Last month, The Atlantic Magazine hired a writer named Kevin Williamson. As a conservative commentator, Williamson would help bring ideological diversity to a generally liberal/progressive magazine, and that may explain the choice. After the magazine announced its new hire, however, quite a few readers and columnists expressed their disapproval. They pointed out that Williamson had previously written some highly controversial/hateful things.
He had declared in a National Review article that Laverne Cox, a beautiful, transgender woman who stars in Orange Is The New Black, “is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman.” Williamson had elsewhere likened feminism to “a collection of appetites wriggling queasily together like a bag of snakes.” Most famously (or infamously), he said that women who have an abortion should be hanged. And around the time that this view made the news (again), an Idaho Republican Lieutenant Governor candidate announced that he too thinks that women who have abortions should be executed.
To say that women should be hanged for having an abortion might seem like a simple variation on the theme that a fetus is morally no different from a child. If a fetus is a child and abortion is murder, then it would appear to follow that the woman who has an abortion—the murderer, in this scenario—might be subject to capital punishment, just as other murderers might be.
It would be a mistake, however, to classify Williamson’s words about hanging women with the words of other pro-life thinkers and advocates. His statement manifests a misogyny that does not necessarily and always accompany the view that a fetus is a child and that abortion is murder. In this column, I will explore the ways in which a call for hanging (or otherwise executing) women who abort reveals misogynist thinking at work.
Before explaining why I use the term “misogyny” to describe calls for executing a group of women, I should define what I mean by the term. As it is generally used, the word does not require a person to hate all women. One cannot handily dispose of an accusation of misogyny by observing that “some of my best friends are women,” that “I love my wife, and she is a woman,” or that “my co-workers can testify to how nice I am to women.” As with white supremacists, the gender bigot can have friendly relations with members of the despised group, so long as everyone knows their place, a place that the bigot decides from his own perspective, one informed by the societal prejudices that he has imbibed.
A white supremacist might tolerate an African American barber, for example, but we need to watch out for the intense outrage that will erupt from the friendly white supremacist when an African American man “takes” the white supremacist’s son’s presumed spot in a medical school class. The racist will loudly rail against the (assumed) affirmative action accounting for the choice and quietly tell his friends with great earnestness that affirmative action is not helpful to its beneficiaries, because he believes that African American kids have not even heard of Harvard (sorry, racist; they have). To listen to racists prattle on about African American athletes taking a knee during the national anthem, arguing that these men should be grateful for their jobs, is to appreciate the persistence of bigotry.
So we know what a misogynist is not (or at least need not be). It is not necessarily a person who uniformly despises all females, no matter the circumstances. But what is it? It is someone who behaves in ways that show aggression towards women, particularly women who demand respect.
A rapist is by definition a misogynist, because rape is a hate crime against women. Men can be the victims of rape, but this—in its most frequent manifestation, in prison—often represents the perpetrator “turning” the victim into a woman, sometimes explicitly. And though women sometimes rape men, this is unusual enough not to challenge the essential character of the crime.
In addition to rapists, other sexual assailants—allegedly including the President of the United States—qualify as misogynists too. Sexual harassers fit the bill, as they regard some of the women at work or at school as either there to entertain the men or as stealing a man’s spot. This is a continuing theme for those who nurture bigotry and hatred: the target of the bigotry does not belong where she is, while the director of the bigotry does. Bullying emerges as an attempt to restore the balance of power that the bully favors.
A sexist is different from a misogynist in that some sexists feel and express no animosity toward women. They may have a conservative or backward set of views about men’s and women’s roles and may sometimes say inadvertently offensive things. When they encounter a powerful woman, however, they leave her be or even admire her. The sexist’s feelings are more flexible than those of the misogynist, the latter of whom feels and may express or act upon violent impulses in response to a woman who threatens his own sense of entitlement.
So why is Williamson a misogynist when other pro-life theorists might be sexists or even feminists? We can see the beginning of an answer when we consider the fact that in the United States, the pro-life movement is, for the most part, uninterested in prosecuting pregnant women for having an abortion. That is, many self-styled “pro-lifers” consider abortion murder but wish to be able to prosecute the doctors and nurses who perform the abortions, not the patients who have them. They regard pregnant women as victims of abortion, just like their fetuses.
One might, at first glance, imagine that this perspective is sexist in treating the woman who makes a decision to terminate her pregnancy as though she lacks any agency and is simply a passive body, acted upon by medical professionals. The reason to reject this framing, though, is that doctors and nurses can also be women, subject to prosecution. Indeed, providers can even be pregnant women. The distinction therefore does not divide women or pregnant women from the male moral agents in the room.
What distinguishes the woman having the abortion from other participants in the procedure, as I understand the pro-life position in the United States, is that she is in an extremely—and somewhat uniquely—stressful and trying situation in virtue of her unwanted pregnancy. To refrain from killing her fetus, she must endure pregnancy, which makes enormous demands of a woman’s body, and then undergo extreme pain or major surgery at the end. Everyone else can relatively easily refrain from violence, without becoming (or remaining) another’s respirator in the process.
