This essay, from the July 17, 1948, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on feminism and women's rights, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.
The question about the so-called "women's vote" is generally phrased: How will the women vote? The answer to that is too easy. Women vote just as men vote.
With the "family cap," the state says to welfare moms: no more babies!
At Ms. magazine's thirtieth birthday party in early December, Gloria Steinem--in leopard print and we've-come-a-long-way-baby leather pants--delivered some big news: Cash-starved Ms. is moving to Los Angeles and merging with the LA-based Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), helmed by Second Wave icon and former NOW leader Eleanor Smeal.
Debating Afghanistan's future.
What if Hillary Clinton, not Laura Bush, had taken to the airwaves during her husband's first year in office and become the first First Lady to deliver the entire weekly presidential radio address--about women's rights, no less? Dragon lady! Castrating feminist man-hating bitch! All together now: Who Elected Her? The Republicans would have started impeachment proceedings that very day. In fact, the down-to-earth and nonthreatening Laura Bush spoke so eloquently in support of Afghan women's rights I actually found myself not wanting to believe the Democratic Party accusation that this was a cynical attempt to appeal to women and narrow the eleven-point gender gap that bedeviled Bush in the 2000 election--not that a shortage of votes turned out to matter, but that's another story. Perhaps Mrs. Bush--and Cherie Blair, who gave a similar speech on November 19--was sending a message to the sorry collection of warlords and criminals, power-grabbers and back-stabbers vying for power in the new Afghanistan: This time around, women must have a seat at the table. As I write, Afghan women are swinging into action, with a major conference planned for early December in Brussels to insist on equality and political power in their post-Taliban nation.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if the defeat of the Taliban also marked the end of the cultural-relativist pooh-poohing of women's rights? Only a few weeks ago, a Bush Administration spokesperson was refusing to promise that women would play a role in a new Afghan government: "We have to be careful not to look like we are imposing our values on them." A week before it began, no women had been mentioned as participants in the UN-sponsored Bonn conference to plan for a postwar Afghanistan. As it turned out, there are three among the twenty-eight delegates: two in the delegation of the former King and one in that of the Northern Alliance, plus at least two more attending as advisers. Whether it means anything, who knows--of the four factions gathered in Bonn, only the Northern Alliance controls any actual territory, and its record with regard to women's rights and dignity is nothing to cheer about. While some alliance leaders speak encouragingly of girls' education and women's right to work, early signs are mixed: In Kabul, women can once more freely walk the streets, but the newly reopened movie theater is off-limits and a women's rights march was halted by authorities; in late November, according to the Los Angeles Times, women were banned from voting for mayor in Herat, whose de facto ruler, Ismail Khan, has presented himself as sympathetic to women's rights.
Still, whatever government takes shape in Afghanistan will probably be better for women than the Taliban--how could it be worse?--as long as the country does not degenerate into civil war, as happened the last time the Northern Alliance was in power. But let's not kid ourselves: This war is not about freeing women from government-mandated burqas, or teaching girls to read, or improving Afghan women's ghastly maternal mortality rate of 17 in 1,000 births--the second highest in the world. Those things may happen as a byproduct of realpolitik, or they may not. But if women's rights and well-being were aims of US Afghan policy, the Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations would never have financed the mujahedeen, whose neanderthal treatment of women, including throwing acid at unveiled women, was well documented from the start; the Clinton Administration would not have initially accepted the Taliban even after they closed the girls' schools in Herat; and the current Bush Administration would have inundated the millions of Afghan women and girls in Pakistan's refugee camps with teachers, nurses, doctors and food.
As other commentators have pointed out, if Laura Bush wants to make women's rights a US foreign policy goal, she's got her work cut out for her. Saudi Arabia, our best friend, is positively Talibanesque: Women are rigidly segregated by law, cannot drive, cannot travel without written permission from a male relative; top-to-toe veiling is mandated by law and enforced by a brutal religious police force. In a particularly insulting twist, US women soldiers stationed there are compelled to wear the veil and refrain from driving when off base; so far the Bush Administration has refused to act on soldiers' objections to these conditions.
