Social Conservatives Step Up Efforts to Shame You Over How You Perform Womanhood

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Commentary Human Rights

Social Conservatives Step Up Efforts to Shame You Over How You Perform Womanhood

Amanda Marcotte

Social conservatives have been getting more obvious about bullying women into accepting their self-sacrificing, self-effacing model of womanhood. They're having to get louder because fewer women are listening.

Two pieces from the anti-choice hub LifeNews over the past week tell us oh so much about the gender politics of that movement right now: that women should be willing to sacrifice everything, up to and including their lives, to satisfy their ideal of how women should be.

The first, which hits close to home because it’s about me, was graciously brought to my attention by friends on Facebook who were cackling witchily about it. The article, titled “Feminist Writer: ‘I Don’t Particularly Like Babies, If Birth Control Fails I’m Having an Abortion,'” quotes large chunks of a blog post I wrote last year at Raw Story in defense of women who get abortions simply because they don’t want to give birth right now.

Using myself as an example and shoring it up with some cheeky language, I’d argued that women should not feel obliged to give in to conservative guilt-tripping about how we should curtail our own happiness to fit their notion of a “model” woman. The idea that women should have that level of autonomy is treated as so self-evidently evil at LifeNews that the site simply quotes me, at length, and expects its audiences to be horrified.

Not to hammer this point too hard, but it’s telling what parts of my piece they found appalling enough to focus on: a passage where I point out that having a baby is very disruptive and, since I like my life as it is, I don’t feel inclined to disrupt it. LifeNews ended its post by quoting me saying, “I choose me.” Evidently, those are the most horrifying words a woman could utter.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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LifeNews’ other telling piece from the past week, titled “No Greater Love: Putting the Life of Her Unborn Baby First, Mother Dies After Giving Birth,” is far less amusing. It covers a woman named Suzanne Mazzola, who died of placental accreta earlier this month. According to some accounts—including LifeNews’—Mazzola refused to have an abortion, which could have saved her life. As doctors feared, she passed away after hemorrhaging giving birth.

The issue here, to be very clear, is not to sit in judgment of Mazzola, who was facing what no doubt felt like an impossible choice. The issue here is that LifeNews is romanticizing death in childbirth as the highest aspiration of womanhood and “no greater love.” As Jessica Valenti noted at The Guardian, the situation sounds complex, but it is being flattened out in service of the idea that “the most important, beautiful thing [women] can do is perish.”

If you take these two stories together, it becomes clear that LifeNews, and the extreme social conservatism it represents, is pushing a very strong message: Women should be willing to give up everything—your ambitions, your comforts, your happiness, your presence in your children’s world, your very life—to conform to an ideal. It’s an ideal of womanhood as martyrdom, in which women give and give with no thought for themselves, where motherhood is the highest calling and marriage is about being a helpmeet and not a partner.

It used to be easier for social conservatives to wax poetic about “life” and “family” and let the underlying desire to control women go unspoken. But in recent years feminism has risen to the top of popular consciousness, demonstrating—particularly to young women—that there are a number of appealing ways to be a feminist and to define what their lives should be like. Because of this, social conservatives seem to feel more pressure to spell out in rather unsubtle terms exactly what they want women to be, whether the women in question like it or not.

Of course, this desire to control women’s behavior isn’t limited to our reproductive rights. Take this piece by Mary Eberstadt, published Thursday in The National Review. The article, titled “Jailhouse Feminism,” argues that feminists’ lack of interest in scolding young women to be more ladylike makes feminism an invalid ideology. Eberstadt is miffed that feminists are often “aggressive and angry” and even—gasp!—use four-letter words sometimes, calling this “the potty-mouthed bile-o-rama.”

Ironic uses of the word “slut” and “bitch” particularly draw Eberstadt’s ire. “Repurposing the word, it’s argued, will protect women from the damage done by ‘slut-shaming,’ or criticizing women for their sexual conduct. By ‘women,’ of course, is meant sexually active women of a certain type, the kind who in a different age were known as, well … you know,” she complains. Given that Eberstadt herself evidently wishes she could just call women of “a certain type” “sluts,” it appears “potty-mouthed” language is fine, so long as it’s being used to hurt and shame women. But if women themselves use it to free themselves, that’s crossing the line.

Overall, feminists’ “approach takes for granted the sexual revolution’s first commandment, which is that any such act ever committed by any woman is by definition beyond reproach,” she writes, conflating feminism and the sexual revolution. It’s an odd statement, seemingly suggesting that if you allow women to enjoy sex without shaming them for it, you might as well allow them to murder and pillage.

Closer to the truth: Feminists believe women’s moral worth is determined by how they treat people, including themselves, and not by whether they cross some arbitrary, ever-shifting line into liking sex too much.

Eberstadt goes on—because of course she does—offering to diagnose feminists from afar as pathetic attention-seekers and the usual misogynist pablum. But more telling are her rote references to Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Lena Dunham, Fifty Shades of Grey, Rihanna, Ciara, and even Britney Spears, whom she identifies as a “feminist singer.” It is true that pop culture of recent years has been shaped in large part by the urge, sometimes explicitly feminist and sometimes not, to let women express themselves with more of the freedom previously only allowed to men. While Eberstadt displays poor understanding of the specifics, her sense that young women have a plethora of role models of liberation to look up to isn’t really off-base.

On this fact, there is clearly broad agreement between conservatives and feminists: It’s become much, much harder to terrorize women with messages about how they are shameful, even evil, people if they do things like make decisions about their health or their futures, enjoy sex, or express their opinions. The only real dispute is over whether or not this change is a bad thing.