America’s Real War on Women

There is a war against women. It is something comparatively new in our national life, and we have to start noticing it.

It is not a “Republican war on women.” It has nothing to do with White House attempts to paint conservative efforts to protect religious liberty as a war against women’s rights to contraceptives. That is a mischievous fiction, and the president’s polls this week suggest it isn’t working. Good.

But the real war is against women in American public life, in politics and media most obviously, but in other spheres as well. In this war, leaders who are women are publicly demeaned and diminished based on the fact that they are women. They are the object of sexual slurs, and insulted in sexual terms. The words used are vulgar, and are meant to tear down and embarrass.

Every woman in American public life knows of it. They talk about it in private. They’ve all experienced it.

Here are some of the words that have been hurled the past few years at public figures who are female: “slut,” “whore,” “prostitute,” “bimbo.” You know the other, coarser words that have been used. But the point is, these are not private insults. They are said in public. This is something new in American political life, that women can be spoken of this way.

Eleanor Roosevelt was probably the most controversial first lady ever, but no one ever felt they could speak of her in these terms in public. Dorothy Thompson may have been the most controversial commentator of the 20th century, but no one felt free to take to the airwaves, to go on the radio, and oppose her in such a low and vulgar way.

But you don’t have to go back 60 and 70 years to see how much things have changed. Twenty years ago the discourse was higher.

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All this has devolved into a political argument about who’s worse, the right or the left. I don’t think that’s the most important question, but since it’s on the table the answer is the left. We all know about Bill Maher, David Letterman, Ed Schultz. A liberal radio host a while back accused the Republican lieutenant governor of Wisconsin of performing “fellatio on all the talk show hosts in Milwaukee.”

Two nonconservative columnists recently nailed it. Karen Tumulty in the Washington Post wrote that what Rush Limbaugh said two weeks ago—Sandra Fluke was a “slut” and a “prostitute” who owed the public videotapes of her having sex—was bad indeed, but “Some of the more blatantly sexist attacks I have personally felt have come from the left.”

Prize pig is left-wing journalist Matt Taibbi who becomes emotional and can’t control himself when writing about women. Here he is on a conservative media figure: “When I read her stuff, I imagine her narrating her text . . . with [male genitals] in her mouth.” Democrat Kirsten Powers, in brave pieces in the Daily Beast, called out “the army of swine on the left.” Keith Olbermann, who still exists, attacked her for defending Mr. Limbaugh, which she hadn’t done. He took to Twitter. One of his followers called her “just another brainless plastic doll Fox puts on camera to appease the horned up 60-year old white dudes at home.” Ms. Powers wryly notes, “Don’t forget: liberals are the feminists, it’s the GOP who hates women.”

Why would the left be worse? Let me be harsh. Some left-wing men think they can talk like this because they’re on the correct side on social issues such as abortion. Their attitude: “I backed you on the abortions you want so much, I opposed a ban on partial birth. Hell, I’ll let you kill kids at any point until they’re 15, I’m cool. And that means I can call women in public life t – – – s, right? Because, you know, I think of them that way.”

On the right it can be bad too, in different ways. Some conservatives resent or have doubts about the implications of equality but know they can’t say it—no one wants to be caught doing that. For years they’ve felt bullied by the feminazis, by the language police. So they attack women in public life with a particular surliness, and claim it as proof of how liberated they are. “Hey, you wanted to be equal, I’ll show you equal: this is how we play in the leagues, baby.”

But to see this only through a left-right prism is to miss the problem. The problem is the coarsening of discourse in public life.

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Let me put forward one possible theory for why this is happening. Just one, because there would be many.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Year of the Woman, declared by someone in 1992 to mark and encourage the entrance of so many women into American politics.

At the exact same moment something else was happening in our public life, and it had equal or greater impact on our culture—the rise of the Internet.

Suddenly, by the mid 1990s, there was a new public place of complete freedom. Suddenly everyone—in blog posts, on personal websites, on news sites, in comment threads—had an equal voice and was operating on an equal field. The Internet became—this is America, we have a certain DNA—a bit of a Wild West. It was exciting and invigorating, a new frontier, but it held dangers, too, and darkness.

When anyone can say anything, anyone will. When the guy in the basement having his third Grey Goose finally got a telephone line on AOL, he found out he could take his Id out for a ride. He could log on, indulge his angers, and because it was anonymous he never had to stand by his words, or defend them. He never had to be embarrassed in front of his kids.

The Internet is a breakthrough in human freedom. But over the past 20 years it has had a certain leveling effect. It hypes the cheap and glitzy, it reduces the worthiness of a thought to the number of clicks it gets.

It has helped set a new cultural tone. It is not a higher one than we’ve enjoyed in the past.

Our comics and commentators went with the flow, but it only flows downward. And now you have to worry about young men of 20 and 30, who grew up in the age of the Internet and modern media, and learned the rules of political discourse there. Which suggests the future may be even rougher rhetorically.

If there is a bright side to the Limbaugh fracas maybe it is to put a spotlight on the need to clean up our act.

It would have been good if President Obama had discussed this in his news conference, instead of dodging a question about misogyny on the left. He called Sandra Fluke, he explained, because he wants public life to be safe for his daughters, if they choose to enter it. He would have made a braver, truer, more meaningful statement if he’d noted that Bill Maher has become so rich on sexism he had a million dollars to give to Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign. And now, so as to discourage the bad treatment of women, Mr. Obama is handing it back.

That would have made an impression. That could have been a step forward.