Face it: The Democratic Party is not for women

The Stupak-Pitts amendment is a devastating setback for women's rights. Are we ready to fight yet?

Published November 10, 2009 9:21PM (EST)

Thousands of pro-choice demonstrators gather on the Ellipse near the White House in a massive March for Women's Lives rally organized by the National Organziation for Women (NOW) in Washington, D.C., April 5, 1992.  Some of the signs read, "Keep Abortion Legal," and "I Am the Face of Pro-Choice America." (AP Photo/Doug Mills) (Associated Press)
Thousands of pro-choice demonstrators gather on the Ellipse near the White House in a massive March for Women's Lives rally organized by the National Organziation for Women (NOW) in Washington, D.C., April 5, 1992. Some of the signs read, "Keep Abortion Legal," and "I Am the Face of Pro-Choice America." (AP Photo/Doug Mills) (Associated Press)

Since the healthcare reform bill passed the House with the Stupak-Pitts amendment intact on Saturday night, feminists have been up in arms about the latest assault on access to abortion, and so-called progressive men have been telling us to calm down and look at the big picture. In other words: same old, same old. In an e-mail, our own Rebecca Traister summed up the ongoing conflict between those who prioritize women's rights and those who see them as a bargaining chip to be traded away as necessary:

This is the argument made over and over again: If the repro rights activists would just stop agitating about the pro-life Dems, we could get majorities, and things would improve for women and men everywhere. I get that argument. Most days, I believe it. And then I wake up to a Democratic majority that will only pass progressive healthcare legislation if it includes antiabortion provisions. 

These trade-offs build on each other. Stupak did not happen in a vacuum. It's part of a larger cycle. Is this the moment to stand up and say "no"? How could I say it is, especially when I am all too aware that if pro-choice Democrats were to revolt over this issue, they would be vilified and further alienated from a party that already allows the erosion of reproductive rights? We choose to play nice, our party trades on our freedoms. We choose to object, our party resents and blames us for failure. It's not exactly a bright set of options for anyone who has gotten into this quandary simply because they fervently believe that the rights of half the population to control its own reproduction are fundamental to full and equal participation in our democracy.

The problem is, there is never a good time to stand up and say "no," because the fear is always that we'll lose whatever ground we've gained. As I wrote recently (shortly before Dede Scozzafava dropped out of the NY-23 race), "That's what's really at the heart of this dust-up: Whether it's more important to stand for something and lose or compromise and win -- when 'winning' means installing someone who [as Kos put it] 'would strengthen the part of the Democratic caucus that is actually the problem, rather than the solution.'" In that case, the candidate with a 100 percent pro-choice voting record dropped out, and the Democrat with a much weaker record of supporting reproductive rights won. I'm supposed to see this as a victory, because a Democrat now holds the seat -- just as I'm supposed to see it as a victory that the healthcare reform bill passed the house, and never mind that little part that restricts access to abortion in unprecedented ways.

If feminists are upset that such "victories" keep coming at the expense of reproductive rights, well, that's because we just don't understand politics beyond our silly single issue! We need to listen to the reasonable, objective pragmatists who don't get all hysterical and fluttery over negotiable details like healthcare for half the population. Jill at Feministe, Ann at Feministing, and Pilgrim Soul at The Pursuit of Harpyness, among others, all reported in their respective Stupak rants that they've been harangued by men about how this isn't such a big deal, it won't screw women over any differently than the Hyde Amendment has been screwing us over since 1976, it will be stripped out before the final bill anyway, and even if it's not, the stakes are just too high to risk taking a stand for women's rights! Don't you want poor people to have insurance, you selfish bitches? Such men assume that somehow, we just don't get it, because if we did, we'd shut our big mouths already. As Jill put it on Sunday, "What's really chapping my hide today -- almost as much as the amendment itself -- is the number of 'progressive' dudes who have lectured me in the past 24 hours on How This All Works, and the number of progressive dudes who have just stayed silent."

One who hasn't, bless him, is Meteor Blades, writing at Daily Kos.

"Irrational." "Hypersensitive." "Overreacting." "Hysterical."

Women recognize these words all too well. They're put-downs many of them have had thrown at them all their lives anytime they raise issues about their treatment in relationships, school, the workplace or society at large.

These words and others of similar ilk have found their way into diaries and comments here at Daily Kos yesterday and today around the abomination known as the Stupak-Pitts Amendment. Calm down, little lady, is the tone. Get real. Be adults. Doncha know how politics really works?


Pffffffft, indeed. Because there is another side to How This All Works, which the "Just get a Democratic majority, and everything automatically improves!" camp tends to ignore: Eventually, after we've elected enough Democrats willing to trade away women's rights -- like the 64 who voted for the Stupak-Pitts amendment -- women will get pissed off and draw the line. And that might just be happening as we speak.

