Why I don’t like the phrase “The War on Women”

In a chat with Garland Grey that was published at Tiger Beatdown this week, I wrote the following about the phrase “The War on Women”:

I feel that even the idea that intersectionality dilutes our message is false and plays into conservative beliefs about how the world works. When we use the language of “war on women” because it is politically expedient in talking to conservatives about these issues at the expense of denying the existence and struggle of trans* and non-binary people, what social justice activism are we actually doing? And why are we watering down the reality and lived experience of other people in order to make conservatives feel more comfortable in this conversation? I can’t get behind the “War on Women” because that is simply too narrow a term for who is actually being affected.

This is only one of the reasons I dislike ” war on women”.

After chatting with The Opinioness on Twitter about this phrase earlier this week and how much I don’t like it, I felt like I needed to finally write down somewhere all my many thoughts about this. (All of these feelings were heightened just last weekend because of the many rallies across the US under the title “The War on Women.” I attended the one here in Austin.)

There are three main points:

  1. WOW is cissexist and erases the lived realities of plenty of people.
  2. WOW flattens all people affected by anti-choice measures into a single, equal category despite HUGE differences in how the so-called WOW affects people based on race, class, etc.
  3. WOW makes this seem like this is an issue that is just about the ladies.


Let’s start from the top: WOW is cissexist and erases the lived realities of plenty of people. (Not sure what I mean when I write “cis”? Melissa Harris-Perry in the embedded video at this link explains it)

I’m going to borrow the words of the ever-brilliant Jos Truitt who wrote a post at Feministing in March titled, “The ways of talking about the ‘war on women’ that leave people out“:

Feminist writers and activists have the best of intentions. I’m sure of that. It’s just that if you talk like this you erase whole groups of people who are on your side. Who are personally impacted. Who are actively engaged in this fight. But who feel just a little bit more unwanted, a little bit more pushed out every time we hear language that suggests we don’t exist.

The anti-choicers are absolutely deploying gender essentialism. We don’t have to respond on their terms, though. (unless we, like, really really want to lose. Cause that’s what happens if we let our opponents determine the terms of the debate.)

THIS should be enough of a reason to not use the phrase. If it’s not, here is whatfreshhellisthis on Tumblr (at prolongedeyecontact’s site):

Cis women are not being specifically targeted by the anti-choice, anti-reproductive rights lobby.

For cis women to be specifically targeted by the anti-choice lobby, they would have to allow that non-cis men, non-men and non-cis women exist.

And. they. do. not.

You seem to think that in this shoot-out you’re being aimed at, and we’re just being hit coincidentally.

That is not what’s happening.

What is happening is that they are aiming at all of us but only calling us by your name.

They are only allowing for your existence, assimilating us into you because of our biology.

They are actively denying our existence by simply calling us you.

They “are simply calling us you.” The “war on women” is participating in this erasure of actual human beings and I refuse to be a part of that. This alone has caused me to drop ALL language that makes reproductive rights solely about women (and it’s been a long source of contention on my reproductive rights blog, Keep Your Boehner Out of My Uterus – I get more shit for inclusive language from people inside the reproductive rights movement than everything combined that I get from anti-choicers, though conflict over inclusive language has fallen off dramatically in the last few months. But I would guess I have written at least one hundred posts about this on KYBOOMU.)

Point, the second: WOW flattens all people affected by anti-choice measures into a single, equal category despite HUGE differences in how the so-called WOW affects people based on race, class, etc.

The truth is that the war on reproductive rights does not affect all people in the same wayAs Nancy Folbre says, “The women most directly affected are those with the weakest political voice and the lowest discretionary income. […] Women in low-income families have long been more likely than others to experience unplanned pregnancies, abortions or unplanned births. They, more than anyone, know that legal rights can be undermined by economic realities.” But this is not even just about low-income or poor people.

