USA - Religion and women's oppression

Mar/Apr 2006

On March 6th, the governor of the US state of South Dakota signed a bill which, if implemented, would make it a crime for doctors to perform an abortion, whatever the reason, unless the woman's life was at risk. This anti-abortion legislation - and similar ones, which are in the pipeline in at least five other US states - is part of an institutional offensive against women's rights launched by US politicians under the pressure of the religious right.

On this subject, we reproduce below large extracts of an article published in the quarterly journal of the American Trotskyist group "The Spark" (Class Strugle # 50 - Feb/Mar 2006).

It was not until November 1971, that the US Supreme Court finally recognised that women are included among those "persons" who enjoy all the rights established by the Constitution. In the decision, Reed v. Reed, the Court declared unconstitutional an Idaho state law that established a "preference" for men to act as executors of wills. By that time, there had already been other rulings giving women certain legal rights, including the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which had given them the right to vote nationwide in 1920, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Reed v. Reed was significant because the Supreme Court, for the first time, ruled that women, as well as men, were covered by the "Fourteenth Amendment's command that no State deny the equal protection of the laws to any person within its jurisdiction."

Within a few months, the Supreme Court ruled that the state cannot deny access to birth control to unmarried persons, declaring that all persons, not just married ones, have the right to be "free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child." Formally, the ruling also applied to unmarried men, but men had long had liberal access to condoms, regardless of their marital status. And unmarried women already had access to means of birth control in some states, but the 1972 ruling extended that access throughout the whole United States.

Then on January 22, 1973, the Court issued Roe v. Wade - the ruling that has stood ever since as the symbol of women's freedom, banning Texas, and de facto the other states and the federal government, from "unwarranted" intervention in a woman's decision concerning abortion. In the words of Margaret Sanger, who had been arrested a number of times in the early 1900s for providing women with information and means of birth control, it seemed that women finally had gained the right to "own and control their own bodies," without which "no woman can call herself free."

These legal decisions were a de facto recognition of the widespread mobilisations of the 1960s and early '70s, which were battering down many of the reactionary limitations put on the population, especially the black population and women.

Not trusting their fate to the "good will" of either judges or Congress, women's organisations continued to mobilise, aiming their efforts at passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, which stated, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex." The amendment was originally proposed in 1923 by the movement that had succeeded in winning the vote for women. For almost 50 years, Southern Congressmen, who were opposed to the ERA, had used their positions on Senate and House judiciary committees to block any vote on the amendment. But, in 1971, with women demonstrating across the country - including in the halls of Congress - the amendment finally was put on the floor for a vote. It quickly passed 354-24 in the House and 84-8 in the Senate, neither party wishing to appear to oppose it.

The amendment was endorsed not only by women's groups, but also by the AFL-CIO and most major unions, as well as by both parties - at least until 1980, when the Republican Party changed its position. Polls regularly showed that nearly two-thirds of adult Americans favoured the ERA. By 1977, the amendment had been passed by 35 of the 50 state legislatures, needing only three more states for ratification.

In other words, the idea that women should have equality of rights before the law, including the right to control their own bodies, had been endorsed by large majorities in the whole population, by the courts, by Congress and by most of the states.

Few in the women's movement at that moment imagined the ferocity with which religious forces would soon act to eliminate those rights, both legally and de facto. Nor was it yet so obvious that American society was quickly moving to stand on more reactionary ground.

The churches rally against women's rights

The little opposition that did exist in 1972 to the Equal Rights Amendment was concentrated in the Mormon church and those fundamentalist and evangelical Protestant churches that today make up the so-called Christian Right. With the ERA sent to the states, these churches took the offensive, setting up organisations whose original purpose was defeat of the ERA. Organisations like the "Eagle Forum," led by Phyllis Schaffly, began a widespread propaganda campaign, starting from the pulpits of fundamentalist and evangelical churches, carrying over into television ministries of people like Jerry Falwell, who declared "The Equal Rights Amendment strikes at the foundation of our entire social structure." According to Falwell, head of the self-proclaimed "moral majority," women who pushed for the ERA were launching a "satanic attack on the family."

