About that non-vacuum in which Stupak happened…

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009 · 41 Comments »

Kate Harding has a good piece in Salon that captures the PUMA-a-year-later zeitgeist we’ve been talking about here (to recap: A year later, world suddenly gets what PUMAs were talking about, House Democrats pass healthcare reform for men, and Rachel Maddow is becoming post-rational).

Harding’s piece is called Face it: The Democratic Party is not for women, and she asks, “Are we ready to fight yet?” She quotes an email from Rebecca Traister, who says that “Stupak did not happen in a vacuum.”

Right. I want to talk for a minute about that non-vacuum.

The point I’m going to try to make here may seem a bit counterintuitive, so you’ll need to pay attention. What I want to explain is that we arrived at this moment — this Stupak moment, if you will, where we’re quite possibly on the brink of losing abortion access — by, paradoxically enough, focusing too tightly on abortion as the chief yardstick of feminism.

Let me explain.

Back in the 70s, feminism was very prominent and very much engaged in an ongoing, public deconstruction of American life. It was about everything: abortion rights, equal pay, equal opportunity, respect, not having to fetch coffee, pornography, prostitution, pin-ups, sexist exploitation, fashion, rape, victim-blaming, domestic violence, how many women are in the history books, leg-shaving, childcare, why don’t you do the damn dishes — all kinds of things. There was a lot of arguing back then, at least as I remember it. Feminism was bristling on all fronts, with women challenging everything in their daily lives. (Except those women who were somnolent or scared shitless, but I digress.)

Over time, that has faded. Yes, feminists still talk about all that stuff, but mostly to each other. Nobody else is really listening. The backlash happened, and women learned to shut up or be called man-hating feminazis. Feminism itself became a dirty word. And a whole lot of old-school sexism came back disguised as “empowerment.”

The legal gains remained, of course, and women have moved into careers and politics and academia in a big way. Liberal men adopted a couple of feminist ideas as part of the canon of progressive thought: abortion rights, primarily, plus a stated belief in the concept of equality. But on a deeper level, society has settled back into old, time-worn, sexist patterns.

(Historical note: the same thing happened in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Women’s legal equality was enacted right off the bat as part of communism, and became an accepted aspect of Soviet life. But the underlying cultural patterns were never examined, much less challenged, and so sexist behavior and attitudes remained entrenched.)

Today’s young feminists grew up in this quiescent “post-feminist” environment. They’re the children of the backlash. They came of age in a world where liberal men routinely demonstrate their allegedly pro-woman cred with a solemn nod in the direction of Roe v. Wade, while simultaneously engaging in the same Hefneriffic sexism as their fathers. And young women have been trained, since birth, to accept this. They’ve been trained to accept a guy’s pro-choice political stance as sufficient evidence of his feminist sympathies, and trained to ignore a whole suite of sexist behaviors in other areas that might suggest a different story.

Cue the 2008 gender wars. Cue the Clinton/PUMA movement, which saw women mostly my age or older pushing back against the outrageous misogyny of the Obama camp. Cue the young Obama-supporting feminists, telling us that as long as these guys were pro-choice, they were on our side. And cue me and other women saying, “bull fucking shit.”

Word to the wise, girls: if a guy calls you a filthy cunt or a whiny bitch, if he says Hillary Clinton is a hag from hell, if he calls her supporters the dry pussy brigade, if he talks about punish-raping the rebels, this guy is not a feminist. Which means that he doesn’t really give a shit about women’s rights. Which means that his commitment to your reproductive freedom is about as firm as a tomato seed. Which means he will sell you out. In a god. damn. heartbeat.

And really, it doesn’t have to get to the rape-talk level. There was a full set of clues last year, from the Obama headquarters on down: a complete boxed set of indicators that women in the Democratic party would shortly be moving to the undercarriage of the bus. After they voted, that is.

My purpose here isn’t to re-hash 2008 or play imaginary Waterloo. I’m offering this as a lessons-learned contribution to the feminist database. Going forward, we need to be more wary, more discerning, more demanding of the men who claim to be our allies. We need to stop cutting them slack and trusting that they’ll come through when it matters. Because you know what? They won’t.