At a panel I went to recently about the rollbacks of reproductive rights in Texas, Dr. Christen Smith started her short talk on intersectionality by saying, “The ‘war on women’ is a war on women of color.” If you take five minutes to Google this, you will find many, many words by many, many women of color who address the unequal impact of the war against reproductive rights:

Loretta Ross of SisterSong:

Reproductive justice is in essence an intersectional theory emerging from the experiences of women of color whose multiple communities experience a complex set of reproductive oppressions. It is based on the understanding that the impacts of race, class, gender and sexual identity oppressions are not additive but integrative, producing this paradigm of intersectionality. For each individual and each community, the effects will be different, but they share some of the basic characteristics of intersectionality – universality, simultaneity and interdependence.

One of my most favorite pieces in the entire blogosphere, Shark-fu’s “The battlehymn of an dangerous black woman…

Let’s talk about black babies born to black mothers who are shackled during labor.

Let’s talk about the removal of comprehensive sex education from our schools and how our young people enter adulthood with the abstinence only advice to put a quarter between their legs and squeeze.

Let’s talk about how the debate over life ends at birth…about the young women I’ve met who chose to have a baby only to find that the same people praising them for that decision won’t hire them, don’t want them moving into their neighborhood, will one day grab their handbag and lock their car door when that black baby becomes a black man who walks by them on the sidewalk.

The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health exists for this very reason:

Latinas face a unique and complex array of reproductive health and rights issues that are exacerbated by poverty, gender, racial and ethnic discrimination and xenophobia. These circumstances make it especially difficult for Latinas to access reproductive health care services, including the full range of available reproductive health technologies and abortion services. We believe that in order to substantially improve the reproductive health of Latinas and protect their rights to exercise reproductive freedom, NLIRH must locate reproductive health and rights issues within a broader social justice framework that seeks to bring an end to poverty and discrimination and affirms human dignity and the right to self-determination.

It was VERY telling that after last weekend’s WOW rallies, there were plenty of black women who felt like women of color and issues of race were not included or acknowledged at the rallies. Two examples:

Final point: WOW makes this SEEM like this is an issue that is just about the ladies.

Using a phrase like “the war on women” puts these issues rhetorically in an arena that is not part of the NORMAL (read: male) political discourse (like the economy and oil and chest hair, or whatever it is that cis men care about politically). Cis men who join the fight for reproductive rights are cheered for taking time out of their political agendas full of non-lady issues to spend a day marching for the ladies and their vaginas and uteri. Yet the rollbacks to reproductive rights are hurting us all, all the time.

My friend Melissa McEwan has written so eloquently about leaving reproductive rights work to women alone (you should seriously go read the entire thing):

This is the hard truth for progressive men who care about reproductive rights: When you leave the public fight to others, you’re leaving it mostly to women.

I’ll give you a moment to contemplate the many ways in which treating the feminist/womanist fight for reproductive rights as “woman’s work” is some fucked-up irony, right there.

*a moment*

Now here’s the other thing about leaving the reproductive rights fight to the ladies: Misogynists don’t respect women. They don’t listen to women; they won’t acknowledge a woman’s authority on her own lived experiences; they’re not going to learn anything from women, and certainly not feminist/womanist women.

Misogynist anti-choicers who believe women to be less than need to hear that they’re terribly, infuriatingly, and demonstrably wrong from men. Publicly. Passionately. As loud as the loud, so very loud, voices on the other side. One of the ways their self-reassuring bullshit works is via the effective void of male dissension, which supports their erroneous belief that they are the “objective” arbiters of womanhood.

They count on feminist men never showing up en masse for the main event.

They count on the Democratic Party being too squeamish, too spineless, too unprincipled, too apathetic to stand up for reproductive rights, unyieldingly.

They count on reproductive rights being the first bargaining chip on the table.

They count on the still almost entirely male leadership of the Democratic Party and the vast number of male Democratic partisans giving themselves permission to not get publicly involved, or to get publicly involved only when it’s convenient and not all that risky and not all that hard.

They count on men trading on that privilege of not having to get involved.

They count on Democratic partisans being more interested in hectoring dispossessed progressive women than in being their allies and fighting this fight alongside them, every day.

