Women in Iowa have unprecedented political power. This year, 45 women served in the state legislature — a 29 percent increase over 2018. These women include Marianette Miller Meeks who is running for Congress in the 2nd District. And then our U.S. senator Joni Ernst. Of course, there is Linda Upmeyer, the first woman in state history to be elected House speaker, who recently announced she will not be seeking reelection. And who can forget, Kim Reynolds, our first female governor. And yet all this girl boss representation has amounted to is a loss of our freedoms.
In Iowa, our reproductive and health care rights have been taken away with restrictive abortion laws. Planned Parenthoods are closing. So are maternity wards. Transwomen are being denied access to medically necessary procedures. Each set of these girl-power, manicured hands is ripping away rights, like Cinderella’s stepsisters mad before the ball.
Before 2019, Iowa was well below the national average for women in public office. And lack of representation in politics and power is a problem symptomatic of deeper issues in our state. But representation alone doesn’t solve the problem. In 2016, 47 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump. A president who has admitted to sexual assault. Or, sorry, “locker room talk.” A president who oversaw Brett Kavanagh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. A president, who routinely posts racist tweets attacking women of color, who has abused power and coordinated with a foreign country to attack political enemies, who has put children in cages on the border. Who even now, even as the golden dream is toppling like a statue of Baal in the presence of the Lord, is bolstered by the support of white women like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway and our own Sen. Ernst. Girl power, am I right?
It’s not just the women in power. Two weeks ago, a friend showed me a whole Facebook thread of women in my town criticizing my appearance, wondering if I showed too much cleavage and whether the color of my dress was appropriate. In her book “Mothers of Massive Resistance,” historian Elizabeth Gillespie McRae writes, “In a Jim Crow nation, segregation’s female activists imbued women’s civic duties, womanhood, and motherhood with particular racist prescriptions. For many, being a good white mother or a good white woman meant teaching and reinforcing racial distance in their homes and in the larger public sphere.” It makes sense that we women need a lot of self-care — we have to be tired from carrying all that water for the patriarchy.
Both things can be true. Woman can be oppressed and be oppressors. We can need representation and also in our representation fail to represent the voices of others. And these complicated realities need to be present in our conversations, whenever we decide to herald a woman like Upmeyer for breaking a glass ceiling. A woman who also oversaw the passage of truly regressive laws.
When Gov. Reynolds was appointed as Terry Branstad’s successor, I was informed by relatives that I ought to be happy. “You are feminist, be happy she’s a woman.” But it’s 2019 and progress is not having my rights removed by a woman instead of a man. Progress is actually having those rights in the first place. Power and access to power must be closely examined at every level.
Privilege is an epidural that numbs the whole body and the mind. It’s easy if you are comfortable to see gains being made in representation and think we are OK. It’s a simpler story, an easier story, to shout “girl boss” while fist pumping over the bodies of women of color, queer women, and others still marginalized, still broken, still needing critical care, still cut out of the conversation. It’s truly easier to tell the pretty stories about all our gains for the state, than face the realities of the cost of this representation.
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