For a long time, the open misogyny of so many people in the pro-life movement puzzled me. Surely if all life was sacred, then women’s lives were sacred? Surely if we wanted to end abortion we should be happy to help young mothers bear the costs of raising children?
It took me a long time to unravel this, because there are always good people who sincerely believe that all human life is precious, and who are routinely astonished and perturbed when the rest of their movement uses the unborn as a shield to defend their xenophobia, misogyny and contempt for the poor.
It’s also easy to miss the forest for the trees: you get so involved in arguing the minutiae of whether contraception might, in some extenuating circumstances, be a lesser evil or whether it’s morally permissible for a celibate man to identify as gay that you never step back and look at the big picture.
So I’m going to try to lay out the big picture as simply and as clearly as I can.
Unite The Right: A Note on Terminology
I’m going to be talking a lot here about “the Right.” By that term I’m going to be referring to a tacit consensus which exists among right-wing voters and which is expressed in the political priorities of right wing parties. Regardless of the personal beliefs of individuals, this consensus is what actually drives the political reality that people have to live with. I’m also going to talk about the Religious Right, by which I refer to a consensus among traditional/conservative religious denominations. This consensus differs in certain relevant respects from the consensus of the political Right – for example, Neo-Cons do not generally oppose divorce and right-wing Libertarians are often pro-choice.
If you take the package deal offered, in practice, by the Religious Right what you end up with is a very old and traditional situation in which women are treated as the de facto property of men. The fact that their masters may in fact be very kind and even generous is not relevant any more than appeals to good and solicitous masters were relevant during debates about slavery. Nor does the fact that Christianity calls husbands to act like good and loving heads change the nature of the problem: St. Paul also told slave-owners to act like good and loving slave-owners. In fact, he told slaves to obey the masters in the same chapter where he told women to obey their men.
Let’s lay it out:
1. Divorce is a great evil which is ripping apart civilization and it should be prohibited. What this means in practice is that if a woman’s consent can be secured once, at any point in her life, and solemnized ceremonially she loses her right to insist on fair or reasonable treatment from that point forward. Her husband is exclusively owed her sexual, emotional and reproductive labour. Because it is a “covenant” instead of a contract, there is no reciprocal requirement placed on him. Reciprocity and mutuality are encouraged or course, but a woman has no recourse in the event that her husband renegs on his duties. She is bound to him and has an obligation to continue meeting his needs even if he routinely refuses or neglects to provide for hers.
2. Abortion is murder. The arguments for personhood beginning at conception are actually fairly weak – and indeed, for most of the history of the Church ensoulment was considered to happen sometime after conception. But by conflating early abortion with infanticide it becomes possible to argue that a woman may be legally compelled to provide 9 months of unpaid labour any time that she becomes pregnant.
Since a married women would be socially castigated and seen as practically inhuman if she considered giving up a newborn for adoption, this means that once a woman is married if she becomes pregnant her labour may be legally compelled for 9 months and socially compelled for 18 years.
The association of abortion with murder also means that no exception is made for women who are raped. Pro-lifers often try to muddy the importance of this point by bringing up statistics about how rare it is for rape to result in pregnancy. Frequency is not important. The fact is that if exceptions are not made for rape, this means that a woman’s reproductive labour can be violently compelled and there is no point at which her consent is actually necessary.
3. Wives, Do Not Refuse Your Husbands. Traditional Christianity insists that a woman has an obligation to “render the marriage debt,” that is, to make sure that her husband is sexually satisfied. Indeed, one of the traditional purposes of marriage is to provide a man with a “legitimate object of concupiscence” to remedy his sinful inclinations and keep his sexual activity confined within marriage. A woman who fails to provide sex imperils her husband’s soul by exposing him to temptations. For this reason, marital rape is rarely acknowledged as a real problem among conservative Christians and women are often told that it is selfish to withhold sex except for serious reasons.
4. Contraception is Intrinsically Evil. This one only applies to Catholicism and a handful of the most conservative protestant denominations.
In practice, it means that the only acceptable means by which a woman can try to exercise some kind reproductive autonomy is NFP. There are a lot of very complicated casuistries explaining how NFP is really very different from contraception; these often serve to distract users and promoters of the practice from two of its most insidious features:
First, that it makes it much more difficult for a woman to exercise reproductive agency, leaving many women feeling that they are to “blame” when the method fails or thinking that they have “chosen” pregnancy when in fact they really chose to take a risk with a day that was probably, but not certainly, “safe.”
Secondly, it is one of the only methods of birth control that cannot be used without the co-operation of one’s partner. This means that a woman is not allowed to use any method to avoid reproductive labour unless it is with the consent and cooperation of her husband.
5. Mothers on Welfare are Leeches. This one comes from the fiscal and political side of the Right, but it’s alarming how frequently you encounter it from pro-life Christians who claim that welfare incentivizes single-motherhood.
What this means in practice is that motherhood is not only compulsory labour for any woman who becomes pregnant, but it’s also an unfunded mandate. The woman is not entitled to any support or compensation for the motherwork that she performs, even though the Right wants to make that labour legally compulsory.
Of course, mothering is actual labour. It’s demanding, it takes a huge amount of time and energy, and if you have a special needs child, a complex pregnancy, a child who is chronically ill, etc. it can be literally impossible to do paid work in the marketplace while performing that labour. Furthermore, if a woman is unskilled or she lacks the intellectual or educational opportunities necessary to get a high-paying job the cost of childcare may exceed her earning capacity.
