"Feminists Against Borders" by UK Feminist Fight Back

John Kelly, Jane Doe, and Sacred White Womanhood

This past week has proven, yet again, that Republicans’ purported concern for the “sacredness of life” doesn’t actually extend to people of color, immigrants, or poor people. It’s also shown how far some liberal feminists still have to go in understanding just how central patriarchal rhetoric and policies are to U.S. foreign and domestic policy.

Last Thursday, Trump’s Chief of Staff, John Kelly, gave a speech that laid bare the connection between U.S. foreign policy and rhetoric about womanhood. He said, in part:

When I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, is sacred. That’s gone.

Feminist commentators and others were quick to criticize Kelly’s remarks (and rightly so) as sexist, ahistorical and hypocritical for a member of an administration headed by a serial rapist. But many failed to address the mythology of the U.S. military that Kelly’s speech displays. Instead, they described the “sacred” woman part of the speech as simply a “tangent” in an otherwise credible speech, describing his comments as a rebuke of a country that doesn’t appreciate the importance of the military and its sacrifices. Ruth Marcus from the Washington Post, for instance, wrote that — Kelly’s comments about women aside — his speech left her “mesmerized, and, to be honest, a bit teary-eyed.”

Kelly’s comments about sacred womanhood weren’t a tangent. They’re at the heart of the rhetoric that upholds U.S. nationalism and military aggression. By only objecting to a single piece of the fantasy of American heroism and morality that Kelly upholds, liberal feminists have been taken in by what this rhetoric is designed to do: erase the histories of violence that the U.S. military has condoned and facilitated and garner support for future acts of violence.

As he did Thursday, Kelly has repeatedly argued that the U.S. military’s actions are legitimate and above criticism. In 2010, he claimed that the United States has never gone to war “to build empires, or enslave peoples, but to free those held in the grip of tyrants.” This flawed reading of history — and some feminists’ acceptance of it — ignores the way that the United States employs the protection of white women to justify imperial intervention while perpetuating violence against women in the Global South as a means of social control.

A brief refresher: The United States government purposefully infected hundreds of Guatemalan women with syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections in the 1940s; supported trade policies that increased sexual violence in Latin America; and continues to expand the Border Control agency that rapes women in detention and at the border. These state actions haven’t respected the sanctity of human life or protected people from violence and oppression; rather, they’ve perpetuated the violence and destabilization that contribute to contemporary migration — crucial historical context that the U.S. government erases in its discussion of an immigration crisis that it has almost-singlehandedly created.

Liberal feminists’ uncritical support of the U.S. military’s representatives lays the groundwork to erase contemporary violence. The recent case of 17-year-old Jane Doe — an abuse survivor and Central American immigrant who sought and was repeatedly denied an abortion by the Trump administration — is just one example of the U.S. government’s hypocrisy of pretending it protects women while actually denying women the right to bodily autonomy. (For updates and analysis about the case, I recommend following Rewire’s Tina Vasquez). Jane Doe’s case would not exist without decades of U.S. foreign policy, from the War on Drugs to the CIA’s undermining of Latin American governments, which has caused widespread civil war and forced migration. Women of color bear the brunt of U.S. imperialism, immigration policies, and restrictions of reproductive freedom.

The U.S. glorification of war and its treatment of Jane Doe are part of the same system. Our response to sexism and the denial of reproductive rights should not reinforce the American myth of ‘just war’ or the morality of arbitrary national borders. Racism, sexism and military imperialism are sacred to America; women’s and other marginalized folks’ lives are not.

Header image via “Feminists without Borders” by UK Feminist Fightback.

Jess is a first-gen college graduate, LGBTQ person and cat lover living in Boston, MA. They can usually be found on public transportation or the internet.

Jess is a first-gen college graduate, LGBTQ person and cat lover living in Boston, MA. They can usually be found on public transportation or the internet.

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