What Women Voters Want

by Katherine Dalton on October 25, 2012 · 24 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power

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Louisville, Kentucky.  I have been trying to forget something I read two months ago, but some things cannot be buried before they are purged.

Journalist Hanna Rosin is on book tour now promoting the thesis that we’re about to experience the “end of men,” and though the definitiveness of her title is moderated in her interviews, her basic point is that women are gaining the upper hand all around. She has not convinced even the New York Times Book Review of this, but then her main thesis is not my subject today. I want to look at one of her side arguments.

As part of her book research, she spent a night hanging out in a bar with some Ivy League business school students, and wrote up the evening for the September issue of the Atlantic. Ms. Rosin had chosen this particular group because they had the reputation for living the Master’s Thesis version of Girls Gone Wild, and that is indeed what she found.

As the evening unfolds, a dirty internet picture gets passed around a table on a smartphone, as one woman is flipped the bird by her lover when someone mentions “marriage,” and another entertains a group of men with an imitation of an Asian call girl’s come-on. The only student who seems astonished by all this casual decadence is a South American, who says that in her country, women who act like this are either desperate or the type of professional who doesn’t need an MBA.

But the real kicker is in Ms. Rosin’s response. She writes: “So there we have it…. We are, in the world’s estimation, a nation of prostitutes. And not even prostitutes with hearts of gold. Is that so bad? Or is there, maybe, a different way to analyze the scene that had just unfolded?”

She goes on to say that the progress women have made toward ending the power domination of men is a “remarkable development” made possible by “not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom—the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career.  To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture.”

If this is feminism, then pass me the patriarchy, please.

How do I take seriously someone who wants to argue that being compared to a prostitute is something to celebrate?  But I have to, and not only because this is the Atlantic. It is campaign season, too, and as the presidential race careens toward its finish November 6th, with a big fight for the women’s vote, both news coverage and campaign rhetoric is focussed on a certain narrow definition of what “women’s issues” are—what women (or at least a large segment of them) really want, and finally, what Hanna Rosin says lies at the core of feminism. And though she may be wrong about many things, I think she is right about this.

As she says, at its base, feminism is not really about equal pay for equal work, or bank presidencies and board seats. Nor is it fundamentally about the right to shoot a howitzer, or share the housecleaning, or any of those social role changes a feminist would file under “respect.” Those are side issues and benefits. What feminism is really selling is a woman’s ability to be as sexually emancipated as a randy man, without the risk of having to take a pregnancy to term.

Hence the constant, from-the-beginning emphasis on abortion rights and defending Planned Parenthood. Hence the bra-burnings as iconic act. Hence Cosmopolitan’s millions of readers compared to Ms. Magazine’s much smaller number. And hence the internal logic of a movement which necessarily transformed Gloria Steinem’s 1960′s argument that Playboy Bunnies were being economically and sexually expoited, into the notion that the Bunny can be a symbol of female sexual freedom and power, as long as she herself chooses the heels and the tail.

Birth control and abortion rights aren’t in and of themselves going to shatter a glass ceiling or stop spouse abuse. But they sure will help you play around.

In a tasteless video a PAC called the Jewish Council for Education and Research created in support of the Obama campaign, a suburban liberal family that has become listless in its support of the President is harangued by its youngest daughter and her buddy, actor Samuel Jackson, to “Wake the F— Up.” Wearing his trademark Che Guevara-like beret, Jackson pops up all around the house, rhyming different political arguments at different family members in turn. Granny and gramps get yelled at about the dangers to Medicare. The older brother hears about civil rights and cuts to college loans.

But when Mr. Jackson and the little girl interrupt the family’s high-school-age daughter and her friend while social networking, what does the nine-year-old say to them but, “A vote for Romney is a vote to let Planned Parenthood get cut!” The video presumes that for teenage girls, access to birth control and abortion is the only issue.

If it is unfair to saddle Mr. Obama with a video his campaign would never have approved, then it must be said his own language is similar. On his official campaign website, under the large banner headline “Rolling Back Women’s Rights,” the copy reads: “Mitt Romney is committed to overturning Roe v. Wade, and has said he would ‘get rid of’ Planned Parenthood. He has been endorsed by candidates and lawmakers across the country who are equally committed to moving backwards. Take a look at the map below to see how they’ve attacked women’s rights.”

