Should women be allowed to talk? What’s at stake when stories are silenced


The following is an excerpt from something that I wrote in March but did not publish for a number of reasons.  I was content to tuck it away because it feels political in a manner that I try not to associate with Subjectified, which I hope can resist political boundaries.  But with the recent rehashing of a story of a woman’s silencing in government (in this case an actual State Representative in Michigan, on the floor of the state House no less), I decided to dredge it up.  This issue is not about Democrats or Republicans, although it’s common for both sides to portray it that way for self-serving purposes.  It has to do with whose voices we value and those who we would prefer to push aside.  Sadly, most women I know are intimately familiar with the experience of being shut up when our points of view are destabilizing, when we are “too emotional”, or simply when including our voices is inconvenient (see the nagging sitcom wife cliche).  Yashar Ali wrote a compelling blog post expanding the concept of of “gaslighting”, shutting someone up by preemptively dismissing that person’s point of view as over-sensitive.  This is cruel and combative in personal life.  When it’s done in government, it’s repressive and sometimes illegal.  -Melissa


March 2012

Before Rush Limbaugh’s most recent outburst, before Sandra Fluke, there was a Congressional hearing set up by the Republican majority on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to discuss concerns about the Obama administration’s healthcare program. The issue on the table, nominally, was whether religious employers would be required to cover women’s birth control, responding to outcry from religious employers opposed to supporting contraception.  The Administration proposed a compromise that satisfied many concerned religious groups, including the Catholic Health Association, one of the policy’s early influential detractors.  Should religious employers be made to offer birth control, against their (legally protected) doctrines, when it conflicts with the interests and rights of women? That’s a tough question, one worthy of debate, study, and compassionate consideration.  It is not, however, the question that the hearing set about to address. It is not what started the firestorm.  That question, brought into such stark relief by the Committee, is whether women are essential voices to recognize when talking about women’s experiences.  In discussing an issue that affects women primarily, do we need to consult women at all?



How can you tell when you’re being silenced? It’s obvious when someone tells you to shut up, deletes your comments, or strikes your testimony from the record, but less obvious when there’s no decisive action, just a nagging feeling of exclusion.  Just a reminder, only 17% of members of Congress are women.  We know that women’s voices are numerically underrepresented in politics, but we don’t often have the luxury of a a direct personal attack by Rush Limbaugh to let us know when our presence is unwanted.

In the course of everyday life, it’s hard to spot a lack of something, since a lack doesn’t advertise itself.  This is even more pronounced in the over-crowded information channel of politics and news coverage.   You can’t hear a silence in the room full of yelling.  So why should the Chairperson of the committee holding hearings on the birth control rule have cared that there were no women testifying on the issue? His defense? That the hearing was about the effects of the policy on religious organizations, not its effects on women.  The policy, however, affects two parties, only one of which was invited to give testimony.  Feminism continues to be a bad word among most young women, and to be sure it has its contradictions and infighting.  But its greatest contribution remains crucial and desperately needed: shining light on untold stories.   Even in 2012, it remains shockingly true that women’s stories continue to be ignored and unconsidered.

Briefly, this is what happened in Congress.  The majority (Republican) party brought forward five (male) witnesses to argue against the policy over a three hour session.  Typically, the minority (Democratic) party should have been able to offer at least one dissenting voice in testimony. Breaking with precedent, the Chairperson, Rep. Darrell Issa, rejected the Democrats’ witness on the flimsy grounds that she had not been presented early enough for proper vetting, and that, based on a google search, she was deemed merely a “college student who appears to have become energized over this issue,” without any useful credentials to address the topic at hand, no matter that the witness is a student at a Catholic University, where policies on birth control coverage impact thousands of sexually active college students.  Rep.  Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who walked out of the hearing in protest of the proceedings and the lack of women’s voices, noted that ”in Congress more than 20 years…I have never seen a minority witness excluded.”  The silenced witness, Sandra Fluke, a 31-year-old third-year Georgetown Law student and seasoned advocate, put it best, “I can’t think whose voices would be more appropriate than the women who are affected by this policy.”

The women affected by this policy, employees and students of religious organizations, do not necessarily have expert resumes to wow Congress (as if that were truly a requirement for testifying–it’s not).  To prevent current college students from advocating for themselves because they lack a degree is strictly absurd.  In the case of Ms. Fluke, a college degree, years working on this issue, and an impressive CV did not prove compelling enough credentials.  Does a lack of degree mean that those affected can’t speak for themselves?  What happens when we’re not allowed to speak for ourselves?  In the political arena, where agendas are well-lobbied and power plays machinated, it means that there are plenty of other people ready to speak for us.

The stridency of the Congressmen preventing women’s testimony on birth control coverage reveals at once a deep contempt for women,  as well as a deep insecurity.  What will happen if women are able to share their stories?  People might start to care, and not the people whom Rep.  Issa intended to “energize” through the politically inflammatory hearings.   Right now, the healthcare “debate” isn’t addressing any of the legitimate concerns about healthcare policy.   Will the healthcare bill infringe on people’s personal rights?  Will it turn into a giveaway to the healthcare insurance industry?  Many have noted that birth control is a red herring, an issue of concern only to a vocal minority, but used as a weapon in “culture wars” against the Administration. The media hasn’t helped much, either, with coverage of any continued conversation about healthcare remaining shallow and partisan.

