When Justice O’Connor was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, it was a time of great excitement for women and a proud moment for the Republican Party. It reflected that at the highest levels of the Republican Party women could and should be able to have careers that fulfilled their destinies and that would enrich the world. If you read Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinions like Mississippi Univ. for Women v. Hogan (invalidating gender-based admissions policy), considered her vote in United States v. Virginia (against the male-only Virginia Military Institute), or read her votes in the abortion cases refusing to deep-six Roe v. Wade, she carried forward a vision of capable women who are more than merely their reproductive organs. She has been an icon for women at work and at home.
That was a different Republican Party. To put it mildly.
Positions and rhetoric from the so-called pro-life community have been part of the Republican platform for decades. Yet, over 30 years since O’Connor was confirmed, there is increasingly extremist, anti-choice rhetoric in the Party about women’s reproductive rights that, if it were public policy, would not only set back women’s enhancements at work but also could put their lives at risk. This new escalating rhetoric on abortion and contraception has been bothering me, because it has reminded me of something, which until now I could not quite put my finger on.
It reminds me of the Duggars and their brand of right-wing Christianity. It’s not just rhetoric about policy position number X. Rather, it adds up to a prescription for the life of the “proper” woman that few in the public are apprehending.
There was a time when the prevailing wisdom was that even right-wing candidates had to at least pretend not to be fixated on eliminating rights to abortion, and they certainly would not take a public position against contraception. Yet, many of this cycle’s Republican candidates— including Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and Marco Rubio—have thrown caution to the wind when it comes to expressing their views on reproductive rights and have drawn an extreme line in the abortion sand: in many instances, no exception even for rape or incest or even life of the mother. They oppose certain popular and effective forms of contraception because they allege that they are in effect abortifacients. They also have climbed farther out on the limb—with a loud and persistent chorus against Planned Parenthood (that has reached fever pitch with the release of the videos falsely concocting illegal dealing in fetus parts), even though its work includes far more contraceptive medical assistance than provision of abortions. And they have stridently attacked the Affordable Care Act’s provision for cost-free abortion for female employees—in every scenario from religious to nonprofit to for-profit organizations. If you add this all together, the sum is opposition not just to abortion in most circumstances but to all or virtually all abortions and a great deal, if not all, contraception.
For the most part, moreover, the 2016 candidates are part of the Republican firmament that opposes the Affordable Care Act’s mandate for contraception in employer health care plans—not as a business person would but rather as a group religiously opposed to contraception. In the Affordable Care Act cases and at the heart of the Republican discourse, the heat and light are emanating from a center that disapproves of women using contraception, period.
Compare this scenario to the last election cycle when Republican candidate Mitt Romney went out of his way to insist that he did not oppose abortion in cases of rape or incest. Before that, candidate John McCain essentially said the same. President George W. Bush took the same line. 2016 presidential contenders Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina have taken a page out of their book.
Which brings me back to the Duggars.
What I find deeply troubling here is not just these candidates’ views on reproductive rights by themselves but rather that their positions reflect the image of a “correct woman,” and she is no Sandra Day O’Connor. Were we to return to an era when contraception was unavailable and/or illegal, women could not realistically aspire to be a Supreme Court Justice or a CEO or, for that matter, a school principal. They would have to be a Michelle Duggar.
The Duggars share beliefs with the Quiverfull and Patriarchy Christian movements (and the homeschooling movement), which are essentially anti-feminist. They believe God made the man the head of the household by Christian design, and that he is the go-between between God and women and children. Couples should “trust the Lord” for family planning. Godly women are submissive and obedient to their men and to their ovaries. Men and women are designed to serve specific roles, with the man as the protector and decisionmaker and the woman defined by her role as childbearing wife and mother.
The Duggar family rode a high tide of publicity before their hit TLC television show, 19 Kids and Counting, was cancelled following revelations of incest. The popular press, especially People, was obsessed with them, as were the morning shows, treating them as a quaint family that had “chosen” to have over a dozen children. Not so.
In this universe, each and every means of avoiding pregnancy, whether “natural” or medical is looked upon as a sinful roadblock to God’s plan. The result is that women are less godly if they seek to control their reproductive future, which inevitably makes them incapable of pursuing their talents. To put it another way, the only women in this movement who could potentially pursue an ambitious career path are women who are infertile, but even they would be at risk of hell because such a successful woman could get in the way of her husband’s career and needs. Indeed, women don’t have their “own destiny” in this universe.
This is a worldview that stands behind and supports the extreme anti-abortion and anti-contraception rhetoric. They are not just taking a stand on abortion or contraception or universal health care. Rather, they are painting a picture of the future, or, rather, back to the future: the 1950s.
The next debate and the ones that follow should require each of the Republican candidates to explain how his or her view of abortion and contraception can be distinguished from the Duggar universe. It’s not enough to say, “God (or a bishop or pastor) requires me to be opposed to abortion or contraception.” They need to answer the following question: how can a woman subject to your reproductive health restrictions have a serious career or really any responsible job?
In effect, what the current GOP crop of presidential candidates is saying with their early stress on ending legal abortion and limiting the universe of available contraception is that a little girl cannot realistically aspire to be anything other than a helpmeet to her husband and a mother to many. In short, a Duggar.