. Am I a human? As a female, am I a human? Well… maybe I am.
Because we mustn’t kid ourselves. This War on Women is about exactly that. It is about that terrible question men have asked themselves over the course of the ages, and that women have been forced to confront, in all its naked misogyny from the beginnings of Abrahamic culture in the West: are women human? Maybe they are. And if that seems like an overstatement, I would assert that the mere asking of the question, even implicitly (cows and pigs have to carry dead foetuses to term, after all), can change the climate of a culture for the worse. In evidence, let me just offer a few telling anecdotes.
Where George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, single mother Marissa Alexander was convicted and sentenced there for 20 years for simply discharging a firearm into the air in what she described as ‘warning shots’. The warning shots were to fend off her abusive ex-husband against whom she had a protection order. She invoked Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’, (which allows those who ‘feel threatened’ to use deadly force against a perceived attacker) but the jury rejected the reasoning, even though no one had been hurt, much less killed. Would she have been so convicted had she not been female, and an African-American female at that?
In June of this year, a jury in Bexar County, Texas, acquitted 30-yearold Ezekiel Gilbert of charges that he murdered a Lenora Ivie Frago, a 23-year-old Craigslist escort. Gilbert had admitted to shooting Frago in the neck on Christmas Eve 2009, when she accepted $150 from Gilbert and left his home without having sex with him. Gilbert’s defence argued that Gilbert’s actions were justified, because he believed that sex was included as part of the fee. Texas law allows people ‘to use deadly force to recover property during a nighttime theft.’ The jury agreed with this line of reasoning and set him free.
And finally, this summer, an ominous little phenomenon slithered into the light in Texas.
In two separate incidents recorded on dash cams, several hundred miles apart, Texas state troopers were caught on video doing vaginal and anal body cavity searches on women who had been stopped for routine traffic violations. The searches were carried out at the side of the road, in full view of passing motorists. In both incidents, the women were eventually let go with no citations of any kind. The victims in these assaults are now suing the state. While this kind of violation – of laws, of bodies, of human decency – has been seen in a number of states in the past few years; in Texas, it appears to be something of a policy, at least, an informal one. These all may seem to be unrelated incidents, but connect the dots. They all intersect at the point where females are routinely and systematically dehumanised.
Women are livestock, women are property, women are breeders and ‘baby mamas’. Why shouldn’t they be denied the right to defend themselves? Why shouldn’t they be shot for absconding with their privates when said privates have been duly purchased? Why shouldn’t the law just stick its fingers up those privates looking for drugs (or whatever), just any old time? Why not, if we’re not even sure those bodies are fully human? The persistence of this question after thousands of years can be a soulcrushing thing when you contemplate it clearly enough. But it can also be looked at in a new, perhaps more hopeful way. We can, of course, look at the current War on Women as a ferocious reassertion of the status quo of misogyny and violence after a few anomalous decades. But we can also look at it as an extinction phenomenon, as the last toxic wheezings and clatterings of patriarchy’s death rattle, as it senses its end approaching. That is my fervent hope. Either way, though, the course forward is the same.
We cannot fail to assert, to demand, to expect our full humanity, including the full autonomy and control of the bodies WE own. It is ours. No matter how it is resisted, we have to claim it. Am I a human? The only possible answer must be to roar back in concert with Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Shear and countless others, both known and unknown, until the bleatings of the Terry Englands of this world are drowned out and they slink away in shame. The only possible answer to that ancient, insulting, eviscerating question is simply: YES!