If you’ve been following the mainstream news cycle over the last month you know that the culture wars are back. With a vengeance. We’ve seen the supporters of women’s health care and Planned Parenthood respond so vehemently when Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced funding cuts that the popular breast cancer foundation reversed its decision. We’ve seen the return of Catholic Bishops and Rick Santorum arguing to limiting access to birth control. We’ve seen hundreds of laws restricting abortion and access to birth control passed in state capitols across the country.
The cultural wars may not, at first glance, have much to do with class, though a look at history provides a context that can help us see the connection. In the 1980s, the culture wars were defined by questions like “what literature should we be teaching?” Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy had one answer: core curricula in “great books” and “Western Civ.” Many of us offered different answers: Ethnic Studies, Third World Studies, American Studies, Post Colonial Studies, and Transatlantic Studies—curricula that would be diverse, inclusive, and a featuring a non-Western-centric narrative.
Race and ethnicity were at the heart of this debate, but class wasn’t far behind. Ironically, perhaps, Hirsch argued that when we lost our common literacy we fractured along class lines as well as racial and ethnic lines. His argument had little basis in sociology, but he was, in some ways, democratic in his goals. At the same time, many of us rejected his thesis because his “cultural literacy” left out the accomplishments of the subaltern, those “under others” not only because of race but also because of class, whose cultures had been left out of the classroom.
The culture wars were re-ignited in the 1990s, but this time with a more sociological bent. In his book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, James Davidson Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia argued that America could be divided—not by class, race or gender—but by “culture,” and especially the culture defined by religion. Some Americans, he argued, were anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-church, anti-drug, anti-gay, and pro-censorship. The rest were not.
Pat Buchanan became associated with this kind of culture war when he declared in 1992 that Bill and Hilary Clinton would usher in a culture of “abortion on demand, a [left wing] litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, [and] women in combat.” This definition of the culture wars has mostly held sway for 20 years, as we have seen social values conservatives (often represented as white, working-class voters) pitted against “limousine liberals.”
In 2010, the Republican governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels told the Weekly Standard that the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while, until the economic issues are resolved.” The truce was short lived. Many have speculated that as the economy improves, the Republicans fall back on the culture wars to engage and inspire their base. But many of these same pundits believe that the Republicans are now too far to the right and are out of touch with their own voters. The statistic that 98% of sexually-active Catholic women use birth control, for example, suggests that many Catholic voters would probably support the idea that birth control (which can cost up to $720.00 a year) should be covered by insurance plans.
But if the latest salvos in the culture wars become policy, the effects might hurt poor and working class Americans—and especially poor and working class women—more than anyone else.
In Texas a new law aimed at restricting Planned Parenthood might end the state’s Medicaid Women’s Health Program, leaving 130,000 poor and working-class women without health care. As for the question of birth control, a 2009 poll showed that the recession has increased the concern among poor and working class women about family planning. Women lower down on the economic scale are more likely to agree with this statement: “With the economy the way it is, I am more careful than I used to be about using contraception every time I have sex.” Proposed restrictions on access to birth control will deprive these same women of the ability to practice family planning the way everyone should be able to: easily and affordably.
Restrictions on abortion also affect poor and working-class women disproportionately. When access to abortion is further restricted, or when women are made to undergo painful and shame inducing interviews and/or ultrasounds before having an abortion (as many states have already legislated or are considering doing so now), we are more likely to see an increase in illegal abortions and women attempting to end pregnancies on their own.
Over the last month, as we have seen all-male panels of experts testifying in Congress about birth control and Sunday talk shows made up, again, of male commentators talking about these issues, I have felt angry. And tired. It is so frustrating to feel like we have to re-wage “culture wars” that we won decades ago.
But I guess I have two messages for myself and everyone else who feels the same way. Get over it. Keep fighting. As the artist Barbara Kruger warned us in 1985, “When I hear the word culture I reach for my checkbook.” This year I am going to be reaching for my checkbook, my telephone, my social networks, my neighbor’s doorbell—everything I can think of to make sure that this war on women, and especially the most vulnerable women in our society, in the name of culture, is not won by the wrong people.
Kathy M. Newman