One of the great self-justifying myths of the conservatives is that their support for traditional gender roles is not rooted in misogyny, but in “family values.” They don’t hate women and want to keep them down, the argument goes, so much as they believe everyone--including women--benefits if women are relegated to a submissive role in marriage and prevented from exercising reproductive rights. They’re not trying to oppress women for the benefit of men, they argue. They’re trying to protect them.
It’s easy to uphold those “family values” when only women have to pay the price for them. But the real test is when the purported beliefs of the religious right conflict with what men want. Women are asked to sacrifice a lot in the name of family values, such as the right to leave unhappy marriages or the right to abort unwanted pregnancies. But are conservatives willing to ask the same of men? Two recent examples demonstrate that when family values conflict with a man’s interests, suddenly family values aren’t as important as the right generally says they are.
The case of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell is a particularly stomach-churning example. Along with Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, Bob McDonnell was supposed to be one of the great Christian right politicians whose commitment to a fundamentalist view of family life would set an example for the rest of America. The Christian right argument regarding marriage, which Bob McDonnell laid out in his 1989 master’s thesis at the conservative Christian Regent University, is purportedly one of exchange: Women submit to their husbands, staying home to serve their husbands and raise children; and in exchange, men offer protection and cherish women to the point of coddling.
As Dahlia Lithwick explained on Slate, “The thesis was an argument for infusing Christian Republican values into government policy,” on the grounds that traditional marriage is “the best safeguard against immorality and selfishness.” In order to preserve this traditional definition of marriage, McDonnell expected women to sacrifice reproductive rights, independent thinking and employment outside of the home. McDonnell claimed his views had softened since then, but as Lithwick notes, his actual policy positions as a politician suggested otherwise. Not only did McDonnell fight against abortion rights, he also pushed to make divorce much harder to get in the state of Virginia. Even though stricter divorce laws usually serve to make it harder for women to escape abusive relationships, asking women to give up personal safety in the name of “family values” was clearly not too great a sacrifice for McDonnell.
But recent months have put McDonnell’s commitment to marriage and family to the test; he and his wife have been subject to a 14-count federal indictment for public corruption. As Dana Milbank noted, McDonnell was given an opportunity to protect his wife, as the family values set tells us husbands are supposed to do in exchange for women’s submission. But given the choice between protecting his wife by taking a plea deal and going to court, McDonnell chose himself over family values, heading to court. Indeed, McDonnell not only refused to protect the woman he vowed to love and protect, his defense is built around throwing his wife under the bus, blaming her for everything and employing some tawdry sexist stereotypes about women being crazy and weak to sell the argument.
Don’t get me wrong: There is a strong amount of evidence that Maureen McDonnell is corrupt and a terrible decision-maker, and she seems to be admitting she had a cheater’s heart that led her to push one of her husband’s benefactors for illegal gifts. But that changes nothing. McDonnell has dedicated his career to the idea that women should sacrifice everything for the good of “family,” including bodily autonomy and personal safety, but the second he’s called upon to take on the responsibility of a good Christian husband to protect his wife, he ran away and tried to foist as much as the blame as he could on her. Turns out family values wasn’t about men and women sacrificing together for family, just a cover story to excuse male dominance over women.
McDonnell’s corruption charges all came out after he was out of public office. I n order to see how conservative voters act when one of their leaders puts the interests of straight men over their supposed commitment to family values, look no further than the state of Tennessee. Rep. Scott DesJarlais is running for his third term for Congress as a “family values” Republican, and his bona fides with conservative voters were proved again when he won a primary last week against another conservative challenger.
All this, despite the fact that DesJarlais has a long history showing that while he firmly believes women should have to lose their basic human rights in the name of family values, he, as a man, has never shown any interest in making even the teeniest sacrifice for those same values.
DesJarlais has a 0% rating from NARAL. He believes women who are facing an unwanted pregnancy that could derail their lives should suck it up and be made to suffer, you know, for “life.” But when faced with the prospect of an unintended pregnancy that could hurt him, he suddenly became a big fan of abortion.DesJarlais encouraged, some would say badgered, his mistress to get an abortion during his first marriage. He also supported his first wife’s abortions.
DesJarlais’ enthusiasm for abortions that helped him is hardly the only incidence of him exempting himself from the family values he wishes to impose on women. During his first marriage, he admitted to having eight affairs, some with patients. He also admitted under oath that he threatened his first wife with a gun. DesJarlais portrays these events as long past and argues he’s a different man now. But he still voted against the Violence Against Women Act, suggesting he has not actually developed any real concern about women’s safety in marriage since then.
Not that the voters mind enough to vote him out of office. If family values were actually about valuing families, voters would demand more of Republican leaders. But that someone as hypocritical as DesJarlais can still win elections shows that family values was never about families; just a transparent cover story for old-fashioned misogyny.