Defending Women’s Lives

Against the Current, No. 55, March/April 1995

The Editors

TODAY WOMEN, ALONG with immigrants and the poor, are sitting ducks in the shooting gallery of American politics. Begin with the one “reform” that will dominate Washington this year: slashing welfare. The new Republican congressional majority led by Newt Gingrich and the New Democrats led by President Clinton disagree only over how to make assistance harder for poor women and their children to obtain.

The assault began two years ago with Clinton’s campaign promise to “end welfare as we have known it” — not by creating full employment at decent wages or guaranteeing child care and universal health care, but by reducing the rolls. Clinton is getting much further than Reagan (for all his talk of “welfare queens”) ever did, because welfare cuts are the very basis of the cooperation — indeed, unity — that Clinton seeks with the Republican majority in Congress.

The bipartisan offensive against welfare is premised on the notion that every individual should take “responsibility” and stop relying on society. It relies upon a stereotype of women on welfare as lazy, sexually promiscuous, and therefore “undeserving.” Actually, women receiving welfare have a birth rate no higher than women who have never received welfare, but facts don’t have much standing in this debate.

The rhetoric of “responsibility” is highly ideological. Both the brash right-wing cultural elites and their neoliberal opponents can afford to send their kids to private schools and hire nannies (women typically drawn from the very immigrant populations that elites now seek to penalize and harass) to change their babies’ diapers, watch over their toddlers, plan meals and manage family schedules. Only a strata like these could really believe that poor women would have children in order to “escape work”!

While all this certainly reveals the remoteness and ignorance of the corporate lawyers, politicians, media hacks and policy wonks who want welfare restructured, the new welfare proposals more importantly reflect a quite deliberate, conscious economic strategy: streamlining and restructuring the state by drastically reducing social services and, wherever possible, privatizing them. These measures constitute a general attack on social consumption, which is viewed in a period of falling profit rates as a burdensome and unaffordable “waste.”

The United States is already the stingiest industrial country when measured by programs that benefit the whole population, but the right seeks to destroy just about every protection working people have won over the last sixty years. And Clinton, with defeat staring him in the face, is desperate for approval from wealthy donors, the media and an angry populace — and therefore willing to resort to cheap mimicry of the Republicans.

While incessant talk of “family values” has its origins in the fundamentalist right wing, Clinton and other politicians have been willing to embrace it because it provides a powerful justification for shifting society’s cost of caring for the young and the old onto the household in a period of widening social inequality. Some families will have resources enough to make it, but many won’t.

Gingrich maintains that the state should stop regulating, because regulations just end up costing the taxpayer money. He has seized the initiative by doing what the Democrats never did during the past several decades: move quickly to implement a comprehensive agenda founded upon easily identifiable principles. The Democrats never did so with, say, health care or labor law reform.

Parts of the right-wing agenda, like the Constitutional requirement for a balanced budget or orphanages for the children of unwed mothers, are so ideologically driven, so highly suspect even in capitalist economic terms, that they probably won’t come about. But they still serve an important ideological function of framing the debate, with real practical consequences — to motivate and justify manic cutting of human services — which serve long-term ruling-class purposes.

Fresh legislation in New Jersey bars women who become pregnant while receiving welfare benefits from obtaining additional money. Clinton’s plan would require unmarried mothers under 18 to live with their parents and stay in school to receive benefits. The attack on women and children is the centerpiece of state restructuring.

Whose Values?

Beneath the “family values” rhetoric is a rejection of social values, a lack of any public philosophy — except to privatize the state — and a lack of any communitarian values beyond personal responsibility and “respect for the law” (as exemplified, of course, by the conduct in office of Reagan and Bush, the junk-bond king Michael Milken or Orange County investment guru Robert Citron).

Clinton pathetically tries to outbid the Contract on America with his middle-class bill of rights. In the process, millions of people, the fastest-growing sectors of the population, have been erased from the picture: the working poor, the part-time work force, the embattled trade unionists, the unemployed.

Clinton’s interminable and nearly vacuous State of the Union speech included one vestige of past Democratic promises, a proposal to raise the minimum wage. This might mean something if there were any reason to think he meant it. No doubt this one gesture — which Clinton never made when he had a Democratic majority in Congress that could have enacted it — is calculated to keep the leadership of the labor movement safely in the Democrats’ pocket.

