I have been told on many occasions to avoid talking about politics for the sake of a ‘nice time with family’. The precursor to holiday dinners is always a list of topics I cannot bring up. I know that I am not alone in this experience; every other woman I have talked to has been given the same instructions when attending an event where family ideologies clash. Politics are expected to be put aside for the ones that we love. Except for women, politics can’t be put aside.
Women have been involved in politics for as long as there have been politics to be involved in. Governance is speckled with female rulers as far back as the nineteenth century BC, when Pharaoh Sobekneferu sat on the throne of Egypt. Today, 20 women hold the title of Head of State or Head of Government and thousands more work in politics. The fight for female suffrage created the illusion that politics is a ‘man’s game’, but women being among the last demographics to be enfranchised has no bearing on their activity in the political sphere. The man’s game illusion is just that: an illusion.
Upon closer reflection, there are many ways in which women actually have a more intimate relationship with politics than their male counterparts. Even women who choose not to involve themselves in the political sphere have politics thrust upon them by laws exclusively designed to regulate female bodies and livelihoods. Twentieth and twenty-first century cases, such as Roe v. Wade and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, are two glaring modern examples of decisions that had no impact on men but affected millions of women. History is littered with similar attempts by governments to regulate womanhood. Every nation in the world has its own variation of politics that are not a choice for women. Political involvement for women is an unavoidable reality.
Roe v. Wade is the supreme court decision in the United States that in 1973 historically protected women’s rights to abortion on a federal level. It is often regarded as one of the great feminist victories of the second wave; far from being problematic for women, it served to protect their fundamental rights regarding bodily autonomy. Although it marked a great improvement over the previous set of laws that failed to protect a woman’s right to choose, it also served as an excellent demonstration of the involuntary involvement of all women in political issues. Whether a woman needed to utilise the services offered by abortion clinics or not, her body was made into a political battleground and her rights were put on the line.
Female body politics did not end in 1973. Roe v. Wade was swiftly followed by Planned Parenthood v. Casey over the same issue, and birth control continues to be a hotly debated topic in the UK and US today. In 2014, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby allowed companies to refuse birth control coverage to patients on the grounds of ‘religious freedom’. In the state of Massachusetts, birth control cannot be advertised through mail, preventing it from getting to thousands of women who do not have access to the internet or a GP. Regardless of opinion on contraceptive issues, it is impossible to deny the impact they have on women’s livelihoods.
There are issues I have no problem discussing and debating; I can talk about fiscal policy and foreign affairs and then sit down to dinner. But when my body is the debate and my free existence as a woman is the thing in question, I don’t have the luxury of distancing myself, even for the sake of family. Yet I am repeatedly asked and expected to, begging the question: why?
I questioned several of the men in my circle of family and friends as to how their differing political perspectives are treated by their extended family. One or two of the more radical individuals reported being asked to refrain, but the majority had never been told explicitly not to discuss any specific topic. Though women have a closer relationship to many political debates, they are the ones being instructed to overlook differences. The exact reasons for this are undoubtably varied, but the trend fits within the broader historical context of women and the home. Feminism is in its fourth wave and the ‘separate spheres’ mentality has largely been dismantled, but the expectation that women make efforts to maintain families rather than speaking out and potentially causing rifts is alive and well.
In the era of #metoo in particular, voting a certain way is a statement not just of conservative or liberal leaning, but of acceptance of a kind of behaviour that directly threatens women. Kavanaugh is just the latest in a long list of politicians that have been accused of rape or harassment, when more than 80 per cent of women have been harassed or assaulted (based on data gathered from #metoo participation). The political has become the personal. As an activist and feminist writer, my opinions on Feminism are perhaps stronger than many women, but being asked to sit next to a person who voted for my oppression is unreasonable. I cannot remove myself from politics, so it is unfair to ask that I remove politics from what I talk about, even for the sake of ‘family’.