The Problem with Our Sandra Fluke Moment

Focusing too narrowly on the "war on women" doesn't give those who are horrified by it adequate tools to fight back

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Left; Alex Wong / Getty Images: Brad Markel / Getty Images

Left; Sandra Fluke testifies during a hearing before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee February 23, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Right; Anita Hill testifies to sexual harassment from former boss Clarence Thomas during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of Thomas to the Supreme Court October 11, 1991 in Washington, DC.

Are we approaching a new Anita Hill moment?

That is to say – another moment, like the watershed period in 1991 and ’92, when women’s issues — particularly those related to women’s dignity, and privacy, and their right to work and live and function in nonhostile environments – moved front and center in American politics. It was a period set off by a series of insults – the sight of Hill being interrogated by a panel of callous male Senators on her experience of sexual harassment; the naming and shaming of William Kennedy Smith’s date-rape accuser; the molestation, sexual assault or harassment of more than 80 women by Navy and Marine Corps aviators at the annual Tailhook Association convention. All these were specific incidents involving individual women that nonetheless struck a chord deep within the collective female psyche – and led women to come together to elect a record number of their own sex to political office and put in the White House the first pro-choice President in a long 12 years.

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It would be nice to think that we’ve come to another such moment of empowered outrage. After all, recent weeks have served up a new series of insults – capped off by Rush Limbaugh’s tarring of Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” because she attempted to tell a congressional committee about the effects of her own religious institution’s refusal to provide its students with contraceptive services. Such events — including attempts to curb access to contraception in future insurance programs, gross cuts in budgets for female-specific forms of preventative medical care and, of course, draconian new barriers to abortion services — have riled women up, in a widespread, visceral way, like no other political happenings in recent memory.

And yet I am not sure that it is altogether sufficient to frame the insults currently targeting America’s women (and, let’s remember, their families) purely in terms of an assault on women’s rights. I’m not sure, either, if focusing too narrowly on the “war on women” gives those horrified by it adequate tools to fight back.

Rather, it seems to me that women are merely the frontline victims in a holy war. This faith-based assault is an affront on enlightened, and Enlightenment-derived, ideas of equality and human dignity, not to mention science, rationality and the notion of the separation of church and state embraced by our own Founding Fathers. And just like all fundamentalist movements around the globe, our homegrown variety takes modernity as its particular object of hate.

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In saying all this, I just want to make clear that I am not condemning religion per se — only its abuse. And how else, other than an example of blind extremism, can we explain the obsessive, almost paranoid preoccupation with abortion that, in recent weeks, has led to such absurdities as the Susan G. Komen foundation’s since-reversed decision to pull its funding for Planned Parenthood and deny women breast-cancer screenings — the organization’s whole reason for being? How else to describe such obscenities as laws requiring doctors to force vaginal sonogram probes upon women seeking abortions? (“State-sponsored rape,” state delegate Charniele L. Herring called it, before the Virginia sonogram requirement was softened, and she was right.)

Only the most devilish sort of fanaticism — the kind we roundly denounce when it takes the form, say, of honor killings or stoning of women in other cultures — can explain such cruelty masquerading as morality. If it’s to stop, or, at the very least, to be pushed back to its rightful place on the loony fringe of our political culture, we have to name it as such. American social conservatives have for decades now monopolized the language of virtue and morality in politics. They’ve seized ownership of the right to wield religion as a tool of political argument as well, claiming ownership of the concept of religious freedom so that it serves their narrow purposes and denouncing any ideas or initiatives that stem from a different definition of values or freedom or even charity and grace as instances of a “war on religion.”

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For systematic manipulation of the language of all that’s holy and good, we can largely thank the presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who in the early 1990s used his political action committee, GOPAC, to teach a new generation of hotheaded Republican candidates (including a young Rick Santorum) to brand themselves with words like moral, family, children, truth and crusade, and to brand their Democratic opponents with such words as sick, disgraceshame and ideological.

If we want to push back now against the current assault not just on women but also on our country’s most basic ideals of justice, fairness and freedom — both of religious expression and from the very kind of abuse of religion that our Founding Fathers feared — we have to define and claim the moral high ground. To push back against those who defend religious institutions’ right to discriminate by pointing out that, in our society, the moral value of equal protection for all trumps the narrower dictates of any particular dogma. To push back against those who would deny basic health care for needy women by recalling that our Judeo-Christian traditions require care for the needy — and that the real and pressing needs of today’s mothers and their children take moral precedence over the potential rights of the perhaps-to-be-unborn.

It has been heartening to see the grassroots groundswell of outrage that forced Komen to rethink its Planned Parenthood policy, pressured Virginia lawmakers to at least soften their punishing violation of women and pressured Rush Limbaugh to make a gesture of apology as his show began hemorrhaging advertisers. But it has been disheartening that the pushback against the narrow, nasty and, frankly, scary assertion of religious “rights” and fundamentalist-inspired “morality” has been so weak so far in this election cycle.

“War on women” certainly makes for a snappier get-out-the-vote slogan than “War on the concept of the separation of church and state.” But women are likely to be only the first wave of casualties to result from this dark new phase of our culture wars.

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