One can go on and on about the situation of women in Muslim countries--unable to vote in Kuwait; genitally mutilated in Egypt and Sudan; flogged, jailed, murdered with impunity and even stoned to death for sexual infractions in a number of countries--and Muslim women everywhere are fighting back (for a serious, nonsensationalist approach, check out the website of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, www.wluml.org). But the Islamic world is hardly the only place where women are denied their human rights: How would you like to have to get a divorce in an Israeli rabbinical court or need an abortion in Chile, where it's illegal even to save your life? The United States makes no bones about using its economic and political might against illegal drugs--in fact, the Administration rewarded the Taliban for banning opium production by making a $43 million donation to the World Food Program and humanitarian NGOs (not, as is usually reported, to the Taliban proper). If it cared to do so, the United States could back the global women's movement with the same zeal.
Instead, it does the opposite. In order to curry favor with conservative Catholics at home, Laura Bush's husband has shown callous disregard for women's rights and health abroad: He reinstated the Mexico City policy, which bars family-planning groups receiving US funds from discussing abortion; he sent anti-choice delegations to wreck the consensus at international conferences on children's rights and public health; he tried to nominate John Klink, former adviser to the Holy See, to head the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, which would have thrown the United States behind the Pope's call to deny emergency contraception to raped women in refugee camps.
That the Taliban are gone is cause for joy. A world that cared about women's rights would never have let them come to power in the first place.
United Nations resolutions don't usually warrant birthday commemorations, but on October 30, women from three war-torn regions--Afghanistan, Kosovo and East Timor--honored the first anniversary of
Are there any people
on earth more wretched than the women of Afghanistan? As if poverty,
hunger, disease, drought, ruined cities and a huge refugee crisis
weren't bad enough, under Taliban rule they can't work, they can't go
to school, they have virtually no healthcare, they can't leave their
houses without a male escort, they are beaten in the streets if they
lift the mandatory burqa even to relieve a coughing fit. The
Taliban's crazier requirements have some of the obsessive
particularity of the Nazis' statutes against the Jews: no high heels
(that lust-inducing click-click!), no white socks (white is the color
of the flag), windows must be painted over so that no male passerby
can see the dreaded female form lurking in the house. (This
particular stricture, combined with the burqa, has led to an outbreak
of osteomalacia, a bone disease caused by malnutrition and lack of
Until September 11, this situation received only
modest attention in the West--much less than the destruction of the
giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan. The "left" is often accused of
"moral relativism" and a "postmodern" unwillingness to judge, but the
notion that the plight of Afghan women is a matter of culture and
tradition, and not for Westerners to judge, was widespread across the
Now, finally, the world is paying
attention to the Taliban, whose days may indeed be numbered now that
their foreign supporters--Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates,
Pakistan--are backing off. The connections between religious
fanaticism and the suppression of women are plain to see (and not
just applicable to Islam--show me a major religion in which the
inferiority of women, and God's wish to place them and their
dangerous polluting sexuality under male control, is not a central
original theme). So is the connection of both with terrorism, war and
atrocity. It's no accident that so many of the young men who are foot
soldiers of Islamic fundamentalism are reared in womanless religious
schools, or that Osama bin Laden's recruiting video features bikinied
Western women as symbols of the enemy.
fundamentalism requires the suppression of women, offering desperate,
futureless men the psychological and practical satisfaction of
instant superiority to half the human race, the emancipation of women
could be the key to overcoming it. Where women have education,
healthcare and personal rights, where they have social and political
and economic power--where they can choose what to wear, whom to
marry, how to live--there's a powerful constituency for secularism,
democracy and human rights: What educated mother engaged in public
life would want her daughter to be an illiterate baby machine
confined to the four walls of her husband's house with no one to talk
to but his other wives?