41 Responses to “About that non-vacuum in which Stupak happened…”

  1. lorac says:

    Excellent post. And you’re right on about all the different aspects of a woman’s life that were considered important. And I remember, too, the Take Back the Night marches and the Assertiveness Training classes. Learning to be a woman-identified woman. I even remember the Pockets are Power discussion.

    Many women seem to have become satisifed having merely been allowed into the workplace (making .70 to a man’s dollar). In other aspects, they seem to have gone right back to making their choices limited to what men may approve of. And don’t even get me started on the explosion of the objectification of women in ads, in other media, etc., led, IMO, by the 3rd wave feminists.

    I hope a lot of people see your post. It’s time we stop being defined and manipulated (by both parties) on the basis of one issue. We’re the majority. We could have a lot of power.

  2. Violet says:

    Many women seem to have become satisifed having merely been allowed into the workplace (making .70 to a man’s dollar). In other aspects, they seem to have gone right back to making their choices limited to what men may approve of. And don’t even get me started on the explosion of the objectification of women in ads, in other media, etc., led, IMO, by the 3rd wave feminists.

    But we don’t want to make the mistake of blaming women for being oppressed. The weight of patriarchy has settled upon us, and women do what they can. Feminism requires almost constant consciousness-raising and educating each other and helping each other.

  3. Nessum says:

    As a non American, living in a country where abortion is a non-issue (read: free and every woman’s own choice), I was astonished to learn during the previous year’s election how it took (men) just whispering “Roe…”, to scare and upset women and subsequently derail any debate into a “pro life or choice” debate!

    To me it is unfathomable that there even is such a thing as an anti-abortion movement! And one with such power over women at that!

  4. teresainpa says:

    how about we just stop electing men and then we wont have to deal with any of their crap.
    I heard Congressman kanjorski say, on local talk radio, that DeGette is being overly emotional when she threatens to kill the bill if it has the sepsis amendment contained in it.
    He and Chris Carny both talked about how great it was that the Catholic Bishops club endorsed the bill and urged them to pass it.
    I wonder if they have any clue how inappropriate their stance is in terms of the Constitution?

  5. NotYoursweetie says:

    Fantastic writing! of course, Stupak himself proposed this in committee back in July – and we didn’t even know about it. because we’re so well represented

  6. yttik says:

    I remember, abortion rights used to just be a piece of the big picture. Now days it seems like that is where feminism begins and ends. The problem with that attitude is that abortion rights can exist in a very oppressive and misogynistic culture, in fact they can benefit patriarchy. China’s abortion “rights” without choice is one example. Men believing women’s bodies are simply a receptacle and any unwanted pregnancies are her problem, is another. Abortion has always served some of the wealthy and powerful very well, men have used it to cover up affairs, to avoid responsibility for raping their daughters. It can very quickly become a “right” that simply exists to serve the convenience of men.

    We used to have saying, “if you don’t like abortion, don’t cause one.” We haven’t gotten anywhere with that. The attitudes that stand in the way of true equality have not changed one bit, the idea that women are solely responsible for birth control, that men just can’t help themselves and therefore are incapable of having any respect for women’s bodies, still exist, perhaps worse then ever.

    I remember when Obama said he didn’t think girls should be punished with a baby. The historical misogyny in that statement took my breath away, because of course the theme has always been that women just get pregnant to punish men with babies. Obviously that misogynistic thinking is well ingrained in Obama or he would never have used that set of words in a distorted way that implies he somehow cares about women’s autonomy. He does not, he cares about abortion from the perspective of keeping men from being inconvenienced and punished with a baby.

  7. WMCB says:

    Bravo, Violet! I am damn tired of being viewed solely as a walking talking uterus. I will fight like hell for abortion rights, but I will fight JUST as hard for respect. Respect in every area. Because it’s all important, but also because if we don’t fight for real equality, then the abortion issue eventually gets thrown under the bus as well.

    In war, you don’t say, “We’ll give up all other territory so long as we can hold this little tiny hill.” That ever and always leads to you losing it all. Some of us “dried up old pussies” saw this coming, and are not surprised. The man who will intimidate you, sneer at you, denigrate you, and hit you with an open hand WILL eventually hit you with a fist or a baseball bat. Women have been existing in a fantasy that “the Democrats won’t cross that particular line”, while those of us with more savvy have been screaming “Oh yes, hell, they will.” I do not like being proven right

  8. bygones says:

    Where are the voices of a Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug these days? We are missing the resolve of women like those two who put the feminist movement front and center for a time.

