What really lies behind the “war on women”

Posted on May 25, 2012

Op Ed News, May 25, 2012 by Naomi Wolf

Are women suddenly running rampant in the streets by the millions, threatening society in unexpected ways?

You would surely think so by looking at the pattern that is visible across the nation: state by state, a well-funded legislative war on women is being unleashed. Many of these new proposed bills, or recently passed state laws, attack in novel ways women’s rights to ownership of their bodies and their basic life choices, which second-wave feminists thought long won.

Planned Parenthood appears to be target No 1: Maine, Texas, Arizona, Ohio, Tennessee, Indiana, North Carolina and Kansas have all either had bills to defund Planned Parenthood successfully passed or else bills introduced to begin the process of defunding.

Target No 2 is abortion rights. Since 2011, 92 new laws against abortion took effect, in 11 states: some states, such as Tennessee, are passing creative new restrictions on abortion rights. On 12 April, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed a new law banning abortions later than 18 weeks after fertilization, and imposing new regulations making abortion more difficult to obtain.

Other bills impose waiting periods for women after they have sought medical help — so that they are forced to “think it over” in a manner, and for a period, mandated by the state. A law in Utah requires women to wait 72 hours after receiving medical counselling, for instance, before having an abortion. A similar law is passed in South Dakota.

Finally, some bills — in a way that defies the US constitution — limit or criminalize certain kinds of speech to pregnant women: a law in Kansas would allow medical professionals to refuse giving abortion-seeking women information about clinics and doctors.

But women who want abortions aren’t just facing a closing window of time to get the procedure done, or a mandated wait to extend an already agonizing decision period, or a longer journey to find an abortion provider. They and their medical teams are also increasingly likely to risk facing criminal charges — or even violence. A bill that was under consideration in South Dakota last year would have recast killing an abortion provider as “justifiable homicide.” It was later shelved.

What is this flurry of legislation about? Is it about the sanctity of life?

I would love to believe that — and some grassroots opposition to abortion rights does, indeed, I have argued elsewhere, arise from a genuinely feminist perspective on social conditions that treat women as disposable sexual objects, and women’s fertility as without value, or as an inconvenience to a consumer sexual culture; and these give desperate pregnant women no options at all except termination. Feminists for Life is an organization that I respect a great deal — though I don’t agree with their policy goals — for creating a seamless pro-life feminist analysis of this kind.

But the groups and representatives that are wallpapering state legislatures with identikit legislation to penalize women’s sexual and reproductive rights are the same bloc that gleefully kill food stamp programs used by the same desperate women if they choose to bear the child. This is the same constituency that happily supports sending moms of small children who are in the military into harm’s way in corporate wars of choice. So what is this push deriving from?

I had an “Aha” moment recently in Oxford. I was speaking about the British Contagious Diseases Acts — legislation passed in the 1860s that caused thousands of women be arrested and locked up for up to eight months at a time for looking as if they might have had sex. A graduate student asked me, perceptively, if I had looked at this issue in relation to issues of empire at that time, and another student noted in response that imperial British forces had, at around the same time, set up a complex and expansive equivalent of “lock hospitals” to incarcerate and manage prostitutes in colonised regions.

It was a moment of realisation for me because, indeed, that is what empire does; and that is what empire is doing now: systems of control are practiced and, in a sense, perfected “elsewhere” on “the other”; and then, they are too temptingly effective to gatekeepers not to bring them home to use, at length, on their own populations.

Some have argued that this present “war on women” is a war against progressivism — or a war against feminism, in particular. I would say, looking at the big picture, that it is more serious than that — not that those options are not plenty serious enough. I would say that the call for transvaginal probes, for gagging medical providers, for sending the state to shake a finger for an extra 72 hours at a distressed woman and stand between her and the discussion she is having with her inner-most and private conscience, is all part of the larger crackdown we see on privacy, private space, freedom and personal choice.

It is on the same spectrum of control: the will to gag Bradley Manning or Julian Assange also seek to gag a medical provider in South Dakota. The same impulse to peer into personal emails and listen to private phone calls that has led the NSA to pour billions into surveillance stations in Utah, is the same impulse of panopticon state control that wants to get between the sheets of men and women in consensual sexual decision-making, and monitor or restrict their access to condoms and contraception. And it is the same Big Brother impulse for control that maintains that what a woman does with her own care-provider is a function of state management.

In other words, women have always had their sexuality managed, surveilled, and controlled by governments; this has been called “gender.” I have said here before that getting granular with people’s sexual privacy is one of the standard forms of traumatizing state control which closing societies reach for.

But in fact, the bigger crackdown shows us that it is merely the genderized manifestation of state control. This impulse to mediate and regulate personal choices has been inflamed, I would argue, not by women being particularly uppity — but by people being uppity. The awakening of protesting and demanding behavior of Occupy communities and of Ron Paul supporters, of the unions in Wisconsin, and the students in Montreal, and the rebellious Greeks in Athens, has made the gatekeepers seek every kind of method of control available to them.

So, identical bills have been proposed in Albany, New York to criminalize anonymous postings online — to “protect business people and government officials” from criticism.  And the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act has language legalizing the directing of propaganda at United States citizens. And so on.

Dusting off the same old panoply of woman- and sex-controlling initiatives — with updated and technological twists — is simply a useful extension of the general arsenal of control whose purpose is to manage and subdue what is generally an increasingly insubordinate population. We can see this backlash through a feminist lens. But we miss an important insight if we restrict our vision to the feminist lens alone.