Voices: The real meaning behind Matt Gaetz’s joking tweet about Roe v Wade protesters

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Matt Gaetz  (AP)
Matt Gaetz (AP)

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz is not exactly known for his sophisticated thinking.

You would think the Republican congressman would prefer to stay out of the abortion debate, with the Supreme Court seemingly poised to overturn Roe v Wade – the landmark decision that guaranteed a constitutional right to an abortion. However, Gaetz is a social media agitator above all else, and so he tweeted on Wednesday: “How many of the women rallying against overturning Roe are over-educated, under-loved millennials who sadly return from protests to a lonely microwave dinner with their cats, and no bumble matches?”

The retrograde, garden-variety, even boring sexism of the tweet immediately made him, in Twitter parlance, the day’s “main character”. But it is also revelatory of the way in which, for all of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s high-mindedness in the draft opinion the justice authored, abortion bans are inextricably linked to an extremely basic form of barefoot-and-pregnant patriarchal ideology.

Gaetz’s tweet played all the hits with a remarkable economy of words. He links “over-educated” with “under-loved” in a way that recalls 19th century bluestocking political cartoons and “M.R.S. degrees”, and which any woman who has ever felt the need to dumb herself down for the sake of a man’s ego understands on a personal level. He conjures the ancient cat-lady stereotype without irony and pairs it with a sad microwave dinner — because if a woman does not have a man and three children to cook for, why would she bother? And he sets this tiredest of tropes amid political protests against overturning Roe, on the assumption that the only reason women attend these rallies is because they’re bitter, childless shrews with nothing else to do.

My point here is not to argue against the merits of this joke, which is too stupid to really be bothered with. The point is that while those of us here in the age of enlightenment can see this tweet for what it is — Stone Age sexism lightly updated for the 21st century with an online dating reference — the core values it espouses are still very much relevant to those who would like to see the world return to this kind of hierarchical cultural and governmental structure.

Gaetz’s joke relies on the idea that the only women who care about abortion rights are those who have spent so much time thinking about things that they are, as a result, single, childless, and unhappy. Which in turn relies on the idea that any of these things have anything to do with one another as a matter of natural law.

Because while Roe has been established precedent for 50 years, nominally giving women the right to choose if and when to have children, the idea that women without children are always unhappier than mothers has never fully gone away. This cultural attitude is what has led to today’s Supreme Court pushing us back into a world in which motherhood for women may become an actual imperative. In this construction, forcing women to give birth even when they don’t want to may be seen as a gift, not a denial of rights. Because aren’t all women happier when they have children anyway? Don’t all women secretly want to be mothers? As a matter of fact, many fervent anti-abortion politicians and activists have used this very framing to defend lack of rape exceptions in their proposed abortion bans. If a person becomes pregnant by means of rape, the rape is tragic, but they should learn to see the resulting pregnancy as a gift from God.

Like most attention-seeking conservative politicians, Gaetz tends to seek out controversial political issues and hew to their most extreme positions, which is where he lands on the Roe debate. But if Gaetz’s opinion on abortion is the result of genuine, serious reflection and study, I’d be shocked. What Gaetz demonstrates in his tweet mocking abortion protesters is the blithe misogyny at the root of the issue and strikes at the heart of this ideology — forcing them to give birth is what will make those silly women truly happy in the end.

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