Democracy Needs Feminism

Election '04
Never has the option of "choice" been more threatened. It's clear that Karl Rove has adopted a strategy of keeping the Supreme Court from reconsidering Roe v. Wade directly until after Bush is elected in 2004. We talked with the woman who truly needs no introduction, Gloria Steinem, shortly after the 31st anniversary of Roe V. Wade.

First, we just have to find out your reaction to that infamous picture of Bush surrounded entirely by a group of middle-aged white guys when he gleefully signed the "partial-birth abortion ban," as they call it. There wasn't a woman or minority among them. Didn't that photograph say just about everything in terms of the Republican Party, choice and women?

Gloria Steinem: Quite honestly, I can't believe how they let the photograph happen. I was stunned that an image that was as revealing as that one would actually be released. It absolutely stated what the problem is. This is hardly democracy when the people who are the most affected are not part of the decision making. Of course, I would say late-term abortion, since there really is no such thing, medically speaking, as partial-birth abortion.

Professor George Lakoff of Berkeley and sociologist Arlie Hochschild, also a professor at Berkeley, have focused on the appeal of Bush and the right-wing Republican Party -- which is the Republican Party now, of course -- based on the strict patriarchal model. And that's what you had in that photograph -- a bunch of middle-aged white men making a decision about choice and celebrating a choice-restriction bill without any women around.

What do you think about that whole patriarchal theory? To us it makes a lot of sense because the hate for the Clintons, and particularly Hillary, seems to have so much to do with white male resentment against women who are aggressive and successful in the work force and speak up for themselves.

GS: I agree. I think it's important to say that this isn't based in biology -- it's based in politics. There are many white males who feel very differently. But the idea that one should have a position of power because of one's condition of birth is the problem, and that is what this kind of deep political system, the patriarchal system, is built on. As you know, there is an enormous gender gap.

We saw this most recently flare up when many of the right-wing media shills took aim at Howard Dean's wife because she's chosen to pursue her work as a physician. She's a doctor and she wants to stay close to her patients, rather than be out on the campaign trail. And once again, the right-wing males took after her simply because she wants to pursue her professional career.

GS: I think that that's hypocritical because there are right-wing women who are pursuing their professional career and not staying home. I think they're using it as a target of opportunity. Phyllis Schlafly doesn't stay home.

Why does she get a pass, then?

GS: Because she is arguing that other women should stay home. She's kind of the Justice Clarence Thomas of the situation -- somebody who, in a perverse way, comes from the rebellious group but is willing to sell out the interests of that group.

Even if we assume Bush is sincere about his deep religious beliefs, it doesn't hurt him with the right wing to keep bringing up issues using religious terminology. Many women who support Bush are part of the religious fundamentalist movement. Those women accept the patriarchal model because they basically believe that the Biblical laws should be the laws that rule or guide America. And Anthony Scalia has said in more lofty terms that the Constitution is a gift from God and not a document made by men and women.

GS: Well, first of all, we could spend our whole time talking about the changes in the Bible from the Gnostic Gospels, in which Jesus is recorded as saying quite different things. He didn't say he was the Son of God. He said the kingdom of God is within each of us. Each of us can come to God on our own. The Bible itself has become political over time with its translations.

But I think the deep reasoning here -- and I'm glad you're trying to look at the background -- is to control women's bodies as the most fundamental means of production. Because unless you control that process, you can't make the decisions about how many workers a country needs, how many soldiers, what races should reproduce more than others. The ability to control reproduction is one of the two pillars of nationalism. The other is the ability to control territory. I think this goes very deep and really does not have that much to do with religion. If you look at the religious groups in this country, most of them support reproductive freedom. The cloaking of political imperatives in religious language is the problem.

You do have a group of religious people who believe they have the answer -- their literal interpretation of the Bible and God's word is what should be guiding the United States, Justice Scalia among them. What Bush seems to have done through Karl Rove manufacturing him as the compassionate conservative is to veil that background of his supporters in language that's comfortable to so-called Soccer Moms, and now Security Moms.

GS: Most of organized religion doesn't agree with Bush. Most religious institutions opposed the war -- even Bush's own Methodist national church. The people behind Bush are the literalists who believe that in the way that they see God, America has fallen from that path.

But these are the people that our European ancestors came to this country to escape. I mean, they are trying to cite unproveable arguments -- arguments that take place in heaven and life after death -- as reasons why we should obey them now. These literally are the type of people that the Europeans who founded America came here to escape.

The State of the Union was delivered two days prior to the 31st anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Most of what Bush said was campaign rhetoric, consistent with his past posturing, but cloaked for reelection. What's the reality versus the window-dressing of the Bush administration on choice and women's issues?

GS: To my knowledge, there has never been an administration that has been more hostile to women's equality, to reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right, and has acted on that hostility. They certainly have pursued abstinence-only sex education programs and gutted and gotten rid of comprehensive sex education. They've pursued the gag rule that uses U.S. foreign aid to suppress reproductive information, and that has literally endangered and damaged the lives of millions of women in poor countries. And they've suppressed AIDS information and emergency contraception. In addition to their clear drive to criminalize abortion, there has been no opportunity of which I'm aware that they have not taken to restrict women's rights and to oppose reproductive freedom.

Now you're joining with Planned Parenthood to try to get the message out to women. How are you going to get the message out about the real George Bush, not the kind of image that Karl Rove wants to project to win over women voters?

