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Guest Post: Why I Don’t Like the Phrase “The War on Women”

Written by scATX. Originally published at scATX: Speaker’s Corner in the ATX. Cross-posted with permission.

In a chat with Garland Grey that was published at Tiger Beatdown this week, I wrote the following about the phrase “The War on Women”:

“I feel that even the idea that intersectionality dilutes our message is false and plays into conservative beliefs about how the world works. When we use the language of “war on women” because it is politically expedient in talking to conservatives about these issues at the expense of denying the existence and struggle of trans* and non-binary people, what social justice activism are we actually doing? And why are we watering down the reality and lived experience of other people in order to make conservatives feel more comfortable in this conversation? I can’t get behind the “War on Women” because that is simply too narrow a term for who is actually being affected.”

This is only one of the reasons I dislike “war on women.”

After chatting with The Opinioness on Twitter about this phrase earlier this week and how much I don’t like it, I felt like I needed to finally write down somewhere all my many thoughts about this. (All of these feelings were heightened just last weekend because of the many rallies across the US under the title “The War on Women.” I attended the one here in Austin.)

There are three main points:

  1. WOW is cissexist and erases the lived realities of plenty of people.
  2. WOW flattens all people affected by anti-choice measures into a single, equal category despite HUGE differences in how the so-called WOW affects people based on race, class, etc.
  3. WOW makes this seem like this is an issue that is just about the ladies.

____________________________

Let’s start from the top: WOW is cissexist and erases the lived realities of plenty of people. (Not sure what I mean when I write “cis”? Melissa Harris-Perry in the embedded video at this link explains it)

I’m going to borrow the words of the ever-brilliant Jos Truitt who wrote a post at Feministing in March titled, “The ways of talking about the ‘war on women’ that leave people out“:

“Feminist writers and activists have the best of intentions. I’m sure of that. It’s just that if you talk like this you erase whole groups of people who are on your side. Who are personally impacted. Who are actively engaged in this fight. But who feel just a little bit more unwanted, a little bit more pushed out every time we hear language that suggests we don’t exist.”

“The anti-choicers are absolutely deploying gender essentialism. We don’t have to respond on their terms, though. (unless we, like, really really want to lose. Cause that’s what happens if we let our opponents determine the terms of the debate.)”

THIS should be enough of a reason to not use the phrase. If it’s not, here is whatfreshhellisthis on Tumblr (at prolongedeyecontact’s site):

“Cis women are not being specifically targeted by the anti-choice, anti-reproductive rights lobby.

“For cis women to be specifically targeted by the anti-choice lobby, they would have to allow that non-cis men, non-men and non-cis women exist.

“And. they. do. not.

“You seem to think that in this shoot-out you’re being aimed at, and we’re just being hit coincidentally.

“That is not what’s happening.

“What is happening is that they are aiming at all of us but only calling us by your name.

“They are only allowing for your existence, assimilating us into you because of our biology.”

They are actively denying our existence by simply calling us you.

They “are simply calling us you.” The “war on women” is participating in this erasure of actual human beings and I refuse to be a part of that. This alone has caused me to drop ALL language that makes reproductive rights solely about women (and it’s been a long source of contention on my reproductive rights blog, Keep Your Boehner Out of My Uterus – I get more shit for inclusive language from people inside the reproductive rights movement than everything combined that I get from anti-choicers, though conflict over inclusive language has fallen off dramatically in the last few months. But I would guess I have written at least one hundred posts about this on KYBOOMU.)

____________________________
Point, the second: WOW flattens all people affected by anti-choice measures into a single, equal category despite HUGE differences in how the so-called WOW affects people based on race, class, etc.

The truth is that the war on reproductive rights does not affect all people in the same wayAs Nancy Folbre says, “The women most directly affected are those with the weakest political voice and the lowest discretionary income. [...] Women in low-income families have long been more likely than others to experience unplanned pregnancies, abortions or unplanned births. They, more than anyone, know that legal rights can be undermined by economic realities.” But this is not even just about low-income or poor people.

At a panel I went to recently about the rollbacks of reproductive rights in Texas, Dr. Christen Smith started her short talk on intersectionality by saying, “The ‘war on women’ is a war on women of color.” If you take five minutes to Google this, you will find many, many words by many, many women of color who address the unequal impact of the war against reproductive rights:

Loretta Ross of SisterSong:

“Reproductive justice is in essence an intersectional theory emerging from the experiences of women of color whose multiple communities experience a complex set of reproductive oppressions. It is based on the understanding that the impacts of race, class, gender and sexual identity oppressions are not additive but integrative, producing this paradigm of intersectionality. For each individual and each community, the effects will be different, but they share some of the basic characteristics of intersectionality – universality, simultaneity and interdependence.”

One of my most favorite pieces in the entire blogosphere, Shark-fu’s “The battlehymn of an dangerous black woman…

“Let’s talk about black babies born to black mothers who are shackled during labor.

