Thursday, January 04, 2007

What Makes a Right Legitimate?

Prepare to be deluged by some thoughts arising from my feverish work on an Anthology of French Feminism. I am buried in work for the rest of this month, so if my posts have a flare of French theory bear with me. Today I was inspired to think aloud about the "abortion" issue still raging in this country. I was reading an essay by Michele Le Doeuff entitled "Towards a Friendly, Transatlantic Critique of The Second Sex," in which she gives the reader the political context in which de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex.

Just after World War II, the French Government decided to give Women the right to vote and run for public office. This was worked out while the government was in exile in Algeria and it was not the product of a women's movement, agitation for the suffrage (unlike our own situation in the U.S.). According te Le Doeuff, formal equality was conferred on women because at the time, the French government believed that if women were more active in politics, peace would be more likely (a rather essentialist view, but whatever).

So when De Beauvoir begins the Second Sex (read here) with an analysis of the current hostility toward feminism, the context is that women have been given the vote (something that they didn't necessarily ask for, at least not in the organized way that the U.S. feminists did), and the misogynists are decrying what a waste it is to give women this formal equality. Hence, the Second Sex explores a rather odd question: why are the men so heated about giving us nothing but equality? Furthermore, why do we deserve this rancor when the vote was given to us and not the product of a long political struggle?

While these questions are interesting in themselves, I couldn't help but turn my mind to the abortion issue in this country. One of the most common arguments, proposed by the so-called libertarian or moderate republican wing , for why we should overturn Roe v. Wade is that it has never been considered legitimate since it was not fought out state by state in the legislatures. The Supreme Court just handed this right to women--it, like the vote in France, was as "gift" from the government, not really the product of a true political struggle. (Now, let me be clear, I think there certainly was a real political struggle and that it was carried out in legislatures all over the country, but for the purposes of my post, I am characterizing the state's rights position on abortion).

Anyway, let's assume that the right to a legal abortion was a "gift" in the same way that the vote was for French women. Does the fact that the government decided to give more rights to women, and thereby take a huge step toward formal equality and liberation, mean that it is necessarily illegitimate? Is a right only legitimate if it is the result of a long, protracted and painful struggle (i.e. the Suffrage Movement in the U.S.)?

If the answer is "yes," does that then mean that French Women should lose the right to vote and run for office since it was a "gift" from the Government?