Aspirins and short skirts and contraception, oh my! The last few weeks have seen a slew of Republican gaffes concerning women's sexuality. From Rick Santorum's billionaire supporter Foster Friess' waxing nostalgic about the good old days when women put aspirin "between their knees" in lieu of contraception to an online furor over whether the young conservative women at CPAC dressed too provocatively, the Republicans have a major woman problem on their hands.
Their fear of sex — of women's sexuality in particular — has become a major media talking point and a source of outrage among American women. But what I don't understand is why anyone is surprised. Republicans have long based their agenda for women in a deep-rooted disdain for all things female. We've been down this road many, many times before.
When a picture of Congressman Darrell Issa's all-male panel on birth control (the makeup of which prompted several Democratic women to walk out of the hearing) hit the Internet and mainstream media, I couldn't help but be reminded of a similar picture of George W. Bush signing the "partial birth" abortion ban, surrounded by a group of smiling, clapping men. All men. (Mr. Santorum was one of them.)
Dahlia Lithwick reported recently in Slate on the proposed law in Virginia that, as originally written, would have made it legal to penetrate abortion-seeking women against their will by requiring a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound procedure. The procedure would count as rape under state law. Del. David Englin told Ms. Lithwick that one Republican lawmaker told him that the invasive ultrasound wasn't an issue because women seeking abortions had already made the decision to be "vaginally penetrated when they got pregnant." Apparently, once women have been penetrated, all other future penetrations should be no problem, consent notwithstanding.
If this attitude sounds radical, consider that up until 2008, it was the basis for Maryland rape law. If a woman initially agreed to sex but later withdrew consent, any sex that followed wasn't rape. The justification was based on archaic legislation that said after the initial "de-flowering" of a woman, nothing could be considered rape because "the damage was done"; she was no longer a virgin and couldn't be "re-flowered."
The focus on birth control is not new either. Conservatives and Republican appointees successfully held up emergency contraception for over-the-counter status for three years in the Food and Drug Administration, despite a recommendation from an independent joint advisory committee to the agency to make the drug available. Dr. W. David Hager — appointed by then President Bush to the FDA's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs — told The New York Times about why he voted against the drug's approval, noting, "What we heard today was frequently about individuals who did not want to take responsibility for their actions and wanted a medication to relieve those consequences." (Dr. Hager also penned a book in which he argued that prayer could cure PMS — quite the expert on women's health!)
It also came out that in an internal memo, FDA medical official Janet Woodcock argued against making the contraceptive available over the counter for fear that it would cause "extreme promiscuous behaviors such as the medication taking on an 'urban legend' status that would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults centered around the use of Plan B." (The same fear-based rhetoric over young women becoming promiscuous was used when conservatives tried to hold up Gardasil, the HPV vaccine that prevents cervical cancer.)
But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that this is just a problem of men attacking women's rights. Conservative women's rights groups, always eager for a patriarchal pat on the head, have long thrown other women under the bus under the guise of protecting them from their own wanton sexuality. The Independent Women's Forum — whose members oppose the Violence Against Women Act and Title IX, and who don't believe pay inequity exists — started a campaign years ago to get the award-winning play "The Vagina Monologues" banned from college campuses, arguing that it's pornographic and reduces women to their body parts. (Specifically, the one they'd rather not think about.) The Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, another right-wing women's organization, launched a campaign and contest in 2008 titled "Bringing Back the Dowry and Hope Chest." The winner received a "cedar-lined hope chest filled with $1,000 worth of dowry items" as well as $500 toward her future wedding.
Given this long history of paternalism and efforts to roll back women's rights, I think the calls that the Republican Party is launching a "war on women" are right on — but years late.
Perhaps today, with the Internet moving information faster than ever before, Republican and conservative sexism doesn't go as easily unnoticed (just ask the folks at the Komen foundation). Perhaps the influx of young women and feminists into self-directed and social media activism has changed the course of the national debate. Or maybe women are just fed up with yet another legislator dictating how they should run their lives and use their bodies.
Whatever the reason, we need to ensure that Republicans are held accountable and don't get to brush these comments and actions off as mistakes or misunderstandings. Because they're not simple gaffes. They are a crystal clear window into the future that the Republican Party wants for women.
Jessica Valenti is the founder of the blog and online community Feministing.com and the author of books including "Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters." This article, copyright 2012 The Nation magazine, is distributed by Agence Global.