When I was growing up, I was under the impression that there were hardly any female politicians who spoke for me. Oh, one would hear occasionally of conservative, pro-life women in positions of power—in much the same sense that one would hear of the Loch Ness Monster. They were said to be out there somewhere, and some people even reported having seen them, but for the most part they came across as elusive mythical figures.
Like many girls my age, I got used to the idea that pro-choice female politicians got all the attention, that "women's issues" and "women's rights" were usually a reference to abortion, and that the number of prominent women who represented my views could be counted on one hand.
Some things have changed since then. And some things haven't.
In the last few years, one conservative pro-life woman has run for vice-president of the United States, and another for President. For a generation of women like me who were all but resigned to the idea that such a thing could never happen, that's a pretty big deal. As I pointed out in my book 'Bring Her Down': How the American Media Tried to Destroy Sarah Palin, the Palin nomination had some conservative women literally weeping and cheering for joy. Steve Duprey, former New Hampshire GOP chairman, reported from Republican convention headquarters, "There were 10 or 12 women, party stalwarts, in tears, using napkins and handkerchiefs." Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life summed up the reaction: "She's lived it! It's so satisfying as a conservative woman. When she walked out on that stage there was just this moment. It was really emotional for a lot of us."
As members of a movement that has sometimes been slow to recognize the many invaluable contributions of women, developments like these have given us plenty to cheer for. But at first glance, last week's congressional hearing on the contraception mandate and freedom of religion gave the impression that the movement might be moving backwards.
Many women were upset when they saw this photo from the hearing, demanding to know why a panel of witnesses that testified against the contraception mandate was entirely male. Maggie Karner gives a good summary of what happened on Christianity Today's website:
"What I want to know is: Where are the women?" Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) demanded before she walked out in protest. A photo of five men testifying before the panel quickly circulated on social network sites. At the Washington Post website today, Susan Thistlethwaite picked up on the theme: "Where is women's religious freedom and freedom of conscience?" she wrote. "Women can only conclude from this skewed panel that the chairman does not think they are created equally in God's image, and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights."
Then I learned that in all the drama over the religious freedom hearing, several facts—and several people—had been ignored. For instance, how many have seen this picture of the second panel of witnesses to testify against the mandate? I hadn't—not until I did some digging, because it wasn't splashed all over the Internet the way the first picture was. That panel included Dr. Allison Garrett of Oklahoma Christian University and Dr. Laura Champion of Calvin College.
As Kathryn Jean Lopez observed at National Review Online, the women who walked out of the hearing never saw or heard those female members of the panel. In fact, one could say that they saw only what they wanted to see. To a woman who grew up during a virtual media blackout on conservative females, that sounds depressingly familiar.
There's no doubt that the pro-life movement needs to continue bringing women to the forefront. These women—women from all walks of life, from the grassroots to the halls of power—have a crucial role to play in one of the defining issues of our time. And we need to keep in mind that we live in a visual culture, where a picture can launch a good deal more than a thousand words. As I wrote in my book, a media storm over another photo, just a few years ago, caused its share of damage to the pro-life movement—damage that could easily have been avoided. More care needs to be taken to avoid getting into these "photo op from hell" situations.
But as all this happens—and it is happening, however slowly—mainstream institutions such as the media, the government, the schools, and the entertainment industry need to recognize that these women exist and have voices worth hearing. If women like Carolyn Maloney and Susan Thistlethwaite are going to do all they can to erase from view any women with whom they disagree, then they themselves are perpetuating the very marginalization they claim to be against. And that forces one to ask, just how "pro-woman" are they in reality?
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and a regular contributor to Her.meneutics, Christianity Today's blog for women.
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of health care, contraception, life ethics, and politics includes:
Obama Does Not Widen Religious Exemption for Contraceptive Mandate | The burden to cover contraception shifts to the insurance companies, but an earlier exemption for religious groups will not change. (Feb. 10, 2012)
First They Came for the Catholics: Obama's Contraceptive Mandate | An open letter to evangelical Christians. By Timothy George and Chuck Colson (Feb. 8, 2012)
Evangelicals Mounting Concerns over Obama Administration's Contraceptive Mandate | Protestants are increasingly joining Catholics in protesting Health & Human Services mandate. (Feb. 2, 2012)
The Ironies of Obama's National Prayer Breakfast Speech | The President seems to be debating himself on religious motivations and the common good. By David Neff (Feb. 3, 2012)
Your Insurance May Already Cover 'Abortion-Inducing Drugs' | Health and Human Services ruled last week that insurance plans must provide contraception with no copayment. (August 12, 2011)
Reforming Health Care Reform | How states are blocking abortion coverage. (June 29, 2010)
Health Care Reform Enacted—Now What? | Activists react to the new health care law and reignite a movement for immigration reform. (March 26, 2010)
CT covers more political developments on the politics blog.
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