The Vagina Demagogues

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decorum, n. Dignified propriety of behavior, speech, dress, etc.

draconian, adj. rigorous; unusually severe or cruel (from the harsh law codes of Draco)

vagina, n. (Anatomy) The passage leading from the opening of the vulva to the cervix of the uterus in female mammals

The Toronto Star reports on today’s “Vaginas Take Back the Capitol!” protest in Lansing, Michigan, during which a crowd of some 2,500 gathered to hear portions of the play The Vagina Monologues read aloud by playwright Eve Ensler and two members of the Michigan state legislature, Democratic Reps. Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum. The event was held to protest the two legislators’ having been issued a one-day censure by the Republican house majority leader in response to what Republican leaders claimed were violations of decorum committed by the women during debate over a bill proposing new restrictions on abortions.

Specifically, Rep. Byrum attempted to continue speaking after her objections to the bill—and her proposed counter-amendment requiring men to undergo restrictions on obtaining Viagra or vasectomies—were gaveled down. Rep. Brown expressed her opposition to the bill by comparing government regulation of abortion to rape, saying “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but No means No.” A third Democratic woman, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who was not censured, had proposed a statewide sexual boycott a la Lysistrata, with women refusing favors to men if the bill passed. Rep. Tlaib urged her male colleagues to allow unrestricted access to abortion “for the love of your wives, your daughters, and mothers.”

Within hours of word of the censure, Rep. Brown hoisted the vagina flag, appearing on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show to declare that in the war on women, the battlefield had moved to the dictionary. Asserting that her freedom of speech had been curtailed because she dared to use an anatomical word—a charge denied by the Republican leadership, which noted that the violation of decorum applied to the women’s refusal to be gaveled down, not the words they used—Rep. Brown said, “Frankly, using the word vagina—that is what this legislation is regulating.”

In the days since, the whole V-word Thing has gone viral, touted by abortion activists as one more example of men’s need to control women and flee from their Icky Bits. Headlines referred to the women’s courage in resisting Michigan’s “draconian” abortion regulations. Thus today’s protest, and playwright Ensler’s high-flown rhetoric:

Ensler said she was thrilled to be involved and likened the punishment meted out by the Republican leadership of the state House to “the Dark Ages.”

“If we ever knew deep in our hearts that the issue about abortion . . . was not really about fetuses and babies, but really men’s terror of women’s sexuality and power, I think it’s fully evidenced here,” Ensler told The Associated Press by phone.

Oh, Eve. Oh, Reps. Tlaib, Brown, and Byrum. Oh, headline writers. Oh, Ezra Klein, substituting for Rachel Maddow the night of Rep. Brown’s appearance, who felt the need to apologize for violating viewers’ decorum—”I apologize, but it’s going to get difficult here”—by referring to the Michigan law’s requirement that physicians issue fetal death certificates in the event of late-term abortions, and “in the case of women pregnant more than 10 weeks, make what amounts to funeral arrangements for the so-called ‘fetal remains.’”

The problem here is not the V-word. It’s all the other words used with so little understanding, with such bizarro-world, Humpty Dumpty kraziness. Thus my dictionary definitions, and a little vocabulary review:

Eve Ensler, abortion is always about fetuses and babies. If men (and, I gotta tell you, women) are terrified here, it’s not of women’s sexuality and power—it’s of some women’s single-minded need to define themselves solely by the freedom to kill their own offspring (and that of the biological father), at any stage of development, for any reason, answering to no one. You want to talk Dark Ages? I am as adamant a supporter of women’s rights as anybody, but if that’s the definition, count me out.

Rep. Tlaib, how the love of men for their wives, daughters, and mothers is demonstrated by abortion is beyond me. Utterly. Whatever happened to a box of chocolates and a dozen roses?

Rep. Byrum, Viagra and abortion are apples and AK-47s. You can only make your sauce-for-the-gander amendment work by adopting the fiction that both of these are vital health services. You can keep shouting it long after the gavel’s banged down, but even you know how stupid that is.

Ezra Klein, they’re not “so-called” fetal remains. They’re fetal remains (at the most politically correct scientific minimum), and the product of two people’s DNA, and need to be disposed of differently than medical waste from a woman’s body. When a death has occurred, a death certificate is generally required. So sorry that you and your viewers had to have your sensibilities offended by these painful reminders that abortion = death.

And Rep. Brown, let me ‘splain somethin. Your vagina is not what is being regulated in Michigan, or anywhere else. What the law does is make it just the tiniest bit more difficult to end the life of an unborn child, just the slightest bit more inconvenient to commit the unusually severe cruelty of killing a child in the womb. It’s late-term abortion that’s draconian, not the Michigan legislation.

