GOP’s culture war disaster: How this week highlighted a massive blind spot

Why are women’s rights stalling even as other societal advances are made? The answer is a disaster for the right

Topics: Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby, Harris v. Quinn, Justice Samuel Alito, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Feminism, Abortion, Contraception, Beyonce, women, GOP, The Right, Editor's Picks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, , , ,

GOP's culture war disaster: How this week highlighted a massive blind spotRush Limbaugh, Justice Samuel Alito, Mike Huckabee (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Charles Dharapak/Reuters/Joe Skipper/Photo colage by Salon)

Progressives often comfort themselves that while they’re losing a lot of economic battles, at least they’re winning the so-called culture wars. New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a staunch proponent of both gay marriage and tax cuts for the wealthy, symbolizes that political paradox for the left. But lately it’s impossible not to notice that even our culture war victories are uneven. They mostly involve gay rights, particularly marriage equality, and rarely women’s rights.

In the same few years that one state after another has legalized gay marriage, with occasional help from the Supreme Court, dozens of states have restricted abortion, and contraception has become controversial and divisive in a way it hasn’t since the Supreme Court’s Griswold v. Connecticut ruling almost 50 years ago. On the heels of the court’s awful Hobby Lobby decision Monday came welcome word that a judge had struck down Kentucky’s gay marriage ban. There have been plenty of bittersweet days like that over the last year.

I don’t mean to pit women against the LGBT community, or suggest one side is “winning” at the expense of the other. Women make up at least half of LGBT folks, so their advances are advances for women’s rights, and many barriers to their freedom and full equality remain. But why, when women’s concerns stand alone, are their rights so often abridged?

I’ve come to believe that the difference exists because, except for far right religious extremists and outright homophobes, marriage equality is, at heart, a conservative demand – letting gays and lesbians settle down and start families and have mortgages just like the rest of us will contribute to the stability of families and society. In his 1989 essay “Here comes the groom: The (conservative) case for gay marriage,” Andrew Sullivan argued that marriage would “foster social cohesion, emotional security, and economic prudence,” particularly among gay men too often viewed through the lens of partying and promiscuity.

Twenty years later Ted Olson updated those ideas in his wildly influential “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage,” as he took up the challenge to California’s Proposition 8 with David Boies, arguing “same-sex unions promote the values conservatives prize.”  Not all conservatives celebrate marriage equality, not yet, but many have come to agree with Sullivan and Olson.



That just points up the fact that advancing female autonomy and freedom, by contrast, is still perceived as threatening and undermining to family and society, particularly when it involves (as it always essentially does) issues of sexual freedom. The Hobby Lobby decision, and the conservative reaction to it, made this dynamic particularly and depressingly clear. Some pundits hailed its implications for religious liberty, but a whole lot of them welcomed it as a rebuke to slutty females having sex on their dime.

Sexually insecure sad sack Erick Erickson tweeted, “My religion trumps your ‘right’ to employer subsidized consequence free sex.” Utah Sen. Mike Lee hailed the decision for giving employers the freedom not to subsidize something that is “largely for recreational behavior,” not procreation. Bill O’Reilly tool Jesse Watters called it a setback for “Beyonce voters” (Way to get race in there too, Jesse!) who “depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands.” (Somebody should tell Watters that Mrs. Carter appears to depend on her husband quite comfortably, thank you very much).

Even the court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn betrayed a blinkered view of women as an underclass of workers who lack basic rights – especially when they work in the home. We’re moving fast on marriage equality, but when it comes to questions of work, family, sexuality and women’s equality, we are still fighting the culture wars of the 1960s. And women are still losing ground. Yes, Republicans are also losing political ground, as women recognize the party’s retrograde views and flee. But it’s not clear that women can be mobilized fast enough to protect their own rights.

* * *

In her withering dissent from the Hobby Lobby ruling, Ginsberg quotes the court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, which affirmed the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a Ronald Reagan appointee, wrote for the majority. More than two decades later, both of those abilities – to “participate equally” and “control their reproductive lives” — are still widely contested for women.

Justice Samuel Alito worked so assiduously to narrow the implications of the court’s Hobby Lobby ruling that he made its disrespect for women’s health, privacy and autonomy even more obvious and outrageous. The decision, he wrote, “concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs.”

Oh, thank god: Men won’t lose any of their access to healthcare coverage under the ruling. (In fact, Hobby Lobby’s insurance covers Viagra and vasectomies.)

The ruling won’t let corporations practice racial discrimination, either, even if their religion somehow justified it, Alito assured us. “The Government has a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race, and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal.” Apparently Alito doesn’t think the HHS contraception mandate is tailored to achieve a “compelling interest” or a “critical goal.”  Though he notes that “HHS asserts that the contraceptive mandate serves a variety of important interests,” Alito is unconvinced. “[M]any of these are couched in very broad terms, such as promoting ‘public health’ and ‘gender equality.’ ”

“Gender equality” … pshaw! One wonders if Alito also put “public health” in quotes because he knows HHS is really only talking about “women’s health.”