    All we average today are lukewarm statements and empty press releases. Many of these feminist groups led the younger generation over the abyss in their support of Obama while Hillary Clinton, a product of those wars, was put out to pasture.

    We “mature” ladies were cast adrift regardless of how we pointed to the folly of this decision. I no longer must worry about my reproductive rights but they do.

    Oh well!

  9. fif says:

    Speaking of Salon–Paglia has completely lost her mind, suggesting that this outrage against women proves Pelosi’s stature as a feminist?! I would love to see you debate her.

    Pelosi’s victory for women
    Sure, her healthcare bill is a mess, but her gritty maneuvering shows her mettle.
    By Camille Paglia

    Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi scored a giant gain for feminism last weekend. In shoving her controversy-plagued healthcare reform bill to victory by a paper-thin margin, she conclusively demonstrated that a woman can be just as gritty, ruthless and arm-twisting in pursuing her agenda as anyone in the long line of fabled male speakers before her. Even a basic feminist shibboleth like abortion rights became just another card for Pelosi to deal and swap.

    Whether or not her bill survives in the Senate is immaterial: Pelosi’s hard-won, trench-warfare win sets a new standard for U.S. women politicians and is certainly well beyond anything the posturing but ineffectual Hillary Clinton has ever achieved.


  10. fif says:

    “They’ve been trained to accept a guy’s pro-choice political stance as sufficient evidence of his feminist sympathies, and trained to ignore a whole suite of sexist behaviors in other areas that might suggest a different story.”

    That is so accurate. We saw it with the sneering, the excuses, the attitudes and the tone–and eventually it led to the stealing of delegates. It’s a slippery slope, and many of us recognized the assumed superiority beneath the surface, and where it would lead.

  11. Tomecat says:

    I have been trying to verbalize just this for some time now–the difference between the forward movement of the 70s and the stagnation/backward movement ever since then.
    Whenever I try to discuss this backlash, supposed allies look at me like I have two heads.
    Nice to know that somebody else sees it–Thanks!

  12. RKMK says:

    Breathtakingly awesome post, Vi.

  13. Lynnerkat says:

    Loved this post and absolutely agree.

  14. blondie says:


    The abortion issue is a front-line issue in the patriarchy’s war against the insurgents/women. I will continue to fight it because the anti-choice people must assume, for purposes of their argument, that I do not have the right to personal autonomy and bodily integrity.

    It’s hard for me to think of a more fundamental right than to be left alone in your own body.

    But you are so right that feminism is much more than the abortion issue, and I’ve wondered whether it was just me (becoming more conscious of what surrounds me) or whether things were really getting worse.

  15. SweetSue says:

    Great Piece, Dr. Socks.
    Everyone should read Harding’s post in Salon and, then, read the comments-one hundred fifty and counting.
    For every feminist letter, there are three or four from helpful men and their female enablers. The woman haters are flocking there to tell Kate- and other like minded women- that we are short sighted, selfish bitches who are standing in the way of a healthcare paradise for all with our whiny insistence on something so insignificant as reproductive rights.
    Really it’s hilarious; the primaries greatest hits all over again.

  16. Topper Harley says:

    Word to the wise, girls: if a guy calls you a filthy cunt or a whiny bitch…

    I’d add to the list the attachment of negative connotations to male homosexual behavior. If he does this, he’s unconsciously betraying male-chauvinist attitudes. In his world-view, male homosexuals are seen as lesser beings because they’ve taken on the attributes of women, who are themselves “lesser” beings.

  17. purplefinn says:

    SweetSue, I took your advice about reading the comments.
    Here’s a good counter to all of the ridiculous, “so you want to be a Republican” comments:

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009 02:16 PM

    I think the guys should continue to post the most condescending comments possible. There’s really no better way to illustrate exactly what this article is talking about.
    — JP Gal

  18. Alwaysthinking says:

    Indeed, the battles for equality, autonomy, and personal freedom for women are much larger than one issue, and we need to re-embrace them. We can not wait for all other issues to be solved. Men and women foolishly ignore that fact. We know life will improve if women’s lives improve. We have seen the opposite in countries around the world (long before Nicholas Kristof and his spouse wrote about them. Sadly, he, too, does not seem to understand that allowing erosion of a right in favor of another is a slippery downward slope.)

