Women’s History Month: Repeating and re-enacting battles we’d hoped WERE history

The Women's Museum, Fair Park, Dallas, Texas &...Image via Wikipedia
The Women’s Museum, Fair Park, Dallas, Texas
“Milestones in Women’s History” exhibit

(I originally had this scheduled for a different day, but it works out well that I bumped it, as it’s appearing on the 100th International Women’s Day.)

March is Women’s History Month – a time to reflect on where we’ve been and consider where we go next. As the saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it…or may be forced by circumstances to re-fight battles they’d hoped were already resolved.

It’s been characterized as a “war on women” led by conservative forces, and just since the beginning of 2011, here are some of the shots that have been fired (edited from the original source to make some of the language less partisan, so as not to cloud the issues with that):

1) Proposed legislation would not only reduce women’s access to abortion care, it’s actually trying to redefine rape. After a major backlash, representatives promised to back off, but it’s still out there.

2) A state legislator in Georgia wants to change the legal term for victims of rape, stalking, and domestic violence to “accuser.” But victims of other less gendered crimes, like burglary, would remain “victims.”

3) In South Dakota, legislators proposed a bill that could make it legal to murder a doctor who provides abortion care.

4) Proposed legislation would cut nearly a billion dollars of food and other aid to low-income pregnant women, mothers, babies, and kids.

5) In Congress, a bill would let hospitals allow a woman to die rather than perform an abortion necessary to save her life.

6) In Maryland, all county money for a low-income kids’ preschool program was ended. Why? No need, they said. Women should really be home with the kids, not out working.

7) And at the federal level, some in Congress want to cut that same program, Head Start, by $1 billion. That means over 200,000 kids could lose their spots in preschool.

8) Two-thirds of the elderly poor are women, and conservatives are taking aim at them too. A spending bill would cut funding for employment services, meals, and housing for senior citizens.

9) Congress just voted for – and passed – an amendment to cut all federal funding from Planned Parenthood health centers, one of the most trusted providers of basic health care and family planning in our country.

10) And if that wasn’t enough, some in Congress are pushing to eliminate all funds for the only federal family planning program. (For humans. But Republican Dan Burton has a bill to provide contraception for wild horses.)

I’m not saying I like them, but I do understand some of the financial proposals. Government deficits are so out of control they’re almost incomprehensible, and there are only two ways to attack them: raising revenues (that is, tax increases) and cutting expenses. It takes both. Neither is popular. But some of the cost-cutting measures that have been proposed recently do seem particularly targeted against women, and motivated at least partially by social as well as fiscal conservatism.

One definition of “conservative” is “keeping things as they are” – that is, preservation of the status quo. By that definition, there are some actions on the list above that look like the polar opposite of “conservative” to me; they’re about radical change that would dismantle existing systems and reverse decades of social momentum – progress which, for the record, has often benefited both sexes.

Forty years after Roe v. Wade, much of the argument still comes back to the issue of abortion in one way or another. Continued limitations on availability of and access to abortion services effectively render the fact that they are still legal irrelevant – and won’t stop the practice anyway. Women who needed to terminate pregnancies before abortion was legal found ways to do it, regardless of the physical risks; if forced away from medically-safe, regulated services, they’ll take those risks again if they have to. Providers of those services are already risking their own lives in some places, and now they’re looking at a proposal that the loss of those lives could be brushed off with a “(s)he needed killin’” defense. And on the other side, women who do carry their pregnancies to term and bear children that they’re not in a position to support without help are seeing doors to that assistance closed. It makes me wonder if some people believe life is only worth protecting and providing for before it actually arrives in the world.

This is way beyond social conservatism, as I recently discussed with a couple of friends on Facebook:

Me: “I just don’t get all this. It’s a clear reminder that feminism’s battles aren’t over, but why do we have to keep going back and re-fighting the same ones?”

W: “I agree – we shouldn’t have to keep re-fighting the battles. But, unfortunately, there is a sector of our population who want to keep women “in their place.” They don’t want women to work outside the home, they want to strip them of any power they might have. It is mind-numbing.”

M: “This has me so upset. As one of my friends said, we’re becoming a developing country. It’s horrible.”

Me: “Re: the developing-country comment – this country is not a fundamentalist theocracy, and yet it seems there are people in power here who’d like to run it as if it were.”

In a February 2011 post on BlogHer.com, Gloria Feldt addressed the matter of “re-fighting old battles” and talked tactics:

“Clearly we need to heed history’s lessons. We’ve been here and done this so many times…You might feel outnumbered (though you are actually in the majority), or that you don’t have the money or mainstream media access to be effective. So you must use what you’ve got, and believe me when I tell you that the resources you need are always there if you can see them and have the courage to use them. You have ‘power tools:’

1. The power of your convictions. Let others know what you think. I found in my experience on the advocacy frontlines that the fastest way to grow your courage muscles is to use them to stand up for what you believe.

2. The power of your voice. Blog it, baby. When you blog on the topic, be sure to re-post on social media, but to multiply your power, send it to your members of Congress, state legislators, and your local media. Turn it into a letter-to-the-editor or use parts of it to comment on other blogs. Make your voice big. Do something and say something whenever you see something.

3. The power of your story. We all have stories. We need to share them, for they are a great source of power.

4. The power of the collective. Join with your blogging, tweeting, facebooking, tumblring sisters and like-minded brothers to create a citizen uprising of Egyptian magnitude.”

I surf the third wave. I’m old enough to be aware of what second-wave feminists worked for in challenging social and legal barriers – socially-prescribed domestic roles, sex-segregated jobs, unfavorable property laws (although I wasn’t aware of the term “second-wave feminist” till years later) – and young enough to share in some of their gains without actually having been part of that wave. But their record after twenty years was mixed, and it’s remained clear to me that feminism still has plenty of challenges to tackle. That’s one reason that re-fighting the old battles is so frustrating to me – but if we don’t want to see history reversed and repeated, re-enacting some of that history may be necessary.

This new “war on women” has firmed up my resolve to repeat a small part of my own history: I will re-read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale this year! I didn’t view this classic dystopian feminist thriller as science/speculative fiction 20+ years ago, back in the days of the Moral Majority – and I still don’t. I always felt that what made it scary was that I could imagine it happening. It’s still (regrettably) timely, and the oppression Atwood depicts still feels all too plausible. And if I read about it, I’ll blog about it; this is my place to document my own history, share my stories, and mark my own tiny place in the larger narrative of women’s history.

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