Tag Archives: backlash

We Aren’t Going Back

Friday night, I spoke at a local synagogue about women’s rights. They were very nice to me. Here’s my talk. (Apologies for the length.)

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I don’t know how many of you remember when it was considered tactful to refer to older women as “women of a certain age.” I’m one of those women, having attained and then passed that “certain age,” and I’ve seen a significant evolution in women’s rights in my own lifetime. Not too long ago, someone asked me if I had experienced discrimination because I’m a woman. I responded that I’ve really been lucky; I’ve been able to do pretty much anything I wanted to do. But when I began to think about it, I realized that my entire life has played out against the restrictive laws and patriarchal social expectations of the times. A number of options that were available to males simply weren’t options for me. As noted, some of those options were legally unavailable, but many other limitations were products of prevailing, deeply-rooted social attitudes. To the extent women accepted those attitudes, we didn’t see discrimination—we just saw “the way things are.”

My mother—who was born the year women finally got the vote–didn’t work, although she was a woman who would definitely have been much happier pursuing a career. But for middle-class women, participation in the workforce was seen as evidence that one’s husband  wasn’t an adequate breadwinner—so it wasn’t an option.

When my sister and I were in grade school and high school, there were no women’s sports. Girls were cheerleaders, boys played team sports. When I went to college, my parents wanted me to choose a profession I could “fall back on” if my eventual husband died. I could choose among the three professions suitable for women—I could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. Three times in college, I switched into the school of Liberal Arts, and three times my father switched me back into the School of Education. (I get nauseated at the sight of blood, and I was never a good typist—so voila—I was a teacher!).

When I got married the first time, women still couldn’t get credit or establish a credit rating separate from that of their husbands. Later, when I went to law school, my sister’s brother-in-law told me I should be ashamed that I was taking the place of a man who would actually practice law. A cousin who was a lawyer was more supportive; he told me that if I really excelled, I would probably get hired, but the only lawyer job I could expect would be in the “back room” of a large firm, doing research. I wouldn’t be allowed to work directly with clients. A “friend” told me that my selfish decision to go to law school meant that my children would end up being drug addicts.

When I was interviewing for my first job as a lawyer, the EEOC was only a few years old, but lawyers at the firm knew that certain questions were off-limits. I had three small children, a fact disclosed by my resume, so I volunteered my childcare arrangements. (It seemed reasonable.) One of the lawyers was so visibly relieved that I evidently wasn’t going to burn a bra then and there that he blurted out “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a woman! We hired a man with a glass eye once!”

When Bill Hudnut appointed me Corporation Counsel, I was the first woman to head the city’s legal department. That deviation from the norm evidently triggered a lot of speculation. The Indianapolis Star identified me as a “divorcee” and the Indianapolis News ran a “gossip” item, asking “Did a city official just appoint his most recent honey to a high city position?” Evidently, the notion that a woman might be a good lawyer never crossed their minds.

When I ran for Congress in 1980, I was told by a number of people that they wouldn’t vote for a woman with young children, because my place was at home with those children. (I don’t need to remind you that men with young children are never the subject of similar sentiments—nor do I need to share my strong suspicion that they wouldn’t have voted for any woman, with or without small children.) When I joined a small law firm after losing that election, one of the partners suggested that I stick to wills and divorces, which were areas deemed appropriate for women lawyers. That actually represented progress, since by that time there were at least some limited areas in which it was acceptable for women to be lawyers …

Virtually all of these examples seem ridiculous today, when girls excel at sports and law school classes are more than 50% female. So there has been progress—actually, a lot of progress.  I am always bemused when female students assure me that they aren’t feminists—a word that some of them evidently associate with beefy women who don’t shave their legs.  The young women who don’t think of themselves as feminists simply take for granted that they will get equal pay for equal work, that they won’t have to “put out” for the boss in order to get that promotion, that they can choose the number and spacing of their children, and that there might even be a pediatrician whose office hours don’t reflect the assumption that mom is home all day.

As the commercial says, we really have “come a long way, baby.” But as the “me too” movement, the persistence of the glass ceiling, and depressing statistics about earning discrepancies all attest, we still have a long way to go.

And that long way to go was before the hard-won gains for women’s equality came under sustained attack. At the Women’s March, an elderly woman carried a sign saying “I can’t believe I’m still having to protest this shit.” A lot of us old broads feel that way.