But the campaign against the ERA was not carried out only or even essentially at the level of sermons, on TV or otherwise. The fundamentalist churches, which could turn out a solid voting bloc, even if it was a rather small minority, began to trade electoral support to the Republican Party; in exchange, Republicans in rural states worked to prevent the ERA from getting the remaining few state ratifications needed. In the two years following 1975, the move to ratification was torpedoed. Even though new states ratified, some states that had earlier ratified were attempting to withdraw their support for the ERA.

In 1982, the ERA failed passage, still three states short of the 3/4 needed when time ran out for ratification. What might have seemed like a surprise, Illinois's refusal to ratify, was explained not just by rural southern Illinois, but more importantly by the role played in Chicago by the Catholic church, which also opposed the ERA, if not so vociferously as the fundamentalists.

Fundamentalist preachers were jubilant - and no wonder. They had parlayed their position representing perhaps 10 to 15% of the population into a political force that imposed their patriarchal views of "women's place" on the whole of secular society. Spewing forth tirades from the pulpits against "feminism," they quoted Old Testament rules about women's proper, that is, inferior, place in the family, as well as Paul's New Testament exhortations to women to be submissive: "To avoid confusion and establish order someone needs to be the head, and God has ordained that this should be the man....Christ is subject to God, man is subject to Christ and woman is subject to man."

While the ERA was the original focus for fundamentalist religious forces, the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision on abortion provided the focus around which they really mobilised.

The Roman Catholic Church originally took the lead on the issue, circulating in 1975 the "Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities," a campaign to be carried out by every priest in every parish. The aim of the Catholic hierarchy was not simply to bring back into the theological fold those Catholics who did not subscribe to the church's views on abortion and birth control - a number which has always been sizeable. Today, according to National Catholic Reporter, 58% oppose the church's position on abortion, and 75% oppose it on birth control. The Catholic Church has never pretended to be democratic toward its own adherents. But it was now trying to impose its dictatorship over all women, pushing to change the laws of secular society, making them conform to Catholic dogma on the issue of women's reproductive rights.

The Catholic hierarchy soon joined forces with Protestant fundamentalists, despite their long-standing sectarian enmity toward each other. Priests and ministers railed against women who wished to control their own bodies - from the pulpit, from the TV and radio studios and in state legislative bodies. The fundamentalists weighed on that part of the Republican party which their solid voting bloc put in office, particularly in non-urban states. And the Catholic church did likewise with the parts of the Democratic party in states like Texas, New York and Illinois where Catholics accounted for a sizeable voting bloc.

The faithful were bused to Washington D.C. in a "March for Life," carrying pictures of bloody fetuses, black crosses, coffins and toy babies on sticks - all those trappings with which the right wing seeks to demonise women who demand the right to choose abortion.

In Reagan's 1980 election platform, the Republican Party endorsed so-called "pro-life" judges and an anti-women's reproductive rights amendment, misnamed the "Human Life Amendment." That platform, which also included the reversal of Republican support for the ERA, marked the real engagement of the whole Republican party to fundamentalist Christian forces - which has turned into an outright marriage under the advisers guiding George W. Bush. Democrats denounced the Republicans, without taking a clear stand to defend all the rights to abortion and birth control that women had gained. How could they? Many of them had already voted for the limitations being put on those rights.

In any case, the anti-women's reproductive rights amendment never won a majority of votes in Congress, much less the 2/3 vote it needed to send it on to the states. But the publicity it gained in the early 1980s provided fodder for the religious troops, who had already begun a real assault on the right to abortion in ways both legal and extra-legal, digging away, finally leaving little behind except a shell.

Congress shows the way to religious zealots

The ink had barely dried on the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, when the churches went knocking on the politicians' doors. The very first one to open up to them was Democratic Senator Frank Church, known for his supposedly liberal stance on many issues. Within days of the decision, he proposed an amendment to a funding measure, which the Senate quickly passed and the House ratified with the support of most Democrats and Republicans. In the euphoria following Roe v. Wade, that measure may have seemed innocuous to many people, but it has since proved to be the basis for the single biggest limitation set on abortion. It allowed medical providers (including not only doctors, nurses and other support personnel, but more importantly, the owners of hospitals and clinics) to "opt out" of performing abortions or sterilisations if these medical procedures violated "their moral or religious beliefs." Very quickly, 46 of the 50 state legislatures passed similar "refusal" statutes. Such a limitation has never been set on other medical procedures - at least until a similar "opt-out" was extended to pharmacists whose "moral" standards are violated by dispensing birth control medication.

