The Sexism Is Everywhere, But Handling Hillary Clinton With Kid Gloves Isn’t Feminist; It’s Sexist

No woman in the public eye symbolizes the tremendous change in opportunities for women more than Hillary Clinton. It is not in spite of this, but because of this, that she inspires passion and deep ambivalence. People love her, or people hate her. The media reports on and questions her style as if the entire credibility of constitutional democracy might rest on her cleavage, her hair, her pantsuits, her scrunchies, and now, her logo.

On substance, feminists are frequently told to judge her by the sexual mores of the man she married. Someone has yet to credibly explain how judging a woman by the actions of her partner, rather than her own actions, is feminist.

In the 2008 elections, the Democratic Party failed to treat Hillary with the respect she deserved. She was surrounded with calls to get out of the race while she was still ahead in the primary.

As one of my mentors, Olga Vives, argued with passion, even during her final days on a sick bed, the women’s movement failed to recognize the extraordinary transformative power of a woman candidate for president, and failed to stand behind Hillary during a grueling primary.

I was, with Olga, active in the National Organization for Women then. It was a contentious time.

Some women’s organizations bestowed endorsements on Obama early in the race, when their memberships were still divided on whether to support Obama or Hillary; others endorsed her, but didn’t challenge the blatant sexism of the Democratic Party pushing her out too soon.

In this vacuum, some of those women’s advocates left standing for Hillary went to ugly places. Some refused to accept Obama as a legitimate candidate, and one who earnestly continues to champion advancements for women, especially in the areas of pay equity and sexual assault; others embraced the racist strategies to defeat him deployed by the right.

One of the strangest strains was a vocal group that proclaimed Sarah Palin was both a feminist (wow, no) and the right candidate to assume the vice presidency (oh my goodness, considering what might have happened really could give a woman the vapors).

This climate presented a difficult slate of options for those of us who were ready for Hillary the first time. She was treated with horrific, condescending, get-out-of-the-way sexism by her own party, and yet the most vocal response to that was a fantasy-land embrace of Sarah Palin, an emotional reaction that amounted to gender essentialism and overlooked the antifeminist platform of her platform, party, and ticket.

My response was simply to get behind Obama, cry when Hillary spoke at the convention, and lose faith that women’s organizations will do the right thing simply because they are women’s organizations — and that the Democratic Party, its leadership, and the progressive movement should be trusted to handle feminist affairs with the current infrastructure charged with holding them accountable.

Which brings me to today.

The problem is that this time around, the treatment of Hillary from within also bears shades of sexism, albeit in a different way. It’s as if to atone for what happened, now the new rule is that Democrats are not allowed to criticize or question Hillary’s positions. Any of them. Even before the general election. Or you, yes you, are failing feminism and perhaps our one and only chance to see a woman president in our lifetimes.

This is not how politics works. Politics, and particularly primary season, is supposed to involve a robust debate of the issues and honing of positions on matters vital to the community.

There is an inherent sexism in the idea that, this time around, Hillary must be handled with kid gloves. If a woman is running for president with the blessing of the big dogs, why must we sit in the back of the classroom and raise our hands and wait to be called on?

There was sexism coming from the establishment in the past, too, in the idea that it wasn’t Hillary’s turn, that something was wrong with her “likability,” when she was a competitive candidate in 2008.

Just as there is sexism in the frame that only women can credibly challenge Hillary today. Why must Hillary play in a women’s league?

This piece is happening on both sides of the aisle.

The calls to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are interesting, because by dint of her actions, principles, and resolve, Warren symbolizes the progressive movement better than any other one candidate. But I’d also like to challenge these calls a bit from a gender lens.

First, it’s the simple matter men dominate everything, including the infrastructural leadership of the progressive movement, and even with Warren’s qualifications, it’s a bit fishy that the official energy backed by money and power has coalesced around her and no other alternative; that a woman is expected to challenge a woman from the left.

Second, some of us may remember when Jessica Williams asked her “feminist” critics on Twitter to lean the fuck away from her after she indicated she was not interested in taking over as host of The Daily Show. There’s an element of that here, although it’s nuanced.