For most pro-life advocates in the United States, then, the doctors and nurses involved in an abortion could have fulfilled their duty of nonviolence by choosing to refrain from performing an abortion. That is much simpler than having to carry a pregnancy to term.
If I sound like I am pro-life, I am not, although you can learn more about my specific views of abortion in Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights. I say “pro-life” rather than “anti-choice” or “anti-abortion” here, because people who hold this position wish to be called “pro-life.” I believe that it ought to be up to an advocacy group to decide what it will be called, provided it is not using a label that will mislead people.
By now, everyone knows that “pro-life” refers to a person or group that opposes abortion (and perhaps other kinds of violence, such as the death penalty). The ordinary American pro-life view is that (a) from the moment of conception, a zygote/embryo/fetus has the same moral status—and thus the same right to live—as a child, (b) killing the zygote/embryo/fetus is murder, just like killing a child is murder, and (c) the woman who terminates a pregnancy is a victim, not a perpetrator.
I am not naïve. I realize that the pro-life movement may have adopted the third principle to avoid alienating some potential members. And there are cases in which authorities have treated a woman as a criminal for having an abortion.
Even if pro-life groups are compromising when they exempt the pregnant woman from criminal liability for abortion, however, their position has merit. The exemption, moreover, effectively adopts the feminist view of terminating one’s pregnancy—that it is different in kind from killing someone outside of one’s body, because the alternative to termination involves hard labor as a respirator. Respecting this difference, far from being internally inconsistent, responds to the realities that lead pro-choice thinkers and advocates to support a right to abortion.
Enter Williamson. He believes that a woman who terminates her pregnancy is a murderer and should be punished like a murderer. The law of El Salvador conforms to that viewpoint and incarcerates women who have abortions.
This approach has no space for the idea that even if an embryo is the equivalent of a child, ending one’s pregnancy is not the moral equivalent of murdering a physically separate child. A woman cannot give up her fetus for adoption or give her fetus to a babysitter so that she can lie down in her bed and actually sleep. A woman who is pregnant may not be able to walk down the street without back pain or breathe without difficulty or banish from her mind any worries about gestational diabetes or preeclampsia.
Some women feel better than this during pregnancy, but others feel considerably worse. To classify women who terminate as murderers is to willfully overlook and ignore the truth about what it means to confront an unwanted pregnancy and to view abortion as a way out of being a respirator for nine months.
Having disregarded the experience of unwanted pregnancy from the perspective of many real-life women, Williamson says that such women should be hanged. It would be too easy to suggest that a pro-life advocate like Williamson might be wise to stay away from promoting the execution of women, as a woman should qualify as a “life” as sacred as that of a zygote. But “pro-life” could just mean protective of innocent life, and Williamson does not consider women who have an abortion to be innocent.
To be sure, Williamson is awfully specific about precisely how he wants to kill the women who have abortions. One almost has the sense that he has had fantasies about stringing up the women and watching them shake and then grow still as the life drains out of them. Hanging is not an especially popular method of execution these days, but Williamson would seemingly bring it back for aborting women.
Interestingly, he suggested at another point that he is unsure about capital punishment but that abortion should be treated like any other homicide. If he is ambivalent about the penalty of death, however, that makes his suggestion that aborting women be hanged by the neck all the more disturbing. He creates the impression that of all of the murderers that might be subject to death (if he felt comfortable with execution), the worst of the worst might be the women who terminate their pregnancies. One wonders whether serial killers, men who batter and murder their wives, mass shooters, and terrorists are less deserving of death than these women, the women who perhaps threaten the vision of pregnancy as a condition that men impose upon them and that women grin and bear until the bitter end.
Why Does It Matter?
Why does it matter that Kevin Williamson expressed misogyny in his writing? Why is it important that a politician did the same on the campaign trail? Why fire Williamson from The Atlantic, and why condemn an outlier lawmaker for saying that women should be killed for getting an abortion?
One answer is that they are speaking to a varied audience. Some people in their audiences, those who may hate women even more than they do, are violent and ready to be inspired by group hatred to do something extreme. Upon hearing a columnist for a respectable publication—and a politician—say that women should be killed, the violent misogynist might not wait for the law to change. He might take his battle to a nearby abortion clinic and execute a woman himself. If the women in there ought to be killed, he could reason, then why shouldn’t I be the one to kill them? And Williamson has conveniently proposed a method of execution, hanging, that hatred-drenched bigots have traditionally directed against the targets of their rage.
Though Williamson writes like a misogynist, he is a respected, educated person with a lot of influence. He is similar, in that way, to Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who says he is not a “Nazi.” Such people are unlikely themselves to go out and hang those whose lives and experiences they dismiss and devalue. But their audiences include some very angry, hateful, and potentially violent individuals.
Our First Amendment doctrine bars the government from stopping such speakers from spewing their hatred. But fortunately, private people, a majority of whom try to do the right thing and care about justice, can refuse a forum for misogynist venting. There is all the difference in the world between a run-of-the-mill sexist and a misogynist, between John McCain and Richard Spencer, between Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, and between the American pro-life view of abortion and the Williamson view that women who abort ought to be hanged. It would be a mistake to treat the latter as business as usual.