What this means in practice is that for many mothers the only possible way to achieve financial stability (or even to access the means of survival) is marriage. Even within marriage, a mother is not paid for her motherwork – rather, she is provided for by her husband. He may treat her as a partner who has full access to all of his possessions and his money… or he might treat her as a domestic slave who is entitled to as little as he wants to provide her with.
In either case, when a woman’s ability to access the necessities of life, for herself and for her children, is tied to her marital status this makes it practically impossible for women in abusive marriages to leave. It also means that once a woman becomes pregnant she is often at the mercy of whatever man is willing to take her on – whether he treats her well or not.
(It’s not an accident that the incel community often complains that allowing women to be single mothers means that “beta males” are left without wives. What they mean is that a financially independent single mother is able to say “no” to the kind of man who posts fantasies about raping and murdering women on 4chan.)
The idea that mothering does not contribute to the economy is, of course, nonsensical. Without the motherwork of billions of women there would literally not be an economy. All economic activity depends on the assumption that there will be human beings. Without human beings there can be no buying, no selling, no working, no trading, no production of any kind.
Nowhere else in the economy is it assumed that essential labour will be performed by unpaid labourers. Only in the domestic sphere. Some of this labour can only be performed by women, and even the parts that can be performed by men are still usually performed by women.
This means that the entire structure of our society depends on women’s labour. Yet the Right routinely behaves as if women are lazy, entitled, demanding and unreasonable if anyone suggests that we deserve any kind of financial reward, or even basic financial support, for doing that work.
The idea that corporations, businesses and individuals might actually have some kind of obligation to compensate or accommodate women who voluntarily labour to provide the means for the economy to exist is treated as contemptible, outlandish or even unjust by men, particularly by men on the Right.
7. Women Lie About Rape. Every time that there is any kind of high-profile story about rape or sexual assault, you can rely on Right wing men and Right wing media to jump up and declare that this time #metoo has gone to far, that men are being subjected to a witch hunt, that rape accusations can’t be taken seriously unless we have a level of proof that makes it practically impossible to prosecute or punish almost any rapists.
The Right is effectively unwilling to do anything to hold rapists accountable. Instead, they point to ways that woman can “protect” themselves by wearing the right clothes, avoiding parties and alcohol, arranging to be chaperoned, and otherwise curtailing their own activities. Of course this doesn’t actually reduce the number of rapes (a rapist looking for a victim is going to find one), but it does mean that the fear of rape can be used to control women, and it provides a valuable distraction from the question of “How, exactly, do you propose that we hold men accountable?”
Right wing sources also routinely underestimate the prevalence of rape and sexual assault, attempting to diminish the scale of the problem. Consent-based education is often opposed by the Right, and women who come forward are routinely bullied, name-called, and accused of being liars and whores.
It’s even common for forms of non-consensual sex where, for example, a woman is black-out drunk, to be portrayed as partially her “fault.” And of course, coercive sex is not seen as rape at all – so long as there is technical consent, it’s all good.
The failure of the Right to take rape seriously means that women are left with little to no protection or recourse against male sexual violence and coercion. The majority of rapes go unreported because women are afraid of the reprisals if they do report. And those that are reported are routinely designated as “unfounded,” go uninvestigated, unprosecuted, and unpunished.
A Slave By Any Other Name
So, let’s put all of this together. If we take all of these things seriously, what does this mean for women?
It means that any woman, at any time, can be seized and forced to have sex with very little likelihood that her attacker will face punishment. A married woman is obligated to provide her husband with sex, and can only choose not to have a child if her husband permits her to do so. Even with her husband’s consent, she is not permitted to use effective or simple means to prevent pregnancy.
If she gets pregnant, regardless of whether she consented to the pregnancy or not, she must provide the use of her body and give her labour for the duration of her pregnancy. She can be legally compelled to do so by the state.
After birth, unless she is a single woman, she will be expected to continue to labour without pay for the next 18 years in order to raise her child. A single woman may put her child up for adoption, in which case another woman will have to step up to the plate and take on this unpaid labour. The Right, of course, opposes same-sex adoptions which would enable gay men to do the work instead.
At no point will she be entitled to any compensation for her work. Rather, she will be expected to function as a dependent of a man, her husband. This dependency will include signing over her rights to her own body, her sexuality, her domestic labour and her children to him in perpetuity. Even if it turns out that he treats her like a dog, exploits her sexually or financially, fails to provide adequately for her needs, squanders his money on his own pleasures while leaving her and her children in poverty, or subjects her to psychological cruelty – or even physical violence – she will not be released from her obligations towards him.
She might be permitted to leave in the case of extreme violence, but she will not be allowed to seek the support or assistance of a new partner. If she is unable to provide and care for her children by herself or with the voluntary support of friends and family, she is functionally trapped.
What do we call this? When somebody is compelled to perform unpaid labour? When the entire structure of a society is based on the assumption that a certain class of people must be made to contribute essential value to the economy without any right to compensation? When those people are expected to live in a state of dependency on another class of people who have power on them? When that class of unpaid workers must hope to be treated with benevolence by the “head of the household” because they have no legal or financial means to assert their rights?
We call it slavery.
Women’s emancipation is emancipation from de facto domestic slavery. This is why the Right resents feminism. They resent if in the same way that the Confederates resented the closing of the plantations.
All of the fancy argumentation, the claims that women are really happiest when they are serving, the exaltation of the holy self-sacrificing mother, the endlessly convoluted “proofs” that contraception is evil, they are all meant to keep us from noticing this simple, basic fact. They want us to be their slaves. To cook their meals. To do their laundry. To provide them with heirs. To fill their pews. To populate their workforce. And they want us to do it for free. While they lord it over us.
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