On one hand, Elizabeth Warren has said repeatedly that she is not running for president — and the activists continue to beat the drum. On the other hand, this is sort of how politics work — the song and dance of being asked to run by the grassroots. Still, one is left with a discomfiting sense that were Warren a man, her word might be taken at her word by large progressive organizations like MoveOn.

On the Republican side, Carly Fiorina is expected to run for president, or at least make a great deal of noise. No one expects her to become president — she couldn’t even win a Senate election. So what exactly is she running for, and why is she getting so much space to air her views in presidential fora on the right?

Simple. She is running against Hillary’s campaign on behalf of the real candidates for the Republican Party — just like Jackie Sharp on House of Cards. It’s insulting to Fiorina, and it’s insulting to Hillary. It’s also insulting that the men of the Republican Party who are credible contenders are delegating the women’s work of taking down a woman named Hillary Clinton who steps out of the boundaries of traditional womanhood.

The coming election will bring with it a bevy of sexist attacks; and feminists must call them out and demand a change in culture, no matter where we stand on Hillary and her priorities. But feminists and everyone must also be free to question Hillary and examine her policy proposals as we move forward; it’s frankly sexist to silence ourselves in pursuit of elevating one woman to the top.

Advertisements

Celebrating Fewer Abortions Is Not The Path To Reproductive Justice

“We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.” – President Barack Obama

Last night the president used the “A” word — meaning abortion — in his State of the Union address. His message was, in typical Obama style, meant to appeal to everyone — conservatives, liberals, anti-choice, pro-choice. Judging by Twitter, many reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates cheered.

Some of the most famous advocates edited out what he said about abortion, and kept on running:

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 10.15.57 PM

The problem is that what he said actually sucked.

By saying “surely we can agree it’s a good thing that … abortions are nearing all-time lows,” the president served up a wallop of abortion stigma. In essence he said it’s a good thing to have fewer abortions. This implies that those women who keep on having abortions anyway are doing something wrong. And that, my friends, is not good.

It’s a good thing every time a woman is able to safely end a pregnancy she wants or needs to end. Of course it’s a good thing every time a woman avoids an unintended pregnancy.

It’s a leap to say it’s a good thing when there are fewer abortions — that does not strictly mean that women are able to access the abortions they want or need, and that more women are avoiding unintended pregnancy.

It is possible to talk about the abortion rate dropping without stigmatizing abortion (which implies, in some ways, that maybe restrictions on abortions aren’t so bad). The way to do that is to present the facts without value judgement.

Good women have abortions, and bad women have abortions, and for that matter transgender men have abortions, and in all cases their abortions are neither good nor bad. They are simply the facts of their lives.

In any case we don’t all need to agree on a woman’ s personal life, and the frame that we should — that a woman’s life is up for the inspection and agreement of the group — is ridiculous and sexist in big, blinking lights.

So long as we expect the Democratic Party and their associated elected officials to provide leadership on reproductive issues, leadership on reproductive issues is going to sound like saying there is something wrong with abortion while at the same time calling for access to reproductive health care.

That’s a mixed message, and a losing one. We can do better.

My Morning With The Morning After Pill

You can be a good person, you can be responsible and you can still find yourself, without warning, in an uncomfortable and stigmatized situation.

One night after having sex with someone I was dating, I saw the condom broke. Not like a little. Totally shredded. This scared the hell out of me but I played it cool.

“Are you okay,” he asked. I brushed it off.

“I’m fine,” I lied. “Don’t worry about this.”

Sometimes in a moment of crisis the safest thing to do is not let others know you see it as a moment of crisis. This was one of those moments.

As he slept through the night, I kept my body motionless, bored my eyes into the dark ceiling that seemed ready to suffocate me and FREAKED OUT. “I can’t believe this just happened to me. How could this happen to me? How could I let this happen to me?” The whole gamut of denial and fear and shame.

A calmer synopsis:

At the time I did not want to become a parent, and my life circumstances wouldn’t have made it possible for me to be the kind of parent I want to be today. We, in the context of that relationship, were not suited to be parents together. It wasn’t a bad relationship. It was a decent relationship. But it did not include a shared desire to build a family together. We didn’t even discuss those issues. Some people are scandalized by those who have sex with no intention of getting married and having children, but I didn’t and don’t think there’s anything wrong with adults in their twenties, which we were, who have consensual sex. It’s normal.

