As I have been watching and reading about the protests that led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak I have more than once been struck by the fact that many of the "horrible conditions" that commentators spoke of in Egypt are also present in American life today. Indeed some, such as increasing social inequality, are actually worse in the United States than in Egypt. Yet the American commentators I listened to on American television almost to a person talked down to the protesters of Egypt from the Olympian heights of an achieved democracy.
I leave to another day a discussion of the paternalistic and colonial presumptions that laid behind much of their rhetoric. Today I am examining one the premises that underlay their patronizing comments.
PREMISE: The United States of America is a functioning democracy.
I think it is reasonable to question to the stability of democracy in the United States today and to have rather gloomy expectations for its future. I am not alone in this questioning and it is not only those on the loony fringes of political thought who share my concerns. Read, for example, Bob Herbert's opinion piece When Democracy Weakens in today's New York times.
At this point the reader may be assuming that I intend to write about the ways in which the rights women have won in the United States will be weakened as democracy is undercut. I would agree that the weakening of women's rights and the weakening of democratic rights go hand in hand but I would argue that the former is not a result of the latter as much as the latter is being achieved by means of the former.
Even if one looks to the American political parties and political movements that have been historically the greatest friends of the rights of American women one finds a disturbing willingness to treat the rights of women as negotiating points. Consider, if you will, the outcry that would arise if Democratic members of congress were willing to negotiate away the rights of African-Americans to whole areas of health care in return for a few Republican votes on an upcoming bill. Yet that is exactly what they have been willing to do to women. Since, apparently, the guaranteed right of every woman to life saving medical care is optional to many of the members of the house and senate, the health care bill they passed was written without a guarantee of universality of treatment. Of course in the future those limitations will be extended to include more and more Americans but the opening necessary to make that future gutting possible exists because the vast majority of political representatives, both Democratic and Republican, don't really believe the rights of women to be equal to those of men.
Similarly, if you look at the many programs that the Obama administration has slated to be gutted or canceled in order to cut the budget, those that serve the needs of women are disproportionately represented. Why, one might ask? Because these are the programs that the elected representatives of the American people are least likely to fight for. Will the kyriarchy stop at these programs? Of course not. Indeed even now it is not only the programs that primarily serve women that are under attack. But it is those programs that will slashed with the least amount of effective outrage. And so democracy slows dies.
The pattern is clear. If the powers that be wish to successfully to carve away at the rights of the public in general the best place to start is with the rights of women.