Like many women who are also human beings, I’ve been following the twists and turns of the “War on Women” meme for weeks now, wondering what the heck it is we’re all meant to be fighting about. It seems that some women are worried that a President Mitt Romney and Republican Congress would — as they have promised — move against fair pay for equal work, toss between 14 and 27 million people off Medicaid (of whom about two-thirds are women), cut child care, health care and food assistance for about 20 million children, defund Planned Parenthood, do away with Title X, and maybe seat a Supreme Court willing to reverse Roe vs. Wade.
Republican women, in their defense, argue that these and other legislative initiatives don’t constitute a war on women, so much as a difference in philosophy, or as 14 Republican Congresswomen put it this week in Politico: “We don’t see our lives as a product of government handouts. In fact, we resent the idea that we owe our success to bureaucrats, and not our own initiative.” As the writers conclude, “We have a right to be self-confident, and we have a right to be suspicious of politicians who say we should be dependent on government programs.”
But what’s so striking about so many of the GOP initiatives that implicate women this year is that they betray not a deep suspicion of “politicians who say we should be dependent on government programs,” but rather a deep suspicion of other women. Underpinning virtually every changed rule and policy, every effort to defund and repeal, lies an argument about the ways in which women are trying to defraud the government and simply can’t be trusted.
Start with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was passed in 1994 and was reauthorized twice without fuss, but became snarled up this week when the House passed a GOP-sponsored version that expressly rolls back protections for Native American women, immigrants and gay Americans. That version passed, even though over 320 advocacy groups opposed it, and Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski cautioned that “We should not let politics pick and choose which victims of abuse to help and which to ignore.” The White House has threatened a veto.
But what is it about immigrant women that makes protecting them so controversial? As Michelle Goldberg writes this week in the Daily Beast, “It’s not entirely clear why the House is so determined to gut VAWA. The immigrant protection provisions have broad backing — they’re supported not just by the National Organization for Women but by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals.
The groups that oppose them, on the other hand, are fairly marginal.” One of the arguments that these groups (which include the foreign bride lobby) make against protecting immigrant women from their abusers is that there has been widespread bride fraud. Supposedly large numbers of immigrant women come to the United States and then lie about being beaten as a means of fraudulently obtaining visas. (Never mind that these women require police and hospital reports to back their claims.)
According to this chilling report on buzzfeed by Anna North, Bill Ronan, one of those who has pushed hardest to curtail immigrant protections, claims that countless men in America have lost their homes and financial well-being to fraudulent allegations of domestic violence by immigrant partners. Or as he puts it: “We have welcomed many scam artists into our country.”
I’m just going to say that again: The GOP version of VAWA proposes to weaken protections for all immigrant women based on a claim that throngs of scamming immigrant women feign spousal abuse to get visas.
But it’s not just VAWA. Look back at the debate a couple of months ago about health care coverage for contraception, and underlying all the claims about religious freedom was a far uglier theme: Sandra Fluke and the young women who want “free” contraception are also perpetrating a fraud upon the country. Somehow, the conversation about employer health care morphed into a story about trampy young women attempting to force the government to pay for them to have a lot of sex. It wasn’t just Rush Limbaugh pushing that line, although he elevated it to new heights of revulsion. This was about women who want to get “something for nothing” — while they get something on the side.
And if we’ve learned anything from the fights about women and reproductive rights across the country this year — and the hundreds of efforts to make it virtually impossible for a woman to obtain an abortion — we’ve learned that women lie about abortion as well. When Indiana voted on one of the country’s strictest abortion laws last year, banning abortions after 20 weeks, the bill’s sponsor dismissed an effort to exempt rape and incest cases as a “giant loophole.” He justified that position on the grounds that “someone who is desirous of an abortion could simply say that they’ve been raped or there’s incest.”
This year state Sen. Chuck Winder, the sponsor of Idaho’s mandatory ultrasound bill, made the same argument when he refused to allow any exception for rape, incest or medical emergencies. As he explained patiently on the floor of the state Senate, “Rape and incest was used as a reason to oppose this. I would hope that when a woman goes in to a physician with a rape issue, that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage or was it truly caused by a rape. I assume that’s part of the counseling that goes on.”
And it’s hard to even know what to make of Ron Paul’s baffling statement to CNN’s Piers Morgan that if one of his granddaughters was the victim of “an honest rape,” he could justify an emergency abortion. Since when was “dishonest rape” an epidemic in this country, or a basis upon which to limit a woman’s access to abortion, or emergency contraception?
What else do American women lie about? Oh yes, Planned Parenthood. To hear the GOP talk about that Little Shop of Crazy, the whole enterprise is a ring of fraud and deceit. According to the new talking points, Planned Parenthood must be defunded because, while they like to pretend they are offering preventive health care, mammograms and cancer screenings to millions of America’s poorest and most underserved women, they are in fact a grisly abortion factory built on lies.
The argument here is that they say federal money isn’t going to abortions but they are lying. They say they are providing counseling, but really they are selling abortions. But this should come as no surprise since “lying is endemic in the abortion industry.” I guess the theory here is that if women are lying fraudsters, groups that serve women are exponentially worse.
I am always, deeply worried about the attempt to pit women against women for political gain. But I think we at least need to be honest about the fact that so many of the current GOP initiatives that seek to free women from the clutches of big government are rooted in the idea that women are systematically trying to cheat the system to get free stuff. You can argue all you want about whether it’s better for women to have access to health care, child care, maternity leave, equal pay and preventive medicine. But when you base those arguments on rickety old Elizabethan stereotypes about deceitful women and their lying ways, it becomes harder to call yourself the party of women.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.