The unremitting attacks on Planned Parenthood are particularly troubling, because women owe an enormous amount of our progress to the availability of reliable birth control. Only when we are able to plan our families, only when we are able to be more than baby factories, is it even possible to talk about having both a family and a career. Once women were in control of their reproduction, they entered the labor market in huge numbers, and became less economically dependent upon their husbands. A woman with a decent job could leave an abusive or unfulfilling relationship and support herself. Economic independence is the first step toward equal treatment, and the ability to decide for ourselves the number and spacing of our children is what makes economic independence possible.

That independence is also what has triggered the backlash we are experiencing from insecure men and especially from the Christian fundamentalists who believe that God made women to be submissive to men. Let me be very clear: there are sincere and admirable people who have principled objections to abortion—but anyone who believes that the anti-Choice movement and the assaults on Planned Parenthood are really about abortion is naïve. The real focus of this attack is on access to birth control and self-determination. It is an effort to deny the equal moral status of women. Let me share just one illustrative example—there are many, many others.

In 2009, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation donated over $23 million to the Colorado Family Planning Initiative. That was a five-year experimental program offering low-income teenage girls in the state long-acting reversible contraceptives—IUDs or hormonal implants—at no cost. These devices, which require no further action once inserted and remain effective for years, are by far the best method of birth control available, with less than a 1 percent failure rate. (The failure rate for the Pill is higher.) One reason more women don’t use these devices is cost: While they save the patient money over time, the up-front price can be as high as $1,200.

The results were staggering: a 40 percent decline in teen births, and a 34 percent decline in teen abortions. And for every dollar spent on the program, the state saved $5.85 in short-term Medicaid costs, in addition to other cost reductions and the enormous social benefit of freeing low-income teens from unwanted pregnancies and what too often follows: dropping out of school, unready motherhood, and poverty.

When the original grant ran out, the state legislature had to decide whether to continue funding the program. Now, you would think continued funding for so successful a program would be uncontroversial–but you would be wrong. The bill continuing funding for the program passed the Democrat-controlled House, but the Senate Republicans killed it.

And what were the highly principled reasons for refusing to continue a program that reduced teen pregnancies, reduced the number of abortions, and saved money? According to one Republican State Senator, using an IUD could mean “stopping a small child from implanting.”

Another said, “We’d be allowing a lot of young ladies to go out there and look for love in all the wrong places.”

If these lawmakers were really “pro-life,” they would support programs that substantially and demonstrably reduce the incidence of abortion. As the travesty in Colorado clearly shows, however, their real objective is to deprive women of self-determination. If necessary, at taxpayer expense.

A full list of the ongoing assaults on birth control and reproductive rights, from the Hobby Lobby decision to   Mike Pence’s effort to require funerals for miscarried fetuses to the constant efforts of state legislators around the country to outdo each other’s transvaginal probes and other punitive measures would take hours. Just in Indiana, the ACLU is currently challenging at least three anti-choice laws. I want to believe that what we are seeing is a last convulsion of old men who are frantic to retain their male privilege…but the jury is still out.

The ferocity of the pushback against women’s autonomy and reproductive rights is particularly dangerous to those of us in the Jewish community, because it represents the belief that fundamentalist Christian dogma should be the law of the land—that government should favor the beliefs of one segment of the Christian community over the theologies of other religions and other Christians.

One reason that the United States has been hospitable to Jews—and Muslims and Sikhs and other minority religions—is that the Bill of Rights not only separates Church from State, but forbids government from making decisions that are properly left to individual citizens. As I tell my students, the Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government doesn’t get to decide. The American constitution and legal system are based upon respect for personal autonomy and the primacy of the individual conscience—not upon conformance with majoritarian religious beliefs. I don’t think it is an accident that so many of the “family values” politicians who seem intent upon keeping women barefoot and pregnant are also anti-Semites who insist that the United States is a Christian nation.

Opponents of measures requiring equal pay for equal work, pundits who excuse predatory sexual behavior in the workplace (or by the occupant of the Oval Office), voters who reject female candidates for public office simply because they are female, and the politicians and public figures who talk about “making America great” like in the “good old days”—want to take us back to a time when women’s voices were discounted and our aspirations ignored. They want to go back to the “good old days” when women were second-class citizens—a time when being a straight white Christian male conferred automatic social dominance.

I lived through those “good old days.” They are the days I described at the beginning of this talk. They aren’t the reality I want my granddaughters—or my grandsons—to inhabit. We all deserve better.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Truth Or Power

One of the very few (inadvertently) positive outcomes of Trump’s election has been an eruption of public soul-searching by thoughtful Republicans. Pundits like David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, David Frum and Michael Gerson have cut through the dissembling and hypocrisy of Congressional Republicans, and haven’t hesitated to point out the consequences of electing a spectacularly naked “emperor.”

