Fear and Loathing, Gender-Free

Texas State SenateIn the past seven days or so, a series of decisions made by a state legislature, a state court and the United States House of Representatives, brought ineffable sadness to progressives in the United States, while many self-styled conservatives cheered. Those decisions include the passage of one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country by the Texas State Legislature, the dismissal of criminal charges by a Florida jury against George Zimmerman, and the vivisection of the federal food stamp program at the hands of the Republican majority in Congress.  The week caps a depressing couple of months in which an assortment of bills have been deserted (background checks for gun owners) or delayed (Obamacare’s provision that small businesses provide employees with health insurance), leading many to believe that no solution that requires government intervention is likely to succeed in the near future—unless it involves a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her health and welfare.

What adds a touch of pathos to an already dismal situation is that the celebrants—those voicing pleasure at these various outcomes—include a fair number of women.

While many of my friends were ecstatic over the large and vocal opposition to the Texas bill restricting not only abortion rights, but also access to other reproductive health care services, I was noting the women who supported it, not only the Republican legislators and the executive director of Texas Right to Life, but also a number of sign-wielding members of the crowd–the same sort of woman we see protesting in front of an abortion clinic. Similarly, the Republican women in the U. S. House of Representatives never broke rank in voting to excise the Food Stamps program, effectively decimating it. As for the Zimmerman case, the jury that acquitted Zimmerman of not only second-degree murder but also manslaughter was comprised entirely of women.

And let’s not forget (oh, if we only could!), the singularly distasteful Ann Coulter, who texted, “Hallelujah” when the verdict was read, as if Divine intervention had resulted in some sort of frontier justice.

Advocates for women’s rights–economic and legal equality, protection from abuse, or access to health care–like to imagine a bond exists among all women. That bond, they seem to believe, transfers to support for gay marriage and gun control. Disagreement, if there is any, comes from how we label the pro-women objectives and their supporters; recall the recent contretemps caused by Susan Sarandon’s rejection of the word “feminist.”

Yet a significant segment of the female population appears to reject not simply the term “feminist,” but all or much of the so-called “women’s agenda.”  I suspect it’s a larger group than we progressive women might concede, especially when you allow for picking and choosing. For instance, there are women whose “live and let live” attitude toward gay marriage doesn’t extend to food stamp recipients who they invariably see as “welfare cheats” or to young black men strolling through their neighborhoods. There are church-going members of the black community who view homosexuality as a sin. A significant number of women in the United States believe life begins at conception and some of those women have determined abortion is nothing less than murder. Even views on the necessity of equal pay, which should be an obvious point of agreement, are sometimes mitigated by so-called “traditional family values, wherein a man is defined as the “natural” breadwinner and the woman as the equally “natural”, i.e. stay-at-home nurturer.

I’m on a mission to collect the latest numbers; facts and figures from as impartial a source as I can find (not an easy task) about who identifies as conservative or liberal by gender. I want to know which of my fellow females has a problem with issues I consider a matter of justice. Meanwhile, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that those who don’t support gun control, same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, universal health care or all of the above are no longer outliers; in fact, their numbers may be growing.  Why is this so? What it is about a socially progressive agenda that distances, angers, or even frightens some women? Most importantly, how might we get past the rhetoric, name-calling and stereotyping in order to persuade them our gender might be a force for good—if only we can agree on what that means?

Nikki Stern is the author of the books Hope in Small Doses and Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal. Nikki’s articles have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, USA Today, Newsweek, and Humanist Magazine, among others. She’s currently working on a book of short fiction. nikkistern.com Follow her on Twitter at @realnikkistern

Image via Stand with Texas Women Facebook page

  • Seriously? The only reason you can think of to try to understand the other side is so you can “persuade them”?

    If that does not speak volumes about why our country is in the state it’s in, I don’t know what does.

  • Sam Wheat

    Nikki your needle is stuck. Next time try to bore us with something a little more original!

  • Diane: Uh no, I don’t only want to understand the other side so I can persuade them of anything except that women can work together for good. The point I’m making is that sometimes supporters of a women’s agenda forget that not all women feel the same way about key issues, and that making assumptions that we’re all in agreement isn’t a good idea.

  • Sam, thanks for your comment. I’ll certainly work hard to implement your helpful suggestions.

  • Joan Haskins

    Nikki, I do not understand people who are not sickened by what is happening in our country today.

