Bush’s Legacy: Decrease in Teens’ Contraceptive Use

The abstinence-only programs that were promoted and funded by the Bush administration may have contributed to an unsettling decline in the use of contraceptives by teenagers. From 2003 to 2007 condom use has leveled off but contraceptive use across the board has decreased by 10%.  This is while the level of sexual activity has stayed the same. Not surprisingly, the teen birth rate increased by 5% from 2005 to 2007. [Source here.]

President Obama has decreased funding for abstinence-only programs in favor of comprehensive sex education. I say good for him. And I am a Christian. But I have never seen the wisdom in handicapping young men and women by ignoring the very real threats of pregnancy, AIDS and sexually-transmitted diseases. Teenagers are in a hurry to grow up, they are curious about sex (especially when it seems like the whole world is having it) and their sexual hormones are starting to kick into high gear.  The chances are that they are going to have sex sometime before they get married. To refuse to arm them with the information they need to make informed decisions seems to be both unwise and irresponsible.

There are ways of teaching our children about sex without encouraging it.

There are ways of teaching our children about sex without encouraging it, just as there are ways to discourage sex without making it seem dirty or unpleasant. Abstinence-only sex education is like teaching a person to drive but neglecting to teach him how to drive defensively. There are ways to limit tragic consequences in both instances without relying on “just say no” slogans.

One weakness of the abstinence-only programs is the reasoning they follow. For one thing, they try to convince our teens that they are not mature enough for sex. They’re not mature enough to drive either, but we allow them to.  They also teach that sex outside of marriage is unsatisfying, but teens see evidence to the contrary everywhere they look.  And when we tell teens that they will become impure if they have sex, what kind of sexual problems are we setting them up for as they travel into adulthood and marriage? If they have engaged in sex, will they feel anything but guilt ever afterwards? And even if they haven’t. will they be able to make the transition from seeing sex as “bad” and sex as “good” when society finally gives them permission to engage in it?

Another criticism I have of abstinence-only programs is that they put the greatest part of the burden on our young women. They are to safeguard their virginity at a time when being popular often means giving it up. Boys are taught to abstain as well, but they aren’t expected to have the self-control that girls have. Along with these messages is the confusing one that children are a blessing from God, even if they don’t wait until marriage to have them. (Think of Bristol Palin as a trend-setter.)

I am glad that the Bush years are over, but I’m afraid that his legacy will continue for many of our teens whose parents and teachers are unwilling to face the facts, the same facts they don’t want their children to have access to.

Even Sandra Day O’Connor Rejects Feminist Label

In a short interview in the New York Times, Sandra Day O’Connor refuses to call herself a feminist, even though she does describe herself this way:

“I care very much about women and their progress. I didn’t go march in the streets, but when I was in the Arizona Legislature, one of the things that I did was to examine every single statute in the state of Arizona to pick out the ones that discriminated against women and get them changed.”

She also thinks it’s important for there to be more than one woman on the Supreme Court, but that’s mainly because “when I was there alone, there was too much media focus on the one woman, and the minute we got another woman, that changed.”

Women can't assume that they will be welcomed into the halls of male privilege.

I cannot for the life of me figure out how the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court would not call herself a feminist. Is she saying that she doesn’t think that all women should have the same opportunities that she had? If I were to guess, I’d say that her reasoning runs along these lines: I made my own opportunities and every woman can do the same. Of course, that’s ignoring the fact that a lot of women aren’t offered certain opportunities or are even barred from them because of discrimination against women. O’Connor herself experienced that same discrimination at many points along her path. But she also had many advantages. She was an only child until she was eight. She lived with a grandmother who instilled in her the belief that she could do anything she wanted to. She attended a private girls’ academy until college. She was accepted into Stanford University at the age of sixteen and graduated magna cum laude. And she married a man who was supportive of her career choices. [Source here.]

True, she brought intelligence and determination to her life journey. But many other equally intelligent and determined women fall by the wayside. Women can’t assume that they will be welcomed into the halls of male privilege. If anything, they should be prepared for resistance. But they should also be able to call a spade a spade and when they face discrimination they should be able to recognize and label it as such.

Not all women can or want to act like men in order to get ahead.

Women like O’Connor often think that crying “discrimination” means that the women who do so see themselves as victims. I see it differently. It takes a lot of guts to be a whistle blower. There’s nothing pitiful about taking that stance. It’s often easier to work your butt off and keep quiet about the wrongful attitudes and actions of the men in power who attempt to block your path. Naming the culprit  is not the same as  blaming others for your own shortcomings. If you do all you can to better yourself and still don’t get anywhere, you need to identify the reasons why and take appropriate action.

Many successful women see that it is men who are keeping them down, but instead of calling them on it, they choose to play the game the men’s way. That’s a copout. They’re doing nothing to change the system; they’re only perpetuating it and making it that much harder for those who come after them to get a fair shake. Not all women can or want to act like men in order to get ahead. And they shouldn’t have to.

I’m not saying that O’Connor acted like a man. But by refusing to call herself a feminist, she is cutting herself off from other women. In effect, she is saying that her life was a fluke and shouldn’t be emulated. That it was only she who could have done what she did. If she would reach out to women and acknowledge their common struggles, she might find that many more women will learn from her example and achieve the things that she did.

Is Feminism Obsolete?

Naomi Wolf wrote in her May 4, 2009 online Washington Post Q&A session that “the goal of feminism has always been ideally to become obsolete.” That might be the ideal, but it’s not the reality. Women will always need a feminist voice because they will always need a reminder that they are not inferior in any way, shape or form. There will always be someone trying to put women down, to keep them in their place and to control them. As long as they are seen as the weaker sex–and there are those who are heavily invested in seeing them that way (because it makes them seem stronger)–they will continue to bear the brunt of discrimination and sexism.

