Contraception is once again up for serious public debate in the United States. How much fun is that?
Yes, fun. For years, feminists have been warning that, underneath all the attacks on women’s reproductive rights—the multiplying restrictions on abortion, the attempts to defund Planned Parenthood’s health
services, the “conscience clauses” that let pharmacists choose which pills they’ll dispense—lies a determined opposition to contraception and to women’s independence generally. The mainstream media rolled their eyes at feminist paranoia and moved on.
Care to question those warnings now? Not after Senator Rick Santorum announced that states should be free to ban birth control, decrying “the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea.” Or after Representative Darrell Issa convened a congressional panel on contraception coverage (er, “religious liberty”) with no women on it. Or after Rush Limbaugh spent three days vilifying a buttoned-up Georgetown law student—who testified about the pill’s non-sex-related health uses—as a sex-crazed slut and a prostitute. Holy 1950s, Batman!
But here’s the cool part: Young women are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
For the past 30 years, young American women have believed that they were their brothers’ equals. They could be president of their high-school class, run their college newspaper, and enter any profession. Not until their thirties or early forties did those women notice that, post-college, they’d been outstripped by the boys—held back by condescending assumptions, slower promotions, mommy-tracking, and other subtle injuries to their wallets and ambitions. But who has time to start a movement when you’re an exhausted working parent, struggling to hold on to a much-needed job in a harsh economy?
You get a different reaction, however, when you tell sassy and independent girls that you’re gonna take away their birth control. Or that boys will rape them if they dress like sluts. Instead of exhausted acquiescence, you get young women who stay up all night organizing on Twitter, reaching out to their Facebook friends, launching outrageous new blogs and Pinterest boards, and inventing multimedia ways to tell stories, swap ideas, invent new analyses, and force policymakers to pay attention. You get outrageous and decentralized “actions” that recall the Redstockings’ 1968 Miss America protest and abortion speak-outs.
These young women are irreverent and unashamed of talking openly about sex. They’re less focused on eliminating consumerism or beauty culture than was the Second Wave. They’re quicker to reach out across the social fault lines of race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, and other -isms. They love appropriating pop culture and wielding humor with sly commentaries like the blog Feminist Ryan Gosling or the video Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls. Their multimedia creations make Barbara Kruger’s 1980s sloganeering art (“Your body is a battleground”) look hopelessly earnest, or earnestly hopeless.
Consider the 2011 #DearJohn twitter campaign, launched by two creative young feminists, Sady Doyle and Amanda Marcotte, when House Republicans tried to narrow the definition of rape and incest for Medicaid coverage of abortions. Its slogan: “#DearJohn: For When Boehner Decides Your Rape Just Wasn’t Enough.” With absolutely no planning, the hashtag showed up in more than 5,000 tweets in a day and a half and helped stop that redefinition in its tracks. Or consider the 2011 SlutWalks, marches spawned after a police officer told Toronto college students to avoid rape by not dressing like “sluts.” Partly because of the brazen title, the idea spread worldwide, with more than 100 marches in places as disparate as San Diego, Buenos Aires, Glasgow, Tel Aviv, and Delhi. Or consider Hollaback!, a bottom-up online campaign in which women and men map street harassment using pictures or stories: some guy masturbating on the subway, a passerby threateningly yelling “dyke.” Hollaback! was started by seven friends in their twenties—and in a single year was so flooded with volunteer enthusiasm that it now has local campaigns in 45 cities, 16 countries, and 9 different languages.
Will this emerging movement become policy-savvy enough to win some of the things that the Second Wave never cracked: opening up blue--collar jobs to women or expanding sick-time and family-leave policies? Or will they find a focus that their elders might not yet have imagined?
I don’t know. But so far it’s been exhilarating. I think it’s going to get even more so.