Do I sound angry? I am. Excuse me, because it’s going to get difficult here. Six months ago I was reluctant to support the March for Life because I believed so much of the anti-abortion rhetoric I heard was anti-woman, anti-sex, anti-equality. And I don’t believe—because of my own experience and that of other women I know—that considering abortion or even going through with one is always an act of casual and conscious evil. But listening to the way women of my party and my background and my age have made abortion the One Value Worth Preserving, I’m sickened. You all have made a prolifer out of me in spite of myself, damn it.

I’d like to say it was my newly revived Catholic values and a deeper understanding of natural law coming to the fore. But no, I’m not that virtuous. And maybe I’d have stayed as quiet as a censured legislator had this all been about termination in the first 6 weeks, or maintaining access to termination in cases of medical emergency (the way Rep. Bynum wanted to do with vasectomies in her satirical amendment); I’m not proud of those waffle-y bits on my part, but give me time . . . my position is evolving. In the end, sadly, my beef with the Vagina Demagogues is not on moral grounds, but semantic ones. I just can’t stand to see the the decorum of the language violated in such a draconian fashion.

If you tell me the only way I get to call myself a liberated woman, a Democrat, or somebody who loves my mother is to sign on to abortion without limitation, I’ve got just three words to say: No means No.

  • Max Lindenman

    I believe I dig you, Joanne. Bluster and carny-like stunts — whether coming from pro-life or pro-choice activists — is the easiest way to turn me off. Greanted, there’s no way abortion could be anything but a super-emotional issue, but for those reps to go out of their way to churn those emotions in the middle of a legislative session was just wrong.

    • joannemcportland

      Emotional I understand. Even sincere debate on abortion, I understand. The whole Abortion Isn’t Death It’s Health Care for Poor Oppressed Women And Limiting It In Any Way Is the Equivalent of Plunging Society Back to the Dark Ages and Making Women Sexual Slaves nonsense is what makes me nuts.

  • Marie E

    Thank you Joanne! When I read your stuff, I feel as though I am reliving my own journey – only written better than I could write.

  • Joseph Piantadosi

    Joanne, I admire your willingness to state your opinion on this divisive issue. There is one assertion that you might want to reconsider in light of your acceptance of Catholic dogma. You state that the “fetal remains” are the “product of two people’s DNA”. What if the woman in question was named Mary of Nazareth?

    • joannemcportland

      Thanks, Joseph. I’m figuring the virginal conception exception would go without saying, not to mention that I can’t quite see Mary seeking out an abortion at 20 weeks, though certainly hers was a crisis pregnancy. And I hope you recognize that I’m not trying to impose my “beliefs” on others here; I’m trying to get people to admit what we’re talking about. For all the women filling their Facebook profiles with VAGINA VAGINA VAGINA, I’m tempted to respond with the words that are truly too shocking to utter in public: DEAD BABY DEAD BABY DEAD BABY–because that, whatever people want to argue about early termination, is what results from a late-term abortion. That same “clump of cells,” when wanted and delivered pre-term, is kept alive using every medical means. In no science whatsoever does a substance change from non-living to living simply on the basis of whether it is wanted. That’s magical thinking at its most superstitious.

  • Jo Ann

    To see how low we women have stooped to after battling very real issues of discrimination just makes me cringe in embarassment. We worked so hard to get the right to vote, to have credit, to get an education, to be respected in the workplace and hold jobs outside of teaching and nursing, and to receive equal pay for equal work. We worked to change the culture to acknowledge the rights we should hold because women have equal dignity to men. How is demanding the right to kill an unborn child at any stage of its development for any reason a reflection of our dignity as women?

  • Melody

    “In the end, sadly, my beef with the Vagina Demagogues is not on moral grounds, but semantic ones. I just can’t stand to see the the decorum of the language violated in such a draconian fashion.” I agree with you. Take for instance, the word “feminism”. On one side of the divide, it is a cuss word. On the other side, it has been hijacked to mean things which it did not originally mean, such as the right to abortion, any time, any reason. Maybe we need a new word. In some ways I could describe myself as a feminist; I am a working woman, and I like it that I am on an equal footing with my male co-workers as far as pay and rank. I am also grateful to early feminists, for pushing for my right to vote (though it would be nice to have someone to vote for, rather than just trying to figure out who will do the least harm. But that’s another topic.) What I am wishing for is a feminism without collateral damage, one informed by Gospel values. That would really be a “radical feminism”. I hate it when people load words up with whatever baggage they want to, so that they end up being something a dictionary editor wouldn’t recognize.

  • Manny

    I didn’t see this when you first posted it. Abortion shouldn’t be about left or right, though as a Conservative I’d be thrilled if you came over to the dark side. All one needs to know is that abortion kills a living human being conceived in love and kindled with God’s divine spark. This shouldn’t be a polarizing political issue. I can’t even see how any Christian denomination can support it. Frankly abortion is anti woman, and opposing it should be on the feminist agenda. Abortion is the denial of the fullness of womanhood. You shouldn’t need to give up your left leanings to be against it.