This happened at a time when if you needed emergency contraception fast, which I did, your options were to call your doctor, try an emergency room or go to Planned Parenthood. The easiest and quickest thing was what I wanted. Hyper after a sleepless and terrified night, I called Planned Parenthood within minutes of opening, and did not waste any time to have breakfast, drink coffee, shower, brush my teeth or do anything else before going to to pick up some Plan B. I walked up to the front desk, showed them my driver’s license to prove my age, paid what I could afford and that was that.

In the car ride home I wept. I beat myself up for finding myself alone with a box of Plan B in a relationship where I felt most comfortable doing what needed to be done in silence. Alone. I thought of all the horrible things said by sexual fundamentalists who want to make or keep illegal every sex act that doesn’t produce a baby, and I started to internalize them. Emergency contraception is abortion and abortion is murder, they say. Never mind that there’s no science to back that up. When you feel really alone and really scared it’s easy to beat yourself up with others’ words, even ones that are incorrect and you find offensive.

Home at last. It was not even nine in the morning, I was wearing clothes from the day before and I felt like I had been walking up a difficult mountain for weeks. I kept crying in my apartment. I didn’t want to be someone who had irresponsible sex. I was trying to be responsible this time, I swear. I didn’t want to be someone who took emergency contraception without telling her boyfriend. This situation was built for other people — not me — other people. I was, as now, an ardent feminist and an advocate for emergency contraception. This was just not a situation I had been anticipating that morning. I didn’t want it. I wanted to be at work in a boring meeting. I wanted to erase and start over.

Drinking a glass of water to calm down, I read the instructions in the box. I opened the box. I told myself I would go to the bathroom, and then I would take it. I breathed. And, in the bathroom, in those moments before I was going to take the pill I wanted to scream at, I discovered that my period had started.

This story is very personal, but I’ve decided to write about it because in hindsight I’ve gained perspectives on a few themes within this story that I feel need to be said at this point in time.

First, this week’s court decision overturning the Obama administration’s order to, against the recommendation of the Food and Drug Administration, block over-the-counter access to emergency contraception for women of all ages is an important milestone for public health. As someone who has gone to get the morning after pill the morning after, I can tell you that time is not a resource to be wasted when you need to avoid a pregnancy effective now. Time is agony. Further, situations can be such that you don’t want to talk to anyone about it, even a pharmacist.

Second, I read what I just wrote and while I was beating the crap out of myself at the time, I think that what I did was incredibly mature. While I was in my twenties then, I think this holds true for women of all ages, including women in high school. Getting emergency contraception as quickly as you can when have already had unprotected sex and don’t want to be pregnant is taking control of your health, your life, your future. Teen pregnancy prevention was supposed to be a bipartisan cause. No one, including the president of the United States, should be looking at young women who know they need emergency contraception as anything but incredibly mature.

Third, I think it’s okay to acknowledge that it’s normal to have a wide range of feelings about reproductive health care. Sexuality and reproduction are intensely personal matters. I felt very sad at the time, and I was a reproductive rights advocate then. I’m one now. Having felt intense feelings nowhere near “I am woman, hear me roar” when preparing to take emergency contraception doesn’t make me any less of a feminist or a strong woman. It’s okay to talk about tough times as tough times. Tough times happen to good people, and acknowledging tough times as they are can help make all of us better people.

Fourth, I’m quite pregnant as I type this today. In fact I’m looking over a huge bubble in my abdomen, holding my future daughter. In contrast to some of the negative self-talk I engaged in then, it is so crystal clear to me at this time that preventing pregnancy is nothing like ending a pregnancy. They should not be talked about as equivalent, and shame on the mainstream media for often allowing this confusion to continue. Having used contraception regularly until I decided to become pregnant is one of the best gifts I’m giving my future daughter, because now I’m ready to have her and give her the best life I can.

If she ever needs emergency contraception and chooses to tell me about it, I will be so proud of her. Sexuality and sexual health can be really hard, sometimes. If she ever cries to me I will not judge her, but support her. I think about these things when reflecting on my morning with the morning after pill.

New Birth Control Proposed Rule: What Just Happened?