How did it happen that the only issue on which religious liberty trumps existing employment law, for the court’s conservative majority, is the issue that pertains to women’s freedom and sexuality? By emphasizing how narrowly tailored the court’s decision is, Alito only underscored its sexist radicalism. But that’s fitting. From the beginning, the entire controversy over the ACA’s contraceptive mandate served to highlight the backlash against women’s freedom we’ve endured in the last few decades.

Discomfort with women’s sexuality and autonomy was made plain in the earliest debate over the ACA’s contraception coverage. From Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” for supporting the mandate, to Mike Huckabee lamenting that Democrats were using it to appeal to women who “can’t control their libidos,” the outrage and abuse exposed the deep fear of women’s freedom at the heart of the modern conservative movement. We saw it throughout the 2012 Republican primary campaign, when candidates competed over who could more alarmingly blame our economic troubles on the “breakdown” of the family, and particularly, the rising numbers and power of single women – who by the way, tend to vote Democratic.

“When the family breaks down, the economy breaks down,” Rick Santorum told us, as he promised to be a president who’d talk about “the dangers of contraception,” which provides “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Apparently “how things are supposed to be” involves a husband, a wife and nothing but sweet, sweet procreative love. Long before Hobby Lobby voiced its religious objections to the contraception mandate, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele opposed it for marginalizing men.

“You have effectively absolved the male of any responsibility in the relationship with this woman,” he complained on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “It’s not just about giving women access to contraception. It’s about the responsible behavior that goes with that access.” He went on: “It’s nice for Barack Obama to tell women, ‘I got your back. Here, have a pill … But I’m saying it’s also this other piece that doesn’t get talked about in terms of the responsibility of fathers, or potential fathers, in this relationship.”

To conservatives, the contraceptive mandate wasn’t the ACA’s only controversial women’s health benefit; they also found fault with its requiring that all insurance policies offer maternity coverage. The party that allegedly stands for motherhood and all that is holy was outraged that maternity care became a basic right for the insured, and that women no longer pay higher premiums than men. North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers ridiculed former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for making maternity coverage universal, asking at a congressional hearing, “Has a man ever delivered a baby?” Ellmers was effectively supporting the transfer of millions of dollars of wealth back from women to men, by pushing to liberate men from having to subsidize baby making or women’s health in any way.

But it’s not that conservatives think women shouldn’t get any help at all with the financial burden of child-bearing, or of maintaining all those extra-special body parts that keep the entire human species alive. They deserve help – from their husbands. Bill O’Reilly’s dudebro assistant Jesse Watters probably put it best after the Hobby Lobby decision, when he trashed “Beyonce voters” — all the single ladies! — who “depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands.” See, it’s your husband, not Barack Obama, who should be saying (in Michael Steele’s words), “I got your back. Here, have a pill.” And if you don’t have a husband? Well, don’t have sex, and you won’t need that pill.

Oh, and if your husband is Rick Santorum? You might not get that pill anyway.

* * *

These backward attitudes don’t reflect majority opinion. On abortion, on the contraception mandate, on women’s rights generally, Americans remain broadly supportive of measures to allow women to “participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation,” to use Sandra Day O’Connor’s words from Casey.

But the far right learned to use the fear unleashed by the necessary and long overdue changes that began in the 1960s and ’70s to power a political backlash that we’re still fighting today. The liberation of women seemed to coincide with the unraveling of family life — an increase in divorce rates and single parenthood; even married moms left their children for the workplace. Instead of trying to understand the social and economic forces behind those changes, the project of the so-called “New Right” was to turn back the clock and push those women back into the home. In the reddest precincts of America, the same fear and dread animates conservative voters to this day.

Interestingly, if we can’t pinpoint the exact moment when progress for women stopped accelerating, we can identify a major one: when Richard Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act in 1972. Until that point, Nixon had gone along with the expansion of government that had its roots in the Progressive movement and the New Deal. He signed bills establishing the Environmental Protection and Occupational Safety and Health agencies. He pioneered federal affirmative action. He pushed healthcare reform that looked a lot like Obamacare.  Two out of three Supreme Court justices he appointed supported the majority in Roe v. Wade.

But Nixon drew the line at a bill that would massively subsidize childcare, even though it passed the Senate 63-17. “For the Federal Government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against [sic] the family-centered approach,” he wrote in a veto message.

If you want to understand the expansion of the low-wage economy, the stagnation of family income and the erosion of the middle class since then, it’s all there in the attitudes that led to Nixon’s veto (the message was crafted by Pat Buchanan, by the way). Whether by choice or necessity, women were moving into the labor force, and the country faced a decision: to make it easier for them and their families, or to make it harder. Mostly, we chose harder.