Catholic hospitals immediately moved to take advantage of the opt-out. And publicly funded hospitals and clinics also followed suit in one state after another, as politicians intervened.

As for those doctors who carried out abortions in their own offices, most of them have now dropped abortion from their practice. The biggest reason was not their own "moral or religious beliefs," but fear of the intimidation, legal harassment, violence and murder used by religious zealots in a blood vendetta against medical providers. And the legal provision letting big hospital chains and clinics "opt out" is what opened the door for the violence and intimidation to be carried out. It turned the doctors who did choose to provide women with abortion into stationary targets for the "right-to-life" zealots - for whom murder, arson, disfigurement and psychological harassment are all justified by their "mission from God."

Speaking at a 1993 camp organised in Indiana to train religious zealots how to attack women's clinics, Randall Terry, the head of "Operation Rescue," had this to say: "I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good.... Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty; we are called by God to conquer this country. We do not want equal time. We do not want pluralism." At another session, speaking of doctors who perform abortions, he commented: "Intolerance is a beautiful thing. We are going to make their lives a living hell."

At least eight abortion providers have been assassinated since 1993, with attempts made on the lives of 17 others. There have been over 4200 violent attacks on clinics reported to the police: bombings, arson attacks and assaults. Then there were the regular disruptions and harassment at clinic entrances - since 1977, over 92,000 have been serious enough to require police response. This does not take into account web sites that post the names, addresses, phone numbers, names of family members of doctors and other people who work at women's clinics that provide abortion - along with pictures of the women who enter the clinics.

In the year 2000, 87% of counties had no abortion provider, with none at all in 97% of the country's rural counties, and the situation is undoubtedly worse today. In that same year, eight states had five or fewer abortion providers for the whole state. Today, in Mississippi, there is only one clinic in the whole state that provides abortions, with doctors who come in from outside Mississippi, and that is in the northern part of the state. In the southern part of the state, along the Gulf Coast, the only abortion providers are midwives - forced to act illegally, of course, and working in an unsafe environment without access to antibiotics, etc. In such situations, medical personnel take their lives in their own hands.

When religious "pro-lifers" condemn women to death

In the more than 30 years since Roe v. Wade, the legal situation regarding abortion has become a patchwork of restrictions, which taken altogether severely restrict access to legal, that is, safe, abortion. The single biggest of those restrictions was the so-called Hyde amendment - which forbade Medicaid from paying for abortions for women without financial means. In 1976, the last year before the amendment took effect, 300,000 low-income women obtained abortions through Medicaid. In the first two years after it went into effect, Medicaid paid for only 3,000 each year.

Only two months after the Hyde Amendment took effect, it claimed its first victim: Rosie Jiminez, a 27-year-old mother and low-paid factory worker who needed supplemental welfare aid as well as Medicaid. Denied payment for an abortion under the new rules, and unable to come up with the money for a legal abortion, she went to a "back-alley" abortionist, and died for her efforts, leaving a child behind. She was not the last poor woman to fall victim to Mr. Hyde.

According to a 1994 New England Journal of Medicine report: "Serious complications and death from abortion-related infection are almost entirely avoidable. Unfortunately, the prevention of death from abortion remains more a political than a medical problem." And on this issue, the politicians have taken their cue from reactionary religious forces - who have been pushing on state legislatures, while raising millions of dollars to contribute to politicians who support the imposition of a religious agenda on the country.

If these religious forces succeed in imposing their agenda on the whole of society, they will take us back to the period before Roe v. Wade, when, according to figures supplied by NARAL (the National Abortion Rights Action League), there were almost as many abortions performed annually as there were in the years after the Court's decision. Legal or illegal, there have been around a million abortions performed year after year, but with this difference: over 90% before 1973 were illegal, most of those performed under unsafe conditions. Obviously estimates of illegal abortions can only be educated guesses. But what has been documented are the 350,000 women a year who arrived before 1973 in hospital emergency rooms as the result of botched abortions, and the number of women who died each year, ranging from nearly 1,000 to as many as 5,000.

