SCOTUS Traps Women in Doll’s House

Fonda in "The Doll's House"

Fonda, Warner in “The Doll’s House”

I’ve always been reluctant to use “war” as a metaphor in our political battles, such as “war on crime,” “war on drugs,” and (most recently) “war on women.” There’s enough hyperbole already in politics without having to supercharge the language. That being said, however, I think significant elements in the GOP, while not “waging a war” on women, are in fact trying to reassert control over women.

We’ve been seeing this especially in the systematic attempt in many states to deny women access to abortion and in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s promise to pass more restrictive abortion laws if the GOP wins back the Senate. We also saw increased attempts to control women’s reproductive choices in the Supreme Court’s decision Monday to allow certain companies to refuse women access to free contraception in their health plans.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the issue was religious freedom. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, noted that the ruling only affected contraception, not other health considerations (such as, to cite Justice Ginsburg’s examples, “blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations.” No, the Hobby Lobby owners believe that certain forms of contraception are tantamount to abortion and, whether they are right or wrong, a “sincerely held religious belief” (Alito’s phrase) is what matters.

Justice Ginsburg further pointed out that “[t]he exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would…deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage” and that “[i]t bears note in this regard that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month’s full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage.”

So why all this focus on contraception and abortion in recent years? A cynic might see this as the ultimate wedge issue, a way that the establishment GOP can continue to hold on to its Tea Party base while still keeping its Wall Street constituents happy. But I think the reason goes deeper than this and that Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) casts some light on what’s going on.

I think that the GOP no longer thinks it can manage the economy or the climate or the demographic future of the United States. To restore a feeling of masculine control, it seeks therefore to control what it can—which in red states is America’s women, especially poor women. Women are hearing the message which is why, in increasing numbers, they are voting Democratic, especially those who are young and/or single.

Before I turn to Ibsen, here are a couple of women columnists pointing out what is frightening about the Supreme Court’s recent decision. First, Kate McDonough of Salon:

To sum it up, five male justices ruled that thousands of female employees should rightfully be subjected to the whims of their employers. That women can be denied a benefit that they already pay for and is guaranteed by federal law. That contraception is not essential healthcare. That corporations can pray. That the corporate veil can be manipulated to suit the needs of the corporation. That bosses can cynically choose à la carte what laws they want to comply with and which laws they do not. Each specific finding opens a door to a new form of discrimination and unprecedented corporate power. If you think this ruling won’t affect you, you haven’t been paying attention. If you think these corporations are going to stop at birth control, you’re kidding yourself.

And now Slate columnist Amanda Marcotte writing for Reproductive Health (although unfortunately she uses the “war on women” metaphor):

Bit by bit, they can make us accustomed to the idea that contraception is “controversial” and whether or not you get pregnant is a matter of public debate instead of a private choice.

Why should they doubt that this strategy will work? It took four decades, but the chipping away strategy has started to pay off in the war on abortion access, with many states on the verge of having no abortion providers whatsoever. They may never be able to get contraception banned, but they can definitely do some serious damage to women’s ability to access it. They are waging a “war on women,” after all, so every woman felled by unwanted pregnancy is a victory in and of itself.

In The Doll’s House, Nora Helmer for years plays along with—enables—her husband’s need to feel in control. She uses her “feminine wiles” (now there’s an outmoded expression) to get him to take a life-saving trip to Italy and she hides her means of financing it. (As she puts it, “how painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly independence, to know that he owed me anything! It would upset our mutual relations altogether; our beautiful happy home would no longer be what it is now.”)

When the truth comes out that she has forged her father’s signature to obtain a loan (women can’t get loans without a man’s signature) and that she has been secretly paying off the loan with her household allowance (Torvald thinks she’s a spendthrift “little squirrel”), there is a blow-up. But the blow-up proves salutary because Nora suddenly acknowledges that her husband has no real respect for her. It’s the moment of truth she needs if she is to grow. Here’s their conversation:

Nora [shaking her head]. You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.
Helmer. Nora, what do I hear you saying?
Nora. It is perfectly true, Torvald. When I was at home with papa, he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll-child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you–
Helmer. What sort of an expression is that to use about our marriage?
Nora [undisturbed]. I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you. Or else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which–I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman–just from hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.
Helmer. How unreasonable and how ungrateful you are, Nora! Have you not been happy here?
Nora. No, I have never been happy. I thought I was, but it has never really been so.
Helmer. Not–not happy!
Nora. No, only merry. And you have always been so kind to me. But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child…

And then Nora states what she must do:

Nora. I must try and educate myself–you are not the man to help me in that. I must do that for myself. And that is why I am going to leave you now.

I suspect one reason why so many women are leaving—or not joining—the GOP is because they are educating themselves about Republican positions. They feel patronized and unsupported.

The Doll’s House holds one thread of hope for Republicans. If Torvald’s fundamental attitude were to change—if he were to truly respect Nora, allowing her autonomy and deciding that she is capable of making her own decisions—then their marriage could be saved. As Nora puts it, “the most wonderful thing of all would have to happen.”

Helmer. Nora–can I never be anything more than a stranger to you?
Nora [taking her bag]. Ah, Torvald, the most wonderful thing of all would have to happen.
Helmer. Tell me what that would be!
Nora. Both you and I would have to be so changed that–. Oh, Torvald, I don’t believe any longer in wonderful things happening.
Helmer. But I will believe in it. Tell me! So changed that–?
Nora. That our life together would be a real wedlock. Goodbye. [She goes out through the hall.]
Helmer [sinks down on a chair at the door and buries his face in his hands]. Nora! Nora! [Looks round, and rises.] Empty. She is gone. [A hope flashes across his mind.] The most wonderful thing of all–?

So can our Torvald Helmers decide that women should be free to make their own reproductive choices? It would mean taking abortion and contraception out of the public realm and leaving it up to women and their doctors. That indeed would be the most wonderful thing of all.

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