GS: Joining with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund is very important because they have 900 local representatives, so to speak -- 900 local organizations. So it will greatly increase the ability of voters-for-choice to reach beyond the media, around the media, and get to individual voters. This is crucial because the Republican tactic since Nixon has been to get out their vote in the primary by emphasizing the importance of their issues, and to conceal the issues in the general election with phrases like "compassionate conservative" or calling ads that simply name their positions negative ads.

You're right -- the challenge is to get the information out. If you look at the public opinion polls, you see that the majority of Americans are pro-choice. But the rhetoric of Bush during the election did not reflect his real attitude. What he said then, when he was in the last election, was the country isn't ready yet to overturn Roe v. Wade. That's what journalists call a non-denial denial. He's not saying what his intention is, but he's saying something that seems comforting to those who are pro-choice, who think to themselves: oh, well, he won't really dare to overturn this. But of course, that's exactly what he's doing.

Choice is a winning issue. You have to get the candidates to talk about it, and you have to inform the individual voters on people's voting records.

You're a person who spent your life in communications. Karl Rove and Bush have been very successful in using images to offset actual policy, and one of those images is that, come election time, Bush is seen constantly in settings surrounded by minority children, or in black churches, or laying a wreath at Martin Luther King's tomb, or with women around him, and so forth. So that when, say, a woman who is an independent or a moderate Republican sees a image of Bush, she thinks: well, he must be a nice guy -- he's very friendly with minorities, he seems to smile when he sees black children, and he's always smiling when he sees women. And Rove is relying on that image offsetting the reality of his policies.

GS: Well, I suppose that Karl Rove and Bush and company are doing this at all is some tribute to the forcefulness and importance of the gender gap and of the black vote. They wouldn't be doing it at all otherwise. But it is up to us to, as social justice movements, to get to the individual voter around the media. The media too often accepts those images and doesn't explore the myths that they represent. So the challenge in this election is, of course, to use the media whenever it's accurate, but also to get directly to the individual voter with people they trust, separate from the media.

The tool for overturning Roe v. Wade at this point would be a change in the Supreme Court composition. The conventional wisdom is that the White House is going to discourage anybody from resigning from the Supreme Court until after the election, hoping they can win, and then, with a 5-4 majority, overturn it. Plus, we have all these sort of stealth time bombs on the Appellate Court level, and other federal court levels. Even though the Democrats have stopped a handful of Bush appointments, the rest have gotten through. And most of them are anti-choice and anti-minority and as weird as one can get. It's like appointing judges out of the old Confederacy. How do you get that thread out? Because not many Americans beyond those who really follow politics follow the whole battle over the federal judiciary.

GS: We need to publicize the Republican Party platform, which pledges to do exactly this in judicial appointments. Consider the recent tactic of making Charles Pickering a recess appointment to the federal Appeals Court, even though he has already been rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee because of his terrible record on civil rights and reproductive rights. And that makes very clear, as does the Republican Party platform, what their intention is.

We also have to point out that young, poor, rural, military, government-employed women have already lost reproductive rights, so it isn't as if Roe v. Wade is intact for everyone. It isn't. And the final shred of it that remains, the Republican Party platform has pledged to take away. I do think that it's important to remember that Bush lost the last election. It may have been the first election in my memory in which the Supreme Court really was a populist issue.

In what way do you mean that?

GS: People understood -- in almost the same way that the slogan was once "It's the economy, stupid," the slogan was "It's the Supreme Court, stupid." The last election showed us the power of the Supreme Court because they essentially appointed the President. So for the first time in electoral history, or at least in my knowledge of electoral history, the Supreme Court is a big, or bigger, populist issue.

The irony here is that the Republican Party has continually campaigned against an activist Court. But what you find in Justices Scalia and Rehnquist, and Thomas in particular, is a high degree of activism when it's a ideological issue that they're concerned about.

GS: Yes, absolutely. It's like the idea of states' rights: They're for states' rights unless they disagree with the rights in question.

Concerning the message point, you're going to be very active. You have been, for two generations now, one of the key role models for independent women, certainly through Ms. magazine and through your own career. What do you say to the younger woman who may be an independent, may be a moderate Republican, who is not sure coming into this election how to vote? What does this administration represent in terms of the future of the independent career woman who is concerned about reproductive rights?

GS: It represents pure hostility. I think we need to vote out of self-respect. We need to stop voting for politicians who don't vote for us. And we need to vote, period. The voter turnout is a huge issue since this democracy turns out fewer voters than any other democracy in the world. What I refer to as self-respect is self-respect enough to vote, and to vote for one's self, and to understand the impact on our own individual lives of the person we vote for.

If Bush were elected in 2004, what do you think would happen in terms to the issue of choice?

GS: If he is elected in 2004, abortion will be criminalized in this country. We will continue to injure and kill millions of women in other countries by the gag rule and the withdrawal of funds for family planning, for AIDS education. And we will endanger many other advances we take for granted -- Title IX and so on.

If Bush is elected, it will only breed disrespect for the government because it will put a right-wing extremist regime in a position to make decisions in our lives -- decisions with which the majority doesn't agree. And I fear that fewer and fewer people will vote. We'll become more and more disillusioned with the government, and the very idea of democracy -- the fact of democracy -- will be damaged.

It's a truism to say democracy can't exist without feminism, because obviously democracy, if it means anything, means equal rights for all citizens. But feminism is part of it. The whole question of majority rule is threatened when so few people vote with so little knowledge of the issues that we get an unrepresentative, extremist government like we have now.

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