Did you ever see the movie “‘The Group,” made from Mary McCarthy’s novel? It draws the curtain back to reveal sexuality and the sexual double standard in the lives of smart, savvy women who were students at an elite women’s college in the 1930s. A few weeks ago I went to a screening of “The Wild Party” from director Dorothy Arzner, the first talkie starring Clara Bow. It features a group of smart, savvy women who were students at an elite women’s college in the 1920s. Both films are provocative, charming, and very unsettling in their portrayal of women’s struggles for legitimacy, though they also feel dated. Ditto this season’s “Mona Lisa Smile.” So why am I horrified by the fact that women in their 20s and 30s today see as equally dated the struggles with sexuality and a sexual double-standard in the lives of women I knew when I myself was in college? One reason behind my horror is that the gains women have made these past decades are now at risk of being undone politically.
Which is why U.S. elections in November should be worrying women everywhere.
This election counts in ways that other recent balloting did not, at least not in the same way. Decisions about Supreme Court justices and other judicial appointments during the tenure of the next Administration will affect for at least 20 years many issues crucial in the lives of women, and of Jews.
Here are three to mull over:
• Our rights to privacy—private decisions about contraception, about our medical records, doctors’ visits, drugs we buy, even the purchase of an in-home pregnancy test— could be confiscated.
• Life-saving stem cell research would likely be outlawed.
• The future of reproductive rights hangs in the balance. Roe V Wade may be overturned by a more conservative Supreme Court. Our right to choose when and if we will bear children could well be trammeled.
LILITH has been covering abortion rights since the magazine began to publish. We’ve pointed out—and will say again here—that if the forces on the Right have their way, even the most traditional Jew will not be able to follow Jewish law on abortion, which (to state a complicated position very simply) says that if the mother’s life is in danger from the continuation of a pregnancy, her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. Period. If the fetus is a “pursuer,” chasing after the life and health of the woman carrying it, abortion is mandated to save her. A very different position from that taken by, for example, the Catholic church, which privileges the fetus over the woman.
Seems clear enough that Jewish women have a special stake in preserving, among other freedoms, the right to choose.
To many young women, these issues seem to be lodged in the deep past. Most don’t know personally anyone who desperately needed and sought out an illegal abortion in the pre-Roe days. Nor anyone who was grateful even for a dangerous back-alley abortion, though more grateful for the cleaner ones performed by a kindly doctor under the guise of doing an “appendectomy.” Nor anyone who, panicky, scrounged money from friends for a trip to Puerto Rico or other offshore locale or distant US city where there were reputed to be willing doctors. Few women voting today know of what it was like, before Roe became the law of the land, to travel, pregnant, to one of the few states where abortion was legal with a note in hand from her local doctor One woman read her—unsealed— referral note on the plane: “Dear Abortionist. What you are about to do is a sin and a crime.” There was a climate of hatred against women abroad then which may surface again.
Why am I frightened that this may happen? Simple. Because too few women will get out to vote in November.
Making sure that women are registered and get to the polls should be at the top of the agenda not only for political parties, but for Jewish women’s organizations and—crucially—for campus groups as well. It turns out that young women—18 to 24—are less likely to vote than men their age, and less likely than females a little older. Maybe this is because many are still students, and students living away from home often have trouble organizing themselves to get absentee ballots from their home states, or registering to vote in their transposed locations.
And single women are the least likely to vote!
Unmarried women are less likely to vote than married women, married men and unmarried men. “Unmarried women can decide elections” declares the nonpartisan “Women’s Voices Women Vote” website (mvwv.org). Since recent statistics from the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey show that 25% of Jewish women are not married, we have to make special efforts to ensure that they defy the voting statistics come November.
Young Jewish women (the best-educated women in North America) are well represented in that pool of college and graduate students who aren’t living at the address where they first got a driver’s license or registered to vote. What are campus groups doing? Book clubs? Sororities? Softball teams?
Hillels and other Jewish campus organizations need to organize voter registration drives among their peers. And each of you reading this needs to talk to other women about registering to vote.
Then comes the hard part. After they are registered to vote, how to get women to the polls, come November? Maybe the language has to be like the speak outs—your vote IS your voice in the political arena. You have to help break women’s silence.
Because this upcoming U.S. election has such crucial human and women’s issues on the line, it’s our obligation—as people who live, breathe, get pregnant, have babies, have abortions, get sick, want our medical records private, need medicines, want our daughters to be able to live their lives in peace and as Jews—to make sure that every woman we know votes her self-interest this fall.