Ettinger: What Is It About Equality That Scares So Many People?

By Eve Ettinger

March 23, 2021

March is Women’s History Month, and it is with a heavy awareness of irony that I have been following two big votes in the House this last week: the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and the Equality Act.

The irony is that many of the Republican voices arguing against the Equality Act are saying that they want to protect women and children, while voting against the VAWA, which would protect women and girls. And they’re doing so in apparent earnestness, as if they don’t know that these two positions are contradictory. 

Using ‘Save the Children’ to Justify Transphobia

Both acts would protect cisgender women’s rights, but both acts also include trans women as women in the verbiage. This act of inclusion is what is so offensive to conservatives. And cisgender women will suffer along with trans women if neither act is passed.

By refusing to support either act, the true nature of conservative misogyny as part and parcel with conservative transphobia is on clear display. Conservative misogyny dresses itself in the guise of the benevolent patriarch: Women’s rights and issues are a side project to be tolerated as long as it doesn’t inconvenience male power. 

Transphobia as a subset of misogyny is largely rooted in cis male terror of becoming a woman or being seen as effeminate, and so the thought of a trans woman existing is a deep threat to masculine power. “Why would anyone want to transition to live as a woman?” these men seem to ask themselves. They know how women are treated as lesser. They know how they secretly enjoy their power over women. The only reason someone assigned male at birth would want to transition and live openly as a woman, they seem to reason, is because that person wants access to women’s spaces for nefarious reasons. Thus the conservative mythology of trans woman-as-predator begins. 

So now, every time there’s a moral panic in this country, from pearl-clutching over teens having sex to performative angst about children expressing themselves outside of traditional gender performance, the rhetoric escalates to “save the children.” In this case, this toothless refrain covers up cis male terror that their children, who they believe are male, might eventually come out as women. 

Pretending that trans children don’t exist by banning them from participating in sports with their peers, refusing trans children the chance to delay puberty until they’re certain about what they want for their futures, so that trans adults aren’t marked with unwanted secondary sex characteristics and are easily clockable as trans in public. These are the policy decisions pushed by conservative cis men terrified of losing their place at the top.  

There is no genuine concern for children or women here.

In the spate of anti-trans legislation flooding the states this year, children are centered by conservatives as a talking point and an appeal to blind emotion, rather than being treated as an actual demographic with real concerns or humanity to be considered.

Demonizing Transgender People

The response here is all about creating an imaginary foe in the existence of trans people, and using that as a weapon to reinforce gender norms that oppress everyone and have no root in fact.

Similarly, there is hardly any genuine concern for women or children’s welfare in the pushback against passing the VAWA and the Equality Act. The needs of women and children are bandied about in these conversations as politicians present extreme scenarios as the inevitable result of establishing basic human rights protections for trans people, who, it is important to note, are also women and children.

“I fully support the original Violence Against Women Act,” VA Rep. Bob Wittman said. “That’s not the bill we voted on today. After House Democrats allowed the original Violence Against Women Act to expire in 2019, they have twice introduced a reauthorization featuring highly partisan provisions, that has no chance of becoming law.”

Wittman here was referring to the two major changes in the VAWA for 2021: the clarification of including trans women as women, and the addition of a red flag gun law

No one is safe from the imaginary “Big Bad” that transphobic politicians believe with devout certainty would be the result of creating a more equitable society. Trans children and adults participating in sports according to their gender? The “Big Bad” that we are presented with is the argument that cisgender women, and children, are being victimized by their presence, which is demonstrably false. Trans women using bathrooms in peace is shown to us as creating inevitable circumstances where cisgender women are going to get raped, when, in fact, trans women are statistically more likely to experience harassment and violence than cisgender women.

The irony is, of course, that according to actual data, the women in danger here are actually the trans women, not the cisgender women. As for the children in question, they are already generally at significant risk of abuse from adults in their lives, and most people don’t seem to really care about that the rest of the time.

Maintaining the Cisgender Heteropatriarchy

The motives for the politicians and pundits who are pushing against passing the VAWA and the Equality Act is not actually protecting the rights of women and children, just like we saw with the ERA and Phyllis Schlafly decades earlier. 

The right has been playing this game longer than I’ve been alive. The benevolent-seeming patriarchy contract that I was offered as a Quiverfull daughter was that if I behaved demurely, dressed modestly, and toed the line, I would be given a secure future where a man and a church community would protect and provide for me in the future. And all I had to do to maintain that status would be to shut up and have the babies God might give me.

This contract was a gilded cage, and when I ran up against the bars I realized the lies I’d been fed all along. The point was never my welfare, the point had always been about sustaining cis, white male power as the societal norm.

The pushback against the VAWA is the same gilded misogyny presented as genuine interest in women’s needs. 

Listening to the coverage of the hearing for the Equality Act this week was a throwback to the old rhetoric I grew up hearing along these lines. Phyllis Schlafly famously cemented this kind of rhetoric as a staple of Republican conversations, saying the ERA wasn’t going to help women, it was going to erode protections for them, erode privileges by giving them equality with men. Similarly, the discussions of the Equality Act as dangerous for children elides the fact that trans children are children and the Equality Act would help protect them. 

Trans children are in need of and deserve protections. And currently, there is very little in place that does protect their basic human rights.

Representatives who have voted against both have shown their true hand. They have no interest in protecting women or children, just in preserving their own power. And such moral bankruptcy deserves to be primaried.

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