“Let’s talk about the removal of comprehensive sex education from our schools and how our young people enter adulthood with the abstinence only advice to put a quarter between their legs and squeeze.

“Let’s talk about how the debate over life ends at birth…about the young women I’ve met who chose to have a baby only to find that the same people praising them for that decision won’t hire them, don’t want them moving into their neighborhood, will one day grab their handbag and lock their car door when that black baby becomes a black man who walks by them on the sidewalk.”

The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health exists for this very reason:

“Latinas face a unique and complex array of reproductive health and rights issues that are exacerbated by poverty, gender, racial and ethnic discrimination and xenophobia. These circumstances make it especially difficult for Latinas to access reproductive health care services, including the full range of available reproductive health technologies and abortion services. We believe that in order to substantially improve the reproductive health of Latinas and protect their rights to exercise reproductive freedom, NLIRH must locate reproductive health and rights issues within a broader social justice framework that seeks to bring an end to poverty and discrimination and affirms human dignity and the right to self-determination.”

It was VERY telling that after last weekend’s WOW rallies, there were plenty of black women who felt like women of color and issues of race were not included or acknowledged at the rallies. Two examples:

_____________________________
Final point: WOW makes this SEEM like this is an issue that is just about the ladies.

Using a phrase like “the war on women” puts these issues rhetorically in an arena that is not part of the NORMAL (read: male) political discourse (like the economy and oil and chest hair, or whatever it is that cis men care about politically). Cis men who join the fight for reproductive rights are cheered for taking time out of their political agendas full of non-lady issues to spend a day marching for the ladies and their vaginas and uteri. Yet the rollbacks to reproductive rights are hurting us all, all the time.

My friend Melissa McEwan has written so eloquently about leaving reproductive rights work to women alone (you should seriously go read the entire thing):

“This is the hard truth for progressive men who care about reproductive rights: When you leave the public fight to others, you’re leaving it mostly to women.

“I’ll give you a moment to contemplate the many ways in which treating the feminist/womanist fight for reproductive rights as “woman’s work” is some fucked-up irony, right there.

*a moment*

“Now here’s the other thing about leaving the reproductive rights fight to the ladies: Misogynists don’t respect women. They don’t listen to women; they won’t acknowledge a woman’s authority on her own lived experiences; they’re not going to learn anything from women, and certainly not feminist/womanist women.

“Misogynist anti-choicers who believe women to be less than need to hear that they’re terribly, infuriatingly, and demonstrably wrong from men. Publicly. Passionately. As loud as the loud, so very loud, voices on the other side. One of the ways their self-reassuring bullshit works is via the effective void of male dissension, which supports their erroneous belief that they are the “objective” arbiters of womanhood.

“They count on feminist men never showing up en masse for the main event.

“They count on the Democratic Party being too squeamish, too spineless, too unprincipled, too apathetic to stand up for reproductive rights, unyieldingly.

“They count on reproductive rights being the first bargaining chip on the table.

“They count on the still almost entirely male leadership of the Democratic Party and the vast number of male Democratic partisans giving themselves permission to not get publicly involved, or to get publicly involved only when it’s convenient and not all that risky and not all that hard.

“They count on men trading on that privilege of not having to get involved.

“They count on Democratic partisans being more interested in hectoring dispossessed progressive women than in being their allies and fighting this fight alongside them, every day.

“They count on reproductive rights being treated as Woman’s Work, and thus being devalued as woman’s work inevitably is.

“They are trying to overwhelm and demoralize the (mostly) women to whom this work is being left.

“If the Democratic Party wants to retain its alliance with women, they’d better send reinforcements. And soon.”

Of course, the reality here is that the fight over reproductive rights has big legal and cultural ramifications that go beyond just women. Two examples:

1) Let’s talk slippery slope. What I wrote on KYBOOMU about forced ultrasound laws:

“Even if IN PRACTICE every doctor in the entire world demanded that a person get an abdominal ultrasound before getting an abortion, that is categorically and importantly different than the state FORCING every doctor do an abdominal ultrasound.

“This is about the state removing your ability – your right – to consent to one medical procedure in order to fully consent to another.

“In your example, you actually do LEGALLY have a say about the ultrasound before the hysterectomy, even if it doesn’t seem that way in practice. You give your consent for your doctor to do that procedure AND then you, again, give your doctor consent to do the hysterectomy.

“If the state, instead, passed a law saying that anytime someone gets a hysterectomy, their doctor MUST NO MATTER WHAT do an ultrasound, you are not able then legally to consent to the ultrasound, only the hysterectomy. I’m not sure how else to say that.

“This is not necessarily about what happens in practice (though it will matter when a doctor is forced to do something they don’t think is medically necessary) but rather what – legally – politicians are taking away from people who are seeking abortions. They are targeting a specific group of people to remove their right to give consent, even if that right may seem, on paper, to be limited. If we want to talk slippery slope, here it is.”