A recent column by Gerson contained a scathing and utterly accurate summary of the man demanding (and receiving) Republican loyalty.

President Trump is remarkably unpopular, particularly with the young (among whom his approval is underwater by a remarkable 48 percentage points in one poll). And the reasons have little to do with elitism or media bias.

Trump has been ruled by compulsions, obsessions and vindictiveness, expressed nearly daily on Twitter. He has demonstrated an egotism that borders on solipsism. His political skills as president have been close to nonexistent. His White House is divided, incompetent and chaotic, and key administration jobs remain unfilled. His legislative agenda has gone nowhere. He has told constant, childish, refuted, uncorrected lies, and demanded and habituated deception among his underlings. He has humiliated and undercut his staff while requiring and rewarding flattery. He has promoted self-serving conspiracy theories. He has displayed pathetic, even frightening, ignorance on policy matters foreign and domestic. He has inflicted his ethically challenged associates on the nation. He is dead to the poetry of language and to the nobility of the political enterprise, viewing politics as conquest rather than as service.

Trump has made consistent appeals to prejudice based on religion and ethnicity, and associated the Republican Party with bias. He has stoked tribal hostilities. He has carelessly fractured our national unity. He has attempted to undermine respect for any institution that opposes or limits him — be it the responsible press, the courts or the intelligence community. He has invited criminal investigation through his secrecy and carelessness. He has publicly attempted to intimidate law enforcement. He has systematically alarmed our allies and given comfort to authoritarians. He promised to emancipate the world from American moral leadership — and has kept that pledge.

The Republican lawmakers who continue to support, excuse and enable this deeply disturbed man demonstrate where their values truly lie, and what their priorities truly are. For Ryan, McConnell and their obedient GOP minions in the House and Senate, clinging to power is far more important than serving the nation. Most of them know how dangerous Trump is, and how much harm he is doing, but they won’t desert his sinking ship until it costs them at the ballot box.

The irony is, the GOP is reaping what it very deliberately sowed.

From Nixon’s “Southern strategy” on, the Grand Old Party has been encouraging racial and religious resentments, rewarding “base” voters (in both senses of that word) with red meat rhetoric and divisive policies. It has colluded with rightwing media, supplying “talking points” to the talk radio ranters and Fox News, and defending racist and misogynist messaging.

As the party has become ever more cult-like, it has lost the so-called “country club” Republicans and the fiscally conservative, socially-liberal voters who used to make up a considerable portion of its membership. (When we see reports that majorities of Republicans still support Trump, we need to recognize that the percentage of Americans who identify as Republicans is far smaller than it used to be. Those supporters are the majority of a shrinking minority.) More recently, the party has lost the conservative pundits who genuinely care about policies and principles.

The question now is: how long will it be until the inevitable backlash–and how much harm to America will have been done in the meantime?

Watch Out for the Backlash

When people talk about “backlash,” they are generally referring to a reaction to something–an effort to undo or reverse a previous change.

Backlash is thus the proper term to apply to the movement that began in the mid-1960s, in reaction to social disruption caused by anti-war activism, feminism and the civil rights movement. Middle-class whites, especially but not exclusively in the South, resented the erosion of their social dominance and banded together to fight what they saw as the increasing secularization and liberalism of American society.

Paranoid fringe groups like the John Birch Society and similar “patriot” and  “Christian” groups gradually took over the national GOP. Political scientists tell us that Reagan’s election in 1980 solidified right-wing conservative efforts to transform the political landscape of America. Since 1980, the GOP has become less and less genuinely conservative—and more and more radically reactionary.

African-Americans understand the implications of this takeover (much more on that in tomorrow’s blog). I’m not so sure that LGBT folks do.

After all, although the racism at the heart of the backlash has become impossible to ignore,the  LGBT community is celebrating years of increasing acceptance. Same-sex marriages are widely if not universally recognized, and a majority of Americans support them. Popular culture is inclusive and affirming. Civil rights are being extended, albeit slowly.

As a recent post from The Daily Beast noted, “Today, unlike ever before, most Americans have openly gay friends, colleagues, and family members, and most approve of same-sex relationships. Young people are overwhelmingly gay-friendly, leaving little doubt which way the trends are going.”

So, as Alfred E. Neumann (Google it) used to say, “What—Me Worry?”

