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Sarah-Jane Stratford: The Taming of the Screw

June 23, 2011

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Like the fines leveled against fornicators under the English feudal system, the GOP attack on Planned Parenthood is a way to keep poor women down.

By **Sarah-Jane Stratford**


Sara-Jane Stratford.jpgThe current war on women is couched in language ranging from pretended pragmatism to the out-and-out Orwellian. The Republicans insist they care about women, but they also have deficits to consider, so budget-suckers like Planned Parenthood have to go. Part of the shared sacrifice. But when the financial facts persist in being, well, factual—Planned Parenthood only accounts for .0083% of the budget—the focus shifts to morality. It’s immoral for women to even consider having sex, let alone ending a pregnancy. And what’s worse, all this freedom and immorality is making women unhappy, contributing to the great degradation of our great society. So really, it’s all about protecting the women and children.

Except that it isn’t. Instead, it’s an attempt to regain iron-fisted control and reestablish strict class lines in a manner most pleasing to the garden-variety Social Darwinist (who would likely protest the use of the word “Darwin”). An attempt that seems to be working. And make no mistake, the women who will suffer the most will be the poorest.

This is nothing new. Under the English feudal system, women were often forced to pay a fine called “leyrwite”—the punishment for fornication. While “fornication” could refer to such illicit behavior as adultery; improper positions (it’s unclear how anyone knew to make such an accusation); marital sex itself, if the husband and wife were seen as having too good a time; and attempting to avoid pregnancy; in practice, fornication was sex between unmarried people. Though the fine was supposed to be paid by both parties, it was overwhelmingly the women who paid it.

Not just women, but poor women. According to historian Judith Bennett, one in four poor women had to pay leyrwite, which was pricier than the fines for other misdemeanors, whereas only about one in twenty wealthier ones did. While the fine was meant to be a punishment for sin, it was really a punishment for being both poor and pregnant out of wedlock. Then and now, a single mother was the poorest of the poor. What the woman was really guilty of was the sin of poverty. She had given the community another mouth to feed and was unable to do the feeding. Neither the government nor church gave assistance in poor, rural areas, so the community had to pick up the slack. Women were often excluded from further charity because such charity might encourage more sin.

Attacking women—especially lower-income women—forces them into a place of disempowerment.

They were also often doubly screwed. Rape was common, and rapists rarely punished. Many women forced to pay leyrwite were servants who had fornicated with their male employers—meaning they had to pay for their rapes. One can just imagine a woman protesting and someone like Indiana Rep. Eric Turner, saying, as he did in a debate: “I don’t want to disparage in any way someone who has gone through the experience of a rape or incest—but someone who is desirous of an abortion could simply say that they’ve been raped or there’s incest.” Just substitute “not paying leyrwite” for “an abortion.”

Those levying the fine justified their action in part because it was assumed that women had received gifts in exchange for sex. By the 15th century, the word “singlewoman” appears in the records, referring both to an unmarried woman or a prostitute. The wider implication was that a (poor) woman would not engage in sex merely for pleasure, but would be looking for what she could gain socially or monetarily. The atavistic assumption that women don’t enjoy sex for its own sake is repeated today in Republican arguments against Planned Parenthood, as contraception itself is targeted. The Swiftian logic effectively suggests that contraception can derail a woman’s chances of finding real love, or, as Janet Smith, author of Contraception, Why Not? has it, “Contraception helps reduce one’s sexual partner to just a sexual object since it renders sexual intercourse to be without any real commitments.” The only argument for premarital sex in this context is that it’s part of an end game towards the altar, and thus lifelong happiness. Apparently, if women go back to resisting men till the honeymoon, everyone will be happier, healthier, more fulfilled, and more “free.”

It’s funny, really, how obsessed the GOP is with the word “free,” so long as it’s only an abstract concept. When it’s applied to stuff like condoms, cancer screenings, or milk for an infant, then it’s a four-letter word. GOP women themselves have earned black belts in linguistic jujitsu as the meanings of “freedom,” “choice,” and “life” get subverted in ways that would give Samuel Johnson an aneurysm.

In doing so, they are internalizing the age-old canard that a man won’t settle down until a good woman witholds sex, thus teaching him love and commitment.

But here’s something for the chyron:

Women like sex. A lot. Which only makes them healthy and happy, especially if they don’t have to worry about getting pregnant when they’re either not ready or willing to do so. In fact, there are plenty of couples who fall in love, marry, and enjoy a gravity-defying sex life without ever having children.

Attacking women—especially lower-income women—forces them into a place of disempowerment. However, offering everyone the opportunity to make informed choices creates a more equal and economically well-balanced society. Safe and secure entitlements, including access to affordable contraception, is vital in giving women across the economic spectrum the prospect of a full and happy life.

And we’ve all read something about “the pursuit of happiness,” haven’t we?

Copyright 2011 Sarah-Jane Stratford

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Sarah Jane Stratford is the author of the historical vampire thrillers The Midnight Guardian and its upcoming sequel, The Moonlight Brigade. She has a blog, Historilicious. She is a voracious user of social media and tweets at @stratfordsj.

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