Jeb Bush’s 1995 books reminds us of the misogynist heart of the anti-choice movement
Yesterday, there was a blitz of news about how Jeb Bush, in 1995, openly called for public shaming of single mothers in his book nauseatingly and incorrectly titled Profiles in Character.
One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame. Many of these young women and young men look around and see their friends engaged in the same irresponsible conduct. Their parents and neighbors have become ineffective at attaching some sense of ridicule to this behavior. There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out of wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus for one to be careful.
Even more entertainingly, he demonstrated how his reading comprehension rates well below that of a high school freshman’s, by arguing that The Scarlet Letter was a celebration of puritanical abuses towards women. “Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots,” he wrote. Indeed, it’s also a reminder that theocracy, the abuse of women, the shunning of illegitimate children as “bastards”, and treating adultery like a crime have strong historical roots, but that doesn’t mean we should bring them back.
I realize that the Bush family isn’t big on reading, but for fuck’s sake, that book isn’t even about a woman being shunned for an “out of wedlock” birth, which was common enough in those times. For those who have read the book or know what a fucking Cliff Note is, you already know that Hester Pyrnne’s crime is adultery, thus the letter “A”. The birth was just one of those rare instances of having undeniable proof of the adultery, since Hester got pregnant while her husband was far away. Having one of those shotgun weddings that Bush longs for wasn’t even an option for her. She was still married. Jesus Christ, read a book before you fucking write one. Also, say what you will, but the hypocritical Puritans that condemn Hester aren’t exactly fucking heroes in that book.
But what is really interesting about this story is how quickly things changed. Even though it’s standard operating procedure for conservatives to hand-wring about single motherhood, openly calling for shaming them about having sex has fallen from right wing fashion since 1995. Even Jeb Bush changed his tune. As Laura Bassett writes, Bush was quite the panty-sniffer when he first started out as Florida’s governor.
As governor of Florida in 2001, Bush had the opportunity to test his theory on public shaming. He declined to veto a very controversial bill that required single mothers who did not know the identity of the father to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper before they could legally put their babies up for adoption.
Two short years later, he signed a repeal of the same law. Maybe it’s because it was struck down by the court, but nah. It can’t be that, or else you’d just let the court order stand and not tinker with it. As Adam Weinstein points out, part of what changed is that “compassionate conservatism”—where you pretend that your efforts to hurt and punish people are rooted in a desire to help them—became a thing after Jeb’s war-mongering brother successfully deceived some people into thinking he was a well-meaning Christian. Now we’re all awash in conservatives trying to bullshit us into thinking that they agree with liberal goals like equality and dignity for all, but just have a different way of approaching it.
But I would add that, in this specific instance, it’s all about the anti-choicers. In the past decade plus, anti-choicers have really started to realize that showing their true face—that they are a bunch of prudes who want to stomp out recreational sex and think that women, especially young women and poor women, who have sex for fun are dirty sluts—is political suicide in a society where nearly everyone has premarital sex and uses contraception, demonstrating conclusively that it’s being done for the fun of it instead of as a grim march to baby-making.
Instead, the gambit is to pretend that they oppose abortion (and, increasingly contraception), because they care about women, who they portray as asexual dupes who only use contraception and abortion because they are being exploited by caddish men and blood-thirsty abortion doctors. Instead of portraying sexual women as gross sluts who need to be shamed, they portray them as lost souls who need firm guidance to find their true destiny as mothers and wives who occasionally and reluctantly give it up to keep their men docile and faithful. That means the portrayal of the single mother has shifted. No longer is she the slattern who jumps around on every cock in town, oblivious to the consequences. Now she is the darling angel who only had sex because she’s been confused by feminists and perverts into thinking that’s how you catch a man. And now the poor dear is left alone and pregnant and has learned her lesson about men, which is they will never love you and therefore the only way to “catch” one is to use sex as bait instead of “giving it up” freely.
And, of course, the single mother, in this framework, is a woman who chose to live with the “consequences” instead of someone who just had an abortion and made it all go away. If you’re anti-choice, there is an inescapable conflict between your desire to shame someone for having sex and celebrate someone for “choosing life”. Abortion, as every anti-choicer knows and obsesses over, is a neat way to make sure no one knows that you were pregnant. That’s why they show up at clinics, to let women know that they still see them and will shame them for what they did. In order to dispel the notion that they’re all about shaming sexuality, anti-choicers have to, however, reluctantly, pretend that single motherhood is better than having an abortion.
But in fact this may be one of the stranger, more unexpected legacies of the pro-life movement that arose in the 40 years since Roe v. Wade: In conservative communities, the hardening of anti-abortion attitudes may have increased the acceptance of single-parent families. And by contrast, in less conservative communities, the willingness to accept abortion has helped create more stable families.
Researchers have considered many reasons for the rise in the nonmarital birthrate—the welfare state, the decline of morals, the increasing independence of women, even gay marriage. But one that people on neither the left nor the right talk about much is how it’s connected to abortion. The working class had long dealt with the inconvenient fact of an accidental pregnancy through the shotgun marriage. As blue-collar jobs paying a family wage have disappeared, however, so has early marriage. Women are then left with two choices: They can delay childbearing (which might entail getting an abortion at some point) until the right man comes along or get more comfortable with the idea of becoming single mothers. College-educated elites have endorsed the first option, but everyone else is drifting toward the second. In geographical regions and social classes where the stigma for having an abortion is high, the nonmarital birthrate is also high. Without really thinking about it or setting up any structures to support it, women in more conservative communities are raising children alone. This is a legacy the pro-life movement has not really grappled with.
It is worth noting that there is a lot of complexity hiding behind “single” vs. “married” motherhood. Because of these social forces, conservatives tend to conflate women giving birth without being married first with women raising children alone. In reality, a lot of “unwed” mothers are living with the fathers and many of them will eventually marry. In addition, a lot of single mothers were married but have divorced the fathers. High rates of single parenthood do not suggest that people are abandoning marriage or partnership as an ideal.
And let’s be clear: None of this means that the right has given up the idea that women should be punished for having sex. The anti-abortion and anti-contraception crackdown makes that abundantly clear. Bullying, guilt-tripping, or forcing women to become single mothers instead of choosing abortion is just a way to create “consequences” for sex. They’ve just learned to dress it up a little more to make it seem a little less hateful. But Bush’s 1995 book is a nice reminder of the ugly thoughts lurking under the pretty, faux-compassionate smiles.