[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
When the Republican-controlled Michigan House of Representatives banned a Democratic representative from speaking because she used the word "vagina" in debating an anti-abortion bill (which has been called the "most extreme" in the nation), the story went national. Progressive sites like Huffington Post and TPM jumped on the issue, but even mainstream media like the Washington Post also covered the controversy.
But the Michigan Republicans' reaction to the simple word "vagina" was more than just a quirky one-off story that would anger reasonable Americans and provide fodder for late-night talk show monologues. Rather, the aversion to a woman in a position of power daring to utter the word "vagina" during a debate on legislation meant to curb abortion rights is symbolic of one of the festering abscesses (yes, there are more than one) infecting the modern GOP: a destructive obsession with turning back the clock to the 1950s on the role of women in society. This obsession is not only damaging to women and our country, but it has had a disproportionate influence in directing the Republican policy agenda.
The context of Rep. Lisa Brown's use of the word is illuminating. She said: "I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my vagina. But no means no." Brown's comment was squarely at the center of the issue under examination, and the word was not slang or an expletive, but rather the anatomical description of a part of a woman's anatomy that the proposed legislation would directly affect.
There was nothing offensive, off color or controversial about Brown's remark, unless the listener has an unhealthy obsession with women's vaginas, as Republicans seem to (specifically, in controlling what they and their owners can and can't do).
This obsession is apparent in the GOP agenda after the 2010 elections, which led to the party taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives and many state legislatures. The Republicans campaigned on two primary claims: 1) health are reform would hurt seniors and others (based on lies about the legislation), and 2) Democrats were to blame for unemployment, but Republicans would create jobs. So they arguably walked away from the 2010 elections with a mandate to vote to repeal health care reform and to introduce measures to create jobs.
But that's not what happened. Instead, the House of Representatives offered nothing to address unemployment, but moved quickly to institute a decades-old, right-wing agenda, including what came to be known as a "war on women." The first bill offered by the new Republican-controlled House (H.R. 1) included a provision that defunded Planned Parenthood (which provides non-abortion-related health care, like mammograms, to millions of women), a move that would be followed by several states. H.R. 3 sought to ensure there would be no taxpayer-funded abortions. And the anti-abortion fervor was, again, followed in state legislatures across the country.
It wasn't just abortion, however, when it came to the GOP war on women. From dragging their feet and trying to weaken the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, to blocking the Paycheck Fairness Act (again, also true at the state level), to holding a hearing on contraception coverage that primarily only included religious men (and opposing the Obama administration's decision to require health insurers to cover contraception), Republicans in Washington spent an awful lot of time, effort and political capital trying to control women's bodies, roles and options.
When Rush Limbaugh called a woman who testified in support of contraception coverage in health insurance a "slut," it was more than just a typical Limbaugh publicity-seeking, right-wing-riling stunt. The attack and the term Limbaugh used shined a light on how many Republican men think of a woman's role in society. To them, a woman who sits in front of a congressional committee and demands contraceptive coverage is a slut, because women should not be discussing such matters in public. These Republican men think women shouldn't demand equal pay, because, really, they should be at home. They can't say it out loud, but Limbaugh articulated what they think.
It's not a coincidence that three female Republican senators--Lisa Murkowski, Olympia Snowe and Kay Bailey Hutchinson--all expressed dissatisfaction with the Republican attacks on women.
The Tea Party-driven modern Republican party glorifies a 1950s role for women in society (not working, not having sex outside of marriage, not controlling their own bodies). It's inherent in their legislative priorities. And this vision was on full display with the Republicans in the Michigan House, who were so put off by a woman, who was serving as a member of the state legislature, using the anatomical/medical term "vagina," they felt they had to shut her up.
It makes one wonder: Would the Michigan Republican leadership have banned a male conservative representative for using the term "vagina" in the debate? Somehow I doubt it.
Voters will have to decide in November if this is the vision of women in America they want to be in control of the levers of government. Given that roughly half the electorate is made up of women, I'm guessing that the Republican obsession with women's sexuality and 1950s role in society won't go over too well. Many might take inspiration from Brown and say, "I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my vagina. But no means no."