Representatives Diana DeGette and Louise Slaughter, co-chairs of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, have already secured over 40 signatures on a letter to Nancy Pelosi, promising, "We will not vote for a conference report that contains language that restricts women's right to choose any further than current law." That's enough to block it, if it gets that far. But it might not (even though, like Ann, I'm not yet holding my breath). California Sen.  Barbara Boxer is already saying, yeah, good luck getting that through the Senate -- which "is much more pro-choice than the House" -- and as Sam Stein at the Huffington Post says, "Boxer's reading of the political landscape might seem like the hopeful spin of an abortion-rights defender. But it was seconded by a far less pro-choice lawmaker, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.)" Baucus admits, "I doubt it could pass." 

Meanwhile, as Dana Goldstein reports at the Daily Beast, "Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women said Monday they would oppose any final health package that includes the abortion ban, which would apply both to private and public insurance plans. And some pro-choice leaders said they expect other influential women's groups to follow suit, potentially driving a wedge through the coalition that elected President Barack Obama and brought the Democratic Party to majorities in both the House and Senate." Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, told Goldstein, "I believe, frankly, that the women's movement as a whole will go there ... I think everybody is extremely serious about this. It's been a very strong and very quick reaction. It's the feeling that you've been rolled."

Some, including me, would argue that we were rolled with like 35 years of advance warning, but still, like the proverbial frogs in a pot of increasingly hot water, we couldn't muster the motivation to jump. Or not enough of us could, anyway. Writes Meteor Blades:

About five minutes after the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade, the anti-abortion forces began a war on the rights confirmed by that decision. But their molester-enabling, coathanger-selling, health-shattering, woman-hating, forced-pregnancy campaign was two-pronged, a direct assault but also an asymmetrical war, a nibble here, a nibble there.

And at every step of the way, some people who claimed they were pro-choice said that this little nibble or that little nibble wasn't such a big deal. It only affected a small group of people or it was only the case rarely, we were told. The activists who challenged these nibbles were characterized as "hypersensitive," "irrational," and "over-reacting." Not by their enemies. But by their supposed allies.

Our supposed allies who still keep trying to convince us that one more nibble won't amount to anything much. Only this time, we're not buying it. We are ready to go there. As Smeal told Goldstein, "We didn't want to make a fuss, we agreed to a compromise that was already over-generous. And then, bango! These guys go in there like gangbusters. Pelosi was held up, like by bandits. Now the women are saying, 'That's it, it's enough.'" And it's not just the women -- or just the staunchest pro-choicers -- who are fed up with Democrats who act exactly like Republicans did before their party moved so far right it landed on a different planet. Kos himself (who's taken plenty of criticism over the years, including some from me quite recently, for exhorting women to ignore the nibbles for the greater good), is reminding people today that donations to the DCCC will support Democrats who "voted for the Stupak-Pitts coathanger amendment," as well as anti-healthcare reform ones. Moveon.org is also going after Democrats who voted against the bill. And gay rights activists have launched a "Don't Ask, Don't Give" campaign, encouraging progressives "to no longer donate to the DNC, Organizing for America, or the Obama campaign until the President and the Democratic party keep their promises to the gay community, our families, and our friends." Suddenly, for a host of different reasons, progressives are sending the message that we will not support these people if they keep breaking their promises and acting against our interests.

It's an exciting moment, and there's a chance to make a real difference if this latest swell of righteous indignation doesn't lead directly to the same old shit: Some of us panic about losing a Democratic majority and start hollering at others to quit being so picky and oversensitive about our "single issues" and take one for the team. (Again. Still. Always.) If we can work together as a bona fide progressive movement, rather than a bunch of competing groups who will all ultimately settle for holding our noses and blocking the worst Republicans, we might actually force the Democrats to give us more than empty shout-outs on the campaign trail. But if some of us will sacrifice gay rights for a chance at advancing our own agendas, and others will sacrifice reproductive rights for a chance at advancing theirs, and a ludicrous number of self-identified progressives will sacrifice pretty much everything they claim to believe in, just because the words "Democratic majority" sound so much better than the alternative, then nothing will change.

So the wise, objective, pragmatic mansplainers can go ahead and tell us little ladies How This All Works one more time, but now we're telling you: We've not only heard it, we've tried it. We've tried electing "moderate" Democrats who would be obvious conservatives in any era marked less by far-right lunacy. We've tried compromising our values in hopes of taking baby steps forward. We've tried sacrificing the rights of women and every minority group under the sun, so as not to look unreasonable or oversensitive to those who resent having to share this country at all with people they find undesirable. And we've seen where it leads: "We choose to play nice, our party trades on our freedoms. We choose to object, our party resents and blames us for failure."

Really, when those are the options, there's only one logical conclusion: This is not our party. We've known that for too long, and yet the Democrats have known too well that they could bank on our money and our votes as long as the GOP remained even more not our party. But something's changed. Sixty-four Democrats voted to block women's access to legal medical services. That may not be quite as repulsive as some Republican shenanigans, but the difference is only one of degree. If the point of women voting for "moderate" Democrats is to avoid a majority that's actively hostile to women, then those who voted for the Stupak-Pitts amendment just proved that there's no point at all. And progressive women have finally had enough. We are ready to go there. Are Democrats ready to try getting elected without us? 

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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