I belong to two women’s book clubs, and recently for one I read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, originally published in Britain in 1891. This was a scandalous book for its time.
Tess’ father, John Durbeyfield, is a layabout who discovers that his ancestors were a powerful family named d’Urberville. Seeking to ingratiate himself with a wealthy family of the same name, he sends his innocent daughter Tess to work for them (not knowing that they are an upstart family that took the name just to make themselves seem important). The son of the house, Alex d’Urberville, rapes Tess when she is asleep. She returns home pregnant and has a son, who soon dies.
Sometime later, Tess goes to work in a dairy, where she meets a clergyman’s son named Angel Clare (what could be more indicative of his own innocence?) who is training to become a farmer, and they fall in love. On their wedding night (before consummating the marriage) Angel confesses to Tess that he is not actually “pure”: he had a two-day relationship with a woman. Tess, confusedly thinking that the same rules apply to women as to men, then confesses that she was raped. Angel leaves her, telling her that her “real” husband is Alex.
Now poverty-stricken and without hope, Tess goes back to work on a farm. Soon she encounters Alex again. He has had a temporary conversion to evangelical Christianity, during which phase he proposes to Tess to make amends for the rape. When Tess tells him that in fact she is married, Alex replies that he is her true husband and convinces her that Angel will never return for her. Tess eventually goes off with Alex: when Angel returns soon after, she kills Alex and hides with Angel for three weeks before being discovered and eventually hanged. Angel, it is implied, then marries her truly “pure” younger sister.
So what we learn from this book is that only 121 years ago in the United Kingdom, if a man raped a woman he became her true husband. We abhor this kind of thing now, when we read about marriage-by-rape being practiced in some parts of the world. Yet we still have to fend off the Republican crazies who argue that rape can’t produce babies or that if a child results from rape, it is “God’s will.” According to the New York Times, Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee for Missouri, said in August that in a “legitimate rape” (by which he presumably meant a “real” rape) women’s bodies blocked off pregnancy: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/20/us/politics/todd-akin-provokes-ire-with-legitimate-rape-comment.html?_r=0 Apparently Akin missed biology class as a youngster. Then Richard Mourdock, a Republican Senate candidate for Indiana, said in late October that it was “God’s will” if women became pregnant as a result of rape: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/24/richard-mourdock-rape_n_2009739.html So from their point of view, when Alex raped Tess it wasn’t a “legitimate” rape and she must have somehow consented, and anyway it was God’s will that she became pregnant.
This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. These two Republican crazies were defeated in the November 6, 2012 Presidential election and apparently the Republicans are now thinking about whether it is a good idea to alienate every American voter who is not white, older and male. Nevertheless, it is worrisome that the Republicans not only had a candidate who thought that rape could not cause pregnancy, but also had an earlier debate among the various men contending to become the Presidential candidate about whether women should have access to birth control.
Without birth control, women are slaves to their own bodies. It is bad enough that there is still no universal right in international law for women to use birth control. Instead CEDAW (the clumsily named Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which came into force in 1981) says in its Article 16, 3, e that men and women have equal rights to “decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children.” Much good that does women when there is a disagreement with their men. Women should have an absolute right to use birth control, whether their male partners agree or not. And while I regard abortion as a social tragedy and wish for a time when no women would ever want one, in the world we live in now, women absolutely need the right to abortion on demand. Women have to control their own reproduction if they are to be able to support themselves and the children they freely choose to have.
I was somewhat active in the struggle for women’s rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By accident, I even took part in one of the first huge marches for women’s rights in New York City in 1970 or 71. Like many women of my generation, I thought that debates about whether women “asked for” rape, or whether they should have access to birth control, had been long settled in North America, even if in many parts of the world women still don’t have the right to abortion. I don’t relish the idea of having to go out on the streets again when I am in my 70s or 80s to defend women’s rights.