Guest post: paternalism in the spring time

This guest blog comes from D.C. resident and all-around awesome lady, Jessica Roake. Full bio after the jump.

Imagine you are one of many siblings, like 51. You’re older than any of your attention-hogging Western siblings, and though you’ve had your share of academic issues, you’re still doing better than some of your underachieving Southern brothers. You have some swampy urban blight, sure, but you also have cherry blossoms and a lot of marble monuments to show off. There’s only one major difference between you and your siblings, but it’s a really big one. You’re considered a federal district, not a state, so you don’t get a vote at the family table.

You are the sibling nobody listens to, despite the fact that you could really use some help. Your father (don’t worry about the mother, this is a straight-up patriarchy) makes all decisions for you, and what you say makes absolutely no difference to him. You have siblings who rebel against your father, and siblings whose opinions he respects, but they all get to vote on the big family decisions. They strong-arm, negotiate, form alliances and make decisions and law through this voting– you can only add your strongly worded opinions, so nobody takes you seriously. You get what your father doles out, and if he decides to take something away, there’s nothing you can do about it. You try speaking reasonably, you try yelling, you try acting out, you try to enlist your more important siblings, but you are D.C., and your father is the federal government, so your opinion counts for nothing. Sometimes you just feel ignored; sometimes you feel like the most hated member of the family. Last week was the latter, and you really hated your dad.

In my 5 years here in the district, the paternalism of our ‘city-state without a vote’ arrangement has never angered me as much as it did last week. The fact that we are denied an electoral voice is at its most infuriating at times like this, when decisions that affect people in this city– real, low-income, majority African-American women now denied abortion services under the government shutdown compromise plan– are made for us, against our wishes and political will. While The Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion, states are still free to use Medicaid funds for abortion as they see fit. But D.C. is not a state. So though the district is overwhelmingly Democratic and Pro-Choice, aiding low-income women in obtaining a legal medical procedure is no longer in our control. It is now up to the federal government, and they’ve decided to make us a bargaining chip for the conservatives who could not care less about what D.C. wants.

While media outlets celebrate the crisis averted angle, we in the district are left with the distinct (and familiar) feeling of being played as pawns. And we have no recourse. I could call my elected official, congressperson Eleanor Holmes Norton, an accomplished and dedicated public servant forced to play pretend-time democracy, a shadow delegate who gets to add her opinion to the matter but not a real vote. She, in turn, could voice her consituents’ concerns to someone with a vote, in the hope of finding an ally with power. But could she withhold her own vote? No. Could she vote for another plan? No. Could she vote for anything? No.

Do you know who does get a say in whether low-income women are provided access to affordable abortions in the District of Columbia, a city with the third highest poverty rate in the nation? Indiana’s Mike Pence, who, when Congress is in session, lives not in D.C. but in the lovely, affluent suburb of Arlington, Virginia. Elected officials calling D.C. their second home while living outside its borders and acting against its interests is as depressingly ironic as it is common. If they live in the district at all — many live in the tonier enclaves of Northern Virginia or Maryland– these politicians reside in the rich white bubbles of Northwest D.C., where they never have to see the endemic poverty that years of no-priority policy has created. They don’t participate in civic life, they don’t send their children to public schools, they work in the tiny, white, heavily fortified center of a black city.

It is galling enough when the government, while physically located in D.C., opts to take no interest in the fate of its home, to ignore the health epidemics, education crises, and poverty of the city on their way to Georgetown bistros. But on weeks like this, when the government acts actively against the interests and stated positions of the city and its citizens, it is hard not to think that the politicians really hate this city.

I know it is actually less sinister, and more cynical, than that. It made political sense for Obama to “give” Boehner “DC abortion” so that he could save Planned Parenthood and other crucial services and programs. D.C. has no vote, no political clout, and is populated mostly by African-American democrats who will continue to support Obama despite this move. But it is also essential for people to realize that this bargain will be a disaster for thousands of poor women in the district, women who never had a choice because they never had a vote. Once again, our father made a decision for us, and once again we were ignored.

Jessica Roake lives and writes in Washington D.C. She has written for The Awl, The Hairpin, Slate, and Salon, and blogs in fits and starts here.

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