Elite obsession with a balanced budget is a license to slash social spending. Charity is supposed to pick up the slack. This recipe for solving “our” national budgetary crisis just displaces it onto the backs of the powerless and the dispossessed, leaving the government’s program of corporate welfare untouched.

The wholesale attack on social welfare (“reform” is a word to be applied to this process only with a grim sense of irony) is an aim shared by the two great wings of contemporary conservatism: both the modernizing right, for which the market and economic individualism are paramount, and the reactionary right, zealously fixated upon issues of religious moralism, antiradicalism and the traditional family.

The Firing of Dr. Jocelyn Elders

The more overt attacks on women and sexual liberation originate primarily in the reactionary right, which is increasingly dynamic and influential. That’s why Dr. Jocelyn Elders became such a target. Here is a highly articulate Black woman who as a public official demanded that society deal with sex education. The idea that young people could choose sexual freedom infuriated the right, which steadily attacked Elders.

Clinton’s first response to the November election rout was to fire Elders for uttering the word “masturbation.” The Elders incident was a perfect microcosm of the inability of neoliberalism to effectively stop the right’s repressive “family values” agenda. We may not know whether Clinton inhaled, but we certainly know who he’s been stroking.

Not that the right will ever be satisfied by such victories. The frenetic energy of the contemporary right is fueled by a primary contradiction: love for the market and prudishness about sex. Market economics and Christian fundamentalism are a frustrating mix. In capitalist society, sales are necessary to realize profit, so sexuality — a powerful attention-grabber, because it is, after all, pleasurable and joyful — is bound to rise to the fore in advertising and culture.

The religious right wants the market but not its effects, economic individualism without sexual freedom (for women, at least). It taps people’s legitimate anxieties and fears in a period of social deterioration, directs them at false demons like the “cultural elite,” and creates a climate of fearfulness and nostalgia for days that never were.

The lives of many young people depend upon knowledge about sexuality in an age of AIDS. In a world controlled by the religious right, women who become pregnant would be forced by the state to bear children, and then raise them with or without help. Women would be compelled to stay in their marriages, even abusive ones. Gays and lesbians would pay dearly for their orientation. The underlying direction of the right-wing attack would prevent women from being independent.

There’s little surprise, therefore, in the rash of violence against clinics that perform abortion, particularly given the incendiary rhetoric of the religious right, which compares abortion clinics to crematoria and brands clinic workers “baby killers.” The murders of Sharon Lowney and Leanne Nichols and the injuring of five others in Brookline, Massachusetts, has led many sincere admirers of law and order in the anti-abortion movement to condemn violence. But their own politics create the space for fanatics to carry out terrorism.

Reversing the Climate

Legal abortion is secure for the time being. Access to it is the critical issue, and liberal politicians, not just the far right, have significantly limited women’s access to abortion. Passage of the Hyde Amendment in the Carter years effectively means that women who receive publicly funded medical benefits (Medicaid/Medicare) are denied the right to abortion except in the cases of reported rape or incest.

The ability of teen-age women to make intelligent decisions about their bodies has been severely set back by campaigns against sex education in the schools, right-wing school boards and Clinton’s firing of Elders. “Parental consent” legislation, now on the books in thirty-five out of fifty states, forces young women to get adults’ permission before exercising a choice that should be their own. And twenty-two years after its legalization, abortion is still not available in eighty-three percent of all counties in the United States, forcing women to travel great distances and expend needless resources to exercise their rights.

This climate creates and sustains a culture in which zealots, taking the idea that clinics are houses of murder seriously, pursue it to its logical end. Marlene Fried of the Abortion Access Project, while speaking at a rally in Boston recently, noted that there have been 600 incidents of murder, death threats, break-ins and kidnappings against clinic workers and doctors over the last decade. More than 200 clinics have been bombed. “What would be the response of law enforcement if it were 200 banks that were bombed?” Fried asked pointedly.

Politicians may not consider the rights of women a priority, but the majority of people in this country still do. The upcoming April 9th rally against violence called by the National Organization for Women is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate our determination to end the climate of intimidation and terror. Only a great movement from below that champions women’s rights and forges alliances with other progressive forces, commits itself to social justice and democracy for all, and organizes political action independent from the elites who have betrayed us, will get us out of this political morass.

ATC 55, March-April 1995