Fighting Against the War on Women

Guest blog post from Terry Moon:

Fighting Against the War on Women

Presentation to the Chicago Local of News and Letters Committees, August 30, 2012

by Terry Moon


It has never been more necessary to fight against the war on women because the war on women has never been so brutal, so low level, and so widespread and with so much government support—especially at the state level.  As we put in the leaflet for this meeting: “Stunning is not only the breadth and depth of the attacks—against access to birth control, defunding Titles IX and X, shutting down legal and safe abortion clinics, gutting the Violence Against Women Act, allowing pharmacists to decide what drugs they want to dispense and to whom, attacking equal pay for women—it is also the nasty, petty, and inhuman way the battle is being fought.”


Things have become OK that were not OK before, like Rush Limbaugh’s savaging of Sandra Fluke as a slut and a whore whose sex should be filmed for his enjoyment; the complete disregard of science in, for example, how birth control and the morning after pill which are contraceptives, have been conflated with a medical abortion pill, RU-486.  All of the hits on food stamps, Medicaid and Medicare, retirees, social security, teachers and public workers affect women more. The latest idiocy came spewing from the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri, Todd Akin, who justified his opposition to abortion in case of rape by fantasizing that a woman who experiences a so-called “legitimate rape” has some magical biological defenses that prevent pregnancy.  The right to a safe, legal, affordable abortion is one part of this war on women, and here too, it has reached new lows, including forcing doctors to lie to women or to withhold needed medical information from them.  The global gag rule that has meant death and misery for women in other countries for decades has come home to roost.


An important historical fact to remember is that even the abortion rights we have now, chipped away and incomplete as they are, we would not have won if not for the Women’s Liberation Movement.  A movement makes all the difference.  It had force and power because women were not just looking for political reform, but at least a segment, a large segment, was looking for a whole new and different world.  We were fighting to be whole human beings.  The fight for abortion rights was a part of a larger struggle to be recognized as whole human beings with a mind as well as a body.  All aspects of what it meant to be a woman were in question and it was that struggle that included everything from equal pay to women taking control of our own healthcare that gave the fight for abortion rights such depth and power.


The struggle for the right to abortion, that is, the right of women to control our own bodies, has always been difficult.  Before it was legal, some states wanted to imprison women caught having an abortion, for three years.  I remember in Detroit, the state’s district attorney, looking to make a name for himself, raided an illegal clinic and arrested sedated women waiting to get the procedure and carted them off and threatened them with jail.  When the Supreme Court made legal abortion the law of the land, states took their time changing their laws.  But as difficult as it was back then, the fight has never been as brutal as it is now.


We may want to talk about why that is.  It could be because few remember how horrible it was for women and those who loved them, when abortion was illegal; that over 5,000 women died from illegal or self-induced abortions each year in this country, and many more ended up in the hospital, some maimed for life.  Or perhaps it is because there has been such a tremendous backlash against women’s struggle for full personhood.  And it certainly does have to do with organizations like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and worked tirelessly to not only end legal abortion in the U.S., but to try to re-criminalize contraception, and failing that, make it as difficult and expensive to obtain as possible.


What these forces have done very effectively is make abortion much more difficult to obtain for poor women.  That direction came very early in the movement with the infamous Hyde Amendment passed Sept. 30, 1976, as  a “rider” that has been attached to annual appropriations bills since 1976 and passed each time.


The Hyde Amendment and the reaction to it are also important, as they illuminate a debate within the women’s movement, one that women in News and Letters Committees were very involved in.  Women in the independent Women’s Liberation Movement, and in News and Letters Committees, were arguing that what the women’s liberation movement should be agitating for was “Free abortion on demand, no forced sterilization.”  The position  of the Socialist Workers Party as well as some Maoist groups was that we should be agitating for something “winnable,” which was legalized abortion, and that we didn’t have to worry about poor women because welfare would always pay for their abortions.  They believed that legal abortion was a winnable demand and more women would be attracted to that demand than to free abortion on demand and no forced sterilization.


But at that time an astronomical number of women in Puerto Rico—35% —had   been sterilized, many without their knowledge.  When the U.S. took over governance of Puerto Rico in 1898, population control became a major project. Those of us in the movement also learned that poor African-American women in every large urban center in the U.S., especially if they were on welfare, were also being systematically sterilized, most often without their knowledge or consent.  The statistics as reported in 1982,  were that 15% of white women, 24% of African-American women, 35%  percent of Puerto Rican women, and an unbelievable 42% of Native American women had been sterilized, often against their will and without their consent and often without their knowledge.


The debate was between white middle-class women who often fought only for the right to an abortion who sometimes aligned with Leftists looking for the winnable demand and the chance to grow their organizations, against the self-consciously revolutionary Women’s Liberation Movement and their sisters in the welfare rights movement and women workers in organizations like Union WAGE who posited the fight for abortion rights into the larger struggle.