They count on reproductive rights being treated as Woman’s Work, and thus being devalued as woman’s work inevitably is.

They are trying to overwhelm and demoralize the (mostly) women to whom this work is being left.

If the Democratic Party wants to retain its alliance with women, they’d better send reinforcements. And soon.

Of course, the reality here is that the fight over reproductive rights has big legal and cultural ramifications that go beyond just women. Two examples:

1) Let’s talk slippery slope. What I wrote on KYBOOMU about forced ultrasound laws:

Even if IN PRACTICE every doctor in the entire world demanded that a person get an abdominal ultrasound before getting an abortion, that is categorically and importantly different than the state FORCING every doctor do an abdominal ultrasound.

This is about the state removing your ability – your right – to consent to one medical procedure in order to fully consent to another.

In your example, you actually do LEGALLY have a say about the ultrasound before the hysterectomy, even if it doesn’t seem that way in practice. You give your consent for your doctor to do that procedure AND then you, again, give your doctor consent to do the hysterectomy.

If the state, instead, passed a law saying that anytime someone gets a hysterectomy, their doctor MUST NO MATTER WHAT do an ultrasound, you are not able then legally to consent to the ultrasound, only the hysterectomy. I’m not sure how else to say that.

This is not necessarily about what happens in practice (though it will matter when a doctor is forced to do something they don’t think is medically necessary) but rather what – legally – politicians are taking away from people who are seeking abortions. They are targeting a specific group of people to remove their right to give consent, even if that right may seem, on paper, to be limited. If we want to talk slippery slope, here it is.

For Republicans who are screaming their faces off about the government getting in between them and their doctors, HERE IT IS. Not being able to give consent because the government has legislated forced medical procedures: It’s ALREADY happening but only to a select group of people. And there are some federal courts (oh, Texas) that are saying THIS IS OKAY legally. Yes, this battle is taking place in the uteruses and across the abdomens of pregnant people but the idea or the theory of ripping away consent in this way is something that should terrify everyone.

2) As Katha Pollitt put this week: “limiting women’s access to birth control and abortion is not “culture war” theater, and it is not just a “social issue” either. It’s an economic issue.” As Reel Girl articulates so nicely:

To all of those pro-choice Republicans who plan to vote for one of these men because you want to just “focus on the economy” this election, if you refer to yourself as “fiscally conservative but socially liberal:” That division makes no sense when it comes to women’s lives. Choice isn’t “just one issue” and it isn’t one choice.

Reproductive rights mean that women have the choice to graduate from college, the choice to borrow money to start a business, the choice to get a good job with a fair wage, the choice not live in poverty and keep their kids out of poverty. Choice means that women get to be autonomous citizens, just like men do, with the power to determine their own destinies.

And if you think that you can separate out the economy of half the population from the OVERALL economy, you are wrong. That’s it. Just wrong. You want to talk economy? You NEED to be talking about reproductive rights, full stop.


So, why don’t I like the phrase “the war on women”?

This war is greater than just cis women. This war is not fought against all women/people equally. This war is actually about all of us.

This is a war on reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, consent, the poor, people of color: ALL issues that are human rights. 

I’d like to leave you with the words of my friend, Dr. Sarah Jackson, who did speak at last weekend at Boston’s WOW rally and she chose to address the issue of intersectionality in the movement. I wish I could have been there to hear this live:

To quote bell hooks, “Being oppressed means the absence of choices.” Thus, for gender equity to be achieved we must recognize the way that women’s intersectional identities—not just their gender but their class, race, sexuality and other social identities— impact their experiences in our country. A few examples:

In addition to the recent highly-publicized attacks on reproductive rights there are also ongoing attacks civil rights at the national level. In the first six months of 2011, states enacted 162 new provisions restricting reproductive health and rights. Many of these laws and regulations are about how abortions are paid for, limiting Medicaid, insurance exchanges, and other funding sources. Such limitations hit women of color and low-income women the hardest. At the same time many states have also recently passed voter ID laws, have enacted draconian immigration policies that effectively legalize racial profiling, and actively perpetuate the criminal justice policies that have led to what many consider apartheid in the U.S. prison system. While the national discussion on gender equity often focuses on reproductive rights and equal pay, it is equally important for us to talk about how these other policies disenfranchise women. […]

