Using small-government, libertarian rhetoric, the Tea Party ushered in a new crop of Republican leaders under the banner of fiscal responsibility. But the aggressive antichoice legislation coming from the new GOP majority in the House makes perfectly clear that belt-tightening deficit reduction is entirely compatible with an older social agenda committed to pushing American women out of the public sphere.
These initiatives are well coordinated and poised to make an enormous impact on women’s lives. House Republicans, joined by ten Democrats, passed Mike Pence’s bill to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which in addition to pregnancy termination provides basic reproductive healthcare, STD testing, birth control and cancer screenings to millions of American women. The Republican Party has also proposed eliminating more than $1 billion from Head Start’s budget. As a result, 157,000 children may go without preschool care.
Meanwhile, the South Dakota legislature has considered a bill justifying homicide in the case of imminent harm to a fetus, a law that critics believe may in effect legalize the murder of abortion providers. Republicans in Arizona have proposed different birth certificates for children born to women who are not US citizens in order to nullify the birthright citizenship established by the Fourteenth Amendment. And Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is poised to eliminate most of the collective bargaining rights of public employees, including nurses, teachers and other pink-collar workers who are disproportionately women.
These may seem like disparate policy efforts, but they are not. They are the product of the ethnic and economic anxieties of conservative white Americans whose determination to "take our country back" has been a rallying cry since Barack Obama’s election. Women’s bodies and lives are the terrain on which this conservative movement is making its stand.
Since the introduction of the birth control pill and the legalization of abortion, women in America have significantly reduced the number of children they bear. This decrease in fertility has been particularly striking among white women. Fewer white women marry, most marry much later than in previous generations, far more get divorced and the size of their families has decreased dramatically. Along with these changes, white women’s educational achievement has soared, their participation in the workforce has increased and their health outcomes, lifetime earnings and political participation have improved. Today, more than three in five American women work for pay outside the home.
However shrouded in the language of fiscal austerity, the GOP’s social agenda intends to undo these changes, forcing women back into the domestic sphere. While leaving abortion nominally legal, cuts to family planning services and the legalization of terror against abortion providers would create an environment of compulsory childbearing. Women who can’t control their fertility will be unable to compete for degrees or jobs with their male counterparts. Likewise, without affordable childcare women would be less likely to work outside the home. And without basic rights to organize, women teachers, nurses and other public sector workers would be compelled to accept lower wages and harsher working conditions, shoving many women out of the workforce altogether. In the Republicans’ future America, women will be encouraged to marry younger, to stay in difficult (even abusive) marriages and to rely on male wages.
For white women in particular, this would mean a retreat to the home, where they would be encouraged to bear more children so as to reclaim the racial character of the nation. Immigrant women, however, would be discouraged from having children. Hispanic women have had the highest fertility rates for more than a decade, but efforts to roll back birthright citizenship aim to deny their children access to public education and class mobility, leaving more space for the children of white Americans.
Anxious about a growing immigrant population and the racial and economic strife it could provoke, in the early twentieth century President Teddy Roosevelt famously mocked the expanding class of working women who were pushing for suffrage. In a 1905 address to the National Conference of Mothers, Roosevelt argued that women’s contributions ought to remain primarily within the private sphere. He claimed that the highest service any American (read: white) woman could provide her country was to bear and raise children. Roosevelt acknowledged that the work was hard but insisted that no true mother would exchange the joys and sorrows of parenting for a life of work. He called a woman who avoided motherhood "a creature [who] merits contempt as hearty as any visited upon the soldier who runs away in battle."
Today’s conservatives are fueled by this same impulse. They, too, seek to define women’s citizenship as rooted in motherhood, and they are prepared to use state power to enforce this vision. But even a brief glance around the world tells us that nations that oppress women into lives of compulsory motherhood are weak, not strong. Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, El Salvador and Indonesia severely restrict abortion. They are also countries where women are raped with impunity and victimized by domestic violence, where education gender gaps are enormous and where women’s labor brings only poverty wages. Meanwhile, Denmark, Australia, the Netherlands and Sweden boast some of the most open abortion laws, the most supportive family benefits and many of the best conditions for women in the world. American women may not yet recognize the war being waged on their future, but we must awaken to it immediately. The stakes for women—and for the nation—are too high to ignore it.