That we lost this fight, is one of the reasons we’re where we are today.  The Supreme Court Decision of Roe vs. Wade was, clearly, only a partial victory.  Yet when that partial victory was won, many women left the movement, convinced their work was done.  That they could feel so, shows the divisions in our movement between those with money and those without, because for those without money, getting an abortion has never been easy.  Poverty rates for women are the highest they’ve been in 17 years and poor women experience unintended pregnancy far more than their more fortunate sisters.  “A poor woman is five times as likely as her higher-income counterpart to have an unintended pregnancy (132 versus 24 per 1,000 women of reproductive age), six times as likely to have a birth resulting from an unintended pregnancy, and five times as likely to have an abortion (52 versus 9 per 1,000 women).  Indeed, more than two-thirds (69%) of women who have an abortion are economically disadvantaged.”[1]  So this argument matters.


What’s important about the fact that at least a part of the Women’s Liberation Movement fought for an expansive concept of what it meant to be a woman, what it meant to be human, when today that movement no longer exists in that form? In other words, why am I talking about this?  I’m talking about it now because what the Women’s Liberation Movement revealed when it was at its best was what Karl Marx called the “quest for universality.”  It is that quest which drives all freedom movements from the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and the Women’s Liberation Movement, to what we see happening in the Arab Spring and parts of the Occupy Movement.


What the women’s movement was about, at least what I thought it should be about, was a fight for a new society based on totally new human relations.  I came to this in two ways.  First, I was involved very early in the stop rape movement.  This was in the early 1970s when it was always still your fault if you were raped—it was what you were wearing, where you were, who you were with, what you said—no matter what, it was your fault.  And since it was your fault, it could always be avoided.  Todd Akin’s concept of  “legitimate rape” is not new, it’s a concept we fought in the 1970s and it has never died. Then, no one recognized rape as a crime of violence, a crime where the rapist proved he was your superior.  Our group studied the whole question, we wrote a pamphlet and traveled around Michigan giving a talk which ended with a demonstration of self-defense techniques.  It was that experience that turned me into a revolutionary because I realized that in order for rape to be ended, we were going to need a totally new society, one where all human relationships were transformed.


The second thing that made me a revolutionary was finding a philosophic home in Marxist-Humanism for the ideas I had learned in the women’s movement.


Ending rape, having safe, accessible, abortion on demand, having universal healthcare as a right, ending the racism in our society that now seems to be rising anew like storm clouds ready to flood the nation, none of these are problems that can be solved without a transformation of all of society.  And what’s frightening about our times is that instead of getting better, things appear to be getting worse.


This brings me to one of the questions on the leaflet for this meeting: “What, if any, is the danger in putting so much energy into electing Obama?”  So let me answer this for myself—I’m not speaking for anyone else.  I don’t see anything wrong with putting a lot of energy into electing Obama.  But I would like that energy to be a critical support, so that the Obama campaign doesn’t take our very real support for granted.


Let’s go into this a little more.  Right now there is a huge debate raging in Occupy Chicago because a small group in Occupy wants to have an action where they march to Obama’s Chicago headquarters and burn their voter registration cards to show that they think voting for him is a useless enterprise.  Occupy the South Side is, not surprisingly, completely opposed to this action and we agree with them, we too are totally opposed to this.


The founder of Marxist-Humanism, Raya Dunayevskaya, often would tell us that you “have to be concrete,” by which she meant that you have to be grounded in what is actually going on, what is happening objectively.  If you are concrete, then you know that if Romney/Ryan win the presidency, many more women will die.  Even if we just look at the question of abortion and forget about the gutting of Medicaid and Medicare, the slashing of food stamps and the savaging of healthcare, that is no exaggeration.  They will immediately reinstate the global gag rule, which will lead to thousands more women dying in other countries.  They will make abortion harder to obtain here and they will have the opportunity to appoint several more judges to the U.S. Supreme Court insuring the demise of Roe vs. Wade and more horrific decisions like Citizens United.  Obama losing the presidency is an absolute nightmare.


But we can’t be under any illusions that he is our savior either.  Our support for him has to be to keep kicking his ass because as much as we may admire him—and becoming the first African-American president in this very racist land is certainly something to admire—Obama is no revolutionary; rather, his philosophy is one of pragmatism.  Obama pissed me off right at the beginning of his presidency.  He did do what the feminists expected him to do, he rescinded the global gag rule soon after taking office.  But the way he did it tells the tale.  This is how Catholics for Choice described it in an article by Jodi L. Jacobson titled, “Is Obama Prochoice?” (Conscience, Vol. XXXII—No. 1, 2011.)

“That he did [rescind the global gag rule] late on a Friday night with little fanfare wasn’t a big issue at the time, but in retrospect it appears to have been an accurate early indicator of how he would handle the issue of choice throughout his presidency.”


Almost every chance he had to actually use the bully pulpit that the presidency gives him to educate the U.S. population on the necessity of women’s right to control our bodies, he has squandered.   While he rescinded the global gag rule, he withheld the funds that Republican administrations had denied international women’s organizations for 18 months.  When the expansion of funding for Medicaid family planning services became controversial in his stimulus package he never defended it and, as Jacobson puts it, “hung [then House] Speaker Pelosi out to dry…”  Further, she writes, When “Boehner claimed there was federal funding of abortion in the health reform bill, the president again remained silent.”  I was appalled when Dr. George Tiller was murdered and the White House statement was so pusillanimous, nor did they send any representative of the Administration to his funeral.  That would have sent a powerful message, but was instead another very tragic missed opportunity.


