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Women Once Again In Crossfire Of Culture Wars


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Women, somewhat to their surprise, find themselves on the cutting edge of the culture wars again. More than 50 years after the pill, contraceptives and conscience are an issue of debate in Congress and on the presidential campaign.

Nearly 40 years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion, loud debate erupted over ultrasound legislation in Virginia and Texas, and funding for Planned Parenthood. This doesn't appear to be a contrived campaign. These issues do bubble up from time to time, abortion in particular. But most regarded contraception as something settled decades ago.

So why now? We'd like to hear from women today. Have these controversies prompted you to rethink feminism and history and politics? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Trayvon Martin and the "Invisible Man" - Leonard Pitts and Jonathan Capehart on the Opinion Page this week. But first, Pamela Scully joins us from member station WABE in Atlanta, where she's professor and chair of the department of women's gender and sexuality studies at Emory University. Nice to have you with us today.

PAMELA SCULLY: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: And have we seen a moment like this before?

SCULLY: I'm not sure an exact moment like this before but yes, I think quite often, and this would be an explanation for why now. I think in times of economic and other forms of uncertainty often containing women, talking about women's rights, in a sense trying to go back to a kind of a mythical time in the past often, you know, gets put on the agenda.

So I would say that it's not new, but perhaps we are surprised to be fighting some of these battles again, yes.

CONAN: Has, in part, the definition of feminism changed?

SCULLY: Yes, I think it has. There are generational differences. So I would say one of the reasons, you know, for the kind of debates we're seeing at the moment is, in part, a - sort of an irony that we've seen both this of the legacy of some of the successes of the second wave of feminism but also some of the things it was not able to accomplish, for various reasons.

So for example, you know, the second wave in the '60s, '70s and early '80s was concerned with issues of equality, opening up the professions to women, reproductive rights, etc. But the things they were, I think, less able to solve - unlike, perhaps, in some other countries - were the - in a sense transforming the workplace to allow women who also wanted to be mothers to work as well as be mothers.

And so I think that's left some women out of identifying with feminism. So I think that is one of the reasons why there's still quite a broad fear of support from, I think, an agenda that doesn't call itself feminist. But I think it's also true that, you know, talking to your point about generations, that there are different feminisms, there always have been. And today I think young feminists, some will claim the name, others not, but they tend to be more willing to work with men, interested in things like sexuality, eco-feminism.

And so I think perhaps also because we feminists thought that some of the battles had already been fought, there was a sort of a broader movement to embrace other issues. So it's both, I think, changes in feminism itself and maybe I think some feminists from the earlier era really got exhausted. I mean, they really fought very hard for things like Roe v. Wade. And so in that sense, it does catch one by surprise, I think.

CONAN: Well, it's also that in the process of those battles, feminism itself - that term - became something of a pejorative.

SCULLY: Yes, and I think that's why - indeed, that the term feminism, exactly, became something that was named by people who did not see themselves as feminist. And so I think I see this in my students - who, you know, when one started talking about do you believe in women's autonomy, do you think women should have access to jobs, should we get equal pay, they all say, of course.

And then I say well, and would you call yourself a feminist? And there's a sort of general rustling in the room, and a few hands will come up. But in general, young women are not comfortable doing that - I think precisely because feminism has been labeled as something that isn't, you know, a good thing. So yes, I think you're right.

CONAN: We want to hear from women in the audience today about whether these controversies have prompted them to rethink feminism and politics and history, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll begin with Suzanne(ph), Suzanne is on the line with us from Miami.

SUZANNE: Hi, thank you for taking the call. I was telling the person that I was speaking to before that I'm particularly incensed at the political climate at the moment, especially the bishops. They are so incensed at the birth control situation when they did not come out in arms about the child abuse scandals, and all the priests are going on the pulpit every Sunday. And I'm a Catholic, and I find that appalling.

And also I'm very incensed that they're - you know, this situation is, you know, it's affecting the livelihood of women. What are we to do, just stay home and have babies? This is taking us back, you know, years. You know, we've fought so hard to get in the workplace, and now they're telling us we're not allowed to take birth control because it'll harm us.

CONAN: Yet by any objective measurement, women are far more prominent and successful in the workplace than ever before.

