In the comments on yesterday’s post, several people insisted that requiring women to always risk motherhood when having sex wasn’t “anti-woman.” And then I realized something. We’re defining anti-woman differently. We – progressives and conservatives – mean different things when we say or hear the term “anti-woman.”
Social conservatives generally do not believe in gender equality, and by that I mean that they believe that men and women have different “roles” to play in life. Men are supposed to be leaders, protectors, and providers while women are supposed to be nurturers and keepers of the home. Even today when the majority of women work, social conservatives want those roles continued, with the man’s career taking priority and the woman having the primary responsibility for the housework and child rearing.
Social progressives, in contrast, do believe in gender equality. They want women and men to have the same opportunities and responsibilities.* They don’t think men and women should try to fit themselves in to some sort of specific “roles,” but rather express themselves as individuals with unique talents and interests. They want mothers and fathers to share things like child rearing and housework and they don’t think women’s careers should automatically take the back seat.
Growing up in a socially conservative environment, anything that tried to push women out of their “natural role” was considered “anti-woman.” For example, the ERA was “anti-woman” because it would (they claimed) relieve the husband from his duty to financially provide for the wife. Having the husband provide financially for the wife was important because this allowed women to fulfill their natural role – keeping the home and caring for the children and being the nurturing heart of the family. The sexual revolution was considered “anti-woman” because it left women open to exploitation from men who would pressure them into having sex, and at risk of becoming pregnant without having men committed to providing for them.**
From the socially conservative perspective, then, opposing abortion is not “anti-woman,” it is pro-woman, because pregnancy and motherhood is the natural role of the women. And while that places a “burden” on women, that burden is held to be offset by the fact that they are to be provided for and protected by men. Sure, a woman has to go through pregnancies and cover most of the child rearing, but her husband has to spend long hours working to provide for her and the children, so in the end it is simply fair, not “anti-woman” at all.
Today, as a social progressive, I believe in gender equality. This means I believe men and women should have the same opportunities and responsibilities as each other. Men and women should equally be allowed to have careers and achieve financial independence. Men and women should share equally in housework and childcare. Marriage should not be a gendered hierarchy with men leading and women following; rather, spouses should approach each other as equals and partners. Further, everyone should be allowed to develop their own interests and talents regardless of whether those are traditionally gendered “masculine” or “feminine.” No one should be forced against their wills to fit any sort of proscribed gender roles.
In the past, women spent most of their adult lives going through pregnancy after pregnancy whether they wanted that or not. That’s not compatible with gender equality, which involves giving men and women the same opportunities and responsibilities. For women to be able to have careers and choose their own life paths, they need to be able to choose when and if to have children. And today, through birth control and abortion, they can do that. From a socially progressive point of view, then, it is extremely important for women to be able to control their reproduction, and that requires access to birth control and abortion.*** Trying to deprive women of access to birth control or abortion, then, is seen as “anti-woman.”
I think it should be clear by now that someone’s starting points matter when considering what is or is not “anti-woman.” If you believe that women are supposed to have very different roles from men, that all women should be mothers and homemakers, then the idea that opposing abortion is “anti-woman” appears ludicrous. On the other hand, if you believe that women should have the same opportunities and responsibilities as men, well, then anything that deprives women of full control of their reproduction (something vitally necessary to achieve true gender equality) is clearly and obviously anti-woman.
When I say something is “anti-woman,” what I really mean is that it is anti-equality. That it involves depriving women of choices and forcing them into a specific gender role regardless of their wishes. And really, that’s not just “anti-woman,” it’s “anti-human,” because it involves pushing men into specific gender roles as well. As a feminist and a humanist, I want to value people for who they are, for their talents and abilities and passions, and not filter who they are and what they are allowed to accomplish or hold as important through a gendered lens. But again, since social conservatives see those gender roles as natural and beneficial, they would disagree with me here.
What, then, does it mean to be “anti-woman”? It depends, I think, on your starting points – whether you believe in gender roles or gender equality. But enough of my thoughts. What do you think?
* Obviously, men and women will always be biologically different. This means that it’s important to hash out exactly what is meant by “gender equality.” In general, I hold that gender equality means that given the same interests and abilities, Bob and Barbara would have the same opportunities and responsibilities. The trouble of course is that even if Sam and Susie share child rearing equally with their spouses, Sam will never be able to go through pregnancy and Susie will. For this reason I think more discussion of just what equality should look like or mean is important. This is actually something I’ve been thinking a lot about as the breastfeeding mother of a newborn, and I plan to write more about it in the future.
** Social conservatives hold that gender equality is “anti-woman” because it deprives them of their male protectors and providers and thrusts them unprotected into the world. But gender equality is not about depriving women of protection and provision, but rather about enabling them to protect and provide for themselves.
*** I should acknowledge that there are some social progressives who oppose abortion because they believe that the fetus is a person and that abortion is murder. While I disagree with them on this, these individuals do embrace gender equality and acknowledge the importance of women’s ability to control their reproduction, and they therefore support the making birth control readily available.