The struggles of a catholic progressive

The burning issues of the most important election of our lifetimes are being eclipsed by Sarah Palin’s pretty face. Her pro-family posturing, hollow claims of gender bias and feigned proven toughness weave an emotional narrative particularly persuasive to women. I’m struck by the irony. The very people whose issues have no place in her agenda are being gamed for their votes. How sad this is for all women — past, present and future.

The fight for women’s right to vote in this country was long and brutal. Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and others called out our government in 1848 at a historic assembly at Seneca Falls, N.Y., but it took another 72 years for the 19th amendment to pass. The suffrage battle of 1917 was the consummate dark chapter in the struggle and carries with it shades of Abu Ghraib — including beatings and forced feedings. Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Dora Lewis et al are little-known patriots whose story should be taken to heart this election season.

In January 1917, the National Women’s Party began a peaceful protest across from the White House. Their relentless demonstration over the months became an international embarrassment for our “democracy” and police were ordered to disband them. Arrests (218 total) began on June 22 with trumped-up charges of “obstructing traffic,” and culminated with a Nov. 15 “Night of Terror.”

Months before this infamous night, the suffragists had been incarcerated with women infected with syphilis and tuberculosis — forced to drink putrid water from a common pail and eat food infested with worms. Their toilet was a bucket not emptied for days.

On the night of the 15th, 40 prison guards went on a rampage. Lucy Burns was beaten — her hands chained above her head as she was left hanging for the night. Dora Lewis was hurled into a dark cell, smashing her head and knocking her unconscious. Her cellmate, thinking Lewis dead, had a heart attack. Affidavits also give accounts of guards dragging, beating, choking, slamming and kicking the women.

Gender politics in this election is making a mockery of this hard-fought battle for democracy, and could permanently subvert what real progress for women means.

Republican presidential nominee John McCain, in cynical deference, introduced Palin for vice president by saying he was proud it was “in the week we celebrate the anniversary of women’s suffrage.” This from a man who (1) voted against a measure to help women get pay equality, (2) voted against extending insurance coverage to pregnant women and infants, (3) voted against funding breast cancer research and (4) voted repeatedly against funding to fight domestic violence — just to name a few.

Palin’s record regarding women is McCain-compatible. Reports from Alaska say she’s done nothing to address rampant sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence. While mayor of little Wasilla, women (mostly poor) were required to pay from $300 to $1,200 for testing to prove they were raped. More shocking, Palin opposes abortion even for victims of rape or incest. According to public-safety experts, Alaska is one of the worst in the nation for rape and sexual abuse of children, with 25 percent of rapes resulting in pregnancies. Are we to suppose that Palin believes the state should force a 10-year-old child raped by her father to endure a pregnancy? Would we want such a draconian law for our daughters?

This “pro-family” small-town woman is a fictional creation — one her handlers hope women voters will buy. She’s scripted and rehearsed for public consumption. But privately she’s receiving a crash course in neoconservative governance: corporate state at home, military hegemony abroad. In other words, she’s being groomed for a seamless VP transition — Dick Cheney in “lipstick and a skirt.”

Women should take heart. While we disagree on a variety of religious and social issues, a common historic struggle unites us. Let’s not forget the grinding work, the thankless sacrifice, the silent pain, the dogged determination of our foremothers that bind us together. They came from all ranks — educated, uneducated, well-heeled, destitute. Their spirit is embodied in the likes of the suffragists Mary Lease, Mother Jones and Rosa Parks. Given our current economic meltdown, it’s ironic that Lease, in 1890, carried on a grass-roots revolt against the corporate predators of her day, calling on farmers to “raise less corn and more hell.” This is the spirit that brought us our democracy.

Sorry, Sarah, threatening a war with Russia or field-dressing a moose does not demonstrate the toughness necessary to defend our Constitution. You’re in need of counsel from women who, armed only with grit and guts, had the courage to face down power and demand that our country live up to its creed.

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