Even when a woman makes it in this world, she is undermined at every turn. Even television commercials remind her that she’s not good enough. Her work is under closer scrutiny than are men’s. She has to be twice as good as a man in order to (hopefully) get “equal” treatment. She is judged more harshly, not only on her job performance, but also on her looks and desirability. If she isn’t young, thin and attractive, she is relegated to a lower level of society. If she is too beautiful or particularly feminine, she won’t be taken seriously. If she displays masculine characteristics such as assertiveness and ambitiousness, she is considered a “ball-breaker” or a bitch.

Women need something to help them build up their self-esteem. A feminist philosophy can shore them up when they flounder. It can also show them how to capitalize on their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. And most of all, it gives them a blueprint for how to make this world a better place for them and their sisters.

The Cosmo Feminist

In May of this year, The Washington Post published a thoughtful review of a book that just came out, Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, by Jennifer Scanlon. Brown was the founder of Cosmopolitan magazine and the author of the wildly popular Sex and the Single Girl. The reviewer is Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, and more recently, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot.

A great deal of this review is a discussion about the two “styles” of feminism: Betty Friedan’s “intellectual, ideological, group-oriented feminism against Brown’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, girl-power style.” I don’t recall Brown’s approach ever being thought of as a style of feminism in the 60s; in fact, it drew a lot of fire from Second Wave feminists for its emphasis on how a woman’s sexual persona. Brown was saying that a woman had the right to seek and give sexual pleasure, Second Wavers were ambivalent about sexual posturing because of the fear that it turned women into sexual objects.

What is ironic is that these days younger Third Wave feminists have more in common with Brown than with Friedan. They see Second Wave feminists as humorless party-poopers. They may be right, but why do they think their way of being feminist has more merit? As long as a woman is socialized into believing that it is her “duty” to be sexually alluring, she is going to run the risk of obsessing about how she looks more than how she thinks or acts.

What does it do to a woman when her every waking thought is about how she looks? Second Wavers wanted to liberate women from this tyranny. They were trying to make a point: women should be valued for who they are, not for what they look like. There’s no denying that they threw the baby out with the bathwater. But many Third Wave feminists don’t want to mess with the bathwater. They’re ignoring the unhealthy aspects of being appearance-conscious. They’re setting themselves up for negative self-images and the accompanying low self-esteem.

We need to find a happy medium between the Cosmo girl and the radical feminist. There’s nothing wrong with having a playful attitude toward makeup, hairstyles and fashion. But as Naomi Wolf says in her review: “What [today’s feminism lacks] is a grass-roots movement that will drive the political will. ‘Lipstick’ or lifestyle feminism won’t produce that movement alone.”

Followup: Online Q&A transcript with Naomi Wolf.

Have We Won the War?

Second Wave feminists like myself are feeling adrift because their platform is old news, even if it is still germane. Women are making better money and getting promoted more often than they used to. They have gained entrance to some of the former male bastions like politics, medicine, law, sports, science and the military. Girls’ scores are going up in math and science and more than half of all college graduates are women. Women can get credit in their own name and earn their own credit scores. More women own their own homes than ever before. Marriage is a more equitable institution than it used to be (as is divorce). Pregnancy is no longer grounds for dismissal.

It's a confusing time to be a feminist.

And there have been some unintended consequences, which conservatives are fond of blaming feminism for. It’s no longer de rigeur to give women full custody of their children or life-time alimony.  Single mothers are expected to work, even (especially?) those on welfare. More women are having children out of wedlock. Women in the military are not exempted from deployment when they have minor children. More women are working outside of the home and still doing most of the housework (although you can hardly blame feminism for the latter). And since feminism tried to erase the difference between men and women, both sexes are less sure of their sexual identities. (I love it when conservatives levy these charges against feminism but won’t give the movement credit for the good things it has accomplished.)

Considering the mixed bag of results, it’s no wonder that people are divided about the positive aspects of feminism. No woman wants to be branded as a man-hater or an old maid. Women want to be able to be feminine without being accused of shallowness. They want the security of sex roles and male protection. They don’t want to be alone.

At the same time, they want to be their own person. And that, in a nutshell, is what feminism has come to mean today. It is all about the personal. Freedom to wear make-up and high heels. The right to enjoy sex and the interplay between the sexes. Not being forced into the marketplace just because that’s the feminist thing to do. Being able to be a woman in the fullest sense of the word, not some androgynous being who is cold and selfish. Not having to be like a man.

...you don’t have a movement unless the personal becomes political.

It’s a confusing time to be a feminist. It could be argued that you don’t have a movement unless the personal becomes political. Today’s young women may be interested in politics, but not as a way to espouse feminist ideology. The problem with today’s movement, such as it is, is that today’s feminists see yesterday’s feminists as their enemies. They’re fighting for their rights to be feminine, to stay at home with their kids, to be protected by their men, to not have to work 60-hour weeks. In other words, they’re reacting against us. What we’re experiencing is the effects of the generation gap.

But because no one is disputing their rights to be themselves in these ways, feminism has lost its message. Of course no one is telling them that they can’t be “girly,” that they can’t stay at home with their kids, that they don’t have to work their lives away. Our society-at-large agrees with them. There’s nothing for today’s feminists to react against.

Of course that’s not true. There are still plenty of things wrong with this society that can and should be addressed by feminism. But until Third Wave feminists see the battles that truly need to be won, they’re not going to win the war. Second Wave feminists aren’t the enemy. Get over it.