Fourteen states are then highlighted and all but one link to Mr. Romney’s or other Republicans’ statements opposing abortion, contraception or Planned Parenthood. Only the fourteenth discusses equal pay. The website does talk about pay and healthcare costs in other other places, but there is no question which women’s issue the President has chosen to emphasize.

And polls say he is right. A Gallup Poll released October 18 showed that abortion was the top issue for women in the twelve swing states, at 39 percent. The next highest issue was jobs, at 19 percent.

The poll did not ask respondents if they were for or against abortion, but while there is plenty of pro-life feeling in the country, the language of any number of politicians, editorialists, bloggers, and rank-and-file posters on the internet mirrors the President’s. If there is a single issue for a certain type of single girl, it is un-family planning. Ms. Rosin’s grad students, like many other women, have simply taken the sexual freedom argument to its extreme.

One other point about Ms. Rosin’s article. As her quote above shows, she is glad that these young professional women, by forgoing real relationships for a series of casual affairs, can keep themselves free to focus on their studies and their career. Most of them have already left the places they grew up far behind; now they can keep themselves from being limited by a person, too.

Quite aside from the fact that Ms. Rosin never argues that these women could keep themselves equally heart-whole and obligation-free by simply not dating or at least not sleeping around—chastity is a dead letter for her—she is making the the ultimate case for deracination. She has taken Richard Florida of Who’s Your City? fame one logical step further by saying: If you think you’ve come a long way, baby, uprooting yourself and freeing yourself from the limiting opportunities of home, think how far you’ll go if you keep yourself likewise free of ties in some of your most intimate relationships.

That, ladies, is emancipation—from everything worth having.

Photo of a Beacon Hill rally by Paul-W

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jennifer Krieger October 25, 2012 at 10:25 am

A one-sided review of the situation. Limited. The author makes assumptions.

avatar David Smith October 25, 2012 at 11:01 am

Ms. Krieger, you say, “A one-sided review of the situation. Limited. The author makes assumptions. ”

You’re challenging Ms. Dalton, but I would like to know precisely how. Would you please explain more? As for being one-sided, I would expect her to express HER opinion from HER side. What am I missing here?

Ms. Dalton, it appears we have one more author who as a, what, Progressive? Liberal? Leftist? Feminist? (Honestly, I don’t know what label is appropriate anymore!), is hell-bent on making war on Nature and Reality.

As Dr. Phil famously says, “How’s that workin’ out for you?”

avatar Rob G October 25, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Thank you, sexual revolution. “Take away our families, our money, our communities, but please, please, don’t take away our freedom to boink anyone we want whenever we want!!!”

Used to be that men who thought like that were considered “dogs” and “pigs.” Too bad that ‘liberated’ women have joined them living in the sty and eating Alpo.

avatar Karen October 25, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Would the author please explain how women can have economic rights and respect in general without bodily autonomy? Specifically, how can a woman be married and have a job if she doesn’t use birth control? Do wives get an absolute veto over sex? Which employers would grant maternity leave for Duggar-esque fertility?

avatar Kate Dalton October 25, 2012 at 4:10 pm

It is almost impossible to raise this issue and not raise a welt–it is so very personal and visceral. I can only ask readers to read carefully, please. If certain forms and uses of birth control can be moral, that does not mean we should celebrate its abuse. Also, as a “woman’s issue” birth control is handcuffed to abortion, in part because some types of it are forms of abortion, and in part because linking the two issues is useful, politically, to those who wish to gain support for the latter. There are reasonable stands to take and reasonable legislative compromises to be made on these terribly private matters, but they are not being taken or made by anyone I cited in this article.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 25, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Gawd ferbid we should be confronted with a “one sided review”. As if the entirety of political thought these days is not a traveling carnival of “one-sided review”.

