Why do conservatives have the edge in the debate about abortion?

tags: womens history

Historiann is the not very clever pseudonym of Ann M. Little, the author of Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (2007) and several scholarly articles and book chapters on early American women’s and gender history. She is an Associate Professor in the History Department at Colorado State University.

Via a retweet by Modupe Labode on Twitter, I found this fascinating essay by Manon Parry, who tells of her experience as a recent Ph.D. who had an informational interview with a staff member from the National Women’s History Museum in 2010:

While CEO Joan Wages may not think historians are integral to the project, the resulting online exhibitions, labelled “amateur, superficial, and inaccurate” by Michel, are certainly disappointing, mixing trite sentimentality (“Profiles in Motherhood”) with shallow celebration (“Daring Dames,” and “Young and Brave: Girls Changing History”). As the Huffington Post article noted, “there appears to be little rhyme or reason to who or what is featured on the museum’s website.” Yet despite the upbeat tone and narrow emphasis on great women and their accomplishments, the exhibitions are still too provocative for the right-wing opponents of women’s history. Since 2008, legislation to grant NWHM permission to build near the National Mall has stalledsix times, blocked in Congress by Republican opponents acting on behalf of anti-abortion interests. Michele Bachmann’s charge that the museum will create an “ideological shrine to abortion” is just the latest in this repeated strategy. In 2010, Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), placed a hold on a bill two days after Concerned Women for America requested one, claiming that the museum would “focus on abortion rights.” In response, Wages reassured opponents that reproductive health will never be tackled in the museum. “We cannot afford, literally, to focus on issues that are divisive.”

I know first-hand that the content of the museum’s website owes more to the fears of a political backlash than to the results of decades of groundbreaking historical research.

I completed my PhD in 2010 with Sonya Michel as my dissertation advisor. Interested in employment opportunities at the NWHM, I arranged an informal phone conversation with a staff member at Ralph Appelbaum Associates, then involved as designers for the project.Although this contact acknowledged my relevant training and expertise, she bluntly stated that my research, on family planning media over the twentieth century, made me a liability, given the political sensitivity of the topic. Birth control may be legal in America today, but it is clearly not legitimate. I mention this personal anecdote as full disclosure, not to complain about what happened to me, but to highlight how bad things have become. This is the state of the public history of women in twenty-first century America. Simplified, politically sensitive, and censored.

Access to contraception has been recognized as a Constitutional right in the United States for nearly fifty years.  First trimester abortions have been a Constitutional right for more than forty years.  The majority of American men and women make use of contraceptive technologies for at least a portion of their lives, and nearly a third of all American women have induced abortions.  Where is this silent majority when it comes to commemorating this tremendous medical and technological achievement that has improved the lives of so many American families?  Why shouldn’t we commemorate the end of an era in which the senseless butchery of women was seen as a reasonable consequence for extramarital heterosexuality?

I think a vocal, tiny right-wing minority has the edge here politically for two reasons.  First, their position exploits America’s discomfort with open conversations about sexuality and sexual knowledge.  Although pretty much every American has sex with someone else at some point in their lives, and although the vast, vast, vast majority of us take advantage of the wonders of contraception while we’re doing it, we’re still as a culture profoundly uncomfortable talking about it.

As my research goes ever more into the history of sexuality, you wouldn’t believe the childish responses I get when “even” so-called “liberal” or “progressive” academics ask about my research.  Now that I’m researching a book about breasts, it’s really obvious.  (Clearly, I need to come up with a rejoinder to snap people–by which I mean straight men–out of their junior high-school reveries.)

So, American immaturity and prurience is the first reason a tiny minority has the edge.  The second reason is that this minority also has the virtue of being correct on an issue about which the NWHM wants to prevaricate or even dissemble.  Michele Bachmann, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, and the Concerned Women of America understand what the National Women’s History Museum wants to obscure, which is that 1) feminism is in fact a revolutionary movement that 2) has emancipated millions of women.  They don’t think that’s worthy of commemoration.  You’d think that a National Women’s History Museum would disagree with this small minority of Americans on this point, but apparently not.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History celebrates the American Revolution, and still greets visitors with the tattered U.S. flag from the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor in 1814.  The African American History and Culture Museum when it opens next year will undoubtedly celebrate the many revolutions in African American history, from the end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 to emancipation and the Civil Rights movement.  But clearly, this country hasn’t made peace with women’s emancipation.  Not at all.

Read entire article at Historiann

comments powered by Disqus