    @Sam Wheat, if Nikki”s needle is stuck, it’s for good reason. Racism and sexism in this country are rampant.
    We’ve got people making “jokes” about women needing to collect their hangers if they want an abortion. We’ve got Ann Coulter proclaiming, “Hallelujah” that a man was set free after killing a young boy. But Hallelujah! The 2nd Amendment is safe!
    The needle is stuck, all right. And good people need to come forward and help change the injustice and the ignorance.
    Oh yeah. The Westboro Baptist Church will be on hand front and center for the funeral of an actor on Glee, that evil pretend television show.
    We’re doing great.
    Nikki, carry on.

  • Nikki – you ask some important questions. I think its interesting to consider why so many of us vote/think/act differently, especially when it seems to go against our collective self interest. I don’t have an answer for you, except for the proliferation of dominant opinion disguised as news, but I think the most important thing we can do is look at the situation with a sober eye, as you have done, and ask Why?

  • I am always baffled by this issue and have been since I read the book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” I live in a very red state — one might say crimson — and I see women every day who vote and talk and speak against their own self-interest. I don’t understand it at all.

    Good piece, Nikki.

  • Emily

    I was there in the rotunda in the Texas State Capitol, Nikki. I normally confine my citizenship to voting, but this particular issue is huge to me. Nobody should be bullied into motherhood. I am willing to get out and shout about this one. I do think the tide is shifting on this issue, that it must be made clear, in emotional terms, what this legislation means to women.

    The various issues you bring up are evidence of bullying to me. I for one, think that when enough of us FEEL bullied, we will start doing things to change the situation.

    What I expect is the reason that so many women are not voting progressively is the media they consume. I agree with Jaime on that one.

  • Sheila Luecht

    “I want to know which of my fellow females has a problem with issues I consider a matter of justice. Meanwhile, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that those who don’t support gun control, same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, universal health care or all of the above are no longer outliers; in fact, their numbers may be growing.”

    It is my opinion that this faction has always been there, they just didn’t have any credibility and were harmless, trapped in their roles which were approved by those who created them. The conservative right has always been there. They just got emboldened and perhaps their women a bit less lady like. Why did this boldness and frothing begin? I think it all began back in Reagan’s time, when he was so busy looking for voting power for the republicans that he was courting the conservative right that had initially failed on its own to get voting power and elect their ultra conservative candidates. After that the Republican party began making allowances for the ultra conservative view point, a generation of this indoctrination into the party produced what we have today and we see how the Tea Party faction grew to fight back any liberal or moderate streak in the once more balanced Republican party. The ultra conservatives could not turn that the way they wanted and now the Tea Party is encouraging those still within the party to do what they can. The mindlessness was always there, it just has been encouraged and given voice. The media has contributed to all of this and so has social media that we use today. We grow like minded thinkers in the same way they do, that Pandora’s box has been opened, is very real to me. There is a rash of this patriarchal thinking, schooling happening to young girls and business which find that system better for their own management. They have no interests in equality or justice if it interferes with the bottom line, so the thing is we have to understand the evolution of this hysteria in order to fight it.

    If we taxed the churches and thereby diminished some of their financial power, we would be back to dealing with a clearer separation of religion and state. The problem is very much two fold, it also includes the run away capitalist strategies of big business and big money. This cocktail has been brewing from the time of Reagan’s de-regulation of so many businesses and the need for more power. It is a very tough combination and if the founding fathers were alive to see how we have evolved under their careful planning, they would be shocked. They would believe that we did not think them intelligent enough and experienced enough to have actually anticipated some of these issues and that we did not trust their guidelines to avoid them.

  • Blu Roze

    Nikki, This piece is a great and thoughtful read with questions that most never think to ask.

    Your needle is not stuck. This country is. In Texas, Liberals and progressives, men and women alike know this has been true for decades seemingly set in stone by the usurpation of politics by the Tea Party.

    Only 27% of registered liberals here vote on any given election day. Twenty-seven percent or thereabouts. Why? It’s been futile. Extremist conservatives have had a stronghold that many of us simply could not penetrate. This legislature is full, albeit the minority, of Wendy Davises who have taken on a mission to finally, finally, turn this state blue. If you watched the filibuster in Austin to the end, you saw them in action. It was a first for me and I’ve lived her well over half of my life as a transplant. I’d almost settled in to terminal apathy regarding state politics, but that action on the floor got my heart rate up.

    I will say, as I do over and over, that 60% of the vote in ’08, that’s sixty percent, in Texas went to Barack Obama. That’s how he knows that it’s just a matter of time until this state, gasp, becomes a battleground state that will change the face of national politics for many years.

    “Similarly, the Republican women in the U. S. House of Representatives never broke rank in voting to excise the Food Stamps program, effectively decimating it.”