The Bait and Switch of Popular American Freedom is deeply inculcated within a spectator culture of startling gullibility.. It has readily thrown over-board the essential American idea that the sails of freedom depend upon a rudder of responsibility. The winds which drive the sails are always there, it is our job to elect a proper course.

A fine and questioning call here Ms. Dalton. Feminism is gaining its vacuous just-desserts. It reminds me of the old Bill Mauldin cartoon from the end of WWII, when the Leatherneck and his pal are in a foxhole surrounded by utterly shattered destruction and the one guy sez to the other : “We won”.

“Bodily autonomy”. If a sordidly grazing bar culture is the venue of said “bodily autonomy” victory, one wonders at the classification.

The old Skinner Box seems more illustrative by the year.

avatar dave walsh October 25, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Good to see Sabin posting again.
I’d say being emancipated “from everything worth having.” is the recipe for a great consumer. Moneyed discontent.
Sex is racy and edgy; reading someone like Rosin I just substitute some other carnal pleasure for the sex. In this case, gluttony. So the women pass around a picture of cupcakes, and some young woman eventually goes home and eats a whole container of ice cream. Edgy. Liberating.
Thing is, I think Rosin gets it wrong. I think what she is trying to admire is a lack of emotional vulnerability, and for those of us who are older that’s kind of a childish myth. But that’s not my point. My point is I don’t think emotional invulnerability is what is contributing to the economic success of many younger women. I think it has more to do with their ability to work collaboratively, intelligently and with integrity and so on. That and the fact that none of our young men can get through Peters’ freshman comp and rhetoric. She’s a reporter. She should do some research. Of some other sort.

avatar Aldous Huxley October 25, 2012 at 7:33 pm

“As political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends compensatingly to increase.

And the dictator (unless he needs cannon fodder and families with which to colonize empty or conquered territories) will do well to encourage that freedom. In conjunction with the freedom to daydream under the influence of dope and movies and the radio, it will help to reconcile his subjects to the servitude which is their fate.”

avatar Chris Travers October 25, 2012 at 11:00 pm

I think you don’t quite go far enough regarding a certain brand of feminism and would recommend a (very feminist, but from a very different form of feminism) book to everyone here, “Birth as an American Rite of Passage” by Robbie Davis-Floyd. It is a very thought-provoking work if you read it without preconceptions about what feminism means. It is also very anti-Enlightenment which is another reason to recommend it here, and I think we have some insight to gain from her work.

The core problem with modern feminism in the form you describe it is that is that it is predicated, not on the idea that patriarchy is a problem, but on the desire for women to be patriarchs too. I think this has a lot to do with the downfall of the agrarian order where many industries were dominated by women (in particular textile production) and where women were forced to enter the workplace effectively as if they were male. This led to a very anti-family and even paradoxically anti-woman feminism. For example see Hillary Clinton telling women that they should stop complaining that they can’t have it all and accept that they have more choices than at any point in history, but at the same time saying that women who choose to stay home and raise kids are damaging the economy. With friends like these who needs enemies?

avatar Thomas McCullough October 26, 2012 at 7:08 am

A serious and perhaps the primary result of the sexual freedom thrust of feminism is described in a chapter on pornography in Chris Hedges “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.” It is painful reading.
Sexual actions are innately inescapably serious, profound and moving. To treat them casually is to be seriously casual and profoundly trivial, to crush a great thing, a human soul into a small thing.

avatar Rodger October 26, 2012 at 8:54 am

The fact, that in this rotten, miserable economy with so much unemployment and our economic future in peril (especially for us young folks) that women could be so solipsistic as to consider abortion their number one electoral issue seriously brings into question the sanity of universal suffrage.

avatar Jennifer Krieger October 26, 2012 at 11:44 am

Well!
I’m doing fine, mother of 4 and grandmother of 1, wife of 1, holder of 1 job. I have a cat, too.
Others who handcuff abortion to birth control are those who wish to ban both.
And, oh my goodness, abortion is not our #1 electoral issue, you grey faced man(Thank, Tina Fey!), it is INSURANCE. It is DAMAGE CONTROL. It is a last ditch effort to control our own bodies, when all else has failed. It is painful to contemplate and no one is advocating it as a means of birth control.
Jennifer Krieger

avatar D.W. Sabin October 26, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Mrs. Kreiger,
As a proud possessor of grey whiskers beyond popular acceptance , let me be the first to congratulate you on being the wife of 1 , mother of 4 and grandma of 1.