SUZANNE: We are. And I think these politicians really need to take a hard look at what they're saying to women out there. You know, if you feel like, you know, you want to stay home and have babies and be barefoot and pregnant in your kitchen, then that's fine, but do not, you know, put that upon the rest of society.

CONAN: Suzanne, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.


CONAN: And Pamela Scully, you can obviously hear the anger in her voice. Is it fair, though to put this on politicians?

SCULLY: You know, I really feel for the caller. Fair to put it on politicians, what do you mean by that?

CONAN: Well, she said the bishops, and she talked about hypocrisy, as she saw it, but she said the politicians have to learn about this. Is this something that politicians have contrived, or is this something that has come up?

SCULLY: I think that's a hard one. I think one could argue that there's a political movement to limit women's rights to reproductive justice. So for example, you know, in 2011, something like 26 states passed one or more anti-choice bills. The U.S. House of Representatives voted on, for example, two sort of choice issues twice in 2006 and '07 and then 11 times in 2011.

So I think, you know, you can argue there's a political force at work here, but I think also there's a larger sort of cultural-social issue at work, which I think, you know, the world is changing. We're - A, we're in economic, you know, difficulties, and the world is changing. We have much greater struggles and acknowledgement of LGBT rights.

We have women, as you were saying, advancing in the workplace, and I think this makes some people scared. You know, change is scary. And so I think in history, if one looks back, often when there's fear and uncertainty in various ways, people are comfortable with a familiar story, and one of them is that women should indeed, you know, that the world would be better if women were back in a home, you know, not trying to combine work and motherhood.

CONAN: Let's go next to Pam(ph), Pam's on the line with us from Wilson in Wyoming.

PAM: Hello, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: You're on the air, go ahead.

PAM: For me, the irony is that we are becoming the fastest, most educated part of our population, and yet we still find ourselves being challenged for our own personal rights. And I don't know how this issue came back to the forefront. I don't know if it's politicians or insurance companies or whoever, but it's just astonishing to me that we are the most - we are becoming more educated, and yet here we still are discussing this.

CONAN: And by that, the majority in college and certainly even more so the majority in graduate school.

PAM: And medical school and a lot of things, yes.

SCULLY: That's such a great point. I really appreciate that point.

CONAN: Pam, thanks very much.

PAM: Thank you.

CONAN: Catherine Rymph joins us from member station KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, where she's associate of history at the University of Missouri. She's also the author of the book "Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage Through the Rise of the New Right." Thanks very much for being with us today.

CATHERINE RYMPH: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And we've become accustomed to seeing this in pretty much in, I guess, black and white in terms of liberal and conservative, in terms of Republican and Democrat. But I think the political narrative was not always so simple.

RYMPH: I think you're absolutely right about that, and if you look back to the 1970s, which was really the heyday of second-wave feminism, the feminist movement was not - in the beginning of the 1970s, it was not so firmly associated with the Democratic Party as it would become by, say, the mid-1980s because there were Republicans and Democrats who identified as feminists.

There were Republicans and Democrats who opposed feminism, and there were - there was a group of feminists within the Republican Party who identified very strongly as feminist, identified very strongly as Republicans and believed that they could use their influence to keep the Republican Party on board with feminist issues that it had supported in the past and get it on board with newer issues that were emerging in the '70s.

And ultimately they failed, but there was a real moment when they were a real force.

CONAN: Yet, you talk about this transition from the '70s to the '80s. We talk about the culture wars. Everything seems to go back to the '60s.

RYMPH: Well, yeah.


RYMPH: I think historians would tend - historians always want to complicate these narratives, but yes, yes, certainly in our popular discourse, everything goes back to the '60s. But in terms of the kind political potential of second-wave feminism, that - I would say that really doesn't begin until '71, '72.

CONAN: And there is an effort then to also pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which eventually founders.

RYMPH: Right, right, and that becomes the organizational focus of much of feminism in the 1970s. And as Pamela said before, feminism is itself very diverse and has always been diverse, and not all feminists were - thought the ERA was the most important issue in the '70s.

But for better or for worse, it did become the focus, and it had - again as I've suggested, it had supporters in both parties, it had opponents in both parties, but eventually opposition to ERA became associated with the Republican Party largely, I would say, because of the influence of Phyllis Schlafly, who was a Republican organizer.

