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The War on Terror and the War on Women

(Written for the March 2012 synchroblog; links TBA.)

I have a secret: for years now, I've wished I was eligible for the selective service.

In my country, at the age of eighteen all the guys have to register for the military draft. They don't actually have to serve, and chances are negligible that they'll be called up, since (for all our wars) America has been an all-volunteer army since I believe Vietnam. But ever since I've figured out how committed of a pacifist I am, I've wanted the ability to declare to God, country, and the world at large that there wasn't anyone representin me in this war, either.

I want to be clear about something: I respect what our veterans are trying to do. I nod at them out of respect when I see them on campus, and I've gotten in the habit of picking up pastries every week or two for my veteran neighbor, as a small token of gratitude. I also would gladly pay any tax asked of me to improve their safety while in service and their recovery once they leave. It's the generals and the contractors I have a beef with. I don't think our current wars are just, and given our track record of judicial process for people accused of war crimes and quasi-legal neverending wars, I think it will be a long time before I'd find an actual war I could support. And that's my point. I want the right to register as a conscientious objector to document this fact. Because I am not expected to fight, someone else "covers" me by default, so I get no say in the matter.

It's not just that theoretical point that bothers me, though. At the tender age of seventeen, I was a registered Republican and generally supported the idea of bringing democracy to the world, but I also wasn't sure now I felt about killing someone for that cause or any other, and so I asked my history teacher what were my options if I was morally opposed to war. He told me that I wasn't required to register for the draft, and when I asked why he explained that "Uncle Sam" didn't want to take mothers away from their children, or put children in homes with a mum suffering from PTSD. I'm now a few months shy of thirty years old, still happily single and happily child-free, in a doctoral program that I hope will lead to a professorship. In the meantime I am happy with my hobbies, my volunteer work, my church, and my friends both online and offline. I am living the life of the mind in a truly vibrant city, and it's a good life - just not the one my high school teacher thought I was destined for. But back then, that thought was discouraging. Men could go and die for their country and could then go on to college and do whatever they liked. For me, though, he thought my future was sealed. Biology really was destiny, or at least that's how it struck me at the time.

I thought about all this when I heard someone use the phrase "war on women" for the umpteenth time in a newspaper editorial this morning. Again, let me be clear: I think preventive birth control is a good thing, and I think subsidized or insurance-covered birth control is an even better thing because it gives lower-class women the same liberties I have to manage their sexuality and its consequences. But every time I hear that phrase I bristle just a little bit (and sometimes quite a lot), because it carries with it the suggestion that as a woman I am defined by the bits of anatomy between my legs. It also suggests that if I personally didn't think of fertility like a disease, I would not be included in the collective of womanhood that was under attack. I've been on the receiving end of people telling me what it means to be a real woman, to feel comfortable with that.

Given that this is a SynchroBlog post, I feel a strong pull to somehow tie this back to my religion. I could cite the many different roles women serve throughout the Bible, from Miriam to Esther to Mary Magdalene, and those stories are relevant. The problem is, they're part of a fabric that stretches beyond any one religious or literary tradition. I could just as easily point to Eowyn and B'Elanna Torres and Brenda Leigh Johnson and all the other strong women of literature. They weren't all shieldmaidens, either. Often as not, womanhood is as varied as human nature (as well it should be!). Our battle-cries need to reflect that.


Mar. 12th, 2012 11:05 pm (UTC)
Hi Marta, couple points that strike me, here:

1) I don't think that using hormonal birth control, or promoting affordable family planning options, is tantamount to "treating fertility as a disease." It's a natural process that women should be able to regulate--or not--as they see fit. Not sure if this is what you're actually suggesting, just wanted to clarify. (Of course, bc is also used to treat things that can be considered "diseases," such as menstrual irregularities, severe PMS, etc.)

2) While I do agree that the phrase "war on women" is rather hyperbolic (I don't use it, myself) I think it's come up in response to the fact that so many of these discussions are disproportionately centered on women, and what women do and don't do. In all of these dialogues, where are the men who are partners in their wives or girlfriends' fertility decisions? Where are the men who are contributing to unplanned pregnancies, or failing to support their children once they're born? (And who are getting their Viagra paid for by their insurance companies, for that matter?) Why aren't their decisions and bodies being scrutinized, as well? I don't think anyone wants to be defined solely by his or her reproductive functions, but some people's preoccupations with others' decisions regarding these functions strikes me as a little...unseemly?

3) That said, I agree that no one's got a monopoly on what it means to be a "real woman," or a "real feminist," or a "real man," for that matter.
Mar. 13th, 2012 07:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the comment, Aliana. I'll take it point by point if you don't mind.

