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When You Have a Hammer, Everything Looks Like Abortion Rights (Part 2)

January 22, 2013

Camille Hayes

Last post I was talking about today’s Roe v. Wadeanniversary (happy birthday, right to not have babies I don’t want!), and how it started me thinking of all the things that get left out of the feminist conversation because we’re so focused on protecting that law, and on legislation in general. I closed Part 1 by blaming President Kennedy for feminism’s narrow focus on public policy reform; let me explain. Kennedy was the first US President to enter office knowing full well that he owed women big for his victory. They’d worked hard on his national campaign and voted for him in droves, and when he won they expected some payback in the form of high level-appointments and support for the Equal Rights Amendment. But when they showed up in DC demanding their quid pro quo, Kennedy was all, “Not so much, girls, but here’s a nice Presidential Commission for you to play with. It’s just like real politics!”

The President’s Commission on the Status of Womenwas in part a token meant to keep the ladies quiet, but in creating a national network of public policy offices, it actually amplified women’s voice in politics (note to Kennedy: if you want to create a token commission, don’t appoint Eleanor Rooseveltto run it). The other thing the Commission accidentally did was ensure that there was a huge coalition of women’s policy experts just waiting to be mobilized when feminism really took off in the late ‘60s. So that was handy, and one of the reasons feminists got so much done so quickly. But you can already see the seeds of the “all policy, all the time” problem I’m talking about. The infrastructure of Second Wave Feminism was a bunch of public policy organizations; that skill set, that bias, was built in from day one.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t other kinds of feminism—there have always been different branches within the movement. In the 1970s there was a full-on turf war between radical feminists, who wanted to totally remake society according to feminist ideals, and what were called liberal feminists. Instead of remaking society, liberal feminists wanted to use political reform to make it easier for individual women to succeed within it. With the Commission already in place, liberal feminists outnumbered and out-organized the radicals, who lost that fight. But this is America, and even if we hadn’t had Kennedy’s army of policy wonks on the frontline, we still probably would have picked the kind of feminism that focuses on individual rights, because we love us some individualism, and also it turns out re-imagining gender identity takes forever and we want RESULTS. So the US likely would have ended up with a liberal policy reform movement regardless, because that’s just the kind of country we are.

Which brings us back to Roe (again and again), or Lilly Ledbetter or Title IX, or basically any social problem you can more or less legislate into submission. Policy reform has dominated American feminism since always, to the point that it has become synonymous with the feminist movement itself. When Americans hear “feminism” they think of cranky women suing people and/or demanding new laws—and very little else. But feminism can and should aspire to do more, it shouldn’t ignore the more complex elements of sexism that are embedded not just in our laws, but in our homes, our family structures, our own identities. Luckily, there are some areas of activism that show promise in making feminist change in ways that go beyond the usual policy strategies; I’ll talk about about them a bit in a couple of weeks when I wrap up in Part 3. Now I’m off to Portland and Lake Tahoe to promote Get Out of My Crotch!, which comes out today. It should be a kick—I’ll post pictures on the FB page!

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