CONAN: We're talking with Catherine Rymph at the University of Missouri; also with us, Pamela Scully at the Emory University in Atlanta. We'd like to hear from women in our audience today. The issues of women's health and contraception back on the front lines in the culture wars. Have these controversies prompted you to rethink feminism and history and politics? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. When the first GOP presidential hopefuls readied their candidacies last summer, many political observers declared social issues would be all but absent from the 2012 campaign. Not anymore.

Issues from contraception to abortion erupted in recent months. Women find themselves again on the front lines of the culture wars. We'd like to hear from women in the audience today. Have these controversies prompted you to rethink feminism and politics - 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Pamela Scully, professor and chair of the department of women's gender and sexuality studies at Emory University in Atlanta; also, Catherine Rymph, associate professor of history at the University of Missouri and author of "Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage Through the Rise of the New Right."

And let's see if we can get another caller on. This is Angie(ph), Angie with us from Tulsa.

ANGIE: Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

ANGIE: Yes, I just wanted to comment that I find it interesting that a large of majority of - it seems to me - that these politicians that are bringing this to the forefront are not Catholic themselves, but they're sort of carrying the banner for the Catholic faith, where it seems to me that my grandmother - I was raised Catholic - she had 18 children. And none of her children had that many children, so they were obviously using something to avoid that.

The Catholics seem to have sort of silently solved this issue for themselves within their own families and not really brought it out to the forefront, and now these non-Catholics are sort of forcing the issue for everyone, and they don't have to live with the consequences.

CONAN: Yet the church has taken a position in the forefront.

ANGIE: Right, the church does, but the families, you know - and another issue, too, I doubt that the men in these families also want to have large families such as 18 children in a family, either. It's not just a women's rights issue.

CONAN: And so do you think this is going to be resolved within - that issue within the Catholic community?

No, I don't. I don't think it will be. I mean, the Catholic Church is run by men and, you know, men who don't have to live with children, with 18-plus children, either. So, you know, I don't think it will be resolved. But I just find it interesting that the politicians who are bringing it up, for the most part, are not themselves Catholic and don't have to live with the consequences of not having birth control in their families.

All right, thanks very much for the call, Angie. And Pamela Scully, she's got a point.

SCULLY: She does, and I think, actually, this raises a question which Catherine is probably better able to answer, but is - you know, why is someone like Rick Santorum getting so much support from women? Recent polls have shown that they're not fleeing. They're flocking to him.

And I think this does have to do with complicated relationships between feminism and motherhood. I think it has to do with the fact that Santorum generally appeals to people who do home-schooling, who are - if you are - often evangelical Christian; indeed, not Catholic. But that - I think the rhetoric, he's very successful in a rhetoric of fatherhood, of family, of supporting women.

And I suspect that women who support him don't necessarily actually support him or anyone else actually on the issue of contraception necessarily but the package of family values, etc., etc., that is actually pulling them in and that, as the caller rightly says, I think there's a disjunction between public pronouncements about contraception being bad and what people actually practice in their private lives.

CONAN: Catherine Rymph?

RYMPH: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true, and to pick up on a point that I think Pamela was raising about the question of a gender gap in support for the different Republican candidates and for Obama, the Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article about a poll it did that shows that Obama is winning among women versus all of these candidates, winning among women versus all of the Republican candidates but doing not so well among men.

And I think oftentimes, and we've seen this in the past, the gender gap can be misinterpreted. And a good example of that is the 1980s, when - 1984 in particular, when feminists in the Democratic Party noticed that Reagan was not polling so well among women. He had not done as well among women in 1980 as he had done among men.

And they interpreted that, those numbers, as suggesting that if the Democratic Party just put a woman on the ticket, women would flock to the Democratic Party, and Reagan would be defeated. And so Geraldine Ferraro was nominated, and in fact that strategy was completely wrong.

It didn't work at all. It backfired partly because Democrats did not pay attention to the fact that at the same time that the Republican Party was losing female voters, the Democratic Party was losing male voters, and that turned out to be very significant.

But also, and I think this is important to bear in mind today and relates to the point that Pamela was making, Republicans in the mid to late '80s became very good at figuring out which women voters were likely to support Republican candidates and targeting their appeals at those women rather than just assuming all women would vote for a Democratic vice-presidential candidate.

And so I think it's too soon to tell how things will play out in this election, but I would say that just because there's a lot of flak targeted towards Republicans on the birth control issue does not necessarily mean it's going to end up being a losing issue for Republicans in the fall.