Poor women, working-class women, Latinas, Asian American women, Native American women (who by the way according to the U.S. Department of Justice are victims of sexual assault at 3.5 times a higher rate than other racial groups), African American women, Arab American women, Lesbians, Trans Women, young women, old women, middle aged women, women who want children and women who don’t ever want children, women who are mentally ill, able-bodied women and differently-abled women, women who have been victims of sexual and domestic violence and women who we hope never will be. We must include all these women in our work. When we talk about women’s rights we must also be willing to talk about the many women who are incarcerated in America, the women who our society constructs as criminal, many of who are women of color, immigrants, and low income. We must be willing to address the link between the human rights actively being denied them and the women’s movement generally.

At the end of the day this is not and should not be just about women, it is about human rights.

[P.S. I understand that WOW is short, clean, politically expedient. I don’t care. No, I don’t have the perfect phrase to insert in its place that magically fixes these problems I have with WOW. I personally just say “war on reproductive rights” or “war on choice.” If you have suggestions of your own, please leave them in comments.]

[Update: Melissa McEwan wrote this in response: “I personally like “war on agency,” because, even where there is an ostensible choice about another person’s body (reproductive or otherwise), they still fancy themselves in the best position to make it. They don’t trust marginalized people to know our own selves, needs, desires. Repro rights, SRS, same-sex marriage…it’s all the same, as they try to coerce people into conformity to an arbitrary norm even if laws allow options. They hate agency. It terrifies them.]


19 thoughts on “Why I don’t like the phrase “The War on Women”

  1. i can only say this to you: AMEN. i like war on agency too. i’m going to start using that because i have been at such a loss as to how to describe it to anyone when explaining what’s up.

  2. The way I’ve heard “war on women” being used was to refer not strictly to attacks on abortion rights, or even reproductive rights in general, but to how attacks on reproductive rights coordinate with attacks on equal pay, denigration of and cuts to jobs that are more likely to be held by women (teachers, various civil servants), etc. The end result being that women are not supposed to have the option to avoid pregnancy –because birth control is off limits, lesbianism is a sin, and trans women are not supposed to exist– and then are not allowed to abort unwanted pregnancies, and then are not supposed to work but are somehow also not supposed to ‘live off the gov teat’ if poor. When the forced birth crowd claims their agenda is just about saving unborn babies, and some liberal dudes take them at their word and accept it’s just a coincidence that all these things work against women, an analysis that points out the misogyny of the Republican position is important to have. The term ‘War on Women’ doesn’t tell the whole story of reproductive rights issues, but it does illustrate one major strand of the discourse on those issues, and how they intersect with other issues.

    I’d be hesitant to trade in ‘War on Women’ for something like ‘war on agency.’ One of the reasons it’s been such a relief to me to see the term WoW gaining traction in the mainstream media is that so often liberal dudes whom one would expect to be allies complain that “identity politics” (read: actually caring about issues of race, gender, and sexuality) are fracturing the left. It’s good to see that attention to another group is getting as much attention as a human rights model that takes straight, white, cis men as the default. We need to look at the different battles (race, class issues) within the ‘War on Women,’ and we need to look at reproductive rights issues that are not part of that ‘war,’ but we don’t need to throw out an analysis that attends to gender in favor of one that promotes the same old vague, universalizing model. After all, Republicans are not ‘anti-agency’ in general. They’re perfectly fine with agency for some types of people.

  3. I really would like to be sympathetic here–I don’t disagree with your ultimate conclusion, although I don’t think “war of agency” is a good option because a lot of people don’t relate well to a philosophical, sociological concept like agency very well. Also, clarabluek makes a astute point that they are fine with agency of certain people, just not others, like women.