Women's rights are crucial for
everything the West supposedly cares about: infant mortality (one in
four Afghan children dies before age 5), political democracy,
personal freedom, equality under the law--not to mention its own
security. But where are the women in the discussion of Afghanistan,
the Middle East, the rest of the Muslim world? We don't hear much
about how policy decisions will affect women, or what they want. Men
have the guns and the governments. Who asks the women of Saudi
Arabia, our ally, how they feel about the Taliban-like restrictions
on their freedom? In the case of Afghanistan, the Northern
Alliance presents itself now to the West as women's friend. A story
in the New York Times marveled at the very limited permission
given to women in NA-held territory to study and work and wear a less
restrictive covering than the burqa. Brushed aside was the fact that
many warlords of the Northern Alliance are themselves religious
fighters who not only restricted women considerably when they held
power from 1992 to '96 but plunged the country into civil war,
compiling a record of ethnically motivated mass murder, rape and
other atrocities and leaving the population so exhausted that the
Taliban's promise of law and order came as a relief. It's all
documented on the Human Rights Watch website
Now more than ever, the Revolutionary
Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which opposes both
the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as violent, lawless,
misogynistic and antidemocratic, deserves attention and support.
"What Afghanistan needs is not more war," Tahmeena Faryel, a RAWA
representative currently visiting the United States, told me, but
massive amounts of humanitarian aid and the disarming of both the
Taliban and the Northern Alliance, followed by democratic elections.
"We don't need another religious government," she said. "We've had
that!" The women of RAWA are a different model of heroism than a
warlord with a Kalashnikov: In Afghanistan, they risk their lives by
running secret schools for girls, delivering medical aid, documenting
and filming Taliban atrocities. In Pakistan, they demonstrate against
fundamentalism in the "Talibanized" cities of Peshawar and Quetta.
Much as the victims of the WTC attack need our support, so too do
Afghans who are trying to bring reason and peace to their miserable
country. To make a donation to RAWA, see www.rawa.org.
* * *
I got more negative comment on my
last column, in which I described a discussion with my daughter about
whether to fly an American flag in the wake of the WTC attack, than
on anything I've ever written. Many people pitied my commonsensical,
public-spirited child for being raised by an antisocial naysayer like
me. And if The Weekly Standard has its way--it's urging
readers to send young "Miss Pollitt" flags c/o The Nation--she
will soon have enough flags to redecorate her entire bedroom in red,
white and blue, without having to forgo a single Green Day CD to buy
one for herself. (See this issue's Letters column for some of the
mail on the flag question.)
Fortunately, for those who want
to hang something a bit more global out their window, there are
alternatives. The peace flag (www.peaceflags.org) reshapes Old
Glory's stars into the peace sign; the Earth flag (www.earthflag.net)
displays the Apollo photo of the Earth on a blue background.
If they connect well with voters in 2002, they'll have an edge in a weak economy.
The President now says he will make the decision on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research before Labor Day--in time to catch the wave of his just-announced refocusing of his Administration on "values." (Apparently tax cuts for the rich and drilling in the Arctic aren't catnip to women voters. Who knew? Bring on that all-abstinence-all-the-time cable station America's soccer moms are clamoring for!) Perhaps revealing more than he intended about customary decision-making procedures at the White House, Bush has said that his Administration is being "unusually deliberative" about stem cells. Most people, not to mention the powerful biotech industry, say they want the research to go forward, even though it involves the destruction of four- to six-day-old blastocysts left over from fertility treatments. However, Bush not only promised during the campaign that he would eliminate the funding, he went to the Vatican in July for direction, as any good Methodist would do, where the Pope declared that "a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb," and out of it, too. If only Bush had gone to a rabbi--modern medicine practically is the Jewish religion.
