The most offensive and shocking—and just plain gross—thing said during the whole Todd Akin "legitimate rape" fiasco wasn't even what Akin said (you know, that women who are raped can't get pregnant), but what the man who popularized that idea had to say. Dr. John C. Willke, former president of the National Right to Life Committee, defended his views to The New York Times' Pam Belluck this week, explaining that the mechanism of non-conception among rape victims works like this:
"This is a traumatic thing—she’s, shall we say, she’s uptight. She is frightened, tight, and so on. And sperm, if deposited in her vagina, are less likely to be able to fertilize. The tubes are spastic."
Let's be clear: This is bullshit. It's also creepy. "Shall we say"? That's a little wink, wink, like the good doctor's saying something funny and a little risqué. "Uptight"? That's a euphemism for "frigid," the old idea that some women are just too cold to want or enjoy sex. This is even more disgusting because Willke is talking about rape.
And with that, Willke perfectly plays into what is usually a stereotype from college women's studies classes, becoming a living, breathing embodiment of the patriarchy. In other words, "old, white men." Old, white men is shorthand for the idea that conservative politicians who make abortion policy do not have pure motives, but instead are motivated by their contempt for women and by possibly being secret sex perverts. (Who else thinks such things?) It doesn't seem like a coincidence that the Willke's comment has been noted widely under a lot of female bylines -- The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta, The New Republic's Molly Redden, The New York Daily News' Kristen A. Lee.
The National Review's Victor Davis Hanson, for one, wondered why so many Democrats are suddenly talking about "old, white men" these days. Hanson noted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry had each used the term, as well as the somewhat less prominent "Donna Christensen, the non-voting congressional delegate from the Virgin Islands," and "Louise Lucas, a Virginia state senator." It must be a race thing, Hanson concluded:
If Obama can stigmatize Romney voters as racists and “white” supremacists, then perhaps he can peel away 3 to 5 percent of the critical independents, who desperately fear being associated with a reactionary racist.
But really, "old,white men" is more of a woman thing. And for the record, the phrase has been around forever. It shows up in a June 26, 1991 New York Times story by Tamar Lewin about rules preventing abortion counseling to minors. "It's a bunch of old men telling women how to think and act," a Planned Parenthood worker said. A September 29, 1992 Minneapolis Star Tribune story by Carol Byrne noted that more women than ever were running for Senate, and focused in particular on the challenger to Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, "the senator many women love to hate... chief interrogator and tormentor of Anita Hill after she accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment." An activist told the newspaper people realized if they wanted change they need "to change the faces of those 14 old, white men" on the judiciary panel. The "Old, white men" cliché extends beyond politics: In April 2010, for example, it showed up in a mini-controversy over the lack of young female pundits.
But there are stereotypes because they're also types, right? Willke and Akin perfectly embody it, and it doesn't help that the Republican Party's official platform supports a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions. Republicans face a significant gender gap, even though there's not much of a gender gap on the issue of abortion itself, The National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru points out. Democrats have been accusing the Republican Party of being "hostile to women." Many, many, many Republicans denounced Akin Tuesday, calling his comments "repugnant," "offensive," and "insulting" and emphasized their respect for women. Paul Ryan rejected Akin's views in exactly the same terms as President Obama, saying, "Rape is rape." But Republicans could have denounced Akin's views 12 years ago, when he was first elected to Congress. His rape skepticism goes all the way back to 1991, when he was a state legislator questioning the need for a marital rape law. Akin's had a home in the Republican Party for a long time, back when he was a much younger, white man.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.