Komen has fallen to their knees and begged for mercy, and Planned Parenthood is doing a victory lap. So am I: I wrote a piece for The Guardian about what Planned Parenthood did right, and what it will take to replicate their success in the future. But not so fast!, say some on the left. If you read Komen’s statement, it’s clear that they’re just retreating for now and will probably kill off the $700,000 in grants to Planned Parenthood in the near future, when they create a better excuse. This is true, and they should be called out for it. There’s no reason to return to supporting Komen; they were already an iffy organization that crossed a line they can’t uncross. It’s clear their management is awash in anti-choice nuts who really do think there’s something dirty about Planned Parenthood, and that this wasn’t just a cave. No reason to support them.
But that doesn’t mean those of us who are declaring victory and doing a victory lap are wrong. Even if the grants are eventually cut, we can safely say we won this one. Because this wasn’t really about the money. Planned Parenthood is a billion dollar organization; cutting this extra service from some clinics, while horrible and regrettable, wasn’t going to tank them. This was a proxy fight, and it was standing in for the larger fight over women’s rights and women’s health care. Shelby Knox had an awesome tweet explaining this:
This was a battle about values. Specifically, whether or not we value women as human beings or not. Anti-choicers are trying to marginalize comprehensive health care for women basically to put us in our place, to demote us from the status of people and return us to the status of objects. Saving breasts is all good and well—they are decorative, after all!—but health care for dirty sluts who go around having sex as if they have a right? I think, and said in my Alternet piece, that one reason this really hit home is anti-choice objectification of women had gotten to the point where they were pitting our own body parts against each other, creating a war between wholesome, all-American boobies and evil vaginas. A couple of astute writers put it really well.
In American politics, women’s bodies are not bodies, but parts. People like to talk about some parts more than others. Embryos and fetuses are the most charged subject in American political discourse. Saying the word “cervix” was the beginning of Rick Perry’s end. In politics, breasts are easier to talk about. I first understood this a few years ago, when I was offered, at an otherwise very ordinary restaurant, a cupcake frosted to look like a breast, with a nipple made of piped pink icing. It was called a “breast-cancer cupcake,” and proceeds went to the Race for the Cure.
I don’t know if some people can understand how dehumanizing this is. Obviously, there are a fair number of both sexes who don’t see it that way. But to me, this gets to the real gist of the issue, one I’ve only vaguely been able to grapple with by using hyperbolic phrases like “gestation vessel.” But it’s more than abortion or childbirth, although the desire to control that vital human function lies at the heart of this. It’s about reducing women to their various body parts. “You get to control this bit, but we’ll control that bit, and we like this part but don’t want to talk about that part and … are you complaining again?”
The obsession with fetuses and uteruses and birth control, the fetishization of breasts (in all ways, not just Komen’s breast cancer branding) and the ongoing double standards in political and public spaces like this commonly forgets the human being who happens to own those body parts. I think that’s what women commonly feel — and one reason many of us are so adamant about this. It’s not just about a discrete set of issues. It’s about women being treated as fully human.
The debate over health care is basically about this ultimate fight over whether or not women are people. Conservatives see women as objects. Sex and reproduction the way the objects are used, and like with any other property, how and who uses it is the whole point. That’s why abstinence-only classes compare sexually active women to lollipops that have been opened and licked, or toothbrushes that someone else has used. Taken to its extreme—and anti-choicers are nothing if not extreme—this view means that a woman who has sex before marriage is broken and useless, and providing her contraception and STD prevention/treatment is like putting a new paint job on a totaled car. But even for less extreme conservatives, they tend to see sexual health care as “condoning” sex, and just as you don’t keep buying your kid a toy if he keeps breaking it, they think taking it away will cause women to stop “damaging” themselves by using those vaginas as we please instead of keeping them nicely wrapped for the true owner—a hypothetical future husband—to have. That married women also need these services is an inconvenient fact that tends to get brushed off. Some times, when you squeeze anti-choicers, they’ll say that married women have no need for these services because as long as no one never has sex outside of marriage, STDs and unintended pregnancy just go away. Mostly, however, it’s not a well-thought-out position, just a frantic panic attack at the idea that women—these objects—are making decisions for themselves like they’re real people. More importantly, they’re afraid that if this trend continues, it’s going to occur to the public at large that women are people, and things will shift accordingly.
That’s what this fight was about. By pressuring Komen, anti-choicers were basically trying to make “women are people” the pariah position, and trying to make anyone who holds the “women are people” position without apology seem like they were out of the mainstream. Having people scrambling to disassociate themselves from you is a really great way to discredit you and your ideas, and that’s why so many people with what I consider poor morals really love a witchhunt. So the fight was over who basically owns the mainstream: anti-feminists or feminists, people who think of women as expensive sex toys/gestation machines or people who think of women as people? That’s why everyone was so upset. And that’s why the feminist win was so meaningful.
The reason that emotions were high around Komen is they position themselves as an organization that exists to save women’s lives. Claiming to be pro-woman (or pro-black people or pro-poor people or even increasingly pro-gay people) while objectifying and dehumanizing women is a common tactic on the right. By making Komen squeal for mercy on this, we won a major moral victory. We said loud and clear that being pro-woman is about more than a bunch of empty homilies. You have to believe women are people, and like people, they have a right to have sex and have a right to full health care and a right to make their own damn choices. Anything less isn’t pro-woman. It simply isn’t.
We won a major public battle over values. We sent the message loud and clear that feminist values are mainstream values. We should be proud.