Donna Perry: Mixed Messages in the ‘War’ on Women

Thursday, March 22, 2012


An odd spring is taking hold this year and I’m not just talking about the very welcome but unseasonably warm March weather.

The rising temperatures seem to fit right in with the already extremely overheated Republican presidential campaign primary season that now has triggered talk that a war on women is being waged in the land.

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We are being told this with each passing day by certain national and local Democrats who have been just giddy in recent weeks with what appear to be stumbles on the right over issues we are told are of magnified importance to all women. The issue was brought to our own backyard in recent days when California Congresswoman and now House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused the GOP of “picking fights with women” as she led a forum and headlined a fundraiser for the deeply troubled re-election campaign of David Cicilline

But back to the war front for a moment.

This new “war” traces its origins to Congressional Republicans’ sloppy handling of a committee hearing a few weeks back that concernedinsurance coverage for birth control,which then triggered undeniably coarse and inappropriate remarksfrom talk show host Rush Limbaugh about the central woman testifying at the hearing. It began as an authentically valid debate on whether provisions in the Obama health care plan that would force employers like religious run hospitals, colleges and other non-profitsto pay for birth control coverage for female employees, represents an affront to religious beliefs and freedoms. Law School student Sandra Fluke’s testimony, in which she advocated to have her contraceptives paid for by the Jesuit run Georgetown University, is notable not so much for the fireworks it set off, but more for what it represents about the message carried by some self-proclaimed feminist leaderstoday.

Thanks to Sandra and Rush, what should have stayed a valid legal question has mushroomed into a much louder argument that has a time capsule 1970’s quality in that it’s become a debate about women’s bodies, contraception and a host of other issues that may make for easy talking points for some politicians but don’t necessarily resonate with the current challenging realities of many women’s lives.

It may come as a surprise to some, including Congressman Cicilline and his friend Nancy Pelosithat the highest priority concerns and issues felt by women this yearhave more to do with their pocketbook than their private zones. Women, across a wide swath of demographics have been disproportionately hurt by the prolonged recession and though it may be receding elsewhere, women in Rhode Island facing continued unemployment, underemployment, chronically squeezed household resources or meager and dwindling retirement dollars, are not putting the question of who will pay for their contraceptives at the top of their worry list this year.

According to the 2010 U.S Census figures, gainful employment for both young females and males aged 16-29 is at its lowest level since the end of World War II; nearly 6 million young people between the ages of 25-34, manysaddled with tens of thousands in college debt, yet unable to secure a good paying job, are living at home with their parents;and women a few decades ahead of them are likewise not generally doing that well. The data finds that 1 in 6 Americans aged 65 and older are e-entering the workforce at a level not seen since the 1960’s.

Speaking of that transformational decade and beyond,this past Sunday’s New York Times ran a piece reflecting on the original debates over contraception and abortion and the women’s movement which sprang up around them and launched Gloria Steinem. Ironically, it was issues of employment and workplace equality more than issues of sexual freedomwhich actually consumed much of Ms. Steinem’s earlier fiery activism and some might say best showcased her undeniably strong public stage skills.

The question the piece left open is why no clear galvanizing successor to Ms. Steinem hasemerged after all these years.Could it be that perhaps the impact of 1970’s styled feminism on later generations of young women has been more nuanced than simple sound bites on either side of the debate reflect? Feminism of that time communicated a cultural creed to American women that essentially said their own liberation from sexual inhibition and discretion, as well asditching the institution of marriage,would ultimately make them happy.

But decades later, countless middle-aged women who perhaps followed the creed and either carved out childless lives consumed by career pursuit, boyfriends but never marriage, OR whose lives have shifted through marriage, divorce, then years of difficult solo child rearing,may now question the movement’s earliest promises.

Feminism that aims to truly transform the possibilities for young women today should be telling them to go conquer Wall Street rather than cavorting in theatrical protests in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Financial education, self-financing power and financial careers should echo from feminist messages if it truly aims to steer young women to equality within the highest echelons of the still male dominated financial industry.

The point is a brand of feminism that continues to tell women to worry more about who buys their birth control pills than the fact that they have nothing in a bank account, should not claim the mantle of waging a heroic battle in the ongoing war.

Donna Perry is a Communications Consultant.

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