There have been any number of smart, critical takes on the #MeToo movement and the wave of sexual harassment allegations against famous and powerful men that have rocked the country in recent weeks. Lindy West, Caitlin Flanagan, Roxane Gay and numerous others have offered some great commentary on how we might process this cultural moment we are all experiencing. Conservative women leaders like Penny Young Nance, Gretchen Carlson, and Megyn Kelly have publicly declared that the movement is bipartisan, and that Republicans should not ignore or minimize sexual harassment.
And then there is Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, and regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal in the op-ed pages. In her essay last week for the WSJ, titled “The Sexual-Harassment Racket is Over,” she ends an otherwise (relatively) inoffensive column with something that she deems a “thought.” Unfortunately, this half-formed impulse emerging from the depths of her amygdala renders the entire opinion a dumpster fire fueled by the nonsense of moral myths.
Noonan describes a Catholic priest opining that the legality of abortion and birth control has made male harassment inevitable. In other words, the availability of legal abortion and contraception has created a climate in which men have become more “degenerate” and hence more likely to commit violence. According to both Noonan and the priest, “Once you separate sex from its seriousness, once you separate it from its life-changing, life-giving potential, men will come to see it as just another want, a desire like any other. Once they think that, then they’ll see sexual violations as less serious, less charged, less full of weight. They’ll be more able to rationalize. It’s only petty theft, a pack of chewing gum on the counter, and I took it. In time, this will seem true not only to men, but to women.”
Where shall we begin, Peggy?
First — no. Just no.
Second, this entire debacle calls attention to the problem that there are many conservatives (George Will, Steve Bannon, Bill O’Reilly) writing weird, revisionist histories of an imaginary United States that never existed, and feeding them to the Fox News crowd to the detriment of actual facts.
Third, Peggy, maybe you missed the part where birth control and abortion were illegal in the United States until 1965 and 1973? Maybe we should ask all the women who existed in that world — and there are plenty of them alive now, INCLUDING YOU — how illegal birth control helped them so deftly avoid sexual harassment?
As historian Kathy Peiss has observed about women in the workforce and in public life at the turn of the century, “Then, as now, sexual harassment limited women’s position in the workforce and maintained male privilege and control. Wage-earning women were perceived by bosses and male workers alike to be outside the realm of parental or community protection …. [B]ehavior that in another context would not be tolerated was given free rein on the shop floor.”
(Note #1: birth control and abortion illegal here. Sexual harassment rampant).
Women who didn’t work weren’t exempt either, as Ann Taves has shown in her research on women in the Early Republic. She recounts in detail how 16-year old Phebe Bailey was sexually abused by her father, Asa, in the eighteenth century, even as he attempted to rape other women and violently abused his wife, Abigail.
(Note #2: Birth control and abortion not outright illegal here, yet, but only because of the notion of enforced separate spheres that strictly divided women and men’s private and public lives, particularly when it came to reproduction. Abigail and Phebe also stayed home and didn’t work. Didn’t matter).
Those are just two examples offered by professional historians on the prevalence of records illustrating the long-running problem of sexual violence against women. The archives hold countless women’s stories of misery, dating back centuries to a time when women’s bodies were public property and reproductive rights were morally and legally policed. For other historical #MeToo accounts, check out the important work of Estelle Friedman, Danielle McGuire, Kathleen Brown, and Christine Stansell, all of whom write in detail about the precarity of women’s safety in the past.
I’d think of more, but I can’t see out of the rage haze clouding my eyeballs. Feel free to suggest in the comments!
Claiming that the advent of legal birth control and abortion has brought us to this moment of gender reckoning is, at best, really bad history (#fakehistory?) and at worst, a blatant attempt to force an anti-choice viewpoint squarely in the middle of where it most definitely doesn’t belong. Noonan’s framing of reproductive rights as the source of the problem hands power straight back into the hands of those who are perpetrating this violence — men.
I cannot say this more forcefully. The problem is not birth control. The problem is not abortion. The problem is men, who have done and will continue to do what they always do because of their entitled attitudes about women’s bodies -– abuse, harass, and rape.
Ms. Noonan, it is precisely because of the legalization of these important public health measures that women have even had a small modicum of control over their bodies amidst this pervasive abuse.
A retraction is in order.
Peggy Noonan’s Reading List
Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: “Women’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
Freedman, Estelle B. Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage, 2010.
Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.
Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and class in New York, 1789-1860. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Taves, Ann, ed. Religion and Domestic Violence in Early New England: The Memoirs of Abigail Abbot Bailey. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Have you sent this to the WSJ? You should at least write an abbreviated version for the letters to the editor.
NB the notion (fantasy) that sexual entitlement among men only began after 1965 isn’t from Noonan’s amygdala. It’s a Prime Directive of the right-wing kulturkampf, which is that everything was awesome and perfect in the USA until the 1960s. It’s also in line with Noonan’s Catholicism, so her use of a priest at the end is perfectly consistent for her. The bonus here is that right-wingers can misdirect with the gender & sexuality stuff when we know that their big objection at the time was to Civil Rights!
Well done & thanks for the bracing corrective to the historical record!
Hi Historiann – apologies for the delay in reply (it’s been a crazy week!). Love this point about the “right-wing kulturkampf” and the Civil Rights movement, and at your suggestion, I have also emailed a note to the WSJ editor – we’ll see if they bite!