Good Women, Bad Women

There was something telling in one word, a mere conjunction, buried in a sentence in the 19th paragraph of an article in this morning's New York Times. Under the headline, "The Daughter of a Maverick Goes to Battle" [it has a different title online], the Katie Rogers' article began:
"As Meghan McCain delivered a eulogy for her father on Saturday, she was at times too grief-stricken to catch her breath. As she described his sickness from brain cancer or his love for her, she struggled to look up at a crowd full of boldface Washington establishment figures who had gathered at National Cathedral. But as Ms. McCain shared one of her father’s dying directives — “Show them how tough you are” — her voice stopped wavering. The warrior’s daughter steeled herself, drew her eyes up and stepped into battle."
I love that description. I went and watched Meghan McCain's full eulogy on Youtube, and I loved that too. Yes, I'm certainly ambivalent about glorifying warriors and violence, but warrior metaphors -- evoking, outside of contexts of violence, a determined and fierce resolve to represent or defend ideals one sees as more important than one's own life -- can powerfully move me.

Later in the article is the word I want to invite us to reflect on -- and it has no direct connection to the eulogy itself. (So, fair warning: the topic of this post is about to drastically change. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, in case some of my readers don't know: I'm a man.) The word at issue comes as the article moves to reviewing Meghan McCain's various political views -- as expressed on "The View" and in her writings -- and notes that she
"has long confounded Republicans who say they cannot easily suss out her beliefs, and she has frustrated Democrats who want to believe that she is secretly one of them."
Offered as an illustration of a position that confounds or frustrates is this sentence:
"She has said that abortion is tantamount to murder, but has been a proponent of sex education and birth control."
The perplexing word here is the conjunction "but." "But" indicates that the bit before (saying "that abortion is murder") and the bit after (being "a proponent of sex education and birth control") run contrary to each other. This is false. If you think that abortion is murder, then of course you would be in favor of what reduces the number of abortions -- birth control and sex education. Nothing could be less contrary to an opinion of the wrongness of X than support for steps that mitigate X. Right?

In terms of the rhetoric of partisan divide in this country, however, one cannot fault journalist Katie Rogers for this use of "but." She is correct in her assumption that "abortion is tantamount to murder" is language associated with one party and that support for birth control and sex education is associated with the other party. So Ms. McCain's position, cast solely in terms of party orthodoxy, does have one bit that runs contrary to another bit. I get that. But this begs the question: how did party orthodoxy get so crazy?

In particular, what is going on in the psyches of people who are so horrified by women's reproductive choice that they seek to . . . ? oh! I see it now. They seek to restrict women's reproductive choice because they are horrified by women's reproductive choice. Duh.

Of course, this is not what supporters of banning abortion say. They don't come out and say that they are against reproductive choice tout court. Rather, they draw a distinction between reproductive choice before conception (which is fine) and reproductive choice after conception (which is murder). But if this is really what they think, then why the opposition to measures to ensure reproductive choice before conception -- i.e., sex education and access to birth control?

I don't know. I suspect they don't know either. (None of us understands very much of our own motivations, and others can often see them better that we ourselves can.) My guess is that they really are, despite what they say, uncomfortable with reproductive choice tout court -- whether before or after conception. Here's how I think that works.

There's a moral narrative about "good women" and "bad women." There are many variations on this narrative -- and they usually include some internal contradictions when unpacked -- but a common thread is that good women don't get pregnant outside of marriage. Pregnancy and motherhood are the appropriate consequence for bad women: either as a punishment for being sexually active, or as a way to bring them under control (subdue them into the domesticity of child-rearing), or both. It's offensive that bad women would be allowed to "gallivant around" (i.e., be sexually active in a way that is acceptable in men), yet continue, between liaisons, to carry on their lives "acting" as if they were good women. The social order requires that the bad women be clearly demarcated -- and if they don't get pregnant, how can they be identified? That these "hussies" would get to "parade" around as if they were "normal, virtuous" women is intolerable. Women themselves sometimes pick up on this narrative, and, seeking to prove themselves to be among the good women, or adopting a device for condemning a female rival for a man's loyalty, become reinforcers and perpetrators of the narrative. Hence the proportion of women that support an abortion ban is only slightly lower than the proportion of men who do.

There are also class and race aspects to the narrative. Poverty is itself a moral failure, according to the narrative, and dark skin an indicator of suspect morality, so poor and darker women are in particular need of moral policing. That is, wealthier and paler women may be allowed more sexual freedom because they are basically good women. Their virtue entitles them to a certain gallivanting -- just as wealth entitles them to a more expensive car (or a car at all) to use in the process. Part of what's going on is that the spectacle of poorer and darker women being as free as wealthier and whiter women is difficult to abide.

When you have a moral narrative so powerfully at work, all the attention is on the moral judgment. Empirical facts are beside the point. Standing upright against moral evil is important -- conducting and paying attention to research on what will actually, in fact, reduce that evil is not important. Thus, it's irrelevant that empirical findings show that sex education and access to birth control reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancy and thus reduce the number of abortions. The important thing is to stand against evil, not to reduce it.

We don't always know what the elements of our moral revulsion are. Studies have found that moral revulsion is tied to sensory revulsion: people standing next to a smelly trash can, for instance, express harsher condemnation of, say, first-cousin marriage. So I imagine that revulsion against images of fetal dismemberment is part of the picture among proponents of an abortion ban. I have a negative reaction to those images, too. But, for me, positive associations with images of fierce and independent women (e.g. "the warrior's daughter steeled herself, drew her eyes up and stepped into battle", or, say, Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech) are stronger. I don't doubt that pro-ban folks truly are horrified by fetal death. But I think that horror is significantly boosted by an underlying and often unconscious horror at women's, especially poor and darker-skinned women's, sexual freedom.

How does one get to a place of moral outrage while not caring about what would reduce the purported evil? In this case, one arrives there from a sense that the evil is not, or isn't just, the purported one (abortion). The deeper evil is the prospect of women being free and in control of their own sexual and reproductive lives.

Why else would "but" be the conjunction between "has said that abortion is tantamount to murder" and "has been a proponent of sex education and birth control"?

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