I read a relatively neutral post about abortion this morning, then plowed through some of the blizzard of anything-but-neutral comments on the post. Underlying the legitimate differences of opinion on a topic as polarized as abortion was the usual thread of "women aren’t people with rights in the same way as men or, for that matter, fetuses." Why have people (men and women) always apparently believed they have the right to dictate who and what women are, as if we’re one thing vs. many things or as if we can’t simply exist, but need to be defined by someone else, and narrowly at that?
The commentary I just read was less about the pros and cons of abortion or the legislative policies thereon than it was about defining women as, take your pick, selfish, careless, sexually promiscuous barracudas blithely having abortions without a second thought or selfless incubators without independent will or rights (or intellect) who, in both cases, need to be protected against themselves, judged, legislated against, damned – anything but educated, then left alone to make decisions for themselves like actual human beings. The judgmental slamming was universal – and just as vitriolic in the comments signed with female names.
The definitional rhetoric should be about options, opportunity, dismantling of gender-based barriers, merit, and choice. Instead, it seems more often to be a matter of dictatorial pendulum swings. Once we had to stay home and be nurturers whether we were suited to that or not. (Think shirtwaist dresses and tranquilizers.) Then we had to be hard-driving professionals living up to our full potential. (Think eschewing everything traditionally feminine and beating men at the game of being men.) In both cases, the dictation, regardless of source, was all about lack of choice – as if the only way to express that not all of us are suited to the wife/mother role were to put every single one of us in dress-for-success clothes and send us off to work, or the only way for some women to choose something other than the traditional female roles were to transform all women into the power-suit-clad equivalent of men.
Equality for women is having an awfully hard time keeping its head above the water of vested interest, one-size-fits-all thinking, and the entrenched right – perhaps the out-and-out responsibility – people seem to believe they possess to define women. If you ask me, what we need to insist on is the freedom of self-definition.