    We have to play offense as well as defense. (Girls can play sports, too.) We must get more touchdowns to win but we also have to stop the other side from defeating us.

    Congress and our media, however, behave as though they are private men’s club houses with no one else but men listening. The waitresses in the room giggle at their jokes. (They don’t yet realize, or cannot realize, that they have power. albeit at great risk at times.)

    The patriarchy, working through many churches, also obfuscates the issue of equality by using abortion as the scary issue even as they deprive some young women of needed health care and support. (Such as one I’ve mentioned before, who desperately wanted a second child but learned that its brain was crumbling. She was devastated but had to undergo the procedure. She could not, however, share her sorrow with her friends because of society’s mean-spirited attitudes now.)

    Since Congress is made up mostly of men and we have not yet achieved parity there, we must try some old tactics as well as new ones. Perhaps we must reach every wife of a Congressman or Senator and appeal to her to pressure her husband to do the right thing, both on the abortion matter — wrongly stuck in the so-called health care bill –and on the overall mission of improving the lives and daily existences of women. We must show the wives, that they, too, are being discriminated against in hosts of ways.

    I get weary sometimes. It seems we’ve fought these battles for so long. But, in the end, we must win!

    Purplefinn–Jp gal’s view does make me smile, though. So true!

  19. cwaltz says:


    I’d go a step further and say that many of these gentlemen have been given a pass to be pro choice in name only. When it comes down to fighting for our abortion rights it has been acceptable for them to vote “present” rather than being told to actively fight for the pro choice position, often arguing “political expediency”. Women’s rights should not be tossed under the bus to allow someone political viability. Either you believe in a principle and aren’t afraid to fight for it, or you don’t. It needs to be that simple at this point. Mouthing platitudes isn’t enough.

  20. Carmonn says:

    SweetSue, it seems like just yesterday that we were short sighted, selfish bitches who were standing in the way of a labor rights paradise for all by not supporting working men’s champions like Casey Sr. and Casey Jr., with our whiny insistence on something so insignificant as reproductive rights. They grow up so fast!

    http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/11/many-previously-pro-choice-dems-voted.html is a deeply ominous article about formerly pro-choice Democrats and a few Republicans backtracking in the belief that choice is an electoral loser.

  21. cwaltz says:


    That is an illustration of my larger point. That 17 men could be allowed to retain the title of pro choice while voting to restrict their right to choose says something about pro choice advocates ability to organize a pushback.

    While I would never make the statement that being anti choice should preclude you from the title is feminist, there should be more aggressive criteria then simply mouthing platitudes about equality and voting for women only when it is a sure thing for you politically.

  22. Nessum says:

    This is the quote yttik mentions in comment 6:

    ”I’ve got two daughters nine year old…ni-nine years old and six years old. I’m gonna teach them first of all about values and morals. BUT, if they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby. I don’t want them punished with…err…an STD at the age of sixteen.”


    So if they do make “a mistake”, I wonder what precisely he intends to do, to prevent them from “being punished” neither with a baby nor an STD?

  23. yttik says:

    “..anti-choice people must assume, for purposes of their argument, that I do not have the right to personal autonomy and bodily integrity.”

    What’s become apparent to me is that abortion rights also seem able to exist and still be no guarantee of women’s personal autonomy. As president Obama said, he believes women should consult with their doctors, their families, their ministers. It’s not simply about her right to control her body.

    I think some of the work against pornography, against sexual assault, was more productive in trying to get women bodily integrity then the abortion battle has been. Within the rape culture we live in, abortion rights are so incredibly inadequate.

  24. riverdaughter says:

    Violet: My 13 year old asked me a couple months ago if I was a feminist. She asked me like being one was like having membership in some kind of radical subversive group.
    I told her yes.
    Then she said, “Cool!”, like I had just confessed to being a ninja.
    She listens to Stuff Mom Never Told You, the best podcast around for young feminists.
    There is hope, Violet. We will overcome one day.

