The Sturm und Drang of the War on Women


The War on Women debate in the US is generating a storm of verbal and visual rhetoric not seen since . . . the Vietnam War, Paris ’68, the Cuban Revolution, the Russian Revolution and WWII. Such is the historical – and rhetorical – warehouse of images, icons and slogans at the disposal of pamphleteers on both sides of the ideological divide.

Witness the variations on J. Howard Miller’s famous “We Can Do It!”, designed for Westinghouse in 1942.  The heroine rolls up her sleeves and brandishes her biceps in a call for women to put down their dishtowels and don their welding torches in support of the war effort. The middle variation channels the womanly strength of the original into a different call to action, this time in support of women’s reproductive rights. The variation on the right turns that icon back on itself in a puerile assault on women’s rights. Such is the rhetorical elasticity of iconic imagery.

Reinterpreting icons is nothing new. Norman Rockwell’s  ’Rosie the Riveter’ (above right) which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943 is one of America’s most enduring icons. But as the image on the left attests, it’s a dead steal from Michelangelo’s portrayal of the prophet Isaiah, painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1512. This muscular figure was the womanly stereotype that the folks at home were meant to idolize, while the men at the front ogled pin-ups.

Propaganda wars rely on time-tested devices to inflame debate. The images above are torn from the propaganda playbook of WWII Russia. Their vitriolic, ironic humour turns on the depiction of Republicans as Nazi invaders and women as patriotic combatants. While the symbolism of the bayonet piercing a pack of condoms is a visual tour de force, the use of Soviet imagery may do little to win women emotional support.

Not that the Republicans don’t deserve to be depicted that way. What with Rush Limbaugh calling women who use birth control sluts, male politicians demanding to shove a transvaginal wand up a woman’s vagina, Republicans redefining rape and proposing to cut funding for food and aid for low-income pregnant mothers, the Texas anti-planned parenthood law, anti-contraceptive bills in several other states, it can be safely said that the American right is in full battle array. Since November of 2010, over 1,100 pieces of legislation have been introduced across the US to reverse the rights so hard-fought for and won in 1973 by the passing of Roe vs Wade.

Women are rightly pissed off, and are not afraid to say it. None less so than artist Faviana Rodriguez. Executed in a style that harkens back to the posters of revolutionary Cuba in the 1960s, these posters turn Limbaugh’s misogynistic language right back on itself.

The rhetorical twists and turns of the War on Women debate have recently reached a level of absurdity that, sadly, reflects a great democracy so polarized that it uses the same terms to represent opposing ideas. On June 5, Fox News reported ” As President Obama’s poll numbers have slipped over recent months, Democrats are trying to build a narrative that there is a Republican “War on Women.” The White House and the Democratic Party, along with outmoded “feminist” organizations, (Fox’s words) are betting that they can goose turnout in November and the Democratic vote among women by fear-mongering on “women’s issues.”

They’re trying to pass it off as an election ploy. Such is the sturm und drang of contemporary American politics. wn


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