Pretending to speak for "life" is nothing but a cynical ploy by religious zealots who are ready to leave a trail of dead female bodies in their wake.

Birth control on the back burner

It is obvious that abortion is a difficult procedure for the women involved - not because it is particularly difficult on the medical level, but because of what is implied by it: abortion means the prevention of a potential life. And the women who choose to undergo it because they see no other option would be the first to say it. Logically, someone who wanted to eliminate the necessity of abortion would be pushing as hard as possible to make birth control methods widely available, without any restrictions.

But this is exactly the opposite of what the religious opponents of abortion push. They have used their influence, whether on school boards or on legislatures that fund public hospitals and clinics, to severely limit access to or even knowledge about birth control methods.

Today the science curriculum in schools is being tied up by religious fanatics. The most well-known example is their attempt to interfere with the teaching of evolution in biology courses, using not only their control over many small local school boards, but the influence they exert over school book publishers. But even more widespread is religion's control over what is taught in health courses. In many districts, teachers are prevented from presenting any clear discussion about human sexuality and are precluded from even mentioning birth control to teenagers.

On this issue, the Republican party in recent years has stood openly as the mouthpiece for religious fundamentalists, praising virginity, proposing abstinence in place of birth control, and devoting quite sizeable amounts of money to pushing these reactionary ideas, while using the offices of the executive branch to widely block provision of birth control means. Although, if anyone believes that Republicans are the only ones, all they need do is listen to Hillary Clinton, who poses as a supporter of women's right to abortion and birth control, but who speaks out of the other side of her mouth in praise of abstinence, hoping to win over the votes of fundamentalists.

Because birth control is so much less widely available here, especially for unmarried teens, the US has a teen pregnancy rate similar to that of many underdeveloped countries where methods of birth control are also not widely available. There are almost 900,000 teen-age pregnancies per year in the United States, with all the terrible consequences awaiting most of those teens - and their children, if they go on to deliver them. One of those consequences is that the US also has one of the highest rate of teenage abortion among industrialised countries.s

Today, even in the case of rape, an emergency contraceptive is not proposed in the majority of cases to women, including teenagers, who are brought into emergency rooms after the rape. The "moral and religious beliefs" of the religions that run these hospitals preclude doctors in them from offering it. Public hospitals have been prohibited from using it by politicians, pandering to fundamentalist religious forces. And even Wal-Mart, it seems, has religious scruples about birth control, since it refuses to stock Plan B, the emergency contraceptive, in its pharmacies.

The weight of these retrograde forces on all of society could not be more evident than in the recent scandal involving Plan B, the emergency contraceptive. The political hack heading the FDA reversed the 23-4 decision made by the FDA's scientific panel to make Plan B widely available without a prescription. The doctor whose so-called "scientific expertise" was used to buttress the action was W. David Hager, a religious fundamentalist gynecologist who says he advises his patients who have difficulties with menstruation or menopause to... pray!

Religious ideology in the service of oppression

The way the Catholic hierarchy and fundamentalist Protestants argue against birth control speaks volumes about the misogyny that runs like a bright red thread through their dogma - namely the reactionary idea that sexuality should serve only the purpose of procreation, and that women, starting with Eve, are the temptresses who would lead men into sin!

Christianity has been practically obsessed with these ideas, even up to our day - which explains not only the refusal by the Catholic church and most fundamentalist sects to allow women to control their own reproduction and their own bodies, but also the complete and often violent disdain toward homosexuality.

Of course, Christian fundamentalists are not the only ones to hold such views. The burka and the chador in those countries where Islamic fundamentalism rules, stand as stark symbols of the same attitudes, behind which are such barbaric practices as the stoning to death of women for adultery or "honour killings" by a member of a woman's family for her perceived "loose behaviour." And comparable to the Islamic chador, is the orthodox Jewish practice requiring women either to completely cover their hair or to shave it and cover their heads with a wig - as is the Old Testament requirement of stoning adulterous women. And Orthodox Jewish men still pray every day to their god, thanking him for not making them women!

