I was born in the early eighties into a family with a mother who worked in an office, one grandmother who was the vice-president of a local bank, and another grandmother who was responsible for the bookkeeping and all money matters for her church. Our houses were filled with books, and you were generally more likely to walk into a room of people reading than of people watching television. Abortions and hormonal birth control have been legal all of my life. That a woman should have professional responsibilities outside of the home, that she should have control over the reproductive functions of her body, that she should read whatever struck her fancy, were all such normal, self-evident ideas that it didn't occur to me even to think about them until I was somewhere in my teens. And I can honestly say that I have never thought that my femaleness--its very fact alone--has ever been a cause for others to dislike me or behave condescendingly toward me or form any opinions about me at all. Until now.
I am not naive enough to think that this experience was universal for women my age, or even for those born a little later, a little more solidly into the post-Roe-v.-Wade era. And I know that the fight for women's equality--in popular culture, in politics, in the job sphere--have been going on all my life. And once I started to emerge a bit from the shelter of family life, I certainly saw it. But suddenly I feel it. Suddenly I feel like there are people out there who will think a certain way about me because I am a woman, and not because they have met me, or read what I've had to say, and come to a thinking conclusion. And some of those people appear to be the same people who think they ought to be the President of the United States. The president. The face of the nation. The singular embodiment of our country and the democratic ideals for which it stands. When Rush Limbaugh called an accomplished, intelligent young woman a slut before a national audience because he didn't like her politics, Mitt Romney, one of the forerunners for the Republican nomination for president, responded to the incident by saying that Limbaugh's words "were not the language [he] would have used." That Limbaugh would say something so distasteful, nasty, controversial, and off-point does not surprise me in the least. That so many people are trying to defend his statement, that a potential presidential candidate would so obviously fail to condemn it, saddens me, frightens me, and, frankly, makes me feel like shit.
And this is what I thought we had moved past as a society, this putting down of women, this shaming of women through their sexuality, this infantilizing of women, consciously or unconsciously, solely because they are women. That there is work still to be done in our culture if we want men and women truly to stand on equal ground, I have always known. But certain entrenched attitudes which reveal themselves in language, in jokes, in "glass ceilings," cannot help but take time to work themselves out, and while I don't like these things, I rarely see any maleficence, any nastiness, in them. They are unfortunate, and have great potential to harm, and should be worked against. But unintentional, culturally ingrained misogyny, while destructive and potentially insidious, is a far cry from hateful, shaming speech; from denial of access to health care; from removal of autonomy over one's body.
At first I thought that the nastiness of Limbaugh's invective was just an isolated incident--something that was exacerbated by the Republican Primaries and was blown out of proportion by the real (potentially not-nasty) concerns that some have over the question of whether birth control should be required to be covered by health insurance plans. But since the Limbaugh storm, it seems that every day I read about some similar (if not quite so shockingly blatant) attack on the strides women's equality has made. A new proposed bill in Arizona would allow employers to request to see women's prescriptions for contraceptives so they can determine whether women are using the pills for birth control or other medical reasons. Because of Arizona's employment laws, employers would be within their rights to fire women using the pill for contraception. Eat your heart out, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
But, the bill almost certainly won't pass, right? And there will always be some people whose beliefs are out of sync with prevailing national attitudes, right? Well, how about this New York Times article about the re-release of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which is touted as erotic? The article made me increasingly cranky the more I read. It suggests that the book is something to "pass around" in womenly spaces like exercise classes and school groups, that the book is teaching mothers how to be sexual again, that there is something slightly shameful in reading about sex, that more women may be reading erotica now because they can "hide" their reading on e-readers, that it has taken a book of this sort to get women reading. All these suggestions paint a picture of a culture that feels like something out of Marilyn French's The Women's Room. I don't know about you, but my world is not defined by a series of circles of women, I never stopped reading, and I don't need to pass around a dirty book in secret with my girlfriends to feel fulfilled at home with my husband. What is this, 1955?
All I can say is, "Push back." Don't let people get away with conflating their political views with misogyny. Don't let them treat you like children or some kind of second class citizen. If you start to feel shameful or dirty or bad because of what some people are saying, stamp those feelings out. There is no denying that being a woman will have some bearing on how your life unfolds and how others interact with you, but what you think, how you behave, are so much more important than what's between your legs. As for what you do with that, it's between you and, well, you. No government officials or media pundits need apply. And if you have a father or a grandfather or a brother or an uncle or a boyfriend or a husband or a son who has always treated you as a thinking, feeling, competent human being because it never occurred to them to treat you any other way, take a moment to give thanks for the positive influence they had on the person you have become.
The title for this blog post comes from The IT Crowd.