In 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