Jennifer Seymour Whitaker

Jennifer Seymour Whitaker
New York, New York, United States
December 06
JSW Uninc
Jennifer Seymour Whitaker is writing a book (entitled The Women’s Revolution, Interrupted) about the ways in which the women’s revolution has changed our world, and the ways it hasn’t. She is exploring what is now holding women back from full equality and what they need to do about it. She has published two other books, How Can Africa Survive, and Salvaging the Land of Plenty. Formerly she was a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Associate Editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. While at the Council she created a program on Women and U.S. Foreign Policy, which led her to her current focus on women and power.


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APRIL 20, 2012 4:08PM


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By Jennifer Seymour Whitaker


          Despite long years of exposure to anti-abortionists’ fervent, occasionally violent, hostility toward reproductive choice, most beneficiaries of the women’s movement have been happy to assume that their equal rights have been secured.   Culturally conditioned to avoid direct conflict, they have looked the other way—and been blindsided.

Following the Republican triumph in the 2010 mid-term election, however, the misogynist Right did the women’s revolution a real favor.  Feeling secure enough during the primaries to rip off their Mr. Nice Guy masks, the party’s candidates publicly revealed a contempt for women’s rights they had downplayed previously.  After the escalating attacks on Planned Parenthood, contraception itself, and women’s moral adulthood, female voters are much less likely to treat the right-wing war on women as an electoral sideshow.

 Hearing insurance reimbursements for contraception likened to payments for prostitution; a state-administered vaginal probe equated with heterosexual intercourse; a state legislator advise abused wives not to consider divorce but to think loving thoughts about the husbands beating them;  presidential hopeful Santorum calling women’s workplace advancement “a radical feminist pitch,” gave women  a long-overdue wake-up call.  This strident Republican campaign has now made it clear that the battle against women’s reproductive rights is the first shot at a more radical goal: derailing the women’s revolution of the last 50 years.

Much has happened under the radar in little noticed state legislation.  For example, Alabama has arrested and is prosecuting around 60 pregnant women under a 2006 law criminalizing the exposure of a child (aka fetus) to controlled substances (including prescription drugs).  The bill quietly rolling back the 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act recently passed by the Wisconsin legislature points the way toward a rich array of legal targets in the misogynist shooting gallery.  Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which has changed the physical image and self-image of females by banning gender discrimination in access to athletics in educational institutions receiving government money, would be a priority.  It has been under attack since the law was framed.  Existing federal law on violence against women is now under siege in Congress. Plans for eviscerating or dismantling legislation penalizing sexual discrimination in hiring and promotion, sexual harassment on the job, and violence against women are ready for launching. 

All of this flies directly in the face of U.S. public opinion.  A large majority of Americans believe that women should have equal rights with men and that this country needs to continue making changes to achieve that goal.  Polls now show female voters reacting en masse to the overt misogyny of 2011 and 2012 by shifting to Obama in swing states.  With the battle for Republican primary voters now ended, the Party will try—and fail--to walk away from this spring’s assault.  With female voters immediately alerted, the fallout will help Democrats significantly. But as crucial as the election undoubtedly will be, women must define their goals in longer terms.

They need to face the fact that while they were using their new legal rights to fight in wars, run for President, preside over large corporations, support families, and beat out males for college and graduate degrees, the right was steadily escalating its counter-revolution in the arena of ideas.  Now women must stifle all instincts to write off the recent assault on their rights as an election-year game created by political spinners who “don’t really mean it,” and take stock of the progress their opponents have already made.   

As influential commentators point out, the Republican right has succeeded in hijacking the language of political argument in the media and beyond it.   Republicans have taken ownership of terms like “loyalty,” “patriotism,” “self reliance,” and “family values.” They have also succeeded in reshaping ideologies about women’s roles.  Sexual issues faced particularly by females offer the Right a rich source of imagery.  For example, while portraying sex education and contraceptive assistance for adolescents as a path to debauchery, they also characterize “single mothers”--many of whom stumble into unplanned pregnancies but struggle to shoulder responsibility for raising and supporting children on their own--as irresponsible.

At the beginning of their revolution, women showed genius in selecting language to frame their ideas.  In using “choice” to denote women’s control over their own reproductive decisions they signaled their all-American commitment to freedom while softening the dark imagery surrounding back-alley abortion.  They again evoked freedom in the term “women’s liberation.” Who could object to “choice” or “liberation” for women as well as men?

Although the skirmishing over “motherhood,”  “personhood,” neglected boys and mean girls took a while, all these years later, “women’s lib” has become synonymous with strident activism, and “feminism” with obsessive passions that turn off men.  As for “choice,” its connection with women’s reproductive rights is now a bit tenuous, for its opponents’ excoriation of baby killers and subordination of women’s welfare to that of fetuses rule the airwaves.  The opponents of women’s equality have stolen feminists’ words.

Despite their huge achievements, women are facing a thick cobweb of ideology that threatens to impede their movement and their vision.  Women committed to pushing their revolution forward have, however, gained a great advantage.  They now know what they are fighting, for their adversaries have tipped their hand.   To prevail, they will have to define themselves.   


Jennifer Seymour Whitaker is working on a book entitled The Women’s Revolution, Interrupted.


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Thank you for this wonderful summary. I didn't know Title IX was also a target in the campaign to bury basic human rights for women.

Sometimes I wonder if the people pushing for these changes have mothers, sisters, wives, daughters that they really love and care about, and if they even take the time to speak with them? Maybe they don't understand that when girls and women are treated with dignity and equality, and have access to safe and affordable reproductive health care, etc., it improves the quality of life for families, for boys, and for men, too.
As a woman who came of age during second-wave feminism, I find it mind blowing that we're still having this conversation in 2012. (I know. Call me naïve.) How do we get this message to younger women who believe women have achieved full equality already?
Excellent article, Jennifer. Althought the topic is infuriating.

@Deborah, it looks like we'll have to tell them that some battles have to be fought more than once in order to stay won. Even if gender equality looks like it should be a foregone conclusion morally speaking, we have to get angry and make noise about this. The only good thing about all this blatant ugliness is that it makes the need to mobilize and agitate against it self-evident, and makes it very clear that we HAVE to get the vote out, this year.

Excellent article. You may be interested in this organization:
Terrific summary. And now that the right wing has revealed its true colors it's imperative that Karl Rove, Frank Luntz and the whole Republican Noise Machine apparatus not be allowed to obscure the rights real aims behind a murky shade of gray.
Women don't have reproductive rights. Women have an implied 4th Amendment right to privacy, same as men do. As we continue to see that right erode, so will we see Roe v Wade get overturned soon, and all the while, both women and men will wonder how it happened.
I know this isn't news, but the key is to get young women to the polls. The ones I work with are completely clueless as to what is happening. I beg them to vote, I beg them to care. It seems that they have to literally lose something before they can awaken to what's going on all around them. How do we get the message across?
I'm old enough that most of the areas the GOP Neanderthals are attacking are no longer of concern to me personally. (Hint: I'm old enough to remember when newspaper job ads were routinely posted as "Help Wanted: Male" and "Help Wanted: Female" and in certain states you could go to jail for using birth control.)

I've watched with disappointment the apathy and blithe ignorance of younger women over the last ten years. My generation of women worked hard to get them where they are now. They represent half of the nation. If they won't fight for their rights they'll deserve exactly what they get and to hell with them.