    They didn’t break rank because of ideology and their firm belief in the Biblical Law of Submission. They believe it’s their duty to be helpmates to men, not go against them or rule over them. That’s also, imo, gives credence to why there are so few Republican women in Congress compared to Democrats. I’m guessing it’s 3 or 4 to 1. I’d love to know how many Republican women do not vote as a result of that same biblical mandate. A loving, die-hard liberal friend told me in ’08, “Whatever you do, BR, do NOT bring that up. It might change the vote!” 😉

    “Meanwhile, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that those who don’t support gun control, same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, universal health care or all of the above are no longer outliers; in fact, their numbers may be growing. Why is this so? What it is about a socially progressive agenda that distances, angers, or even frightens some women?”

    See the preceding paragraph. It goes against their deep-seeded belief in what they perceive to be Biblical Law. The numbers are not growing, they’ve always been there in strong number. What’s grown has been their bravado, especially since the 2010 midterm elections. What’s growing are the eyes of the general public opening to their number being far more than a handful.

    I’ve said for years that the “T” in Tea Party actually stands for Theocrat, and in my mind, it does. Conservative women may secretly support “gun control, same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, universal health care or all of the above,” but they’ll never cast an open vote for any of them. They simply vote like their men or stay home. Where they belong. 😉

  • Sally Swift

    I agree it’s increasingly puzzling why and how many women seem to rally and vote against their own –and their children’s (if they’re parents)– self interest. Women are literally the majority in this country, as well as the voting majority. Candidates can’t win without “the women’s vote.” Yet there are so many racist, sexist, virulently patriarchal members of Congress and local Legislatures, I have to wonder who are the women who vote for these candidates with repressive, outdated, bigoted agendas?

    You make many good points, Nikki, and ask important questions. I wish I had even one answer. We must all keep searching until we find and try to fix this dangerous trend.

  • Monica

    From time immemorial, women have spoken and acted against their own best interest. History tells the same story over and over again. Even now, most women aren’t taught or encouraged to communicate properly, so they simply keep quiet. I believe it’s the fear of seeming strident and angry; at worst, a harridan. An opinionated, strong-willed woman who won’t shut up, sit down or back off. My Mom was one of those women. A journalist and environmentalist, she and her contemporaries fought for change and were often ostracized, belittled, and even physically abused. And they were scared too, but they were more frightened of the status quo or the lack of knowledge or remaining silent witnesses. They were a small group. Fear diminished their numbers.

    It’s still scary today. I recognize all of the trends you write of, but I don’t despair. A few years ago, I took my 87 year old Mother to an awards ceremony where she was being honored, and afterwards, she sat at a table surrounded by young women, talking late into the night as the catering staff closed up shop around them. They stay in touch with her even now, and there are many more of them than in her day, and they aren’t nearly as frightened. They keep me from worrying too much. They’re the future, the promise that tomorrow won’t be as terrifying.

    I hope you get your answers and your numbers and you write in your beautiful way about what you find. Don’t let anyone dissuade you with their talk about your needle or your agenda. You’re the promise fulfilled today.

    Joan Haskins introduced me to your work. She’s a good friend.

  • Because women are individuals you are never going to reach the result you seek. As a pro-life, Catholic Democrat (more or less), I resent the implication that there is any one way that all women should think, or that you can reliably predict someone’s position on one issue based upon their position on another one.

  • My agenda is totally about love. All I read about politics and any other news worthy subject is fear and hate. Perhaps, just perhaps, we should talk more about love and put those words out there to see if anyone is listening. This is a well written and thought provoking article, thank you for explaining it so well.

  • @Leslie: I couldn’t agree with you more. The entire point of my article is to warn women off assuming all women will support all elements of any particular agenda.

  • Gina Ellis

    There’s this notion that underdogs will behave better than the bastards who have been in power, and that people with obvious common problems, like women, will stick together. And that women, being nurturers and all that, are innately more compassionate and blah-blah than men. None of which seems to be true, alas.

  • Lezlie Bishop

    A large part of conservatism, it seems to me, is a desire to control. They argue against excessive laws, but demand legislation that restricts the personal decisions and choices of others. They value their individual rights at the expense of the collective good, enough to be able to cheer about a man getting away with murder. They see the gun as the great equalizer, the objects that insure their personal safety without regard for the safety of others. Conservatives are wired differently. They fear change and they fear loss of dominance. As far as I’m concerned, any society that operates from a place of fear is destined to fail. I don’t think we will ever be able to convince ALL women to act upon the collective power we could have.

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