    But honestly, I think a lot of this argument is too subjective. Given how much of the dialogue I’ve personally seen and participated in that has *not* focused on privileged, white women, but rather on the kinds of people who benefit from organizations like Planned Parenthood or about who would be silenced and further disenfranchised by the WOW, I don’t think I’ve ever not regarded the WOW as disproportionately impacting women of color, economically vulnerable persons and families, or anyone who is outside of social conventions of gender (I personally find the term “cis” highly problematic because it flattens us non-trans, non-queer folks and makes narrow, unrealistic assumptions about us just because we appear to “conform” to other people–but that’s another story for another time, But it’s good to point of the subjectivity here of what language you find objectionable).

    Granted, I’ve long taken the view that women’ rights is the advocacy of many persons’ rights, because my rights are intractably intertwined with the rights of many other people. I cannot think of being a feminist without thinking I am advocating for human rights of not just women, but everyone who is likewise afflicted and oppressed. It is indeed a very diverse group, but I think one an make a valid argument that much of their oppression and discrimination stems from a patriarchal need to hold women to stifling gender roles. (For example, gay/bi/queer men can’t be allowed to be gay/bi/queer if they have to be play the good, hetero husband role to women, if all women are allowed to be are wives, mothers and the economic dependents of men.)

    But furthermore, there is a reason why I don’t simply call myself a human right advocate. I know what it’s like to be viciously hated for being a woman. I also know what it’s like to be viciously hated for being a woman who doesn’t conform to gender conventions. Womanhood is a major, encompassing, undeniable factor in this, or at least it is for me, as I’ve had people wage war on me for being woman and I see a lot of the same themes in this larger, ideological and socio-political War on Women. So you’ll have to excuse me for not being so eager to drop the War of Women phrase. Not sure what else i can call that.

  4. Pingback: Regressive Republicans Wage War on Opportunity | nonsequiteuse

  5. Was about to leave a longer comment, but blogged about it instead. Bottom line – what about framing it as the Regressive Republican War on Opportunity? It isn’t perfect, but it expands the debate to cover much of what they are doing/restricting and uses a magic word in the American mythology.



    I’m not ready to give up #waronwomen (yet? ever?), because it does seem to have regressives on the defensive. Think clarabluek and Cade have excellent points.

  6. Pingback: “War on Women”: Why the Term Works « Sassy Liberal

  7. At least this one isn’t utterly pedantic like MHP’s admonishment. Downside: it’s uselessly over-intellectualized – and for no especially good reason than that people who have been to grad school simply LIKE to over-intellectualize things.

  8. I, too, have issued with the phrase “War on Women,” especially with it being applied only to efforts to keep people with uteri from avoiding or terminating pregnancy. Used that way, it not only ignores and further marginalizes many people other than women who have uteri, it also cuts out a large portion of women.

    Some women aren’t fighting to be able to keep from becoming pregnant; some are fighting to be allowed to become pregnant or to keep that pregnancy. Many people bearing uteri who also have disabilities are considered unfit to raise or bear a child and sterilized, or their pregnancies terminated, or their menses suspended so they can’t physically mature. Some trans men and other people with uteri who are not women are told that they have to be sterilized if they want to be accepted as who they are.

    Those people all get cut out and marginalized in any discussion of a “War on Women” that centralizes only women who want the ability to avoid pregnancy.

    I think that the phrase “War on Agency” would be more accurate, but it must include those whose agency is being curtailed from less acknowledged directions.

  9. I’m using: War On People. Because this goes far beyond the things that directly affect people with uteri; it’s a sustained assault on the ability of everybody to control their own lives, to earn a living wage, to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline. People with uteri are a casualty in this war, it is a direct assault, but it is only one of several assaults on all of our lives.

  10. I am glad someone wrote this who wasn’t Sully. I like “war on women’s health” because of the class issues identified in the post. When the Texas Legislature is willing to close down the only entities providing possibly lifesaving health care to women in poor, rural areas because of a vendetta against Planned Parenthood, that is appalling but it speaks to this election being about what equity means in general. I have private health insurance and access to an excellent hospital. I was gratified to see Obama using the phrase “women’s health choices” in his big campaign kickoff speech.