CONAN: Well, we want to take it out of the partisan context, strictly. It's fair to point out there was a gender gap four years ago when these issues were not as vehement, I don't think, as they are today. But let's try to take it out of this partisan divide, good for Democrats or bad for Republicans or the other way around, and try to focus on how this issue is - why this issue is coming to the forefront at this particular moment.

Of course, everything gets subsumed into partisan politics, including - everything gets subsumed into partisan politics, but there seems to be more going on than just that. In any case, let's see if we can get Jennifer(ph) on the line, Jennifer with us from Charlotte.

JENNIFER: Hi, Neal. I found this topic interesting. I happen to be wearing a new T-shirt today that says feminism, the radical notion that women are people.


JENNIFER: I was - which was ironically a gift from my brother. But I was fascinated - I'm in my mid-'30s, and I was fascinated by the responses I've gotten today wearing it from other women. A lot of uncomfortable laughter, puzzled looks, things like that. And it is disappointing. I've always proudly identified as a feminist. I feel as if lately my peers have really shied away from that term.


JENNIFER: I'm not entirely certain. I don't know if it's the era that most of my peers have children, but I do feel that for example when I was in high school, my generation was very much, much more active in contraceptive rights, things like that, and now I'm not sure if the younger generation is just busy with life and is not as active or if it's a result of some of the pejorative, you know, Rush Limbaugh has been very successful with some of his femi-Nazi type of categorization of...

CONAN: It doesn't have to go that far. Catherine Rymph, we talked about this with Pamela Scully earlier, and I will get in trouble for stereotypes, but some people will hear feminist and say humorless, stern, sexless and go right down a checklist.

JENNIFER: Yeah, which I found very disappointing because as my shirt says, it's really - if you support equal rights and all of these things - it's what your speaker was saying earlier - you are, in fact, a feminist.

CONAN: Catherine Rymph?

RYMPH: And I think there are a lot of - I mean, it's a complicated story of figuring out exactly how that happened. But one factor that I would point to is that - and it's certainly not the only factor, but that collapse of Republican feminism in the early 1980s.

I think - you know, in the '70s, Republican feminists really held to a vision of a feminist movement that would have advocates in both parties; you know, a feminism on both sides of the political aisle. And I think because feminism has - it became maybe understood to be more one of a number of interest groups that is important to the Democratic Party; that there isn't a space for people who are more conservative, or who are Republicans, to identify as feminists.

And I certainly don't think that's the only reason why there's a reluctance to identify as feminists, but I think to the extent that feminist has a political association, that also plays a role.

CONAN: Here's a point from an email from Mara(ph): I take pride in calling myself a feminist, but a lot of people in my conservative state, Wyoming, don't see the term as a source of pride or progress. Some people I've encountered ask if being a feminist means being a man-hater. I always try to explain that it connotes quite the opposite.

And so that goes along with, I think, with what Jennifer was saying. Thanks very much for the phone call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Adia(ph) - am I pronouncing that correctly?

ADIA: Adia.

CONAN: Adia in Houston, go ahead, please.

ADIA: Yes, how are you? Thank you for taking my call. I am 40 years, and I'm an African-American woman who is a physician. So I grew up in post-civil rights, post-equal rights era, and I never grew up with the notion that I had any limitation. I could be anything I wanted to be; I could do anything I wanted to do; and that my color and my sex would not limit me. And in this current discussion about reproductive life and so many things that are now coming to the forefront, I've always thought that my mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers have fought these battles.

My generation never had to worry about these things. We kind of took these things for granted. And I think it's incredibly interesting, and it's really disconcerting, that this discussion is coming up again because it seems so archaic that I don't even - sure how to fight it because I actually never had to fight this part of the battle.

CONAN: Mmm, interesting. Pamela Scully - took for granted.

SCULLY: I think that is true. It was taken for granted because, you know, Roe v. Wade, etc., etc. But I do think - I was thinking, actually, before the caller rang, but I agree with her completely - that I do wonder how race plays into all of this as well. It's not to say that there are uniform racial codings around this at all. I mean, there are differences within the black community around – whether contraception or abortion rights are actually, you know, part of a sort of genocide or in fact, they are good to protect women.

