There is nothing new under the sun, this fight will never be done and that leads us to ask: why can’t women’s progress be more than fleeting?
As the National Organization for Women (NOW) kicks off their 2011 convention in Tampa under the theme “Daring to Dream: Building a Feminist Future” we must ask ourselves why we have to fight the same battles over and over again.
And it brings to mind the speech by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-CO) in 1996 regarding repealing the Comstock Act.
Speeches can contain words to live by, words that call us to action for an important cause and words that connect to our deepest feelings about fairness and compassion.
Pat Schroeder was elected to Congress in 1973, one of only 14 women in the House of Representatives. This is the environment she faced:
One of only 14 women in the House of Representatives, Schroeder confronted a male-dominated institution that frowned not only on her feminist agenda but on her mere presence. She likened the atmosphere there to that of “an over-aged frat house.” One male colleague remarked, “This is about Chivas Regal, thousand-dollar bills, Lear jets and beautiful women. Why are you here?” Another asked how she could be a mother of two small children and a Member of Congress at the same time. She replied, “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.”
Of course this has changed dramatically. Instead of saying out loud “This is about Chivas Regal, thousand-dollar bills, Lear jets and beautiful women. Why are you here?” the current boys in Congress now just think it. Progress!
Pat Schroeder was an unabashed feminist and at one time was considered as a possible presidential candidate. She famously said “when people ask me why I am running as a woman, I always answer, ‘What choice do I have?’”
I will use Pat Schroeder’s words to describe the Comstock Act of 1873:
This act makes it a crime to advertise or mail not only `every lewd, lascivious, or filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print , or other publication of an indecent character,’ but also any information `for preventing contraception or producing abortion.’ Congress passed this law with virtually no discussion, acting by unanimous consent in the Senate and under suspension of the rules in the House.
So why was an act passed in 1873 important in 1996? From Rep. Schroeder:
Although its reach has been somewhat curtailed by the courts based upon first amendment principles, the Comstock Act remains on our books today. In 1971, Congress deleted the prohibition on birth control; but the prohibition on information about abortion remains, and the maximum fine was increased in 1994 from $5,000 to $250,000 for a first offense.
Comstockery, unfortunately, is not just a shameful part of our past. Comstockery has been given a new lease on life by this Congress.
The Telecommunications Act passed this year extended the Comstock Act’s prohibitions to anyone who uses an interactive computer service. This Congress, therefore, revived Comstockery by making it a crime to use the Internet to provide or receive information which directly or indirectly tells where, how, of whom, or by what means an abortion may be obtained. A broader gag rule is hard to imagine.
Here is the painful reminder of how little progress we seem to have made:
Republican control of the Congress has brought us more than 50 votes on abortion. Every imaginable form of Comstockery is represented in this array of antichoice measures.
Anthony Comstock’s crusade against free speech and reproductive choice represents one of the worst chapters of our history. The last thing this country needs or wants is a bridge to the past represented by Comstockery. Suppression of free speech, suppression of reproductive choice, is an aberration from genuine American values.
As the Anthony Comstocks of today patrol the Halls of this Congress seeking to suppress free speech and reproductive choice in the name of morality, or family values, or whatever high-sounding purpose they may invoke, it is incumbent upon the Congress to ensure that no form of the Comstock Act is ever again enacted, and that no special agent is ever again commissioned to roam the land, persecuting Americans in the name of morality or family values.
We have seen the same thing in 2011 with the Republican House of Representatives of the 112th Congress. The circumstances are different because the “array of anti-choice measures” did not need a presidential veto as it did in in the 104th Congress. But the attack on women continues 15 years later and indeed every time a newly minted Republican congress comes in with their pent-up portfolio of misogyny.
It is not enough to dream of a future, we need to create a future for our daughters and their daughters so that we do not have to keep fighting these battles over and over again.
The only way we can have a Congress “to ensure that no form of the Comstock Act is ever again enacted, and that no special agent is ever again commissioned to roam the land, persecuting Americans in the name of morality or family values” is to elect more and better Democrats.
Women’s issues are our family’s issues and America’s issues and another Pat Schroeder quote lays it out clearly:
You measure a government by how few people need help.
It really does not get any simpler than that.
Pat Schroeder also said “you can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time”. Creating a permanent bulwark against reactionary policies will require creating larger and larger Democratic congressional majorities and that requires all of us to work to Get Out The Vote(rs) in 2012.
Let’s roll up our sleeves … together.
Great Speeches is a series on speeches by American politicians.
(A version of this was originally posted on 06/22/2011 at BPI Campus)