“Legitimate rape.” With these two words, Republican Congressman Todd Akin stirred up a storm of controversy, provoking a fresh round of public debate over just how backwards the Republican Party is on issues of women’s equality. The term “War on Women” was bandied about in the following months, as Democrats and Republicans alike jockeyed to position themselves for the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
However, there is nothing particularly new about this War on Women. On the contrary, the United States has a long history of political efforts to deny and limit women’s rights. Since the 19th century, there have been concerted campaigns to infringe on women’s rights, pushed aside only with great effort by the various stages of the women’s movements, then followed by renewed attempts to unravel or at least limit the importance of any gains made in these struggles for equality. Akin’s comments, and the strong responses they elicited, set the stage for the newest round of battles over women’s bodies, their rights and places of work, and indeed the broader issue of personhood in America.
Personhood? It is a curious and yet profoundly important issue in the War on Women. What does it mean to be a person in America? If freed slaves were once considered to be three-fifth of a person, how much of a person is a woman in today’s society? What if she decides to get an abortion? And while we’re at it, how much of a person is a corporation? As the Supreme Court would have it, it seems its value may be measured by the dollars it can spend on elections. For whom, in this context, does the American government work?
In sweeping fashion, Laura Flanders, journalist at Grit TV and author of “The Tea Party” (2010) and “Bush’s War on Women” (2005), takes the reader through the long history of struggle over women’s rights. She emerges with a devastating critique of the Republicans as a party of white men dedicated to the suppression of women in favor of an old-fashioned conception of patriarchal values. The war she chronicles is not about “one election, one candidate or one gender,” but rather “the composition of the American state and the commitments of its government.”
The War on Women is not just an election-year topic, and it is not only women who find themselves under attack, but rather all who are concerned that human rights guarantees advance and never harken back to the darkness of our past—even if a powerful minority paints this past with broad brushstrokes of nostalgia.