Women of Barnard -- Cheerleading Squad
The cynical but clarifying politics of commencement.

Cheering for Obama at Barnard


Kathryn Jean Lopez

On his path to the White House, the current president of the United States sold himself as “change we can believe in.” A day after Mother’s Day this year, he ran with that “change” word in a commencement speech at Barnard, an all-women’s college in New York. That he spoke at Barnard, and not the neighboring Columbia of his matriculation, was, of course, by design. For the “change” he is running on in his reelection campaign rests on the claim that a war is being waged on women. It’s a mendacious claim, merely a tactic to dismiss those of us who believe that undoing his menacing, unsustainable federal takeover of health care is necessary to preserve the American experiment.

During the commencement, the president was clearly among believers. The majority opinion there appeared to be that it’s a cardinal virtue, the very stuff of civic obligation, to institutionalize and even require under penalty of federal law so much that has immiserated men and women and wrecked havoc on family life over these last decades of  “sexual freedom.” He was in a crowd who enjoy a foundational sense of security in the belief that the government will come through for you, in the likelihood that men will not. It is a worldview in which men are not to be considered reliable helpmates on the journey of life. Seeing men in positive light as partners or helpers would implicitly acknowledge the ideologically unthinkable — that men and women are complementary and not meant to be carbon copies of each other in the workplace or anywhere else.

But that President Obama’s speech — which predictably included all the rhetorical fear-inducing flourishes about that strategic, imaginary oppressive state of women in the United States today and to come if a Cardinal Dolan or Mitt Romney has his way — came in May, the month during which we honor our moms, was particularly pregnant with irony. (In May, some of us also honor a Jewish woman from a little town off the Sea of Galilee who used her freedom to play a monumental role in human history, as a pretty special mother.) Our celebration of mothers in May is the stuff of marketing genius, a boon to restaurants and florists, and a staple for Hallmark’s sales calendar. But it deserves more, especially in this election year. We really ought to tackle the important questions: What is motherhood? What is woman? What is the state of the relations between Mars and Venus, and why would we ever federalize the chaos we have made of it all?

The Department of Health and Human Services mandate that some of us are concerned about is Orwellian in its claims: It purports to be about improving women’s health, but it is actually an attack on fertility (as is so much else — most especially the contraceptive pill — that is sold as women’s liberation). It’s also an attack on pregnancy: The mandate addresses “preventative services.” In the Federal Register, we’ve declared women’s fertility an impediment to happiness, and pregnancy a disease to be prevented.

“They claim that the Church is [waging] war on women, because we won’t treat motherhood as a disease and children as cancers to be prevented and then killed through pharmacological means similar to how chemotherapy kills tumors,” one Catholic priest said from his Massachusetts parish that same Mother’s Day.“In reality,” he continued, “it’s radical feminism that is at war with women because it has declared war on motherhood and the maternal meaning of a woman’s existence.”

That’s what we need to discuss in this election season.

It’s unacceptable that our first freedom — freedom of religion — would be fundamentally eroded, and in this misleading way, appealing to “women’s health.” In his Mother’s Day homily, this parish priest explained what too few Catholics have heard in recent decades: “The Church teaches that the true good of woman is not found in a ‘raw freedom’ understood as the ability to do anything a woman wants, including killing her own children and trying to run away from her maternal nature. The true good of woman is found, rather, in an authentic understanding and use of freedom. God has made us free precisely so that we may love, so that we may love Him who loves us first, so that we might love others as He has loved us. The real fulfillment of woman is not found in a distorted understanding and use of freedom, but in love.”

That’s not such a bizarre idea, is it?

This is the most personal of issues, and you’re free to disagree with me on it. And isn’t that the point? We are free here — even to do things as crazy as respecting the procreative nature of sex and valuing, as opposed to oppressing, the genius of female anatomy and the life-giving power of the sexual act. Those of us who are supposedly warriors against women are simply proposing that we continue to be able to practice alternative ways of life, and have the freedom to practice our faith in the public square.

At Barnard, speakers hailed the president as a “reproductive rights” savior, and the audience applauded his speech as a powerful mobilizing moment. They were delighted to see their cause made coercively real, by government mandate. It’s faux freedom at the expense of freedom itself. Feel free to disagree with the assessment that sexual license has harmed men and women and families — but don’t trespass on the constitutional protection of the freedom in lieu of a debate.

The women of Barnard are free to be the cheerleading squad for Obama’s reelection. And Georgetown University is likewise free to nod approval as Kathleen Sebelius cynically cites President Kennedy, the first Catholic president, in order to quell an unprecedented religious-freedom controversy — even as it raises existential questions about the Catholic university’s mission. But the deepest meaning of freedom, freedom in its moral and intellectual fullness, deserves some attention from the rest of us in this crucial election year. This administration’s change in how we can practice belief represents a radical change in how the American government views religious liberty — as something to be accommodated rather than protected. When that particular Barnard cheering stops, the vote will have been for freedom.  

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached a[email protected].