Dear POTUS: Why Do I Have to Be Someone’s Daughter for You to Think I Deserve Rights?

Cross-posted with permission from The 19th and I.

In the last four years, President Obama has done some great things for women: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expansion of women’s health services under the Affordable Care Act, support for Planned Parenthood. And I was happy last night, in his State of the Union address, to hear him push for Congress to vote on the Violence Against Women Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act.

But I was disheartened by his reasoning for why Congress should do these things: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence.” [emphasis mine]

My worth as a woman, and as a person, is not imbued by my relationship to someone else. I should not be granted rights and protections because I am somebody’s wife, mother, daughter, or sister. I deserve those rights and protections by virtue of my status as a person and as an American citizen. (NB: Immigrant women absolutely deserve those rights as well, but let’s save that for another post.)

It’s also tremendously insulting to the women who serve in our Congress and Senate, and assumes that the default for a legislator is male. Believe it or not, some of those women vote on equal rights legislation because they want those protections for themselves (Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Virginia Fox notwithstanding, who as traitors to their sex last night actually shook their heads while President Obama talked about the Paycheck Fairness Act).

President Obama actually used that phrasing twice last night. The second time was when referring to the newly lifted ban on women in combat: “We will draw upon the courage and skills of our sisters and daughters, because women have proven under fire that they are ready for combat.” Is the strength of the incredibly brave women in our military really so important because it comes from someone they’re related to? I’d think the achievement of these women is extraordinary because of what they, as individuals, have gone through. Disappointing, also, is the focus on women’s ability to serve in combat roles to protect the United States, without mention of the United States failing to protect these women from unprecedented levels of sexual assault while serving in our military branches and academies.

I’ve noticed this trope time and again in President Obama’s speeches and decision-making. He has used this “our wives, mothers, and daughters” phrasing many times before. But focusing on the women and girls in one’s life when considering the consequences or benefits of a decision has not always helped women. President Obama cited concerns about his daughters having access to emergency contraception when going against the science- and evidence-based recommendations of the Food and Drug Administration to make Plan B available over the counter to girls under the age of 17.

Boys and men are frequently implored to think of abstract women in relation to themselves – what if she, the woman you’re harassing or thinking of raping, was your sister, your girlfriend, your mother? How would you feel if someone did that to her?

Well I am someone’s sister, someone’s girlfriend, someone’s daughter. But I don’t think that I should be able to walk down the street without being cat-called or followed or assaulted because someone suddenly realizes that I could be their sister, their girlfriend, their mother. I should have the right and the freedom to walk down the street unmolested because I am a person. Because I am a woman who should have all the same rights and bodily autonomy as that man who yells as I pass that he wants to touch my breasts and then calls me a bitch and follows me home when I have the gall to ignore him or call him out on his misogyny.

So please, Congress, don’t deign to grant me rights because I could be a woman who you know. Grant me those rights because I am a woman, and because that alone is enough.

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  • Sarah Mcord

    It’s because he assumes that men are people and women are entities with whom you have a relationship. His language suggests that his audience is made up of men who might have some concern about women. He doesn’t seem to understand that half his audience was likely female or that an unfortunately small but still significant number of the members of Congress he was addressing are women.

    • hopingtobefree

      Considering how stupid the women are becoming – I’m glad its a small number of women. Because apparently – having a relationship to the women is bad according to the authors eyes! It was a plea, and a plea has more impact when there are relationships. Get that through your thick skulls people!

  • Jessika Braga

    I think it’s just a figure of speech. I’ve heard Obama, and other politicians say “our sons, our fathers” etc. etc. Maybe you’re right, but at this point I feel like you’re looking too much into it. As sad as it is, it’s hard for people to feel empathy for those unknown ‘people’ who are victims of whatever (Like saying on the news, 1000 people dead, or 1000 mothers dead. It tugs at your heart strings more because you realize there is a life behind that single person, and a whole myriad of people who care for them) Otherwise I agree with you on everything else. Thanks for the article.

    • Jan

      Bullshit. It’s more of the same patronizing crap.

  • hopingtobefree

    May be the President should say nothing at all. Because even good intentions AND WORDS and DEEDS seem to not satisfy the extreme left wing here. As a person who happily supports womens rights, I’m disappointed day by day, how these guys pick the stupidest things to fight about. Yet they dont have any shame nor qualms about bullying the men around or anything else.

    • Jan

      “Extreme left wing?” No. How about people who understand that condescension is no better than whatever the conservatives are doing to stand in the way. Do you think anyone who needs to be reminded that they have female relatives would be persuaded to vote differently anyway?

      And oh, in case you weren’t aware, the VAWA is gender-neutral.

  • Amy Crawford

    Melissa McEwan at Shakesville created a petition to ask Obama to stop using this kind of “reductive, misogynist, and alienating” language:

    • Victoria Barmak

      That’s just silly

  • Joanne Durham

    Dear God in Heaven, he wasn’t being condescending. He used the titles of sister, mother and wife to make people think. Many people do not think about the stranger across town needing healthcare or protection. But, making someone think of their wives, mothers, sister and friends puts a real face on the plea. Stop looking for an issue wear there is none. I support women’s rights. But, this is getting out of hand. Not everything a man says or does is somehow a disguised attempt to insult a woman. While I am over the moon with the progress that has been made, while I realize more needs to be done, I am really sick of this ultra feminist crap. It does more harm than good.

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  • Victoria Barmak

    Because we ARE daughters, wives and mothers. When things are put in a “relationship” perspective, they are understood on a human level.