As the Daily Beast and other sources have reported, however, this rosy picture has plenty of thorns:

  • The Texas Republican Party has officially endorsed so-called “reparative therapy,” a quack regimen that reputable psychiatry roundly condemns. (How considerate! The Texas GOP wants to ensure the availability of “therapy and treatment for those patients seeking healing and wholeness from their homosexual lifestyle.”)
  • In Oklahoma, a conservative candidate for the state House of Representatives, has quoted Biblical passages that (he says) prescribe the death penalty for homosexuals. On a Facebook post, he wrote “I think we would be totally in the right to do it.”
  • Mississippi just passed a measure being considered in several other states that would “protect religious liberty” by allowing people to act on their “sincere religious convictions” by refusing to do business with gay clients or customers.

More disturbing, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently broke what had been a string of pro-equality federal appellate rulings and upheld state bans on same-sex marriage, giving hope to those who want to roll back the clock on LGBT rights.

As I look out at our increasingly contentious, toxic political environment, I see a distressing number of frightened, old, furious, deeply threatened white heterosexual males. On my good days, I interpret their hysterical reaction to social change—their racism, their homophobia, their sexism—as the “last throes” of the old order of things. A backlash with unfortunate but ultimately temporary effects.

On my bad days, I worry that the vast amounts of money they are spending, the religious “authority” they are wielding/perverting, and their fanatic persistence will carry the day.

Progress is not a given.

 

No More Susie Sunshine

Anyone who has read my columns over the years knows I am a resolute optimist. My general theme is something along the lines of  “Yes, this bad thing or that has happened, but overall, look at the progress America is making.” And it’s true—over the long haul, we have seen progress in the general culture, at least when it comes to issues like women’s rights, gay rights, same-sex marriage, religious tolerance, etc.

 But to be honest, I’m checking out of the “look on the bright side” brigade. I’ve had it.

 During the Bush Administration, I was hysterical on a daily basis. We had this goofus in the White House who clearly had never read the constitution, had a very tenuous grasp of public policy and political philosophy—not to mention the English language—and was obviously being manipulated by Dick Cheney aka Darth Vader. As he dug the nation into an ever-deeper hole, fiscally and morally, I became more and more morose.

 Then, during the Obama campaign, I saw what I thought was a redemptive wave of political activism. Young people, in particular, came out to work for a candidate who didn’t pander to the haters, who spoke in complete sentences, and who promised a new dedication to the old principles of transparency and accountability in government. And that candidate won! An African-American intellectual actually won. Maybe things weren’t as bad as I thought!

 And then came the backlash.

 Anyone who is minimally fair recognizes that the government Obama inherited last January was a huge mess.  Even those who supported the Bush Administration, those who didn’t give a rat’s ass about civil liberties violations or gay rights or international condemnation, admitted that Bush’s policies created a fiscal nightmare. Not only did this new administration face financial meltdown, two “hot” wars, and a near-depression, it also faced a Republican party whose only goal was to see to it that nothing the new President wanted would get through Congress.

 Am I happy with everything that the administration has done? No, of course not. On civil liberties issues, this Administration has too often retained Bush policies—on State Secrets, detention, executive privilege, etc. On issues that matter to the gay community, Obama may not have been able to get DOMA repeal through a Senate paralyzed by GOP threats of filibusters, but he could have overturned Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell through Executive Order. He hasn’t. But how many of the pundits and wingers and other self-righteous critics could have handled what he walked into?

 I have been absolutely appalled by the immaturity of the loudest voices on both the right and left. The crazy right-wingers and Tea Party wackos—many of whom are clearly animated by racism—insist that Obama is Hitler, or at the very least a socialist trying to destroy The American Way of Life. (How dare he try to give everyone access to healthcare! How unutterably evil!) For their part, the ideological left is hysterically charging Obama with being a sell-out. The healthcare bill doesn’t go far enough, he spent too much to bail out the evil banksters (so what if there was a real risk of world financial system collapse) and not enough to bail out the auto industry. He didn’t put out a contract on Joe Lieberman. (Okay, I’ll give them that one.) And on and on.

 Meanwhile, the general public is just generally mad. Granted, they really aren’t too sure what they are mad about, or who’s to blame for whatever they are mad about. They just know things suck and they want to take it out on someone.

 All in all, it’s ugly. And unutterably dispiriting.

 It’s one thing to have good-faith disagreements about what ought to be done. It’s another to go off the deep end—to engage in fact-free fulmination, to lash out in the fashion of cranky four-year-olds everywhere. This country is facing huge, huge problems. One man—I don’t care how well-meaning or talented—isn’t going to fix all of those problems overnight, or in a year, or even in eight years.

 So Susie Sunshine here is checking out.

 Until the American public shows some sign of growing up, of understanding our own role in digging this hole, of giving some sign of a willingness to assume responsibility and help turn things around, I’ll be locked in my office, without newspapers, blogs, or television—and I’ll be in a very bad mood.