  25. Violet says:

    Then she said, “Cool!”, like I had just confessed to being a ninja.

    Really? That is wonderful. That warms my heart.

    I believe that the best thing to come out of 2008 was the resurgence of feminism on a grassroots level. I heard more women calling themselves “feminists” than I had in a couple of decades. And all of a sudden new women’s groups were being founded, and by regular Janes, not inside-the-Beltway activists.

    On the surface, 2008 gave women a lot of defeats. But underneath, I think a sea change happened. In the long run it may turn out to have been a turning point.

  26. octogalore says:

    You make an excellent point that allowing oneself to become a loyalist on the basis of one issue also allows the conceit that it is OK to abuse that loyalty, even when it comes to that one issue, because one is now captive.

    Whenever this point is made, sarcastic Blogger Boyz say “well, there is nowhere else for you to go, suck it up.” But the fact is, standing up would not mean pledging allegiance to the republican party, just one election of demonstrating that ones vote cannot be had so easily. I think that is all that it would take for women to be viewed as independent political entities, rather than captives to the Dems no matter what. And from there, I think there would be a new-found incentive to attract female voters as women and not simply as liberals, from both parties. Which would necessarily lead to policies that are more attractive for women.

  27. Janis says:

    Any time you advertise that this one really important thing over here is all you care about, you’ve just slapped a label on it that says MANIPULATE ME HERE.

  28. stateofdisbelief says:

    Great post. I wonder if this younger generation’s exaggerated sense of entitlement is actually a blessing for our young women. They just may enter adulthood with a strong sense of entitlement to equality.

    If you’ve dealt recently with a teenager, you know what I’m talking about. Too many women of our generation have “settled.” I wonder if this next generation will do the same or just flip out if someone infers that they’re not equal. That wouldn’t be a bad thing.

  29. Sasha, CA says:

    My 13 year old asked me a couple months ago if I was a feminist. She asked me like being one was like having membership in some kind of radical subversive group.
    I told her yes.
    Then she said, “Cool!”, like I had just confessed to being a ninja.

    Love it! You just put a big smile on my face!
    And Violet — great post!

  30. Sasha, CA says:

    Speaking of Salon–Paglia has completely lost her mind, suggesting that this outrage against women proves Pelosi’s stature as a feminist?!

    Paglia is an anti-feminist who hates Hillary because she identifies as a feminist and talks about sexism and women being oppressed. How boring! Pelosi, OTOH, is on the record as saying that sexism is no big deal (if it even exists at all) and that women in politics actually have many advantages over men. It’s all just a matter of individual empowerment! No wonder Paglia likes her. Camille is nothing if not predictable.

  31. HeroesGetMade says:

    Yet another brilliant post, Violet. I’m 45, so I’m on the cusp of the Boomer/Gen X generational divide. I never gave much credence to the generational divide theory of Obama suckerdom as I knew a few women much older than me who used their seniority as a cudgel, along with abortion rights, to try to get me to recant my PUMA ways, to no avail, of course. But yeah, you’ve illuminated some history that I was too young to grok at the time, namely that feminism wasn’t always about abortion rights only, and also wasn’t a taboo subject of conversation.

    My experience has been that discussion of real radical feminism, ala Second Wave, is only permissable in RL amongst venerable women of that stripe, and on the intertubes on places like this, of which there are altogether too few. Real radical feminism is the only thing that stands a chance to end patriarchy, so is therefore a taboo subject in polite, patriarchal society which runs the world (into the ground, and is presently tunneling). Sexy, fun feminism, go-along feminism, or whatever you want to call it, is a wholly owned subsidiary of polite, patriarchal society, and as such is limited to complaining about patriarchy’s follies, but never doing anything about ending it. As such, its torch bearers such as Paglia get twitchy whenever a shameless real radical feminist gets anywhere close to power. Molly Ivins got it right years ago when she apprehended that Camille’s idea of feminism was simply to make the world into an equal opportunity playground for women to be assholes on a par with men.

