On Thursday, Feb. 28, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave a talk outlining his plans for the upcoming fiscal year here on campus at Stony Brook. I was lucky enough to attend the event, and it was good news for New York’s women.
The talk included proposals for a 10-Point Women’s Equality Act that will “break down barriers that perpetuate discrimination and inequality based on gender.” This initiative, received with rapturous applause and standing ovations from the Governor’s audience, would achieve pay equity, strengthen human trafficking laws, stop sexual harassment in all workplaces and protect a woman’s freedom of choice by enacting the Reproductive Health Act.
Gov. Cuomo has shown he is extremely willing to stand up for the women of New York, and recognizes that their contributions are essential to the success of the state. He is taking the vital steps necessary to achieve gender equality and fortify New York State in its role as the “Progressive Capital of the Nation.” There was good news from the federal government too; this came on the same day as the House’s renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which will create and expand federal programs offering help to local law enforcement and victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Passing with a vote of 286 to 138, this is, of course, a triumph in the current climate of grinding partisan stalemate we’re all aware of.
As an exchange student from the UK studying at Stony Brook, however, I feel my excitement over the legislation can only go so far. Week after week throughout my time here, I hear of anti-choice, anti-women and anti-equality legislation pouring into the news from all across the nation. Although President Obama has taken strides in redressing the male domination of politics, still today it is a man’s world, and misogynistic attitudes are rampant.
As a student of political science and American studies, I can’t and won’t shut my ears to it. Perhaps the saddest thing about the state of women’s rights in this country, though, is the fact that few people seem to care, and fewer seem to be getting angry.
By no means am I saying equality for women is where it should be in the UK. As of 2012, women were still earning on average 14.9 percent lower than men for the same job according to the Fawcett Society (the figure is 17.8 percent for the United States according to a 2012 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research). The fact remains, though, that no one, or no one of any power, is trying to take away our right to the contraceptives and, if necessary, abortions that are provided by the National Health Service.
These are free of charge, and free services are offered that help us make the right choices for our bodies, and ourselves should we need that help. Health care in the UK, as in much of the developed world, is a right, not a privilege. The religious affiliations of our elected officials have no bearing upon this. Quite simply, the United States is not the norm.
Unfortunately, in this country, there are vast numbers of wealthy, powerful and organized people who do not see the rights of women as a priority, a necessity, or an issue. Hundreds of politicians, public figures and well-funded interest groups seek to perpetuate an out-dated patriarchal society.
They aim to relegate women to the domestic domain and keep them there, voiceless and choice-less. They seek to punish women for being sexually active, behaving in a way that has long been acceptable for men. Fondly recall Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” and “prostitute” comments regarding Sandra Fluke’s speech on contraceptive rights last year (well, Mr. Limbaugh, if receiving free contraception makes you a prostitute, then the UK has a real crime wave on its hands, because everybody’s doing it!) Limbaugh followed this up in January of this year by suggesting that the way to stop abortions is to have them be performed with a gun.
This shocking, vile rhetoric comes from the most listened-to radio talk show host in the entire nation. How can a man so hateful, misogynistic and clearly violent still have a job?
Many, many Americans believe that their religion should dictate the behavior of those who may not share their faith, or may have no faith at all. These people are highly motivated. People like Limbaugh get angry about women’s freedom, so if you believe in women then you need to get motivated and angry too.
On Feb. 13, a bill that’s being dubbed the “Woman’s Right to Know her Unborn Child Act”, otherwise known as the “Ultrasound Bill,” reached the Wisconsin capitol. The bill would require a woman seeking an abortion to receive an ultrasound and, although she is not forced to look at the monitoring screen, be informed of what is visible.
Barbara Lyons, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, commented that hearing the heartbeat and having the opportunity to see her unborn child will save lives and also save women a lifetime of regret. At best, then, the bill represents a notion that women are not capable of making their own decisions. They lack the intelligence to make morally sound, rational choices—superiors must make choices for them.
At worst, it represents something far more sinister—a desire to use a medical procedure to shame and guilt women into making choices that will have a far-reaching impact on their lives. It represents the hope that in shaming women this way, others will be convinced that engaging in sexual activity, without the aim of procreation, is filthy, dangerous and morally abhorrent.
To make the whole issue worse, when Representative Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) was asked in a town hall meeting about his position on trans-vaginal ultrasounds and the bill in question, he replied that he didn’t know what they were. When asked to clarify, Duffy replied that he hadn’t
had one. The crowd in the room laughed. Real funny, Mr. Duffy.
My point, in discussing this difficult subject, is not just to shine a light on the cruel and unusual tactics being used to control women across the United States. My point is not just to point out the insensitivity towards women’s health of characters like Rep. Sean Duffy. Rather, my intention is simply to discuss.
I’ve spent more than seven months in the United States so far, and I’ve met many, many women who are fascinated and excited about politics, recognize their importance and feel motivated to make a difference. I’ve been inspired by the strength and character of these women. It’s knowing them that makes me passionate about this subject, and fearful of the people who seek to oppress them, and strip them of their rights.
I’ve also met people, though, who do not want to discuss. They shy away from these crucial issues. Whether they feel they don’t know enough, don’t understand enough or simply don’t care, too many people avoid talking about the rights of women, or politics in general. Even during last year’s presidential election, I spoke to dozens of women who weren’t even planning to vote. It was an election colored by “binders full of women,” the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape.”
It was an election in which a billionaire campaign donor spoke of “gals” ideally putting aspirin between their knees for contraception, and Mitt Romney told the country he would de-fund Planned Parenthood, one of the most crucial services for women’s health and support. In light of all these issues and many more, still countless women were unmoved.
It seems that, for now, the women of New York are somewhat safe from governmental oppression. The federal government is making good steps for women, while Gov. Cuomo is making great ones.
But what about the women of Wisconsin? Or the women of Oklahoma, where a bill that would allow employers to override the Affordable Care Act, denying contraception to its female employees has recently passed the state Senate? Or any of the women who will be affected by the future choices of the 138 House Representatives who actively voted against the Violence Against Women Act? And it’s not just these women who need your attention.
In only three years another presidential election will decide who’ll be next to run this great nation. After the discussion in 2012 over whether Mitt Romney was a “conservative enough” candidate, I’d bet my last dollar that the Republican Party will be sending an ultra-conservative to fight for the White House in 2016. Your rights and your status as equals, even in New York, could be at risk. It’s just too important to ignore.
So be smart, be educated and make decisions about who owns the rights to your life and your body. If you don’t, then there are plenty of powerful people ready to make those decisions for you.