1) This all came up because the health care bill requires insurance to cover preventive care (which was stipulated to include birth control). That raises the question of what just is birth control preventing? Setting aside things like severe PMS, ovarian cysts, etc. - which even the most pro-life conservatives don't tend to have a problem with, and isn't preventive in any case - birth control prevents pregnancy. So I think it's pretty reasonable for some women to view this bill as treating pregnancy like a disease. If someone disagrees with that message, I have a hard time painting them as anti-woman.

2) I completely agree with you in the "where are the men" question. It often brings on head/desk episodes, actually - I remember in particular during rush Limbaugh's hystrionics at that law student he called "slut," wondering just what he thought of her boyfriend or partner(s)? I agree, it does seem like in many social conservatives' minds, sex has become a women's issue. But I guess that phrase "war on women" is tied up with other rhetoric you hear on this issue. I was reminded of Alternet's piece from a while back, on the 10 worst states to be a woman in. Even as someone who's pro-choice, pro-women (and men!) managing their own sexuality without political interference, I still hate the signal that sends. To me, whenever I hear that phrase I can't help hearing it as: If we win this one struggle, then the war on women will be over. Like if we could only get free birth control and wide access to abortions for all, there would be no other ways it stinks to be a woman in this culture. There are many, many more significant ways than these particular issues.

3) Thanks for the reminder about "real man." Sometimes these issues tend to focus just on the women. It's a good reminder.
Mar. 14th, 2012 05:48 am (UTC)
Why do you frame it as "what is birth control preventing?" as if the default state of women ought to be "pregnant'? Of course pregnancy isn't a disease, but it comes with physical consequences far beyond the casual to potentially life-threatening and a life-long commitment to the child being born. What "birth control" actually does is not simply "prevent birth," it gives the woman *control* of her fertility. It should not be called "birth control" but "fertility control," although it is probably way too late to make that rational name change. In my view, anyone who wants to place arbitrary restrictions on what I can do with my fertility IS being anti-woman. It is a tremendous, radical change for society, as women now have the same freedom that men have always enjoyed to be a sexual being without necessarily being committed to parenthood. As a woman, a wife, and a mother, I can't see that as anything but a good thing.
Mar. 14th, 2012 09:30 am (UTC)
I frame it that way because of the way the law sets up. (As I understand it, which may be completely off!) My understanding is: the healthcare law says insurance must cover various preventative health measures, and includes birth control as falling under that category. If it's preventative, that means it must be preventing something from happening, not treating something that's already happened. That's why, as I read the law, it can't be aimed at controlling or managing fertility; that's a treatment for an "ongoing condition."

Even if I'm wrong and the aim of the bill is to give a woman control over fertility rather than prevent pregnancy and birth, that's still not really a neutral position because you're saying this is an area that medicine is supposed to address. I'm having a very hard time thinking of any other example where we try to manage a properly-functioning body in this way. Usually medicine has two functions: to fight off/prevent external invasions (e.g.: a virus) or to repair/prevent damage to a malfunctioning body (e.g.: set a broken bone).

I'm not saying that this isn't a good thing. I think birth control is probably one of the best things to come out of the twentieth century, for the reasons you mention. But I can also see how some women might take offense at seeing fertility and/or pregnancy put in either of those two camps. They might reasonably say that, while some women might want control over their fertility and that was a perfectly legitimate position, the control they wanted wasn't a medical issue and shouldn't be approached like a disease.
Mar. 15th, 2012 08:09 am (UTC)
But that makes no sense. It is only because fertility can be managed by modern medical processes that the issue is on the table at all.

And you are wrong about how you are presenting the dichotomy of medicine. "Repairing and preventing damage to a malfunctioning body" is nowhere near as simple as setting a broken bone. What about auto-immune problems like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis? Are you saying that since they are on-going conditions they ought not to be covered under an insurance policy that specifies preventative medicine? Those need long-term medicines but they are not an immediate life-threatening condition or something that can be "fixed" at all with current knowledge. They can be controlled and managed to promote better overall health. Like fertility can be controlled and managed to promote better overall health. If it promotes better overall health, it is certainly preventing problems.

Vitamins are something that is often taken by people with properly-functioning bodies to promote general health but that can also be a prescribed as medicine to treat a specific condition such as anemia or scurvy.

I cannot find the actual text of the birth control mandate on line! just endless analyses with unhelpful paraphrases - but what if it said something more like "reasonable and normal reproductive health care?" If it's not "preventative" but merely "normal" would that reconcile you?

Again, it's the way it is *framed* that you seem to be objecting to, not what it is or what it does. That confuses me. I can't go back sixty years and stop people from calling it "birth control", even if "fertility control" is a more accurate description of what it's doing. I'm happy to entertain a different way to think about it if you can tell me a name or a slogan that works as well, but I can't make it non-medical just because what it's changing in a woman's body isn't strictly a disease. What would be the value of such a distinction in an insurance policy that also must cover medical uses of the exact same drugs?



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