    Enough about poor Camille, though. I wanted to make mention of Kate Harding’s great posts over at Shakesville during the unfortunate primaries. She had an unerring radar for indications that O had a little women problem, from confusing unprotected sex with rape in the Congo to comparing being punished with a pregnancy to being punished with a STD, ad nauseum. I doubt there was ever a doubt in her mind that O would be a flaming disaster for women, and now she’s been vindicated. Vindication is not always a happy thing, but I also think this is a turning point for a lot of women who shackled themselves to the spineless dem party.

    What to do? I think this is a tremendous opportunity for women’s groups to use their voting leverage to form coalitions that will effect real change, not just the sexy fun symbolic sort of the Stockholm Sweetie set. I’ve long been convinced that the dem health insurance reform is, in Conyer’s words, crap, and will make us worse off by further entrenching for-profit health insurance parasites, which are most of the problem with delivering health care to all with no exceptions. I think women’s groups should make common cause with single-payer healthcare advocates in exchange for working to repeal the Hyde amendment. The coalition should look for candidates to run on single-payer, repeal of the Hyde amendment, ERA, CEDAW, et al, forthwith. It’s long past time to expect that going along will get us truly represented, so it should go without saying that most of those candidates need to be women.

  32. myiq2xu says:

    How about a progressive guy who calls a woman “Princess Jesus Boobies?”


  33. datechguy says:

    Although I of course disagree with you on the Abortion issues you have a great point.

    For a long time you were warning people on the left that the only principle of the Obama administration was the glorification of the one and the destruction of those who stood in his way.

    The irony that people on your side had been warned from within and are only now figuring it out is frightening.

    Again I’m not with you on either issue but I hate to see people being played for suckers, it just isn’t right, much better a forthright foe who you can debate with.

    I have to say I admire you Violet, I say you are wrong but you are no sucker and you refuse to play the sucker. That makes you worthy of respect and your blog worthy of my time.

  34. tinfoil hattie says:

    Oooooh, lookie! Violet’s blog meets with a dude’s approval! Even a woman-hating dude! Wow – you now have it made. Dude is going to keep visiting, because you are “worthy” of his respect!

    Wow. From way up on high there. If it were my blog I’d be just swooooooning.

  35. RKMK says:

    Violet’s blog meets with a dude’s approval!

    A dude who not only approves, but likes to emphasize how much that approval mean by reminding us how morally superior he is to the baby-killing feminists in every thread!

  36. Dormaphaea says:

    Yesterday, a pal suggested that someone start a feminist pac named “Charlie Browns Teacher,” because so often, that’s all they hear when we speak.

    But you, Violet, just came through loud and clear.


  37. yttik says:

    Kind of interesting, Tim Kaine, head of the Democratic National Committee is prolife, but tries to downplay that because of his party’s pandering to prochoicers. Michael Steele, head of the Republican National Committee, is prochoice, but has had to downplay that because of his party’s pandering to prolifers.

  38. hm says:

    did people here read Katha Pollitt at

    I want to slap everyone of these Obot women silly for rejecting Hillary — in Pollitt’s words they did it to elect the best possible president!. They own Obama and deserve blame for the current fiasco. It is rather sad and outrageous at the same time to hear their wails now.

  39. MW, Toxic Meme Edition: Lies of the “Pro-Life” Movement « The Widdershins says:

    [...] really hate to say I told you so, but…I told you so. Pro-choicers, even brilliant ones, have allowed the anti-choicers to dictate the terms of the debate by using the words [...]

  40. DancingOpossum says:

    Katha Pollitt should hang her head in shame and never write another g.d. word on this subject. She was one of the first and loudest proponents of Obama and one of the biggest singers of “LA LA LA Can’t HEARRRR You” when it came to criticism of Obama. And she says she’ll never give another “dime” to Claire McCaskill, implying that at one time she though highly enough of McCaskill to give her money??? McCaskill, who giggled like a schoolgirl every time she mentioned Obama’s name, and said she had to support him on orders of her pre-teen daughter? McCaskill, who threw Hillary under the bus so hard and so fast it made your head spin? Ugh. If Pollitt was taken, she needs to own up to it. She’s still making excuses for her lousy choices.

  41. Dreaming of Diocletian | Reclusive Leftist says:

    [...] The original impetus for this discussion was the Stupak amendment, which brought with it the realization (or confirmation, for some of us) that the Democrats really, really aren’t the party of women’s rights. [...]