Some of this seems to have been turned around by the inclusion in the Affordable Care Act where the cost of contraception is to be covered by insurance companies, finally recognizing that contraception—and by extension abortion coverage—is actually women’s healthcare.  But I can’t help but think that that too was part of a pragmatic figuring that to remain in office, he better start doing something for women as well as a reaction to the scathing critique coming from women’s groups and groups like Catholics for Choice, whose president, Jon O’Brien, wrote in that same issue of Conscience:


“Instead of change we believed in, we got further restrictions of federal and personal funding for abortion; an unwillingness to advocate for meaningful healthcare reform that included reproductive healthcare services; and continued funding for abstinence-only sexuality education programs.  The administration has paid lip service to the idea that it stands for and with women.”


O’Brien goes on to quote the president and CEO of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, who “acknowledges a significant barrier has arisen because ‘the administration has accepted the opposition’s view that family planning is controversial.’” The entire issue of Conscience was a devastating critique of Obama from some of his most ardent supporters.


What else I think made everyone look twice was what happened when Komen for the Cure tried to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood and all hell broke loose.  It certainly surprised Komen CEO Nancy Brinker who is finally no longer the CEO although, no doubt, she still maintains a lot influence in that organization.  It showed a power that had been ignored before, including by Obama.  I think that kind of critique had some effect and am suggesting that in our firm support of his reelection, we remain critical so that Obama realizes we expect much more in his second term, and, of course, we have to keep fighting after the election.


We are not like those in the Occupy Movement who would burn their voter registration cards and thus reveal their disregard of the struggle of Black Americans as well as women to actually have the right to vote—one the Republicans are now working hard to gut.  And we are also not like those who are so in love with Obama that they see no flaws, or are afraid to critique him because the alternative is so horrifying.  Rather, we have a very different philosophy than Obama’s pragmatism which allows him to sell women out if it can help him achieve results.  And we know that electing a President—Democrat, Republican, Green, or Socialist—is not going to get us to the new society we so desperately need.


When faced with the kinds of attacks we’ve been talking about tonight, the tendency is to want to circle the wagons; and I think we definitely need to do some of that.  But what we need to be careful of doing is to think that we can win women’s right to control our own bodies by narrowing our fight to abortion rights alone.  After all, that has pretty much been the women’s movement’s strategy for the last decade or so. What needs to be re-created and improved upon is that revolutionary vision of a new human society, one founded on truly human relations, instead of the alienated relations we have today where women are treated like objects; where the anti-abortion movement treats us as walking wombs; and where Blacks, workers, youths and people of color are also viewed and treated as less than human.  I’m suggesting that we make our fight to control our own bodies a revolutionary fight.  One that recognizes that for women to experience freedom, to really have control of our bodies requires a totally new society.  This kind of perspective may not drastically change what we do—clinic escorting and defense, demonstrations against the Right, letter writing and lobbying—but it may well change the way we do it, and help us fight in new ways as well.


In her book,  Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, Raya Dunayevskaya captured what was unique about the Women’s Liberation Movement of our era.  She wrote that “Its most unique feature was that, surprisingly, not only did it come out of the left but it was directed against it, and not from the right, but from within the left itself.”  (p. 99)  Dunayevskaya singled this out because she saw that what was involved in women’s critique was not only a first negation, that is, saying “NO!” to male chauvinism and a sexist society.  But as well there was a demand to not put off changing the world until after the revolution—and, specifically, starting right now to change the way men relate to women—in  society as a whole and in the freedom movement itself.  It was, then, a demand for revolution to be total from the start—to be so deep that all human relationships would be transformed.


Abortion was, specifically, singled out as part of this struggle.  Dunayevskaya saw the women’s movement declaring: “You will have to understand that our bodies belong to us and to no one else–and that includes lovers, husbands, and yes, fathers.

   “Our bodies have heads, and they, too belong to us and us alone.  And while we are reclaiming our bodies and our heads, we will also reclaim the night.  No one except ourselves, as women, will get our freedom….”


Dunayevskaya captured that “reclaiming our bodies,” was inseparable from the idea of freedom.  That is because the right to legal, safe, accessible abortion, is not alone a question of “rights.”  Rather, it is a question that takes up what it means to be a whole human being.  The way this war against women is being waged makes it clear that it is a war against the idea that women are actually human beings.  Because that is so, our right to abortion is never separated from what it flows from: that women, that all human beings, must have control over our own bodies for freedom to be a reality.  And that control also means the right to have children as well.  I think we fool ourselves if we think we will ever get to that place without a total reorganization of society.


[1].  Jessica Arons, “A Tale of Two Countries: The Hyde Amendment Turns 35,” Center for American Progress, Sept. 30, 2011,

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