On this International Women's day, feminists in the US can be forgiven for feeling less than enthusiastic. Our nation has spent the better part of 2012 arguing over whether using birth control is a responsible idea we should encourage or whether it makes you a "slut." Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum (remember: he wants to run the country) has been so enthusiastic in the birth control debate that he's all but announced his intentions to take us back to the 1873 Comstock Law, which banned information about contraceptives from the US mail on grounds of "obscenity." It may be the 101st International Women's Day, but it feels much more like the 41st.
Fortunately, American women have friends in high places. President Barack Obama has solidified his credentials as a ladies' man par excellence.
No, I'm not talking about his smile, or his salt-and-pepper hair, or even his surprising singing ability. I'm talking about the best kind of ladies' man -- one who respects women and advocates for women's rights and health. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the birth control debate (why do I have to write that phrase in 2012?) is the president's unwavering commitment to women's rights. He has repeatedly, unequivocally, and publicly affirmed his support for universal contraceptive coverage without a co-pay, regardless of where a woman may work or study. He directly addressed the Sandra Fluke controversy, phoning her personally and not just denouncing Rush Limbaugh's inanity, but also supporting her activism on behalf of women. Most recently, President Obama announced that he will be speaking at Barnard College's commencement. His decision to speak at a prestigious women's college displays his dedication to women's rights at a time when they are under national assault, and shows his support for Barnard's mission of empowering the next generation of women.
Republicans and cynics are out in full force blasting the president's vocal support for women. They claim that Democrats started the contraception debate on purpose to make the GOP look bad, and that Obama's support is disingenuous and solely an attempt to win women's votes in 2012. These accusations can be rebutted in a few simple points:
- Coverage of contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act mandate was announced last August. If Republicans cared as much as women's rights activists who had been petitioning for it all summer, they would know that.
- The Catholic Church was the ones who brought the issue to the forefront of national politics this February, and the GOP subsequently seized upon it in Congress.
- If Republicans think that espousing extreme, anachronistic positions are making them look bad, they could simply stop espousing extreme, anachronistic positions. No one is forcing them to oppose birth control.
- If Republicans don't stop espousing extreme, anachronistic positions on women's rights, they can hardly pretend to be surprised when women start running to the Democratic Party in droves.
Liberal activists, on the other hand, are justified in a certain amount of head-shaking. Is supporting birth control -- an issue supposedly decided fifty years ago -- all it takes to be considered a feminist these days? President Obama has made other concrete steps for the advancement of women, like signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay act and appointing Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. But he has had his missteps as well, most notably supporting Secretary of Health and Human Services Sebelius' decision to overrule a FDA panel -- for the first time in history -- and prevent emergency contraception from being sold over the counter. Can the president truly be considered a feminist?
The answer is yes -- and comes not in the positions he's taken in the birth control controversy but in how exactly he has articulated those positions. Republicans would like to have you believe that this debate is all about individual liberty and whether you can mandate the sale or purchase of a product, and somehow about religious liberty (although, as the Columbia Democrats articulate in our video on the subject, religious liberty does not mean religious imposition). We get it, GOP -- you don't like the healthcare bill. But all their stated reasons for opposing birth control in the mandate fall flat, especially after President Obama forged a compromise that would require insurance companies, not religiously-affiliated employers, to pay for the cost of birth control.
What this is really about is extreme social conservatives in the Republican party attempting to define as "immoral" lifestyle choices which the vast majority of American women make and the rest of the GOP not caring enough to oppose them. Rush Limbaugh's comments were vulgar and exaggerated, but they do articulate the general Republican sentiment -- that taxpayer money shouldn't go towards "subsidizing" the immoral lifestyle choices of American women which make us "sluts." (Apparently, they would prefer that vastly greater amounts of taxpayer money go towards subsidizing prenatal care, childbirth, and all the other resulting healthcare costs of unplanned pregnancy. There's a reason that birth control is included in the mandate under preventative care.) This is why Democrats are calling what's been going on in the 112th Congress the War on Women -- it's an attempt to repress and shame us for our personal lives.
But the Republicans have overreached -- the American people aren't buying their assertion that using birth control makes you morally inferior, and the GOP is losing the narrative war on contraception, just as they won it on abortion. When a politician, even a liberal one, makes a statement in support of a woman's right to choose, they invariably follow it up with a qualifier that they're not supporting abortions themselves -- think "safe, legal, and rare." But 99% of women use birth control at some point, and the Republicans can't succeed in slut-shaming an entire nation.
President Obama's rejection of the GOP morality fairy tale comes through in his rhetoric, and it is this which makes him a feminist. When he called Sandra Fluke, he didn't just express his outrage over Limbaugh, he praised her for the work she does on reproductive rights and told her that her parents should be proud. Every time that the contraceptive mandate has been attacked since August, President Obama has pushed back against any compromise that would limit any woman from accessing birth control. He has invoked his own two daughters in his support. President Obama doesn't want anyone to impose restrictions on women's private reproductive and sexual choices, and he doesn't want anyone to judge us for them either. That is why he's a feminist.