Red With Envy: A Feminist Anthropology of Republican Policy

Do you ever get the feeling that your uterus is being watched? Over the past year, Republicans have put forth a string of efforts to monitor and control women’s reproductive organs. This has us seeing red, and no, it’s not just the blood coming out of our… wherever.

In April, President Trump signed legislation that would allow states to block Medicaid reimbursements from reaching Planned Parenthood–cutting off access to cancer and STI screenings, as well as contraception, for low-income patients. Then, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a health care bill, known as the AHCA, that would “defund” Planned Parenthood while disadvantaging women in many other ways. Vice President Pence and many other conservative, male politicians have made it their mission to destroy Planned Parenthood and prevent women from accessing constitutionally protected abortion services.

What if the war on women boils down to a simple emotion: jealousy?

As anthropologists, we seek to understand the human species through a variety of perspectives. As feminists, we work toward gender equality in our own society. Here, we resurrect an old idea—womb envy—to expose the underlying cause of these recent attacks on reproductive rights, and to conceive an alternate path forward.

Womb envy, the inverse of Freud’s penis envy, describes men’s frustration with their inability to bear children. It is linked to behavior that glorifies reproduction and deprecates women, reducing them to walking wombs. It has even been suggested that men’s historic dominance in areas like government and science is a form of compensation for their inability to produce life.

Anthropology provides varied examples of men’s attempts to overcome their reproductive inferiority complex. Researchers, including the famous Margaret Mead, have recorded myths that say the power to give birth was stolen from men by women. Ethnographers have observed bloody male initiation rituals that imitate women’s biological passage into adulthood. During traditional, secret men’s ceremonies in New Guinea, boys were subjected to genital cutting, and men’s semen, like breast milk, was consumed to promote growth. In many societies, men ritually act out pregnancy and childbirth, demanding the same prenatal and postnatal care as their wives. Forms of production, like iron smelting, are sometimes undertaken in exclusively male spaces and described as giving birth. Ancient Maya blood-letting rituals, in which men pierced their penises with stingray spines, represent a co-option of menstruation and a claim to power over fertility. At the same time, societies attempt to control women’s reproductive power through measures like menstrual taboos and female genital mutilation.

In the U.S., during the late eighteenth century, girls were discouraged from getting an education for fear that learning would disrupt their periods and harm their ovaries. Today, in a nation in which more women are graduating from college than men, and in which women aspire to the highest levels of business and government, it might be expected that a new epidemic of womb envy would break out.

Indeed, such a crisis was predicted 30 years ago by Margaret Atwood in her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, now a series on Hulu. In the novel, environmental disasters have made most of the population infertile, and the U.S. has become a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. Based on Old Testament precedent, the few fertile women are forced to bear children for the wealthy leaders. Meanwhile, envious wives knit endless scarves in compensation. Abortion providers, homosexuals and others who do not conform to the pro-birth system are executed.

Atwood tells us that in the years leading up to this shocking situation, women’s rights to work and own property were gradually taken away. Nice, normal men were complicit in this process, as it raised their self-esteem to be able to take care of their partners and female relatives. Prominent, conservative women also advocated for this return to traditional gender roles, although it ended in the loss of their own rights.

Suddenly, the dystopian fantasy sounds all too familiar to anyone who has seen Fox News or listened to conservative radio.

Over the first trimester of our current, Republican-controlled government, many forms of compensatory and appropriative behavior have flared up—from all-male committees charged with reforming our nation’s health care system to attempts by states to require the biological father’s approval before an abortion. One Texas state senator shattered a glass table with a gavel in an attempt to stop a woman from testifying about the health repercussions of an anti-choice bill. Other male politicians have asked why men should subsidize insurance that covers contraception, mammograms and childbirth. The alt-right’s favorite word, “cuck,” comes from “cuckold,” highlighting men’s anxiety over the paternity of their offspring; meanwhile, their standard-bearer Breitbart informs us that “birth control makes women unattractive.” Concerning the women in the workplace, Trump has revoked rules meant to promote equal pay and prevent sexual harassment; despite his daughter Ivanka’s promises, there are no signs that a paid parental leave policy is gestating.

Nevertheless, women persist. The historic Women’s Marches in January were a firm rejection of misogynist politics. Inspired and indignant ladies everywhere are lining up to run for political office. Women were instrumental in killing the first version of the AHCA, and they will stop the second from becoming law. Women also pushed Bill O’Reilly from his platform at Fox News by speaking out against workplace harassment and discrimination. In sports, the U.S. women’s hockey team went on strike for better pay and went on to win a World Championship. Serena Williams won the Australian Open while two months pregnant, epitomizing the incredible strength of women’s bodies.

Anti-abortion policies and reduced access to reproductive health services work to control female bodies and to keep women from gaining power in all arenas of public life. At the root of this behavior is men’s fear of becoming obsolete. If women can control reproduction while also succeeding in the traditionally male areas of production, are men irrelevant? We think not. When gender roles reduce us to our biology, we all suffer—men and women, cisgender and transgender, heterosexual and homosexual, and everyone in between or beyond.

We suggest that conservative men shed their anxieties by taking on a bigger role in parenting, caregiving and housekeeping, rather than disparaging those forms of labor. Let’s move on from breaking glass tables to breaking glass ceilings.

Otherwise, guys, there’s always the ancient Maya method.

Opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of their employers.




About and

Ari Caramanica is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at Harvard University, where she also holds a Master's degree. Caramanica's research is centered on ancient agricultural landscapes on the coast of Peru. Using archaeological and environmental data, she traces the history of water and plant management and human-induced climate change in the past.
Jessica MacLellan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. She earned her M.A. at the same institution. MacLellan conducts archaeological research in Guatemala, focusing on the role of household rituals in the development of ancient Maya society.