Sunday, February 19, 2012

The fury that they had in 66

This past week in American politics has been particularly upsetting one for women and feminists everywhere. From Congressman Issa's hearing about contraceptives that didn't include any women to Virginia passing a law that that would require a woman to get a transvaginal ultrasound without her consent before getting an abortion in the first trimester, I've been alternating between shaking with anger and frustration to occasional tears, wondering how this could be happening in 2012. In short, it has not been a good week for women's rights.

The severity of my emotional reaction surprised me. The right wing assault on abortion rights and women's health has been ongoing for years and though this week past week has been particularly bad, none of this is new. And I've lived my entire life in "blue" states and liberal, coastal cities where I have had unfettered access to birth control and basic women's health services so I can't make the claim that any of these measures has impacted me personally so I couldn't help wondering about the depth of my rage--why was I so angry?

Obviously, I feel a certain solidarity with other women out there who have seen their rights infringed upon. And of course there is the convincing slippery slope argument--that though my rights in New York feel secure, it doesn't mean they will remain so and can be endangered by the legislative actions taking place in the more conservative precincts of the country.

Still, these explanations seem to fall short and I was struggling to articulate my feelings to myself and others on the matter. And then I read one of the smartest things I've seen thus far about this whole mess by Sara Robinson on Alter Net called, "Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control--And Why We'll Still Be Fighting About It 100 Years From Now."

In the piece, Robinson describes the mass availability of contraceptives as one of the great revolutions of the 20th Century and one that has nullified the social contract that existed between men and women for thousands of years--that women, bound to their biology and reproductive organs, would bear and raise kids and men would get the freedom to do everything else. She writes:

For the first time in human history, new technologies made fertility a conscious choice for an ever-growing number of the planet's females. And that, in turn, changed everything else. With that one essential choice came the possibility, for the first time, to make a vast range of other choices for ourselves that were simply never within reach before...Contraception was the single necessary key that opened the door to the whole new universe of activities that had always been zealously monopolized by men--education, the trades, the arts, government, travel, spiritual and cultural leadership, and even (eventually) war making.

When I read this, I understood the reason I was so filled with anger, why I couldn't stop ranting about these injustices. The debate, at its core, is not about abortion, birth control or even sex--it's about reminding women where we belong. It's about a group of men who grew up expecting to be masters of the universe being unable to handle the fact that they are now in competition for jobs, careers, prestige, etc. with fifty percent of the population. Though these lawmakers and clergy are using the language and rhetoric of abortion and birth control, they are actually (and not so subtly) trying to remind women about their "proper place," trying to turn the clock back on the women's rights movement, trying to get us to accept their very narrow definition of womanhood.

Understandably, this makes me mad. I have been fighting this battle for most of my life, before I knew words like "birth control," "abortion," and "feminism." Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community, I was frequently made aware of my limitations that were based on my biology, not on my ability and desires. And though we were encouraged to do well secularly, we were always reminded that being a wife and mother were the most important roles we would play. For Career Night, the school would invite graduates to speak about their professional lives only if they were also married with kids. Heaven forfend that we hear from a woman with just a rewarding and successful career. What sort of message would that send?

That it is possible for a woman to go through life without wearing the mantle of "mother" and "wife." To endorse such a message would disruptive to the patriarchal setup of Orthodox Judaism. Because if a woman never married and had kids then all of the reasons given for not permitting her to participate in time bound commandments wouldn't be applicable. She could participate in thrice daily prayer sessions with a minyan because she doesn't have a baby with needs to address.

More recently within the Jewish community, discussions of women's roles and place have taken on the form of modesty debates--what they're wearing, where they sit--but it's all the same discussion, really. In controlling the way women dress and where/how they appear in public, the rabbis are trying to limit their choices in life, just as Republican politicians are doing by putting contraceptives out of reach. Different sides of the same, very old coin.

Robinson puts it in even stronger words:

They are, above everything else, desperate to get their women back under firm control. And in their minds, things will not be right again until they're assured that the girls are locked up even more tightly, so they will never, ever get away like that again.

Yet even before these news stories blew up last week, I was already thinking about my anger at the patriarchy. I was having a contentious argument with someone more religiously observant, who urged patience in regards to the role of women within Judaism. "Patience," I practically spat. "Why should anyone have to be patient when it comes to waiting for your rights, what you're supposed to have?" Only a person already possession of their rights can urge others to sit tight and just wait as though the thing you're waiting for is your food at a restaurant or for a train. But how can you insist that people remain patient while being denied equality?

Growing up, I remember hearing my mother discuss the Civil Rights movement and though she expressed admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., she had unkind things to say about more militaristic elements involved in the struggle, singling out the two black athletes who raised their fists at the Olympics for condemnation for expressing their anger.  I was young and didn't question what she said. Yes, I thought, they should've been more patient with the system and not been as angry.

However as I got older and started to realize just how misogynistic traditional Judaism was and how desperately I wished to see change, I understood their anger. I recognized just how righteous it was. They had been deprived of their rights for hundreds of years and were being forced to be patient, contenting themselves with scraps from the institutional table.

Now I'm not at all claiming that the situations between the two groups are remotely similar--I'm a woman who has benefited from white privilege and private school education her whole life (kindergarten through graduate school) and I was able to leave the community and find a life where rabbinic misogyny cannot touch me. But I can understand the anger and frustration of being told to wait for what you know you're entitled to, to having to listen to specious arguments as to why you shouldn't have it that are not based on your integrity, abilities and hard work but on facts of your biology. I know how infuriating it can be to hear people urge you to wait patiently and demurely for equal, just treatment.

While anger is not an effective strategy to create social change, I don't wish to rid myself of it either. We should be mad, not patient, and use our frustration and sense of injustice to work even harder for our rights.

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