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Where My Ladies At? Part 1

July 28, 2014 

Camille Hayes

Demonstrators, both pro and con the contraceptive mandate, await the ruling June 30.

At the risk of repeating myself, the Roberts Court sucks. The Hobby Lobby decision, in which the Supreme Court’s majority of Catholic men determined that the “religious beliefs,” and I use those scare quotes advisedly, of corporations outweigh the right of women to access appropriate health care, at least when when it comes to contraception. Did I mention that this ruling was determined by a group of five Catholic men? OK, just making sure. Because although in an ideal world the Justices’ religious beliefs would not play a role in the rulings they made for our allegedly secular judicial system, I think we can all agree that circumstances in America circa 2014 are far from ideal.

But I come neither to bury nor to praise our SCOTUS, but to remark on something I’ve noticed several times the last few years, but which has never seemed quite so remarkable as it has in these weeks after Hobby Lobby: the total absence of large-scale, public protests against a dramatic abrogation of women’s rights. Looking at the small, ragged gaggle of demonstrators on the SCOTUS steps awaiting the June 30th ruling, my first thought was “Where the hell is everybody?” If ever a moment cried out for a mass protest, for a feminist show of force, it was this one. But nobody came.

In the week following the decision there were isolated demonstrations around the country at Hobby Lobby stores, but turnout was feeble and they barely made a blip in the national news. Also, and rather more to the point, Hobby Lobby is not the freaking problem here. The problem is our radical, activist Court, the conservative majority of which has repeatedly demonstrated that they have no interest in upholding the law or the Constitution, and are furthermore snugly in bed with the worst sorts of corporate oligarchs and religious extremists. The protesters, in order to be effective, in order to be heard, needed to be in DC, at SCOTUS or marching on the Capitol—not at a crafts store in upstate New York. The fact that they were not isn’t an indictment of the activists themselves, as much as it is a symptom of what ails the feminist organizations whose job it is to rally them.

So, what did we get instead of the March on Washington or the Women’s Strike for Equality? Rhetorical gestures, in the case of Senate Democrats, who wrote an entirely symbolic “fix-it” bill that had zero chance of passing, which they knew. (It did provide them a fundraising opportunity, so there was that.) And from feminist movement organizations, like NOW and NARAL, we got mostly rhetorical activism, in the form of angry press releases and scolding blog posts, destined to be read only by people who frequent NOW’s and NARAL’s websites, nearly all of whom already agree with them and none of whom, and this is key, have any decision-making power whatsoever. Anyone want to wager on the last time Samuel Alito, who authored the Hobby Lobby decision, or Mitch McConnell, who led the Senate Republican filibuster of the fix-it bill, checked the NOW web site?

Look, I’m a blogger, I love written activism—I’m doing it right now! But I’m highly aware of its limitations, particularly when it takes place on the internet. There’s a time and place for everything, and I honestly don’t think that the occasion of a serious curtailment of American women’s rights to privacy, autonomy and basic health care is the time for our major feminist organizations to be composing jokey blog posts, or helping draft legislation they know will never pass. It’s a time for action, for protesters marching in the streets of DC and targeting home district offices, making clear to legislators both their numbers and their intent. But feminists failed to rally, and it was in large part because no one called us to action. The question is, why?

Coming up in Part 2: Why don’t feminist organizations rally their grassroots anymore? Do they even have a grassroots following? And what’s the point of big demonstrations, anyway?

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