Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Women's Issues" and the Conservative "Woman Problem"

By Mary C. Tillotson

Can we do it all?
Joy opened a really interesting conversation last week about whether women and men should be addressed differently. She linked to a Forbes article by Sabrina Schaeffer noting “the odd contradiction that liberals proclaim men and women are essentially the same but target women as women aggressively … and conservatives typically will say men and women are different, but are reluctant to target women as a special interest group.” (Joy’s words.) I want to talk more specifically about the conservative “woman problem.”

“Women’s issues,” it seems, revolve around our childbearing capacity: abortion, contraception, flexible work hours. The so-called “war on women” initially rose over contraception (or, more specifically, the government requiring people to provide contraception free and ignoring their constitutionally-guaranteed religious freedom). It was further fueled by some stupid comments (“legitimate rape,” anyone?) that got more attention than they were worth. When it comes down to it, if we didn’t have wombs, there would be no such thing as “women’s issues.”

This makes sense: pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing affect men and women in entirely different ways. But certain life decisions can mitigate or exacerbate that difference. Raising children is a long-term commitment. With a one-night stand or an uncommitted relationship, a woman risks being pregnant and alone. Her life is drastically changed as she tries to find money and time to provide for this kid’s needs from diapers to drama club to drivers’ ed – all by herself. Her partner might make child support payments. He might stick around for a few years. He certainly hasn’t committed his whole life. In marriage, a woman still carries the child in her womb, but her husband helps paint the nursery, change the diapers, discipline, check homework, drive to basketball practice, pay for college. His life is drastically changed, too.

The needs of women vary based on the life decisions they make. In a context where everyone has license to hook up whenever they want, women’s needs are much different from men’s – because women can get pregnant. In a context where men and women wait for lifelong commitments from mature and faithful partners before taking their pants off, women’s needs aren’t a whole lot different from men’s – even though women can get pregnant. Many conservatives see strong families at the root of their policy views; this naturally affects how they view women’s needs. The case that women “need” abortion and contraception weakens substantially in the context of strong families.

I’m expecting an objection here: “are you saying that women are so weak and pathetic that we need men to take care of us?” Stop and think for a minute about the magnitude of bringing another human being into the world. Dealing with young children requires a kind of emotional finesse; all the moms I know tell me that pregnancy is difficult even when it goes swimmingly. Let’s say a man had a good reason to run 10 miles every day, and after a few months he started feeling like maybe eight hours in the office every day was more than he could handle. You cannot argue that he is weak and pathetic. He is doing something that takes a ridiculous amount of strength and energy, and at the end of the day he is, understandably and legitimately, tired. I can’t see how pregnancy would be a whole lot different, except that I can think of a good reason to be pregnant.

Back to the main thread. I wholeheartedly agree that conservatives need to figure out how to talk to women and about “women’s issues” without being stupid about it. It’s unreasonable to expect a major shift in the sex habits of the average American any time soon. I had thought about making a case for human dignity; this might at least keep abortion clinics up to normal health standards, or encourage teenage girls to be assertive enough to say “no” to sexual encounters and abortions if they don’t actually want them, or get us thinking about the difference between “gross” and “net” on our paychecks and maybe wanting that difference in our purses. But I’m skeptical how effective a “human dignity” case could be among women who unashamedly hold signs like “pussy power” and “hoes before embryos” or dress up like female genitalia.

(Note: I am not blaming women for rape. No means no, period. The Guttmacher study I linked to shows that a significant number of women and girls, especially teenagers and preteens, consent to sexual activity they don't actually want. I suspect these women and girls would be happier if they had learned to be assertive and say "no.")

In the 20th century, especially since FDR and his New Deal, many Americans have taken a let-the-government-solve-the-problem approach, whether it’s poverty or bad education or natural disasters. We look to the government to alleviate our suffering; it’s natural to expect it to step in and help victimized women. Maybe we could start by reminding women that womanhood as such isn’t victimizing, and that women shouldn’t have to depend on the government. Dana Loesch made a good point that “modern-day feminism is all about disempowering women and making them feel like they can’t survive without the government’s assistance.” (Watch the whole clip, starting at about 8:30.)

A college friend of mine, Betsy Woodruff, made a similar point in her review of the TV show Girls. She writes: “You’d think the feminist elevation of agency would result in women who take pride in being responsible for their own bodies. You’d hope that telling women that they can do whatever they want would imply that they’re responsible for what they do. You’d think serious feminists would argue that true empowerment is something you lay claim to, not something the federal government dispenses in all its benevolence.”

I don’t have all the answers, but I suspect this is a good place to start. Readers, what are your thoughts?

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