The Pro-Choice First Lady Stunt

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The Pro-Choice First Lady Stunt

Amanda Marcotte

Pro-choice First Ladies who have no influence on their husbands' anti-choice policies reinforce the idea that the power over women's lives should ultimately reside with men.

In a country with a clear pro-choice majority, it is essential for anti-choice politicians to present themselves as more moderate than they really
are on abortion. Having a pro-choice wife is one way to do it, as a recent Time Magazine
pointed out. But the article contained misleading paragraph about the history
of anti-choice male politicians with pro-choice wives:

    From Pat Nixon, who declared
    "I believe abortion is a personal choice," to Betty Ford,
    who praised the Supreme Court’s judgment in Roe as "a great, great
    decision" to Laura Bush, who on the eve of her husband’s inauguration
    said she did not think he would appoint justices who would overturn
    Roe, pro-choice wives have long tried to signal to voters that this
    particular Republican President would not focus on abortion.

The sentence makes plenty of
sense if you wrongly assume that the Republican party has always been
solidly anti-choice, but that’s not actually true. As the article
mentions earlier, the Republican party didn’t make banning abortion
a party platform point until 1976, which would be after both Pat Nixon
and Betty Ford did their time in the White House. And the gist
of the article, that Cindy McCain could take this route, doesn’t make
any sense. Cindy McCain has already lent her image to mailers
that leave no doubt where she stands on the issue.
(Maybe that’s why Carly Fiorina is pounding the pavement talking about women’s "choices.")

But the implication of the
paragraph, which is that anti-choice positions in Republican politicians’ homes are often more a matter of political expedience than heartfelt
disdain for reproductive rights, is true enough. The Bush family’s
about-face on this issue should be a story better known.
Not only was the pater familias
of the clan–Prescott Bush–the treasurer of Planned Parenthood before
his stint in the Senate, but George Bush Sr. and Barbara Bush were well
known for their birth control activism before it became apparent that
Bush Sr. would have to start fronting about being anti-choice to get
the increasingly important fundamentalist vote.

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Anti-choice male politicians running for President have
use their wives to hint about personal pro-choice views.
Not only has Laura Bush hinted in public about being pro-choice, but
so did Barbara Bush openly declare her support for a woman’s right
to choose. Even "just say no" Nancy Reagan suggested that she
accepted that women have a right to control our own bodies. So,
should we take this to mean that these women’s husbands haven’t been as
anti-choice as they say?

No. First of all, you don’t see hide nor hair of anyone in a skirt,
much less a pro-choice First Lady, in this famous picture
of Bush signing away women’s rights in the Partial Birth Abortion Act,
while surrounded by a group of men who will never be pregnant.
This photograph alone demonstrates that the pro-choice
stances of various Republican First Ladies are pure political theater,
and have no bearing whatsoever on actual policy choices.

It’s obvious that First
Ladies hint at being pro-choice is to make their extremist husbands
seem more moderate. Bait the voters with a nice, non-misogynist candidate
wife, and then switch out for the actual misogynist candidate.

But the pro-choice First Ladies stunt works on another, deeper level — it reassures sexist
men that women’s opinions and women’s rights don’t count.
When a Laura Bush or Barbara Bush says that she’s pro-choice and you
see that her feelings don’t matter one whit when it comes to policy,
it reassures men that we women can bitch and stomp our feet, and our demands
can easily be dismissed with a, "You’re so cute when you’re angry."

The message is sent: serious
political differences about serious issues like abortion rights don’t
have to stress marriages and families, so long as women roll over and
let men make all the decisions. The scary feminists are the ones
who don’t just say, "Gosh, I’m pro-choice myself, but if the men
think differently, well I guess it’s up to them to decide."
Scary, unreasonable feminists are the ones like me and my friends who
won’t sleep with a dude, much less consider a long-term relationship with him,
if he states that he’s anti-choice.

The central question in the
abortion rights debate is about who runs women’s lives: ourselves
or outside authorities? Pro-choice wives who have no influence
on policy actually reinforce the anti-choice message by reinforcing the idea
that the power over women’s lives should ultimately reside with men.
Differences of opinion between a man and a woman are resolved by giving
the man final say, even if the difference is about the control over
the most intimate, personal parts of a woman’s life.

Because pro-choice wives of
anti-choice politicians have a dual function of reassuring
moderates that the candidates aren’t that bad and reassuring
sexists that men get the final word, it’s hard to imagine why any
anti-choice politician wouldn’t avail himself of the tactic. McCain has chosen
a different tactic, using pictures that imply his wife fully supports
his opposition to women’s rights.

The Time article hints as to why — the mainstream media’s piss-poor
coverage of the issues in this election has left the erroneous impression
in the minds of voters that McCain is moderate on abortion rights, when
he leans far to the right on the issue. The information gap is
such that Obama gains 13 points
with Independent women just by informing voters of where the candidates
stand on the right to choose.

McCain’s battle then is not
winning over moderates, but extremists who wrongly suspect him of being
a "maverick" on this issue, when he actually stands with anti-choicers.
That’s probably why his campaign isn’t using the wife gambit, because
they don’t need it. Moderates have already been fooled.