Election 2012

Lebanon Valley College

“The Woman Question” – Dr. Cathy Romagnolo

By Dr. Cathy Romagnolo, associate professor of English

Women, we are told, will decide this election. On first glance, to this feminist writer, that seems like a great thing. Until that is, I examine what it really means. The fact that women will decide this election is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means that our (women’s) power is increasing, and we are taking advantage of it. On the other hand, women are so mobilized to use this power because to a great extent where women’s choices, rights, and autonomy had been a given, they are now up for debate again.

“The woman question” as the debate over women’s rights was called in the early twentieth century is being raised again. In this election and for that matter in the political discourse of at least the last eight years, the woman question has taken a prominent position. Moreover, the proliferation of woman questions—questions about women’s roles, women’s bodies, motherhood, women’s contraception–has been dotted by particularly heinous examples of misogyny by the likes of Todd Akin (who questioned the definition of rape) and Rush Limbaugh (who called Sandra Fluke a “slut” for her support of freer access to birth control).

But those examples are not actually what bothers me most. Not since the 1960s have we seen such a shift in the public presumption that women’s choices are up for debate. And these are not debates among women themselves, but debates by and among men on both sides of the political spectrum. The all male congressional hearing on access to birth control is a particularly visible example: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/birth-control-hearing-was-like-stepping-into-a-time-machine/

The political left tells us that the right has waged a “war on women,” and indeed, Republican opposition to Obama’s proposed changes to health care coverage for women; stances by people like Rick Santorum, who decries abortion even in cases of incest and rape; efforts to redefine rape; and condescending attitudes toward female politicians who are told they are not “ladylike” do make me feel under siege. But the willingness to engage publicly in debates over questions that should have been laid to rest long ago is most disconcerting to me. Given the current political climate we have no choice but to enter into these demeaning debates, but many days I feel as if American women are starring in an episode of “Mad Men.” If only that were the truth.