While recently reading Amanda Deibert’s piece on Women’s Health post-Roe, I was faced with a strange editorial question: what category should I nest this piece under, Politics or Health?
It’s a conundrum that has risen time and again over the past few years—one that Amanda herself noted in another article, where she muses that medical issues and scientific fact are now being presented as debatable, political opinion. (Looking at how many people refuse to get vaccinated in America because of the politicizing of health is another potent example of the dangerous way our rhetoric steers us away from clear, fact-based thinking.)
Sadly, where women in America—and many other countries in the world—are concerned, issues of bodily autonomy and health are intrinsically tied to politics. As the second-wave feminist slogan declares, “The personal [is still] political.” While originally this was generally accepted to refer to issues around the unseen “women’s work” of childrearing and keeping house, I’d argue that the simple act of being a woman is politicized in a way that being a man is not. And this all boils down to the root issues of hegemonic patriarchy that reinforces unequal treatment of women on virtually every plane of existence.
“Hegemonic patriarchy, you say? Go on!” I hear you [not] saying. Don’t mind if I do.
In the patriarchal primer I wrote for New Thinking last March, I briefly explained how those with power in our current paradigm tend to be straight white cis-gendered males (ahem, the US Senate) which tends to leave people of color, women, nonbinary and LGBTQ+ folx out in the cold. (This caveat before I continue: I know these other groups face even more complex issues of exploitation and underrepresentation, but for the sake of this article, I’m just speaking about the specific silo in which I find myself as a straight white woman. I’m also going to say “men” and “women” throughout this piece as a shorthand for “cisgendered straight men” and “women, nonbinary people and trans men,” because it just gets a lil bit clunky after a while.)
Under this social structure, the men in power get to be “knowers,” which means they get to tell everyone else what is best and what we can or cannot do. If you don’t believe me, then why, across both chambers of Congress, are our representatives only 27% female, in contrast to the 50.52% of America’s population? This lack of representation is even bleaker in the Senate, where only 24 out of 100 senators are female. The Senate has exerted a chokehold on legislative power for some time now, which means the law of our beautifully heterogenous, diverse, and complex land is being dictated by a very un-beautiful largely homogenous stodgy white male Senate.
To those who’d argue that we’ve seen increased diversity in Congress, I answer: sure. The 117th Congress is, indeed, the most diverse to date. But that’s like saying getting a D- on a test and celebrating that your grade in the class is no longer an F. You’re still doing pretty horribly. (For my visual learners, this MSNBC article features some pretty telling infographics from the Brookings Institution that crystallize the historic and continued blinding whiteness of Congress.)
As the aforementioned infographic shows, our political representatives have a long, proud history of being predominantly white dudes. And while of course it’s entirely possible for a white dude to act right and advocate for people different from him, it’s sheer human nature to make sense of the world through your own perspective. So if you’ve never dealt with a doctor denying the validity of your health concerns or discounting you as “emotional,” or the feeling of terror at a late period, or being constantly sexually harrassed at work, these kinds of gender equity issues might not be at the front of your mind. As offensive as the “she could be your sister, or mother” argument is—why does a person have to be related to you to have human dignity?—this is one of the only appeals that speaks to many men regarding women’s rights, because it reminds them, “oh, that person I care about in my life, who I can empathize with, because I am related to them, they are impacted by these issues, and therefore I can now care about them.”
Empathy is great and all, but really there is no substitute for actual representation—for physically being present in the room. And since we’ve been left out of “the room where it happens” since Hamilton’s time, women have historically been excluded from all sorts of political action, even when it’s specifically concerning our sovereign rights as individuals. And while there have been plenty of Democrats in Congress who claim to support women’s rights for decades, it has never been important enough for them to codify Roe into law, when they had the power and votes to do so.
Make no mistake: although politicized, abortion is undeniably a women’s health issue. Pregnancy wouldn’t be considered a pre-existing condition by health insurance if it weren’t. The idea that access to something so fundamentally connected to a person’s financial and physical welfare would depend on what state you happen to be in is astonishing, disheartening, and in my opinion, just un-American. But as Amanda pointed out in her article, women (and other ovary-having people) in America are far too often misdiagnosed, mistreated, and generally treated more poorly than their male patient counterparts. So in some twisted, poetic way, putting it on the books that women have unequal healthcare in this country is also as American as apple pie.
Right now, only some of us have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is true not only for women, but also for the minority populations who have been disempowered and underrepresented by both official policy and subtler social practices. So until all people in America are given equal representation, equal rights, and equal opportunities, the personal will keep being political—it’s the only way we can work towards politics that actually serve all of “we, the people” instead of the lucky few.
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