Around the 1992 election, like the political junkie-in-training I was, I walked around my grade-school wearing campaign buttons featuring the dynamic duo of Jewish female California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, plus new First Lady Hillary Clinton. It was the Year of the Woman, a historic moment for women in politics — and a backlash to the Anita Hill fiasco — that hasn’t been replicated since.
Last night’s election may be remembered as a similarly banner moment, an example of, as social media would quaintly put it, “revenge of the ladyparts.”
The story of last night begins with resounding defeats for some of the most extreme and obnoxious anti-women Tea Party type candidates: Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, Richard “God’s Will” Mourdoch, Joe “abortion is never necessary to save the life of the mother” Walsh and more. Even the shell-shocked folks on Fox News acknowledged that a lot of these races had been the GOP’s to lose, and the candidates’ outmoded, offensive — but deeply revealing — beliefs about gender, abortion and rape lost it for them.
But the losses for (“team rape”)[http://jezebel.com/5958480/team-rape-lost-big-last-night] were women’s gains. This widely-circulating photoset shows a montage of some of the amazing women who were elected or re-elected last night — 19, possibly 20 women in the Senate, a new high.
This is the fifth post in a Sisterhood series on women, apologizing and Yom Kippur.
As we get closer to Yom Kippur and muse on atonement — what it means, what we should atone for — it’s worth probing the gendered nature of apologies. To begin with, it seems obvious that women in our society are conditioned from an early age to apologize too much and for the wrong sins.
I’m a strong feminist and I’m as hyper-aware of these dynamics as anyone. But I’ve got my share of neuroses, and so I still get told by my loved ones to “knock it off with the sorrys.” I tend to proffer “I’m sorry” as a buffer when I’m asserting needs or desires that may inconvenience those around me.
So yes, women — or really anyone adversely affected by gender roles in that particular way — need to resolve during the holidays to apologize less. We don’t want to dilute the value of apologies; we ought save them for when we truly mean the mea culpas, like when we’ve completely screwed up as opposed to when we’re, you know, expressing our opinion, asking for a favor or infringing on someone else’s time.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the apologies we receive. As someone who writes about political culture, I’ve spent much of the year analyzing the apologies offered to various women who have been insulted at record levels in recent months. Indeed, it was a banner year for misogynist comments followed by non-apologies. And those apologies, often phrased as “I’m sorry if you were offended” or “I’m sorry for what I said, but not what it meant,” get used quite a bit when the initial comment or action offended women.
Everybody’s talking about rape. From Daniel Tosh to Todd Akin, it’s all the rhetorical rage. While rape jokes may be more pervasive than ever these days, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve grown weary of arguments about rape humor — especially since the current political rhetoric regarding women’s bodies gives us something deeper at which to be offended. The suggestion that women’s bodies possess magical powers allowing them to suppress the fertilization of their eggs by rapists’ semen — in the event of “legitimate rape,” that is — and the proposal that fetal “personhood” begins weeks before a woman can even know that she is pregnant must cause even the most conservative women to shudder. At least in secret.
But as the arguments dwindle and the fallout of badly timed jokes runs its course, we’re left with something more sinister. What does this increasing cultural and political impulse to legislate women’s bodies and lash out at them in hateful ways say about our society?
Let’s start with humor. Yes, good humor breaches boundaries and challenges prevailing attitudes in ways that produce dialogue. But only the smart jokes do this. Defending every rape joke on the basis of free speech or an attempt to question a dominant mindset often amounts to intellectual laziness. The nature of our jokes, and why we laugh at them, reveals the darker realities of who we are. So why so much rape humor, and why now?
Ever since the complete firestorm surrounding GOP senatorial Candidate Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape” the GOP has kept mum on “red-meat” social issues. The word “abortion” was barely mentioned all week in prime-time convention speeches, for instance, many of which were by women and delivered well. And even though the party’s platform contained a complete abortion ban, there appeared to be a concerted effort not to attract attention to that inconvenient fact.
But for those of us who believe anti-abortion fervor comes as much from societal misogyny as conviction in the “sanctity of life,” GOP speaker Mike Huckabee’s “joke” at the expense of staunchly pro-choice DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz felt like the party’s real position on women’s roles was spilling out of the seams.
Here’s the text of Huckabee’s bon mot:
“Tampa has been such a wonderful and hospitable city to us. The only hitch in an otherwise perfect week was the awful noise coming from the hotel room next door to mine. Turns out it was just Debbie Wasserman Schultz practicing her speech for the DNC in Charlotte next week. Bless her heart.”
In case you don’t get the point embedded in this joke, the point is that Wasserman-Schultz has a shrill voice, in Huckabee’s view (but bless her heart, really!). Shrill: the most common insult deployed to silence a strong voice from any downtrodden group in society, particularly a female one.
My Dearest Daughter:
At some point over the last 18 years, I, like many other moms out there, started to worry about the sort of world I brought you into. This is your first week of college, and it’s also your first time away from home for an extended period of time. Your world is opening up in exciting and challenging new ways, but still, sometimes I feel as if I’ve launched you into outer space — into a disorienting, alien landscape that I don’t quite recognize. Case in point: Rep. Todd Akin’s statement about “legitimate rape.” By now you know the ridiculous essence of the story — that Akin said that when a so-called “legitimate rape” occurs, a woman’s body somehow knows to shut itself down to prevent pregnancy.
My precious daughter, you plan to major in biology and you will surely learn that this man has propagated a disgusting, bald lie in order to force women to carry a traumatic or unwanted pregnancy to term. In fact, last year Akin co-sponsored a bill with Paul Ryan, the presumed Republican vice-presidential nominee, that permitted Medicaid to pay for an abortion only in the case of a “forcible rape.” If an adult relative raped a young girl or a co-ed was date-raped by another student, these men believe that those rapes should not be eligible for abortions under Medicaid.
How did we get here? What sort of country am I leaving to you?
The Sisterhood’s Blair Thornburgh calls Rep. Todd Akin’s ill-considered words on abortion and rape “immature,” and she’s right about that. Unfortunately, this momentary villain of the political community is not alone in his ignorance and immaturity. Rather, his response resurrects an old Right-Wing canard: Anna North ran down some of the weirdest examples of this myth at BuzzFeed earlier this spring.
The idea that Akin simply verbalized an attitude that many of his peers already embrace but don’t dare utter aloud is more important than the immediate horse-race speculation about his political future. Will Akin be forced to drop out by the GOP? Will he stay in the race? Ultimately, writes my colleague Sarah Jaffe, it doesn’t matter, because the party that has produced Akin has buried itself deep in a misogynist hole:
This isn’t a tiny quibble over a definition of rape or even a hilarious moment to laugh at a Congressman who thinks women have magic reproductive organs. Akin’s “misstatement” is a symptom of a problem that plagues nearly an entire political party and has been given way too much quarter by those who should oppose it.
Perhaps it’s not shocking that Representative Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee from Missouri who’s backed by the Tea Party, opposes abortion even in the case of rape. More surprising is the backward and scrambling way he justifies his position. In an interview with a St. Louis television station, Mr. Akin presented a muddied “clarification” on his views on Sunday:
It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.
There’s plenty of reason to take issue with what he says. That rape is unlikely to cause pregnancy. That an abortion is somehow akin to a criminal prosecution. That rape must be qualified as “legitimate” unfairly suggests victims who routinely cry wolf. That rape happens not to a person but to the object that is the “female body.”
This is an upsetting message. But equally troubling are the fumbling, inarticulate euphemisms Akin uses to convey it. You can practically hear him blush as he pronounces wordy allusions to “that whole thing” and the unspecified physical process “that didn’t work or something.”