In a rational world, the President would decide on funding by thinking about whether this was the best use of the country's money and brainpower--but then, in a rational world, the President would not be making this decision at all, as if he were a medieval king dispensing largesse and boons. In this world, the stem cell debate is not about health policy, it's about abortion: Is a 150-cell blastocyst--the equivalent of a fertilized egg not yet implanted in the womb--a person or not? Many people usually lined up on the antichoice side have a hard time visualizing a frozen speck as a baby, especially since, as my friend Dr. Michelle pointed out, that frozen speck could be helping to cure diseases Republican men get, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. (Would we be having this debate if the research showed promise to cure Chagas' disease and sleeping sickness?)
According to Orrin Hatch, it's OK to destroy a frozen embryo because the embryo is only a person if it's in a woman. This location theory of personhood is obviously unsatisfactory: You put the cells in the woman, it's a person, you take them out, it's not a person, you put them back in, voilà!--it's a person again. You might as well say Orrin Hatch is a person in his office but not in his car. If, as antichoicers like to claim, what makes personhood is a full set of chromosomes--rather than, say, possession of a gender, a body, a head, a brain--then a clump of cells in an ice cube tray is at least as much a person as Trent Lott. Maybe more.
I think I see a way to help the President out of his difficulties. The White House should ask opponents of embryonic stem cell research to sign a legally binding pledge forgoing any treatment or procedures derived from it, both for themselves and their minor offspring. If they really believe that frozen embryos are children, they should have no problem with this. An impressive list of right-wing pundits have laid out the argument in characteristically colorful fashion: Andrew Sullivan, for instance, insisted in The New Republic that the blastocyst is "the purest form of human being" and to kill it is to "extinguish us." (Someone should tell him that nearly half of all fertilized eggs fail to implant and are washed out with menstruation--maybe there should be funerals for tampons, just to be on the safe side.) In the Washington Times, Michael Fumento writes that stem cell research "rightly or wrongly" summons up visions of Dr. Mengele's Auschwitz experiments. Who, after all, would be willing to treat their illness with a potion of boiled 5-year-olds? Well, maybe some very bad 5-year-olds, already set on the path to crime and low SAT scores by single mothers, but you see my point. As Eric Cohen put it in The Weekly Standard, "to ask the sick and dying to love the mystery of life more than their own lives" is a bit like asking comfortable Americans to sacrifice themselves in wars against tyranny around the globe: "Both require a courageous commitment to something larger than self-interest." The mystery of life versus, well, life. Let's put people on record.
If frozen embryos really are children, though, is it enough not to kill them? Don't we need to rescue them from the icy wasteland to which they have been consigned? Their selfish yuppie biological parents may have abandoned them, but the Family Research Council says that every frozen embryo should have "an opportunity to be born" and I am surprised that the antichoicers haven't yet rallied to the cause. True, a few women unable to conceive naturally have been implanted with the leftover embryos of others, but there are some 100,000 frozen embryos in need of homes--it's like a whole other foster-care system.
Antichoice women are the only hope to get those embryos out of Frigidaire limbo. As they like to say, an extra pregnancy is just an inconvenience, its health dangers much exaggerated by prochoice babykillers and its opportunities for moral growth scorned by our culture of death. So, Concerned Women for America, give a frozen embryo the gift of gestation! Mona Charen, Ann Coulter, it isn't enough to write columns comparing stem cell research to tearing transplantable organs out of freshly killed prisoners--you could be leading the way! Think of the talk-show opportunities. ("Chris, some people think we right-wing women are a pack of peroxided harpies, but when I thought of those adorable cells just trapped in there with the yogurt, I knew I had to help!") They can always put the baby up for adoption so it will be raised by normal people, as they think pregnant singles ought to do. Frozen embryo rescue would be an interesting project for the Sisters of Life, the antichoice order of nuns founded by the late John Cardinal O'Connor. Sort of a virgin birth kind of thing.
In a pinch, the President can always call on welfare moms laid off from their jobs at Wendy's in the looming recession. It would be a natural extension of his plan to offer healthcare directly to poor fetuses, a sort of housing program for blastocysts. Compassionate conservatism at its best!