What the 'slut' talk is really about

By Kristin Luker, San Francisco Chronicle

I was a first-year graduate student at Yale in the late 1960s and had been called into the room of a faceless bureaucrat. What I mostly remember about the man was how gray he was: gray eyes, gray hair, garbed in the traditional Ivy League charcoal-gray suit.

He told me that the fellowship I was on was being dropped, and I needed to switch to another one. The problem, it seemed, was that I was eligible for two fellowships; one roughly the equivalent of what I had, and one much more generous. After looking at me for a long moment, he summarily dismissed the very idea of awarding me the better fellowship. "Well," he said, leaning over the table so he could explain the facts of graduate school life to me, "we absolutely can't give you that fellowship. You might get pregnant and get married." And yes, he did say it in that order.

Note what he didn't say. He didn't say that I might choose to become pregnant, or that such a question never arose when male graduate students were under consideration. (I know because I asked them.)

And that's what all this slut talk is really about.

When I was in graduate school 40 years ago, you could have a private life or a career, but not both. (Men, needless to say, could and did have both.) Because the chastity of women of any age was considered public property, you had one of three mutually exclusive choices: married, celibate or employed. And with respect to celibacy, I absolutely swear that I once heard a distinguished female oceanographer of a certain age approvingly described as being "the nun of the sea."

Until the women's movement turned everything upside down just a short time later, not just pregnancy but, as in my case, the mere threat of pregnancy was enough to keep women second-class citizens.

In every fundamentalist movement that I know of, men want many choices for themselves while leaving women with a small set of hard ones. As most of the major world religions develop a fundamentalist wing, the common theme is a push to get women out of the public sphere and into the home. In Tahrir Square, military officers forced detained female protesters to undergo virginity tests, which they then videotaped. And the officers even defended the practice; an anonymous general was quoted as saying, "The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine."

But they are: Political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have shown convincingly that support for women's equality is strongly correlated with support for democracy around the world.

And as economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have shown clearly for the United States, women's equality - that vast explosion of female doctors, lawyers and academics that emerged starting in the 1970s and that I was a part of - was a product of the pill.

So this is the hard truth that women of my generation learned, and one that younger women (and men) ignore at their peril. As Rush Limbaugh has been kind enough to illustrate in graphic detail, the fight over contraception shows it's not about religion, it's not about abortion, and it's not about "conscience," although it contains elements of all of them.

Rather, for those of us who want families and careers, love and work, the question is whether women in this country (and the world) can be fully human, or be reduced to our ovaries and our genitals.

As the great Simone de Beauvoir wrote so memorably more than 60 years ago, "Man is defined as a human being and woman is defined as a female. Whenever she tries to behave as a human being she is accused of trying to emulate the male." 3/22/2012