A recent New York Times/CBS News poll shows that women approve of President Obama’s job performance by a 53 percent to 38 percent margin. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows that although the president trails Mitt Romney by six points among men, he has an eighteen-point advantage among women. A Democratic pollster, not affiliated with the campaign, was quoted in the Times as saying, “Women—particularly suburban women—have turned against the GOP.”
It’s not hard to see why. There was the Republican-led Congressional committee that refused to hear Sandra Fluke’s testimony on birth control; GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s declaration that he opposes contraception because sex should be only for procreation; and Rush Limbaugh’s characterization of women using birth control as prostitutes or sluts—not to mention the attempts by various state legislators to mandate vaginal sonograms for women seeking abortions. What’s harder to fathom is whether Republicans think they can win without women, or whether perhaps they imagine that in exercising control over women’s reproductive functions they will also control women’s votes and their voices.
The culture wars have returned, and with them, to quote the Times’s Charles Blow, “a war on sex beyond the confines of traditional marriage and strict heterosexuality.” Why sex?, one might ask. Why now? In The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy’s Future, David Richards and I pursued this question, asking why abortion and gay marriage had become lightning-rod issues in American politics. On the face of it, it makes no sense (like alienating women before an election). But as we discovered, it is part of a pattern that dates back to the Rome of Augustus. Across time and cultures, moves to reinstate or strengthen patriarchal structures of governance have been accompanied by moves to institute or tighten laws restricting love and marriage—“the Love Laws,” as Arundhati Roy named the laws that establish “Who should be loved. And how. And how much.”
Thus Augustus, in consolidating his imperial power, passed a law criminalizing adultery, turning what had been a family matter into a crime against the state. With the exemption of prostitutes and pimps, adulterers were to be banished to an island in the bay. Although the law was framed in general terms, its focus was on adulterous women (including Augustus’ daughter Julia, for whom the law was named). In one of the first recorded acts of collective civil disobedience, Roman matrons resisted en masse by registering themselves as prostitutes, an incident reported by Tacitus and other historians of the period.
A similar resistance is building among American women who, by speaking out against GOP attempts to control their bodies, risk being called, as Sandra Fluke was, a slut or a prostitute. The president came to Fluke’s defense, saying that in speaking out, she was a role model for his daughters. As someone who has written about women’s voices making a difference, I watch the unfolding events with fascination. This political war is not between men and women. It’s between the values of democracy—freedom of speech and equal voice as the condition for free and open debate—and the values of patriarchy, which divide men into superior and inferior and women into the good and the bad (the chaste and the impure). The vitality of a democratic society hinges on everyone having a voice that is heard with respect. In patriarchal religions and cultures, the voice of power and moral authority belongs to fathers. The “war on sex” brings this fight out into the open.
Also brought out into the open is the hypocrisy of the patriarchs leading this battle. To take the pope or Newt Gingrich seriously on the subject of sexual morality is laughable, given what we now know about the church protecting thousands of priests who raped tens of thousands of children over decades, or Gingrich’s hypocrisy in seeking to impeach Bill Clinton over an adulterous affair while he himself was having an affair.
The conservative movement in America has become a reactionary one, bent on reversing the gains made in the 1960s and ’70s toward a fuller realization of core democratic values: civil rights, voting rights and the vision of a great—meaning a just and equal—society. But like the Roman matrons under Augustus, American women like Fluke and her many vocal supporters are refusing to silence their voices. Whatever the Republicans may think they are doing, unless they can manage to take away suffrage along with birth control and abortion, they cannot win the election without women. And that is a victory for democracy.