The right-wing is not ashamed of making enemies. Having targets motivates their base, earns them attention and fuels their cause. Usually, like schoolyard bullies, conservative activists pick on the weaker kid in the playground to prove how tough they are. They pick on the targets who are different (like the anti-Muslim rhetoric around the downtown Islamic Cultural Center), who can’t always stand up for themselves (the anti-immigrant bashing in the past election cycle) or who are weak already (the successful assault on ACORN).
However, this time the right-wing may have picked the wrong target: women. With a one-two punch of Congressional Republicans redefining rape and conservative activists framing Planned Parenthood, the right leapt head-first into a new front in their ongoing culture war. And this time, they’ve miscalculated, bullying a target that’s strong enough to fight back.
There probably wasn’t a conservative mastermind that declared this the week to go after women’s rights. As news stories celebrate female activists in the streets of Cairo, it is an especially odd time to attack women’s liberation at home. So it might have been a coincidence that Republican lawmakers in the House and the anti-choice group Live Action made their moves in the same stretch of days. Or it was intentional and just bad PR. In the end, it amounts to the same: the conservative movement has an anti-woman agenda that’s not going to carry it to victories in the long run.
First the House GOP sought to cut any federal funding for health plans that include abortions. Even conservatives knew that they had to include exceptions, and made one for cases of “forcible rape.” Of course, as the public quickly noted, there are plenty of cases of rape that wouldn’t be covered by this language, most notably statutory rape and date rape. Realizing the unpopularity of this position, the Republican leadership changed the bill’s language within days.
As the GOP was retreating on the Hill, their activist base was moving forward in the blogosphere, as Live Action circulated videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood condoning sex trafficking. These videos were meant to stir up a cry to defund the national organization. Nevermind the facts: that Planned Parenthood reported these visits to the Justice Department. The sensational story made the rounds painting a target on the essential network of clinics around the country.
On the surface, these actions are standard fare for the conservative wing of the GOP. But there’s a reason they had to backtrack so quickly in Washington, and why their Planned Parenthood assault will backfire as well: this time, they didn’t pick a marginalized target. Sadly, studies show between 1 in 6 and 1 in 4 women are the victims of rape or attempted rape, making it far too prevalent in our country. It also means that a large and empowered percentage of our population isn’t going to let the male leadership of the GOP redefine rape as part of their political games.
Similarly, the clientele of Planned Parenthood is not as narrow as the right-wing likes to think. In many areas, Planned Parenthood clinics are the only safe avenue for women to get STD treatment. A vast majority of their services are for STD testing, cancer screening and contraception, and their education and counseling have helped countless women. They have millions of defenders because they have helped literally millions of women and families. And most women, regardless of their opinion on abortion, see the positive services Planned Parenthood provides.
It’s not that conservative Republicans hate cancer screenings or have mixed feelings about statutory rape. We’re all on the same side on some issues. It’s that the men leading the conservative movement didn’t realize what Planned Parenthood really does, nor did they understand the language around rape. So they blundered. They thought they were bullying a sliver of the population around a specific issue: abortion rights. But they were actually mounting an assault on women’s rights.
You can’t be a major party in America with an overt anti-women agenda, which is why the Republican Party quickly changed its tune. You can, though, be a political movement — but not a movement that will win hearts and minds, or even anything other than minor victories. The conservatives need to learn to pick easier targets to bully.
And in return, progressives need to learn that when we band together, we don’t need to be bullied at all.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."