Unlike other developed nations, we never developed any kind of widely available subsidized childcare or preschool. We have no federal paid family leave. Most of the work that women used to do in their own home – from childcare to caring for sick or elderly family members – is now done by other women, many of color, who dwell in a low-wage, rarely unionized, shadow economy. Until recently, many workplace protections didn’t apply to them, because they were working in the home, not a factory. It’s as though society said: If women won’t do those jobs for free in their own homes any longer, we sure as hell won’t pay the women who replace them a living wage, or respect them as workers doing work that we value.

Or at least that’s what SCOTUS just said in Harris v. Quinn. Plaintiff Pam Harris was just a “mom” fighting to stop “the threat of unionization in a family home,” who sued the state of Illinois to avoid having to pay union dues out of funds she gets from Medicaid to care for her disabled son. Listen closely to the rhetoric of Harris and her supporters, and you could hear echoes of Nixon railing against “communal approaches” vs. “the family centered approach.” Harris is a vestige of a time when caring for everybody — young, old, disabled — was done by women, unpaid, in the home, and she’s a hero to people who think things should still be that way.

Of course, Harris is the ultimate free rider, not just on the labor movement but on the women’s movement, since she’s taking Medicaid dollars and being paid, for “women’s work,” as her son’s attendant. The Fox reporter who interviewed Harris about her Supreme Court victory Monday closed his segment by declaring that now, thank god, nobody could say “this home on the Illinois/Wisconsin border is somehow a union shop.”

That’s just the kind of phony issue the right used in the ’70s – fear of a world grown cold, a house that’s no longer a home, where moms demand money to do work they once did out of love – if they bother doing any of that work at all.

* * *

The contrast between the status of gay rights and women’s rights was made particularly stark in this Huffington Post piece, “In Wreckage of Supreme Court Decision, Gay Rights Groups See Hope.” The limited way Alito crafted the Hobby Lobby decision, LGBT leaders believe, meant it couldn’t be used to duck anti-discrimination laws or an executive order implementing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) they are pressing President Obama to issue soon. (Although on the heels of the Hobby Lobby ruling, evangelical megachurchman Rick Warren is asking the president to carve out a broad religious exemption from ENDA.)

That the Hobby Lobby ruling doesn’t hobble anti-discrimination law is good news for progressives. We all want to see the realm of freedom expanded. But I wish Ted Olson’s next essay would be “The Conservative Case for Women’s Equality.” Thirty years ago, it wouldn’t have been hard to imagine. Not long ago, issues of women’s freedom had bipartisan support. George H.W. Bush sponsored Title X family planning legislation that was signed by Richard Nixon, and Planned Parenthood was once the cause of Republican women from Barbara Bush to Peggy Goldwater to Ann Romney. But now women are scapegoats, the menacing agents of change who’ve unraveled society. In the neo-feudal worldview of the modern right, they must provide the free labor in the home as well as the force that “civilizes” men and shackles them to marriage and wage labor.

No less an eminence than Rafael Cruz Sr. put it this way recently:

As God commands us men to teach your wife, to teach your children—to be the spiritual leader of your family—you’re acting as a priest. Now, unfortunately, unfortunately, in too many Christian homes, the role of the priest is assumed by the wife. Why? Because the man had abdicated his responsibility as priest to his family…So the wife has taken up that banner, but that’s not her responsibility. And if I’m stepping on toes, just say, ‘Ouch.’

Ouch indeed. Cruz Sr. is twice-divorced, by the way, so that old “priest to the family” thing is not working out too well for him. No one has bothered to ask Sen. Ted Cruz what he thinks about his father (and mentor’s) backward views of women.

But such patriarchal ravings aren’t limited to the pulpit. Just last month the Washington Post published an Op-Ed originally headlined: “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married,” by University of Virginia sociology professor Brad Wilcox. Replying to the Twitter activism around violence against women in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s misogynistic killing spree, Wilcox and his team opined: “The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer hitched to their baby daddies.” The Post changed the display copy to the not much better “One way to end violence against women? Married dads. The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer with fewer boyfriends around their kids.”

Not only must women turn to their husbands for contraception (if he deigns to believe in it); they need husbands to avoid being raped, beaten or murdered. A woman can’t expect the state to keep her safe, Wilcox is telling us, or men to treat her with respect, if she doesn’t have the sense to get and keep a husband. Thanks, Brad.

Of course #notallmen, and certainly #notallwomen, believe that. The GOP backlash against women has now created exactly what they feared. No, I’m not saying we’re all going to stop loving men, getting married and having babies. Most women continue to do those things, even as our rights are eroded. We’re patient that way. But the right’s increasingly unhinged fear of women has in fact created a big problem for Republicans — those “Beyonce voters” who increasingly vote Democratic.  Not because they want “gifts” from the government, as Mitt Romney crudely put it after he lost the presidency. But because they want respect, and to “participate fully” in society, as Sandra Day O’Connor saw – and today only one party wants to make that possible.

The GOP’s last reliable female voting bloc is older, married, white Christian women, and their time is passing. It will pass more slowly if other women fail to vote in 2014, but the right’s crippling panic over women’s autonomy will eventually doom it to irrelevance. In the meantime, though, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority will do its best to stem the tide.

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