Would that my own produce might grant me a couple of mites to corrupt.

Maintain your skepticism young lady. Skepticism, of course, is next to Americanliness.

avatar Chris Travers October 27, 2012 at 1:31 am

Mrs. Kreiger,

Well, maybe not outright advocating it as a method of birth control, however this week in Pennsylvania, 5 Republicans and 1 Democrat introduced a bill to the legislature that, if passed, would have the state intrude on reproductive choices by poor working families. The bill would, in effect, penalize women for choosing not to have an abortion when they become pregnant and are on some forms of public assistance. This is the servile state at its worst, and I don’t know whether it is more outrageous that the proponents of the bill are Republicans or that the left-wing press doesn’t seem to think that the issue is that of the right to choose *to* carry a child to term.

I wrote about it here: http://elfishpolitics.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-servile-state-and-corporate-press.html

It’s a very depressing bill and a very depressing subject. I plan to vote for Johnson not because I am a Libertarian (I am not) but because the two main parties are so thoroughly corrupt I cannot in good conscience support them.

avatar Mike November 2, 2012 at 10:48 am

The hookup culture has negatively impacted both genders but women today are still more interested in marriage, family, and long term commitment than men just as they have always been. Also, I think that technology and the secularization of American society played a much larger role in the sexual revolution than feminism did.

avatar lhf November 4, 2012 at 6:34 am

Hanna Rosin should revisit her group of women when they pass 35 and begin the slide toward 40. I’ve seen the desperation of these women that spurned marriage earlier and at this point in their lives realize that the ability to have a child is fast slipping away. Marriageable males are few and far between and those remaining have serious defects – and if they wish, can and will choose younger women if interested in childbearing.

It’s sad, but at 40, choices women make in their 20s are usually irreversible.

avatar Eric Brooks November 4, 2012 at 8:22 pm

I might have voted for Romney if he was actually against women’s rights like the Obama campaign said. Ah well. Really you can’t start questioning women’s rights until you get out of the capitalist delusion that property and careers are what make life worthwhile, but liberals are as much taken by the capitalist delusion as their conservative counterparts.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 5, 2012 at 12:29 am

Well, maybe not outright advocating it as a method of birth control, however this week in Pennsylvania, 5 Republicans and 1 Democrat introduced a bill to the legislature that, if passed, would have the state intrude on reproductive choices by poor working families. The bill would, in effect, penalize women for choosing not to have an abortion when they become pregnant and are on some forms of public assistance.

I have been pointing out for some time (not that I have any prominent bully-pulpits to speak from) that the best legal defense against such measures is Roe v. Wade. Since the government has no jurisdiction during the first trimester, and its increasing levels of jurisdiction in trimesters two and three are predicated exclusively on its interest in protecting the new life, as it approaches fully formed babyhood, the government has no jurisdiction to mandate abortion, any more that it does to forbid it.

However, in the welfare context, there may be a loophole. In the absence of exigent circumstances, or a judicial warrant issued upon probably cause, child protection agencies have ZERO authority to enter a private residence. BUT, if a family is receiving public assistance, conditioning receipt of public funds on submitting to inspections has been held constitutionally acceptable.

Flipping around again, perhaps courts would rule, as the Supreme Court did with regard to withholding all Medicaid funds from states that do not comply with the Medicaid provisions of the equal access to health care act, that a legislature exceeds its power by threatening to withhold welfare payments unless a recipient submits to an involuntary abortion. It would be consistent with the intimate nature of the decision, as cited in Roe, to do so.