So there's debate there. But I do wonder how, you know - who is supporting Santorum and, you know, just generally these moves, not necessarily Santorum. And I suspect it's probably whites - largely white, stay-at-home mothers who feel left out by feminism; families who do home-schooling, who - there's a whole story there about, I suppose, segregation of schools. I think there's a racial component here - a component around race that would be a very interesting issue to explore.

CONAN: Audia, what do you think?

ADIA: I actually agree because when you listen to the coded language that you hear, it's not only anti-woman, it's also anti-color. It's anti-black. It's anti-immigrant. And it's very limited in this acceptance of religious beliefs. And I feel that we're reversing. All of the gains have been done over the past 100 years, they're slowly reversing, and they're slowly taking away the rights of people of color and of women. So as a black woman, I feel the pressure from both sides.

And it is really frightening because I - like I said, I thought these battles have already been fought, and I never had to worry about this. So now I'm on my P's and Q's. I'm - this is absolutely disconcerting. And it's so archaic, and it's so ridiculous that we're even having these conversations.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. We're talking about women's issues and why they are in the forefront of the culture wars, again. Our guests are Pamela Scully, professor and chair of the Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University; and Catherine Rymph, associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Missouri and author of "Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And Catherine Rymph, that sense that we just heard from Audia in Houston, losses are mounting. Some things that have been won are being lost. Is that - it doesn't seem that that's represented at least in terms of reproductive rights. You see some of those abortion laws in various states. But in terms of employment opportunity, no.

RYMPH: Right. And I'm thinking back to - through the original question that I think you asked at the beginning, Neal - why are these social issues coming to the forefront now? And I think it's - this is where - the difference between a social issue and a nonsocial issue, they really become very entangled because I think from the perspective of, say, Santorum and his supporters, I think that they would articulate the concern here as being about the role of government, and it goes back to health care reform and mandates that insurance cover birth control.

And from - so it's - perhaps they would define this not as a social issue. I mean, I think that it is a social issue. But it is very much interconnected with the debates that we're having about government right now, which are, I guess, debates we've been having for a long time, but they've taken on maybe an unexpected - it's gone in an unexpected direction. We knew that there would be - that health care reform would be an issue in this campaign, but perhaps we didn't know that it was going to go in this particular direction that seems to have opened up a kind of seething about issues of reproductive rights that maybe we didn't realize were so close to the surface.

CONAN: Let's go to Mary. Mary with us from Henry County in Virginia.

MARY: Hi. I'm an angry Virginia woman.

I agree with the lady from Texas. I think this is a sneaky way of taking advantage of a population in the United States that's very afraid because of the way the economy has been. It's a great time to slide this kind of thing through. In Virginia, the transvaginal ultrasound was embedded in other legislation, and someone coming through it found it at nearly the last minute or it would have been passed, but...

CONAN: It has been put on hold, yeah.

MARY: It has been put on hold but there - something else did pass, which is that the jelly on the belly, as they call it, they're still - they still passed that. So that - and I understand that they're going to - you have to - a child - excuse me. I'm sorry. A woman who is going to have - who wants to have an abortion still has to have that, still has to sign off saying that she has actually seen a picture of a - what the sonogram shows or what the ultrasound shows.

CONAN: And the transvaginal procedure is, I think, still law in Texas, so...

MARY: Yeah. That's a law in Texas, I understand.

CONAN: So...

MARY: I'm really angry. I'm almost 60 years old, and we fought this. And I think that it's just - it's a dial back to - I mean, we cannot go back to Ozzie Nelson. When I see Rick Santorum in that vest, I think Ozzie and Harriet, people are afraid. Let's dial it back to a time where everyone looks white. And you know, it was just like it was all controlled and easy going and just like on a TV show. Well, it just isn't that way. What I can't figure out is why the same people, mostly men, who are interested in this, they want - they don't want to pay for birth control.

They don't want women to have access to abortion as a choice. And they also don't want to have to pay for babies that are born because they deny them access to other forms of birth control. So what is it - I mean, it's a rhetorical question, but what is their answer to this?

CONAN: Well, we have to leave that rhetorical question as the last one. Mary, thanks very much for the phone call. And Pamela Scully, thanks very much for your time today.

SCULLY: Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: Pamela Scully joined us from WABE in Atlanta, our member station there. Catherine Rymph joined us from KBIA in Columbia, Missouri. Thanks very much.

RYMPH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.