Despite differences stemming from the times in which they were born, all the modern religions are misogynist by nature. It is not an accident, but rather an expression of the needs of the class societies in which they were born and evolved.

For as long as human societies have been divided in classes, they have this in common: they are based on the exploitation of one class or classes by another. Exploitation leads inevitably to oppression and injustice of all kinds, and not just against the exploited class. And this includes the oppression of women, who are oppressed simply because they are the ones to bear children. The existence of classes requires the ability of the ruling class to at least transmit the wealth accumulated through exploitation to the next generation, and that has brought into existence all those practices aimed at assuring paternity: that is, the insistence on virginity, the repression of "adulterous" women (but not of men). It is what led to "keeping women in their place," that is, confined closely within the home and the family. And that is still true, today, in the capitalist epoch, where inheritance still defines class.

Religions and their institutions have played an important role in supporting exploitation, and enforcing these fundamentally unequal relations within societies, as well as making the victims, including women, accept their victimisation, justifying it in the name of whatever particular god they call upon.

It is all the more true in a period such as today, when reactionary ideas are regaining ground in society.

All present religions have fostered fundamentalist tendencies, resting on ideas that take us backwards thousands of years. Like all the fundamentalist tendencies, Christian fundamentalism in this country seeks to control through religion not only the opinions, morals and private behaviour of its own adherents, but the entire political and social life of the country, that is, secular society. In that sense, Christian fundamentalism, like the other fundamentalist tendencies, is essentially political, offering its services to a repressive state against the whole of society.

"Domestic violence" - a product of patriarchy

Patriarchal relations within society pave the way for violence against women, including the violence that rains down on many women daily within the family structure. And that violence is justified by the most retrograde disgusting ideas, among which is that women somehow deserve the physical abuse.

Rape itself is still thought of in many milieus, not as a violent act, but as something that women brought on themselves by lewd behaviour, or at least as a mark of their shame because they did not defend their "virtue". It is not very long ago that the courts treated rape in that way - in many backward areas of the country, they still do. The expression that a raped woman is "damaged goods" is but the expression of the backward idea that a women is a commodity who loses her value when she "surrenders" her virginity.

According to US Justice Department records, which obviously understate the case by several magnitudes, one woman is raped nearly every minute in the US. Not counting rape, nearly three million women were physically attacked, 848,000 of them by men who were linked to them, in 1998. That is almost eight times the reported incidents of domestic violence against men. And 1,320 women were killed that year by their domestic partners, almost four a day, with another 3,000 by other people, half of them known to the murdered women. What is particularly significant, given the opposition of the Catholic church and most Protestant religions to divorce, the women who were most at risk for being killed were married women in the middle of divorce proceedings.

Obviously, domestic violence is not restricted only to the milieu of religious fundamentalists, and first of all because it is not only religious fundamentalists who have patriarchal ideas about the family. But they are the ones who openly preach that women and children must obey the master of the house, a patriarchal attitude that justifies violence by men and submission to it by women.

Studies of battered women regularly show that the women who are most likely to stay in violent home situations are the women who accept, in the words of the Baptist creed, "to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband." This is in part a reflection of the ideology, but it is also a reflection of the fact that women in patriarchal families are much less likely to work outside the home in anything other than incidental jobs.

And it is not just a question of violence against women. Children from fundamentalist homes are also subject to more violence than other children. Many of the same fundamentalist groups involved in attacks on abortion pushed to have a "parental rights" bill in Congress in 1995. Among other things, it would have prevented criminal proceedings against people who use physical force to discipline their own children.

In other words, these people would use government to impose a religious dictatorship over everyone's behaviour - but they do not accept any control by a secular government over their own behaviour.

Fights - past and present

The attack being waged by religions against women ever since the mid-1970s is reminiscent of earlier such attacks, then also led by the churches.