That detail aside, I fully agree with Ms. Dalton’s critique, but I question whether the prostitution she highlights is so widespread as to be culturally dominant. Obviously there are well-connected culture vultures who can write books and articles blithely proclaiming that serial prostitution sans pimps is the height of freedom. But how many women, or men, actually live their lives that way? Certainly the Obama family provides a sterling counter-example, and I’m sure there are millions less prominent but equally sterling.

avatar drea916 November 5, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Karen,
You present a false choice between using birth control or having 20 twenty kids. There is a 3rd choice and many couples use it and are happy. Modern natural family planning is just as effective as other forms of birth control. No, it’s not the old calendar method. And yes, most men are fine with a little abstinence…unlike the men who are married to women who are birth control who have a perpetual headache.

avatar Max Bean November 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm

A fascinating post. Thank you.

I think you make a really interesting point about how the entire discussion of feminism has gotten absurdly mired in reproductive issues, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that these issues are the core of feminism. I have to agree with Siarlys Jenkins, here: “Obviously there are well-connected culture vultures who can write books and articles blithely proclaiming that serial prostitution sans pimps is the height of freedom. But how many women, or men, actually live their lives that way?”

My mother (who had an accidental, out-of-marriage pregnancy as a teenager and had the child) passionately defends women’s reproductive rights (both contraception & abortion), but she would be disgusted by the scene described in Ms. Rosin’s article and shocked by Ms. Rosin’s interpretation of “freedom.” She often expresses disapproval at the loose, commercialized sexuality of modern culture, and most tellingly, she has been happily married to my dad for 33 years.

My mom’s not an anomaly: there are plenty of women who’s idea of feminism is a whole lot more complicated and more nuanced than Ms. Rosin’s. Indeed, it seems as though a view as absurd as Ms. Rosin’s could only come from a journalist or other public figure, someone who’s opinions & observations are more a part of the personality package that they’re selling to the world than genuine beliefs grounded in relationships with and concern for other human beings.

In an increasingly absurd society, it’s important to remember that what is presented to us as the “public discourse” is neither public nor really a coherent discourse. Real beliefs and opinions are, sadly, influenced & distorted by this circus, and then in turn help to reproduce it, but it is a mistake to think that this so-called “public discourse” actually represents the public or faithfully expresses any real belief-system.

avatar Kate Dalton November 6, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Mr. Bean makes a good point: Ms. Rosin is indeed selling a book, and as we live in a media culture that rewards raw meat and molotov cocktails, she is pandering to the market–all press being good press.

Still, if Ms. Rosin’s argument is extreme, the behavior she describes is both real and not rare, and she does have a certain constituency. She is both selling and expressing a point of view that however appalling to me or to your mother, is not appalling to the women who hold it. At least not now.

Reproductive rights is not the only feminist issue. But it is the most dear, because the root argument of feminism is for a type of individualism and autonomous power that has come to mean not political or economic or intellectual freedom, but freedom from pregnancy, as the necessary freedom before any others are possible. With respect, I do think that’s a fair characterization.

avatar Bo November 8, 2012 at 9:36 am

Women’s rights was a terrible mistake. Women don’t need “rights” and all they’ve done with them is destroy themselves and society.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 13, 2012 at 12:15 am

Pray, tell us Bo, exactly what totalitarian regime women ought to be encumbered by, for their own good, no doubt.

avatar Julien Peter Benney January 28, 2013 at 12:14 am

The issue of what women want is an interesting question. The finding that the issue of abortion is so important reflects just how masculinised women have become (“end of women” would be a much more accurate phrase than “end of men”) because outside of mineral- and land-rich Australia, all so-called “developed countries” have inherited a culture of envy and self-interest from their working-class males. It is because women do not have as much wealth as men that they take this policy so far: in essence it is a culture of hypermasculinity, almost like a culture in which there are only males engaging in homosexual relationships. It ties in with so much else about the mineral- and land-poor Enriched World: from their love of excitement and speed to the extreme “consumer culture”and love of having the most individual music and goods regardless of functionality.

It’s paradoxical that before women were given the vote the extreme social conservatism of women was the major obstacle to the growth of government – in pre-1914 Europe only ruling class males were as conservative as the great majority of females. The working masses and academic classes in their different ways knew how women’s conservatism had to be demolished for their revolutionary politics to work, but they did not know they would have the result observed.

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