Let’s look at who’s still talking.   Even in this protracted controversy about the exclusion of women from the conversation, quotes by Rush Limbaugh and Darryl Issa dominated the coverage.   It’s still a matter of cruel, dismissive men being given a megaphone to share their corrosive streams of consciousness.  Have the stories that were quashed managed to poke into the conversation?  Not much.  Sandra Fluke has become a symbol of the controversy, more in name than in content.  She was eventually was able to tell the heartbreaking report that she was initially invited to recount: a story of one woman losing her ability to bear children because of her University’s policy against covering birth control pills, the only treatment for her particular condition.  Rush Limbaugh, and the Democratic backlash against him have both hogged much bigger headlines than the voices of the women who walked out of Congress, or the woman who was silenced in Congress to begin with.



The hearings, fascinatingly entitled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State,” were intended to address the religious institutions affected by the law.  These institutions should be represented and their interests discussed.  That’s what legitimately tricky about this debate, weighing the rights of religious institutions versus the rights of the affected women.  But in order to weigh the apparently conflicting rights of two groups, we need to hear from two groups.  What should be perfectly clear is who has a right to be heard.

I believe in religious freedom, a key component of our democracy.  I’m interested in arguments about how healthcare intersects with religious freedom.  In fact, the current birth control compromise is evidence of that ongoing discussion.  The groups opposing the birth control coverage are increasingly narrow, as more and more organizations are satisfied by the Administration’s commitment to compromise.  And I believe that the men in Darrell Issa’s panel should be heard.  As millions of American women know, health insurers are not famous for having our interests in mind either, so a healthy debate on objections to blindly following the received standard of care is certainly welcome.

When you look at what’s actually being debated, you find the surprising fact that religious organizations are not being asked to pay for women’s birth-control coverage at all.  Representative Holmes Norton called the birth control coverage policy “one of the best win-win compromises I’ve seen since I’ve been in Congress…these religiously affiliated institutions do not have to touch or pay one dime for contraceptives…[T]his is the untold story here—that it costs insurers more to withhold contraceptive insurance.  And if you think about it, the reason is that childbirth costs a great deal more than contraception.”

So, let’s be clear.  Insurance companies want to cover birth control.  Religious institutions can prevent them from doing so at a cost, and women who want to “opt in” to birth control coverage can do so at no additional cost to themselves or the employer.  No religious hospital or university will be forced to pay for a woman’s birth control directly, any more than they already do by contributing to the profits of an insurance company.  So back to this red herring.  With reason exhausted, let’s return to the most obvious interpretation of these hearings, that the entire discussion is a political distraction devised align the Administration with recreational sex, and the Republicans with wholesome anti-sex values.  It’s low-hanging fruit in an election year, and it remains easy unless women make enough noise to remind the country how dull life would be for everyone if we were no longer able to have recreational sex (either inside or outside the confines of marriage).

The men in question are extremely interested in what goes on in the vaginas of co-eds, which makes me personally feel exposed and disgusted.  I think Rush Limbaugh put it best, “if we’re going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it.  We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”  This is not even the statement that he apologized for.  Are the men opposing this policy frustrated by all the sex they didn’t get to have in college with the likes of the Sandra Flukes of the world, good-looking, smart women who know how to stick up for themselves?

Let’s step out of the realm of personal attacks long enough to look at what’s in the public interest, the questions being pressed but yet avoided.   Should we as a society pay for young people’s birth control?  The answer, matter-of-factly, is that we should pay for it if, as a society, we’d prefer not to pay to raise their unplanned babies.   Every other developed nation does it (even the Catholic ones), and every other developed nation has a lower teen pregnancy rate than the U.S.  Birth control is not a panacea, but let’s not act like its effects are unknown.

I care about religious freedom, as well as freedom of speech (even Rush Limbaugh’s).  I don’t hate Republicans or love Democrats.  In all of this debate, we’ve lost sight of what we’re actually talking about: nuanced issues that require thought, sensitivity, logical argumentation, and also heart.  In theory, we’re talking about religious freedom versus individual rights—a constitutional issue.  I’m no constitutional law professor, so I can’t speak to that, and neither can Congress.  This is what we have courts for, however imperfect their implementation of justice.

The debate has forced front-and-center the question of who is eligible to speak for herself, whose story we want to dignify with our attention (and thus compassion).  Is it a coincidence that the religious organizations representing the anti-birth-control-coverage position are all the same religions exclusively led and dominated by men? When my interests and theirs are supposedly at odds, who wins? I am not asking this rhetorically.  But it’s hard to win an argument when you’re not allowed to talk.

Decisions about women’s well-being are made every day in the open halls of government and the back rooms of health insurance companies.  We’re lucky when they’re made transparently enough that we can voice concerns.  Policy decisions are not based on anecdote, Sandra Fluke’s or anyone else’s, so why should one more testimony bother the Committee?  Stories have a particular power in an election year, when facts can’t be checked in real time during a debate, and the impact of figures are overshadowed by sentiment.  Stories are dangerous.  Darrell Issa believes that this policy is about religious freedom, and as Chairman from the majority, he gets to set all of the talking points.  The minority believes that the policy pertains to women’s access to healthcare, but they get to set agendas and call witnesses only at the caprice of the majority, in this case not at all.  These are two conversations happening simultaneously, ostensibly on the same topic, but speaking in mutually unintelligible languages, a Tower of Babel.  Here we are, arguing over matters of procedure, while stories, our best time-honored tradition for fanning the flames of compassion, are systematically silenced.