GOP Needs a Lesson in Women's History

By Jamie Stiehm

Disaffected women are packing up to flee the Republican Party in the wake of the War on Women, The Washington Post reported on its front page. Meanwhile, President Obama's re-election campaign is sending out a massive signal to energize pro-choice women and welcome them into the Democratic Party, The New York Times said on its Sunday front page.

Good, good. Women are clearly the critical constituency to choose the next president. That's just what the Republican Party deserves for its hostile challenge to women and girls making their own decisions about their own lives. Sometimes you wonder if Republican candidates know that women actually have the right to vote. Let's face it, neither Mitt, Rick, nor Newt is exactly a woman's man. They are out-and-out men's men.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

Has former Gov. Mitt Romney or former Sen. Rick Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ever read Virginia Woolf? Do they even know who Margaret Sanger is? What about the spitfire Quaker Alice Paul? She led the women suffrage movement to victory over seven or more years of struggle. This happened in 1920, like 92 years ago, gentlemen. Paul took women's suffrage public, to the streets and to the White House gates, where the strategy was to remind President Woodrow Wilson what the right thing to do was. Paul and other suffragettes were arrested, abused, and force fed in jail. Nothing would stop them until women won the right to citizenship in our democracy.

Note: women suffrage was not given; it was taken. We women today should study pages from Paul's book on civil disobedience, especially if the War on Women continues to close in on overturning Roe v. Wade, the cornerstone Supreme Court decision that makes reproductive rights-human rights-legal and private.

Margaret Sanger brought you and me birth control. She made up the useful phrase in the interest of saving women's lives. As a nurse, she was outraged to see young married immigrants on the Lower East Side dying in childbirth or from botched abortions. The death of Sadie Sachs was the catalyst, she said, a 28-year-old mother who begged a doctor to tell her how to prevent another pregnancy. "Well, it can't be done," he answered. "I'll tell you the only thing to do....Tell Jake to sleep on the roof."

[Read the U.S. News debate: Will the Culture Wars Benefit the GOP in the 2012 Election?]

Months after witnessing that predicament, Sanger answered a call to the Sachs home, where she found Sadie Sachs on her deathbed, surrounded by a scene of her weeping family.

Sanger's cause came from that personal encounter. "The sun came up and threw its reflection over the house tops. It was the dawn of a new day in my life," she declared. "I would tell the world what was going on in the lives of these poor women." In 1916, she opened a women's health clinic in Brooklyn and founded the organization that became Planned Parenthood, the gleam in the eye of one spirited, determined woman. Like Roe v. Wade, it has been besieged lately, as another front in the War on Women.

Sanger's life is an incredible mirror of her times, especially the free-thinking, defiant mood of Roaring '20s. Like her contemporary Paul, she too got arrested and spent time in jail in 1917. Under a court order not to give a public speech, she gagged herself and stood next to the eminent historian and Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. as he read her words. She traveled the world to seek ways of safe birth control. Unfortunately, she subscribed to an intellectual trend called eugenics (before the Nazi era.)

[Mary Kate Cary: The Republican Party Must Win Back Women Voters]

Paul and Sanger would ask, what's wrong with us, defending what's already been done? If I were to interview them today, they would be eager to know what progress women have made. And what would I tell them-President Clinton's Family and Medical Leave Act?

They might say to me that their endeavors went beyond the ballot and women's health. These were vehicles to empower women to speak with their own voices and to determine their own destinies to make this more truly a democracy.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

Virginia Woolf, the brilliant English novelist, essayist, and diarist, created the feminist metaphor of a room of one's own in a manifesto on furthering women's liberties in life. She lived in the same age as Sanger and Paul. Such a shame these three never met.

Getting back to Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich, well might we ask how much room there is for women in their Americas.