  11. Pingback: Guest Post: Why I Don’t Like the Phrase “The War on Women” | The Opinioness of the World

  12. It is a war on women because eventually the goal is to disenfranchise women {see} http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeFhA_sL38c&feature=share (Fox “News” pundit) and from there they will refuse to educate females, and eventually we’ll work our way back to the dark ages. Women did fight, suffer and die to get us where we are so don’t disrespect their sacrifices.

  13. I don’t appreciate you saying that I am disrespecting people’s sacrifices because I am asking people to be less narrow minded when approaching issues of choice, consent, health, and economy. And please don’t come to my blog and act like I need a history lesson.

    If you think that disenfranchisement is about WOMEN then you haven’t been paying attention. That’s an asshole on Fox News who certainly speaks for misogynists. But actual disenfranchisement against people of color is taking place every single day in this country in real ways (and, the trickle down of the restrictive policies and laws that keep POC from voting are now starting to affect cis women more generally as a group but those policies weren’t originally about cis women at large).

    Again, want to talk about who in this country has access to good education? The line that divides good access from bad is not one of gender.

    So, while I appreciate your doomsday assessment of the world and how you used it to claim that I am not respectful of those that have come before, you are being shortsighted and defensive. Those things you think MAY happen to women in this country? They already are happening. They just happen to people of color and/or of low-income folks. But we don’t talk about that in the larger women’s movement on a regular basis, do we?

    I am merely asking that we recognize these things in our movement. That is all. If that is truly offensive to your sensibilities then just move along and keep doing what you are doing.

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  17. I don’t think it’s any secret that the people who want to restrict the rights of women and want to imprison or execute gays for the “crime” of being homosexual are absolutely restricting the rights of transpeople and non-cis people. The problem is that you aren’t going to get mainstream America working in support of transpeople yet. We are finally getting to the point where older people, conservative people, religious people are coming to terms with the fact that gays exist, aren’t horrible, and although they might think them squicky, it’s probably just fair that they be allowed to marry their partners. To get them thinking about the rights of transmen and transwomen, about people whose gender isn’t clear or who deny gender assignment, well that’s just too weird for them to handle.

    Right now, the thing to do is to force them to stop denying rights to gays and women, and to drag transpeople along with us, behind our backs as it were. I understand that that’s probably really offensive to transpeople, and I’m sorry. You don’t deserve to be thought of as inherently different from anyone else. You deserve the same rights and the same respect for your personhood and lifestyle as anyone else. But there is a difference between an ideal world and reality.

    There’s an excellent book on this subject by Robert Cialdini called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It talks about everything from pricing to how Liddy got the CRP to back the Watergate break-in to how to arrange suggested donations on a form to maximize return. In some cases, you ask for the Moon and settle for what you want. (Liddy originally proposed things as wild as kidnapping Democratic Party members and getting them addicted to heroin; after several such, the break-in sounded reasonable.) In others, you get people used to the idea of one thing, then ease them into something else. (After you’ve committed to spending $20K on a car, a mere $400 sound system seems negligible.)

    We won’t tear down walls of oppression by telling people of privilege about the injustices perpetrated against people they haven’t accepted to the group of “people I know and care about.” If you stretch their boundaries, they *will* grow, but if you slam into those boundaries at Mach 5, you just alienate them.

  18. The problem is that you aren’t going to get mainstream America working in support of transpeople yet.

    I don’t care. If the point is to always do whatever is easiest instead of what is right, then our politics just don’t line up. I will take the hard if it includes acknowledging the existence and the lived daily experiences of a whole lot of my friends. It is a small price for me to pay and one I don’t mind.

    But there is a difference between an ideal world and reality.

    What to do with this sentence? Trans people have a reality, a huge part of which is a entire movement that supposedly exists to break down gender binaries and promote equality ignoring them. I just refuse to participate in that. If that makes me an idealist, then so be it. I think it just makes me a feminist.

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