This upcoming Saturday, August 18th, thousands of protesters are converging on the Capitol in Washington, DC at a women’s rights rally. I have to ask, along with the organizers, We Are Woman, spokesperson Jessica DelBazlo, who wrote here last week: Why don’t more people know about this national march?
The event is focused on the past year’s legislative war on women and the upcoming November elections. The well-documented daily litany of bills and laws and party platforms seeking to move the entire country back decades is endless. Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan, a supporter of personhood for zygotes among other things, seals the deal. However, ultimately, it is considering a more basic question: Why do some people have a fundamental inability to recognize women as fully human and treat them accordingly?
Why are we taught, through storytelling, history, media, entertainment, political speech, language constructs and more, that women are less. Less competent, less capable of moral thought, less able to lead, less able to think for themselves? These aren’t trick questions and the answers, while complex, aren’t necessarily hard. To do otherwise, to acknowledge the full and equal humanity of girls and women, means altering institutions dramatically: families, governments, corporations, and religions. It is because to do otherwise means transformative social change and that is revolutionary. Feminism seeks no less. In general, the people who benefit from your inequality will always undermine your efforts to achieve equality. That’s why fighting for women’s equal rights is dangerous.
Conservatives understand what is at stake and what types of changes are required, and they don’t like it. That’s the very definition of conservative. It’s a cliché to say it, I know, but the problem is that you cannot prepare for the future by clinging to the past. Our institutions will find their full, democratic fruition only when paternalistic patriarchy is well and done. We are in this for a very long haul.
Culture, inherently sluggish by nature, cultivates the idea that women are morally incompetent because that has served a useful purpose for the way we’ve traditionally organized humans. Individuals and institutions rely on women’s shame and dehumanization to perpetuate the idea that women’s rights need to be mediated and managed by fathers, husbands and sons. The past year’s Republican Party agenda has revealed just how deeply embedded that idea is and turned that message into a dangerous legislative weapon that threatens to unravel women’s hard fought for, and relatively recent, gains. The hundreds of bills and laws, the details of state party platforms, the terms of the Presidential race all reflect the degree to which the Republican Party refuses to trust women as morally competent individuals with equal rights.
This entire theme is symbolically summed up by the persistent use of animal analogies in legislative debates about women’s health and Rush Limbaugh’s use of the word “slut” to shame Sandra Fluke in February 2012.
First, consider the disturbing consistency and frequency of Republican legislators making comparisons of women to animals. It’s more than demeaning. It is literally dehumanizing.
In May, when Safeway Senior Vice President General Counsel Bob Gordon stood before a shareholders’ meeting telling a “joke” that portrayed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as being worth less than a pair of hogs, he clearly had no reservation. After all, he was only elaborating on a meme that’s been evolving among right-wing Republican politicians in state legislatures. Let’s see.
Rep. Terry England, the infamous Georgia legislator comparing pregnant hogs and cows to women while debating a proposal that became known as the ” women as livestock bill”
Missouri House Majority Leader Tim Jones, explaining that he was well-suited to deciding which restrictions to place on women’s health options because his ” father’s a veterinarian .”
Not to be forgotten is Montana Rep. Keith Regier’s explanation during debate that ” preg-tested” cows have higher value, forcing a Democratic counterpart to point out that “We do not place price tags on women in the same way that we do on cattle.”
Even State Rep. Mary Franson joined in while discussing food stamp policies that ” animals may grow dependent and not learn to take care of themselves .” Uncannily similar to Republican Gov. Andre Bauer’s description of welfare mothers as ” stray animals ” who will “breed” because they don’t “know any better.”
Setting aside the racist dog comparisons, right-wing politicians and legislators obviously favor pigs, cows and livestock in their “women are not quite human” metaphors and analogies for a reason:
1) They’re domesticated: docile and tame.
2) They’re often used for controlled breeding and reproductive purposes.
3) They’re generally considered dumb and unthinking, and there is the implication that they are immature and dependent.
4) They’re often thought of as unclean.
5) They’re not dangerous or threatening (i.e. sexual and powerful).
6) They’re a consumable resource.
They have sex for breeding, not for pleasure. And, they don’t act independently. They are, in a word, not sluts – conservatives second favorite and most infamously publicized descriptive word for women.
Which brings us to the second point. The word “slut” serves conservative purposes vis-à-vis women exquisitely well, encapsulating as it does the pivotal traditional use of shame as a weapon to control girls and women. The word does three things: one, it reduces a woman to what is important to conservatives – namely her sexual nature, which is, after all, a proxy for her reproductive value; two, it implies that women are constitutionally incapable of assessing morality for themselves and that they should not, under any circumstances, seek either sex or make decisions regarding sex (and by extension reproduction), without a decision-making man controlling either and 3) perhaps most importantly, it camouflages the disdain and hatred that conservative culture feels for women by pointing to a distracting and false premise for the expressed contempt – a woman’s putative sexual behavior – instead of the actual reason – her very femaleness.
The defining characteristic of a slut has never actually been a woman’s sexual behavior or her choice of clothes – it has always, first and foremost, been her gender.
Slut-shaming (which is what Rush Limbaugh attempted in February 2012), is an acceptable national sport: we embarrass, insult or otherwise denigrate girls and woman for their real or extrapolated sexual behavior, including for dressing in sexual ways, having sexual feelings and/or exploring and exhibiting them. Entire industries are based on this idea.
Rush Limbaugh did us an unintended service, however.
Aside from catalyzing several independent social movements, such as Rock The Slut Vote and This Slut Votes, he made this much clear to everyone: to some people (his millions of supporters and his political remora), every woman, even one simply speaking civilly and intelligently in her own interest, can be called a slut for no other reason than that she’s a woman. In this way, more people now understand that a slut is any woman who wants, on her own terms, to define morality for her private life, control her reproduction (for whatever reason), build a life, earn a living of her own, dress how she wants, and take care of her health and her family.
Whether you love it or hate it, embrace it or reject it, the word ‘slut’ is an evocation of a gender double standard used to control women and no woman alive hasn’t thought about what it means to be labeled in this way. In some cultures, where honor killings take place, it is a matter of life or death.
If you’re a “good” woman, don’t kid yourself. It means you’ve spent your life and will continue to spend your life calibrating your appearance, speech and behavior so that you are not a slut.
These ideas, women as animals, women as slatterns, are central to conservative gender roles. They are essential to understanding Complementarianism – it’s gender hierarchies and institutionalization of thinly veiled male domination.
Does it sound silly to you? Of course we consider women human. Women find dignity in their complimentary roles. They choose them. What is this marching for women and their “equal enough” rights? (You know, of course, that the Constitution does not actually ensure equal rights for women?) There is a lot of indifference about what people think are “social issues,” or “just words.” Most insist those things have nothing to do with people and how they interact with “The Economy.” I think differently (guess THAT’s obvious, am speaking at the event). I think indifference to these things, the words, the inhumane portrayals, the “social issues,” creates a petri dish for the influence of radicals who would gladly have us go to hell holding handmaidens baskets.
Portions of this article were excerpted from Alternet’s Six Absurdly Demeaning Conservative Attacks on Women and the forward to an upcoming Rock the Slut Vote election guide.
Photo Credit 21CB.