The Larger Point

Rush Limbaugh's vulgar insults directed at Sandra Fluke have been widely and rightly condemned. Her advocacy on behalf of including contraception in standard insurance coverage offered by employers, even those with a religious affiliation, has been defended by many, including President Obama. Limbaugh has lost backing, financial and otherwise, and his loss of sponsors is heartening, if only because it demonstrates that mainstream businesses think association with his views is abhorrent or, at the least, unprofitable. But the uproar has buried an important point. The underlying rhetorical struggle is not over insults per se, or even health care. It is over the attempts to demean women's ability and right to act as independent moral decision-makers.

The struggle of women to assert their right to proclaim their own interpretations of religion, ethics, and morality finds its earliest known example in the United States in Anne Hutchinson, who garnered a following in colonial Boston for views that eventually threatened the Puritan authorities in Massachusetts. Well-educated by her father when he was under house arrest in England for his criticism of the Anglican Church, Hutchinson put up a spirited defense at her first (civil) trial for heresy but was nonetheless found guilty, tried again by the clergy, and in effect driven from the colony. One accuser (and judge) proclaimed "You have stepped out of your place, you have rather been a husband than a wife, a preacher than a hearer, and a magistrate than a subject." The court labeled her "as being a woman not fit for our society." Another critic added that "though I have not heard, nayther do I thinke, you have bine unfaythfull (sic.) to your Husband in his Marriage Covenant, yet that will follow upon it."

Hutchinson's offenses were twofold -- she dissented from church teachings, and she did it as a woman. These transgressions meant that she was assuming the role assigned to the other gender, and that in so doing it could be presumed she would transgress sexual mores as well. Fast-forward about 375 years, consider the insults lobbed at Sandra Fluke, and the parallel is striking. When a woman exercises independent judgment and steps out of the role assigned by many of assumed intellectual and moral inferiority, it is but a short step for her critics to impugn her sexual morality. That some women themselves join in reining in the outlier is a sad but inevitable reflection of the environment in which all this occurs.

Of course we have made progress since 1640, lots of it. But what is wearying to women is how close to the surface the misogyny still lurks. It is bad enough when faceless male undergraduates demean a woman's college for snagging a presidential address; it is much worse when a woman running for president -- or vice president -- becomes the target of a campaign of unspeakable sexual insults. The most damaging, however, is when an everywoman, if you will -- a Sandra Fluke -- is publicly derided in the most flagrantly sexist way. She is a stand-in for all of us; the point of the attacks on her is to shame and silence us all.

The whole environment surrounding a woman's right to access a safe, legal abortion -- the waiting periods, the ultrasounds, the lectures, the so-called informed consent -- is premised on the assumption that women are not capable of making their own moral, religious, and ethical decisions without the intrusion and supervision of the government. These requirements demean women as independent actors, particularly when it comes to making decisions about their own bodies and their own health care. They are intended to dissuade women from making a decision that is legally theirs to make by applying social pressure channeled by a legislative body. The progress we have made toward gender equity in many arenas -- the right to vote, the right to acquire and control property, the opportunity to become doctors, lawyers and astronauts, the definition of rape, and even the right to our own name -- has not yet reached the right to control our bodies. In that sphere, the assumption about women is that we don't know what we're doing. What's heartening is that this time, women have said, "enough." We are marching in the streets against mandates for invasive procedures and obnoxious lectures. In legislative chambers, we are responding to male majorities with inventive proposals of our own to illustrate our point. And come November, women will vote, and the polls tell us they will not be voting for those whose misogynist proposals insult their intelligence and integrity.