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.