Commentary: How do we end this war on women?

American Civil Liberties UnionMarch 13, 2012 

When I first came to Capitol Hill in 1976, my father pulled me aside and warned me about the environment I might face.

"Laura," he said, "Don't let men push you around. You have as much right to your job as any man." He prepared me for a hostile work environment, not just on Capitol Hill, but in many workplaces. Back then, women were routinely disrespected, sexually harassed, belittled, and underestimated, especially if they were in a job normally given to men.

Fast forward to last week when President Obama took the same stand for his own daughters, as well as women across the country. Explaining his response to Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, the President said he called Ms. Fluke after thinking about his own daughters, “I don’t want them attacked or called horrible names because they’re being good citizens.” Ms. Fluke recently testified before Congress about the importance of health insurance coverage for contraception. Mr. Limbaugh repaid her civic duty and moral courage by calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” and encouraging women who use insurance coverage for contraception to post sex tapes on the internet for him and his viewers.

Meanwhile, 100 miles south in Richmond, police donned riot gear in response to a peaceful protest by Virginia women and men, decrying recent attempts to pass an extreme and invasive law, forcing unnecessary ultrasounds on women seeking abortion care. Thirty peaceful protesters were arrested. Despite their bravery in the face of riot police, Governor Bob McDonnell signed the bill into law.

These two events prompt me to wonder: How do we end this war on women? The only way forward is through continued acts of courage, like those of Ms. Fluke and the protesters in Richmond, and by parents instilling confidence in their daughters as my father did years ago, and as President Obama did last week.

The Supreme Court has recognized, “[t]he ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” Access to reproductive health care – contraception, abortion, pre- and post-natal care – makes it possible for many young women to actualize their goals and dreams.

This isn’t only about young women’s aspirations; it is also about dollars and cents. As Annie Lowrey noted recently in the New York Times, “by allowing women to delay marriage and childbearing, the pill has also helped them invest in their skills and education, join the work force in greater numbers, move into higher-status and better-paying professions and make more money over all.” Indeed, one study shows that access to birth control accounts for thirty percent of “the convergence of men’s and women’s earnings from 1990 to 2000.”

Of course, women still make only 78 cents on the dollar (or less if you’re a woman of color) compared to men, and make up less than a third of judges on the federal bench, and comprise only 3% of CEOs at publicly traded corporations.

We are at a national crossroads on these issues. One route would take us in reverse – rolling back women’s rights by decades; attempting to belittle or dehumanize us for fighting to make our lives and the lives of our families better. The other route moves us forward – ensuring women respect in the workplace, affordable coverage for, and access to, the health care they need without unnecessary obstacles.

Watching recent events unfold, I’m left with only this question: How can we afford to look backward when we still have so far forward to go? Like Sandra Fluke and the women of Virginia, we must stay engaged and press on – for ourselves, our daughters, and our families. There is nothing less than our futures at stake.


Laura W. Murphy is the director of the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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