Subject for Debate: Are Women People?

I’ve always assumed that women are fully autonomous human citizens—who vote, even!—but now I’m not so certain

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Luke Sharrett / The New York Times / Redux

From left: Catholic Bishop William Lori, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, Dr. Ben Mitchell, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and Craig Mitchell are sworn in during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 16, 2012. The hearing was called to discuss the Obama administration's contraceptive policy for employees at religious institutions.

All my adult life, I’ve been pretty sure I’m a sentient, even semi-competent human being. I have a job and an apartment; I know how to read and vote; I make regular, mostly autonomous decisions about what to eat for lunch and which cat videos I will watch whilst eating my lunch. But in the past couple of months, certain powerful figures in media and politics have cracked open that certitude.

You see, like most women, I was born with the chromosome abnormality known as “XX,” a deviation of the normative “XY” pattern. Symptoms of XX, which affects slightly more than half of the American population, include breasts, ovaries, a uterus, a menstrual cycle, and the potential to bear and nurse children. Now, many would argue even today that the lack of a Y chromosome should not affect my ability to make informed choices about what health care options and lunchtime cat videos are right for me. But others have posited, with increasing volume and intensity, that XX is a disability, even a roadblock on the evolutionary highway. This debate has reached critical mass, and leaves me uncertain of my legal and moral status. Am I a person? An object? A ward of the state? A “prostitute”? (And if I’m the last of these, where do I drop off my W-2?)

In the hopes of clarifying these and other issues, below I’ve recapped recent instances of powerful men from the fields of law, politics and literature tackling the question that has captured America’s imagination: Are Women People?

Case No. 1: U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes
The Recap: Following a 10-week maternity leave, a three-year employee of a Houston debt collection agency filed a sex discrimination suit, alleging she was fired for asking permission to bring a breast pump to work. Hughes sided with the company, but added that the truth of the plaintiff’s claim was irrelevant. “Lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition,” he ruled in February, paraphrasing Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “She gave birth on Dec. 11, 2009. After that day, she was no longer pregnant and her pregnancy-related conditions ended. Firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.”

What We Learned: Possession of naturally functioning secondary sex characteristics is a fireable offense; a woman with a fetus has more rights than a woman with a baby.

So, Are Women People? Only when they’re pregnant.

Case No. 2: Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Alabama State Senator Clay Scofield
The Recap: Both lawmakers pursued—and then backed off from—laws that would require any woman getting an abortion to submit to the invasive procedure known as a transvaginal ultrasound and, in McDonnell’s words, “view her child.” “This was about empowering women with more medical and legal information that previously they were not required to get in order to give informed consent,” McDonnell said on March 2.

What We Learned: Acquiring informed consent isn’t necessarily consensual; having an eight- to ten-inch wand inserted into your vagina against your will is “empowering”; because they lack vaginas, some male politicians seek empowerment in different ways.

So, Are Women People? I’m guessing no, but you should ask Virginia delegate Kathy Byron, the woman who introduced the bill in her state.

Case No. 3: House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa
The Recap: The California congressman convened an all-male panel of clergy to discuss the mandate that insurance companies include coverage of birth control pills. He declined to include Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, which oversees some 1200 Catholic health organizations across the U.S., or Georgetown law student and activist Sandra Fluke, whose health plan does not cover contraception. Of the latter woman, Issa stated, “As the hearing is not about reproductive rights but instead about the [Obama] administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience, he believes that Ms. Fluke is not an appropriate witness.”

What We Learned: Freedom of conscience is not an appropriate topic for women to discuss; freedom from unplanned pregnancy, ovarian cysts, symptoms of endometriosis, irregular periods, migraines, and other health issues are not matters of public conscience; talking about icky body stuff is easier for dudes when ladies aren’t around.

So, Are Women People? If you look at photos of this hearing, you wouldn’t even know that women exist.

Case No. 4: Sad Loud Man in a Small Room Rush Limbaugh

The Recap: “Slut,” “prostitute,” “she wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex,” “we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch,” etc.

What We Learned: Taxpayers are billed across the board for private insurance plans; women who use birth control pills are not taxpayers; women whose insurance covers birth control pills are sluts and prostitutes; taxpayers enjoy watching movies about sluts and prostitutes.

So, Are Women People? They’re more like really expensive blow-up dolls.

Case No. 5: Novelist Jonathan Franzen
The Recap: His much-discussed recent New Yorker essay argued that novelist Edith Wharton is an unsympathetic figure due to her wealth, conservative political views and the fact that she “wasn’t pretty.” (She “might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.”) Her unprettiness, according to Franzen, contributed to the sexual dysfunction of her marriage, while her success as a writer caused her husband’s mental illness and underscored her antipathy toward her own sex—her friendships with writers of similar stature such as Henry James and André Gide, Franzen says, showed that “she wanted to be with the men and to talk about the things men talked about.”

What We Learned: Plain girls aren’t good in bed; female success is a brain-eating virus; a (female) writer forging relationships with other (male) writers is a form of penis envy; Jonathan Franzen might not think you’re pretty.

So, Are Women People? Not quite—they’re objects with certain people-like traits.

Case No. 6: Briefly Viable Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum
The Recap: He calls his wife “the rock which I stand upon.”

What We Learned: That’s apparently a compliment.

So, Are Women People? No, they’re rocks! Finally, a definitive answer. Thanks, Senator Santorum!