Today, the Obama administration issued a new proposed rule regarding the contraceptive mandate under the Affordable Care Act. Many reproductive rights organizations are calling it a victory. Some advocates, not so much.

So what just happened?

1. The new proposed rule spurned lobbying led by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that would have made businesses eligible to opt-out of the contraceptive mandate. 

All along these men have been arguing that the owner of a Taco Bell, a craft store chain or any business should be able to dictate the terms of what private insurance companies will provide to beneficiaries. That didn’t happen today. No ifs, ands or buts. The Obama administration did not cave. This is probably why some reproductive rights organizations are calling the new proposed rule a victory.

2. The new proposed rule did slightly expand the religious exemption, at a minimum creating a new gray area that could cause some women to lose contraceptive coverage.

Prior to today, religious institutions (houses of worship) were exempt and religiously affiliated non-profits were not. In broad brush strokes this wording has not changed, but the details create cause for concern. Breaking this down:

Previous rule: Houses of worship are exempt. Private health insurance plans do not need to cover contraception, period.

New rule: No change.

Previous rule: Religiously affiliated institutions with a primarily secular purpose and population (including, for example, Catholic hospitals, religiously affiliated colleges) will offer a private health insurance plan that covers contraception, but the cost of contraception will be paid for only by the private health insurance company with no funds contributed by the objecting religiously affiliated institutions.

New rule: Religiously affiliated institutions may attempt to claim they are religious institutions just like houses of worship.

If the claim is accepted, private health insurance plans do not need to cover contraception, period.

If no claim is made, or if the claim is rejected, religiously affiliated institutions will offer a private health insurance plan that covers contraception, but the cost of contraception will be paid for only by the private health insurance company with no funds contributed by the objecting religiously affiliated institutions. So in essence it mimics the old rule, except with one new change: The college student or hospital employee or professor or beneficiary will receive a piece of paper informing them that the institution does not cover contraception, but their private health insurance company will.

3. Here are some additional points to consider about even a slight expansion of the exemption.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the greater “hey, you slut” anti-birth control community has proven itself to be extremely determined to continue the pre-Affordable Care Act practice of insurance companies discriminating against women by charging higher rates for contraception. It is reasonable to assume they will do everything they can to ensure as many colleges, hospitals and non-profits as possible are suddenly classified as churches or other houses of worship. It’s unclear in practice how they will do this, but one invitation ripe for strengthening their inevitable arguments could be discriminating in admissions or hiring against those who don’t share the religious beliefs of the university-wannabe-church, so that a larger percentage of the population is “religious.” Think about that for that for a second. And think about the federal dollars those schools and hospitals gleefully accept.

Most of this fight has centered around religiously affiliated hospitals and institutions. They are estimated to affect the private health insurance coverage of up to three million women. So while the likelihood that the “Mommy Wow! Your Hospital Is A Church Now” claims won’t fly in many cases is strong, the potential universe of those who could be affected in a worst-case scenario is huge.

The note to students and employees who keep their contraceptive coverage is weird. It’s weird and stigmatizing. It says to the 18 year-old women and men entering college, there’s something wrong with birth control and there’s something wrong with sexuality. We don’t do this to any other form of basic preventive care. We shouldn’t here, either.

Philosophically, it makes no sense to negotiate with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the topic of contraception. Practically speaking, they discriminate against women so much they aren’t even allowed to take leadership. Further, 98 percent of Catholic women use contraceptives at some point – hewing to the 99 percent of the overall population. Morally speaking, they have decades of of rape and pedophilia crimes and cover-ups under their supposedly celibate robes. They have no standing to dictate public health and human rights on matters of sexuality.

Bottom line: The new proposed rule could have been worse, and thank goodness it isn’t. But we had made progress. As a country we need to keep moving forward and not backward. Eleven years ago I was a broke Georgetown University student with school-sponsored health insurance coverage, paying $110 out-of-pocket when I went to pick up my birth control prescription. Birth control is basic medical care — that $110 copay was discrimination against me as a woman. This wasn’t a theoretical conversation with Rush Limbaugh on one side and Planned Parenthood on the other. I wasn’t a slut. I just needed prescription contraception. It was me and my life. And today, with this new gray area and the inevitable Supreme Court case about the entire contraceptive mandate, it could once again be tons of other women and their lives.