For Republicans who are screaming their faces off about the government getting in between them and their doctors, HERE IT IS. Not being able to give consent because the government has legislated forced medical procedures: It’s ALREADY happening but only to a select group of people. And there are some federal courts (oh, Texas) that are saying THIS IS OKAY legally. Yes, this battle is taking place in the uteruses and across the abdomens of pregnant people but the idea or the theory of ripping away consent in this way is something that should terrify everyone.

2) As Katha Pollitt put this week: “limiting women’s access to birth control and abortion is not “culture war” theater, and it is not just a “social issue” either. It’s an economic issue.” As Reel Girl articulates so nicely:

“To all of those pro-choice Republicans who plan to vote for one of these men because you want to just “focus on the economy” this election, if you refer to yourself as “fiscally conservative but socially liberal:” That division makes no sense when it comes to women’s lives. Choice isn’t “just one issue” and it isn’t one choice.

“Reproductive rights mean that women have the choice to graduate from college, the choice to borrow money to start a business, the choice to get a good job with a fair wage, the choice not live in poverty and keep their kids out of poverty. Choice means that women get to be autonomous citizens, just like men do, with the power to determine their own destinies.”

And if you think that you can separate out the economy of half the population from the OVERALL economy, you are wrong. That’s it. Just wrong. You want to talk economy? You NEED to be talking about reproductive rights, full stop.

____________________________

So, why don’t I like the phrase “the war on women”?

This war is greater than just cis women. This war is not fought against all women/people equally. This war is actually about all of us.

This is a war on reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, consent, the poor, people of color: ALL issues that are human rights. 

I’d like to leave you with the words of my friend, Dr. Sarah Jackson, who did speak at last weekend at Boston’s WOW rally and she chose to address the issue of intersectionality in the movement. I wish I could have been there to hear this live:

“To quote bell hooks, “Being oppressed means the absence of choices.” Thus, for gender equity to be achieved we must recognize the way that women’s intersectional identities—not just their gender but their class, race, sexuality and other social identities— impact their experiences in our country. A few examples:

“In addition to the recent highly-publicized attacks on reproductive rights there are also ongoing attacks civil rights at the national level. In the first six months of 2011, states enacted 162 new provisions restricting reproductive health and rights. Many of these laws and regulations are about how abortions are paid for, limiting Medicaid, insurance exchanges, and other funding sources. Such limitations hit women of color and low-income women the hardest. At the same time many states have also recently passed voter ID laws, have enacted draconian immigration policies that effectively legalize racial profiling, and actively perpetuate the criminal justice policies that have led to what many consider apartheid in the U.S. prison system. While the national discussion on gender equity often focuses on reproductive rights and equal pay, it is equally important for us to talk about how these other policies disenfranchise women. [...]

“Poor women, working-class women, Latinas, Asian American women, Native American women (who by the way according to the U.S. Department of Justice are victims of sexual assault at 3.5 times a higher rate than other racial groups), African American women, Arab American women, Lesbians, Trans Women, young women, old women, middle aged women, women who want children and women who don’t ever want children, women who are mentally ill, able-bodied women and differently-abled women, women who have been victims of sexual and domestic violence and women who we hope never will be. We must include all these women in our work. When we talk about women’s rights we must also be willing to talk about the many women who are incarcerated in America, the women who our society constructs as criminal, many of who are women of color, immigrants, and low income. We must be willing to address the link between the human rights actively being denied them and the women’s movement generally.

At the end of the day this is not and should not be just about women, it is about human rights.”

[P.S. I understand that WOW is short, clean, politically expedient. I don’t care. No, I don’t have the perfect phrase to insert in its place that magically fixes these problems I have with WOW. I personally just say “war on reproductive rights” or “war on choice.” If you have suggestions of your own, please leave them in comments.]

[Update: Melissa McEwan wrote this in response: "I personally like "war on agency," because, even where there is an ostensible choice about another person's body (reproductive or otherwise), they still fancy themselves in the best position to make it. They don't trust marginalized people to know our own selves, needs, desires. Repro rights, SRS, same-sex marriage...it's all the same, as they try to coerce people into conformity to an arbitrary norm even if laws allow options. They hate agency. It terrifies them."]


scATX is a liberal Texan, historian, mother, and twitterphile. She is a pro-choice advocate who runs the reproductive rights blog, Keep Your Boehner Out of My Uterus. You can find her personal blog at scATX: Speaker’s Corner in the ATX.

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2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Why I Don’t Like the Phrase “The War on Women”

  1. Pingback: The GOP War Is A War On Everyone « Matrifocal Point

  2. Awesome post! This is why many feminist, especially feminist of color (like myself) prefer to work under the umbrella of reproductive justice both on the local and global level, it inclusive of not only many different communities but connects (and demonstrates) the ways in which reproduction is connected to a number of activities other than gestation (the environment, economic justice, global human rights, structural justice) to name a few.

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