You’ve come a long way, baby…

Baby? Maybe women have not actually come all that far.

Rush Limbaugh’s bizarre tirade against Sandra Fluke generated headlines, but was not completely out of left field; his remarks seemed to reflect attitudes that are widespread, if not so explicitly stated, far beyond the walls of his radio studio.

In very early pregnancy the fetus is so small that the form of ultrasound that provides the “clearest image” is what is known as “transvaginal ultrasound”, in which a specially-designed device must be wrapped in a condom and inserted some distance into the woman’s vagina and rotated to get a clear image.

Issues such as the availability of birth control, pre-natal health care, or nutrition for mothers and children are viewed as concerns belonging exclusively to the realms of economics or religion, and as such, women are not encouraged to provide input. (Presumably women are incapable of understanding the finer points of religious doctrine or economic theory.) The states of Alabama and Virginia have been trying to enact laws requiring women seeking abortions to submit to ultrasound imaging of the fetus, using whatever methods provides the clearest image.

The personal lives of women in politics must endure far greater and more intimate scrutiny than those of their male counterparts: imagine if Nancy Pelosi or Frederika Wilson admitted to paying for sex, or having an affair with an intern: would they have managed to remain in office? Even those old Virginia Slim commercials, which purported to view a woman as equal to a man — at least in terms of having a carcinogen marketed directly to her — had a very pronounced “look at Daddy’s little girl” tone to them.

On today’s date in 1917, Jeannette Pickering Rankin, of the state of Montana, took her seat in the US House of Representatives, the first woman ever to do so. In most of the country at that time, women were not even permitted to vote: the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution, which granted suffrage to women, was not ratified until 1920. In Montana in 1917, however, women could and did vote, and helped send one of their own to Washington. Throughout her career, both in and out of politics, she fought to provide basic health care for women less fortunate than herself; she voted against US entry into both World Wars, on the premise that the greatest enemies Americans faced were domestic poverty and disease; and later she actively opposed the US role in Vietnam. She continued to work as an anti-war activist and a champion of the sick, the poor and the disenfranchised, long after her political career had come to an end. Even her death in 1973 did not end her contribution to American society, as her Jeannette Rankin Foundation continues to provide scholarships to low-income women.

It’s hard to imagine any member of the US House so at odds with the “mainstream” today, and given her gender, I can’t imagine how she would have been treated by people like Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich. I do believe, however, that she would have persevered, maybe in spite of the vilification, and maybe because of it.

Oh, and by the way: her political party? She was a Republican. Apparently some things really have changed.

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