During most of the 1800s, birth control was legal in the US, even if obviously it was much less reliable. And abortion also was legal - or rather, the law took no note of it. In the 1800s, on the legal level at least, woman's reproductive situation was less proscribed than it is even today. As long as so many of the new factories were peopled by women while immigration provided for a steady rapid increase in the population, women's ability to work was more important to growing capitalism than their readiness to produce children. In many frontier states, they worked equally with men on farms, while being in short supply. As a result, they were much less restricted in those regions and enjoyed some independence. It is certainly not a coincidence that women first got the right to vote locally precisely in those frontier kind of states - Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Idaho - decades before the 19th Amendment passed.

It is not to say that religion did not play an important role during that period - although again less on the frontier, than in the Northeast and the South. Nor did women have anything like equality of rights. In many states, they did not have control over their own money when they married. And certainly, in most states, especially in the Northeast and the South, they did not have the right to vote. But for most women, the situation was less oppressive in the mid-1800s, than it was to become in the early 1900s. The main reason for the restrictions that developed against women was the further development of American capitalism and, with it, the capitalists' harsh response to a growing working class movement. After the mass struggles of 1877 (which took the form of insurrections in many cities) and 1894 (the generalised strike for the 8-hour day), the capitalists realised they needed not only a police force to keep the new working class in line, they needed a moral police - and the churches played this role.

With the arrival of the immigrants, came the Catholic church, with its fanatically patriarchal attitudes toward women, ready to preach the capitalist order to the workers it influenced. Patriarchal attitudes certainly always existed among the small Protestant sects in the countryside. But it was not really until the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s that those religions were really imposed on the population. With so many small farmers being driven off the land, and expressing their discontent in the growing populist and socialist movements, a kind of orchestrated "religious revival" was pushed forward to compete for adherents.

Every fight made in the US to extend the democratic rights supposedly written into the Constitution for "persons" has run up against religion. Organised religion provided the justification for the slaughter of Indians, for slavery, for the oppression of women, for child labour, for the near servitude of share-cropping, for the impoverishment of labour, for official Jim Crow segregation, for the anti-immigrant campaigns of the 1920s and the anti-communist and anti-trade unionist witch-hunts of the 1950s.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the initiators of the 1848 Seneca Falls Woman's Convention, the first organised expression of women's demands for equal rights, and a fighter against slavery in the abolitionist movement, long battled against the influence of religion. Primed by the experience of those fights, she issued this challenge to American women in 1885: "You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman....Man, of himself, could not do this; but when he declares, Thus saith the Lord,' of course he can do it. So long as ministers stand up and tell us Christ is the head of the church, so is man the head of woman, how are we to break the chains which have held women down through the ages? You Christian women look at the Hindoo, the Turkish, the Mormon women, and wonder how they can be held in such bondage....Now I ask you if our religion teaches the dignity of woman? It teaches the abominable idea of the [fourth and fifth] centuries - Augustine's idea - that motherhood is a curse, that woman is the author of sin, and is most corrupt. Can we ever cultivate any proper sense of self-respect as long as women take such sentiments from the mouths of the priesthood?"

When she was counselled to adopt the stance of other activists in the movement for women's suffrage, who understood the role played by religion in imposing an inferior position on women, but said nothing publicly for fear of antagonising religious people, Stanton responded: "This much-lauded policy [of keeping quiet] is but another word for cowardice.... Reformers who are always compromising have not yet grasped the idea that truth is the only safe ground to stand on."

Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, early feminists like Stanton, later fighters against racism and the oppression of women like W.E.B. DuBois, IWW militants like Big Bill Haywood and Joe Hill, did not set out to take on religion. But they did so when they discovered that the religious institutions of their time were more than just passive obstacles to social reform.

Ever since the time of Marx and Engels, revolutionaries have insisted that religion will not be done away with by decree, that it will survive until the class society on which it breeds, is done away with. In the words of Engels, in his "Anti-Dühring": "when society, by taking possession of all means of production and using them on a planned basis, has freed itself and all its members from the bondage in which they are now held... only then will the last alien force which is reflected in religion vanish, and with it, religion itself."

But they also knew what a nefarious role religion has always played, and recognised their obligation to oppose what Marx called the "opiate of the masses." The working class movement, when it was most conscious of its obligations, always took this as one of its tasks. This task remains just as relevant today - all the more necessary, in fact, as religions seek to impose, dictatorially, their dogma over all of society in many parts of the world.