The Moral Call in Michelle Obama's Speech on Women
On October 13th, First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking in light of the recent sexual assault and harassment allegations against Presidential candidate Donald Trump, made a statement in defense of females: “I wanted them to understand that the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.” The elated response from the crowd suggests the growing affirmation in American society for Obama’s words. She went on to clarify the moral tone of this measure of society, affirming that women “...deserve to be treated with dignity and respect” and urging women from all around the world to “...disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them, and that they should make their voices heard in the world.”
Obama’s affirmation of America’s moral progress is presented in stark contrast to Trump’s boasted sexual assault of women, lackadaisical attitude towards sexual violence, and use of demeaning language about women. Trump is not treated with the traditional respectful and slightly wary treatment of a political opponent; in fact, his name is never even mentioned. Rather, this speech addresses Trump’s behavior in terms that highlight its abject deviation from the modern Western world’s rhetoric about women and sexual violence. Albeit not directly, Obama recognizes it as emblematic of the unchecked, normative perpetuation of rape culture in our society. In doing so, she has brought the issue as a concern for moral consideration to the public, political sphere.
Regardless of the fact that the moral issues in perpetuating rape culture is an imperative ethical inquiry in and of itself, the field of bioethics in its traditional context is also greatly impacted. A further look into sexual violence notes its ties to the concept of patriarchal domination and the root motivations of sexual violence perpetrators in “elements of control, power, domination, and humiliation.” These systems of action and thought are founded in clear defiance of such prominent bioethical principles as autonomy, beneficence, and nonmaleficence, thus compelling scrutiny by bioethicists.
Sexual and violent ideologies are global in their reach, as well as in their devastation, due to their systemic impact. The normativity of sexual violence is apparent in its causal relationship to prevalent medical issues, including increased incidence of HIV infections, sexually transmitted infections, low birth rate, induced abortion, adolescent pregnancy, depression, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, and negative child health. Conversations about these medical issues should therefore include a recognition of the global prevalence of sexual violence, as well as an awareness of sexual violence as an enduring cause for medical concern. Preventative measures and treatment of these medical problems cannot take place out of context and without marking the systems which create them.
This is reminiscent of Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s famous 1995 speech at the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women. In a speech titled, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” then First Lady Clinton called for improving the rights and political, social, and economic engagement opportunities of women. This call for action has been identified as fundamental in the global discussion about human rights, and even in Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Throughout her campaign, Clinton has made reference to Trump’s treatment and views about women and other socially-distinct groups, namely “...immigrants and African-Americans and Latinos and people with disabilities and P.O.W.s and our military and Muslims and everybody.” In aligning their situations, Clinton is reinforcing the intersectionality of the discrimination these separate social groups face. Indeed, the inclusion of such a variety of socially-constructed groups, ranging in defining social characteristics from religion to ethnicity to political status to occupation, indicates the multiplanar nature of the impact of patriarchal domination. Perhaps, through First Lady Obama’s initiative in calling forth public moral concern for women in our society, the broader range of intersectional issues affected by systemic, violent ideologies will receive their due moral focus as well.
The merit in Michelle Obama exposing sexual violence and rape culture as forefront in this campaign speaks to the importance of participation by politicians as ethical agents. A form of participatory bioethics, advocated for by Lisa Cahill, is primary to dealing with the bigger issue of widespread, cross-social-distinction oppression of minorities and the situationally vulnerable. Reflecting on the current political atmosphere as a moral construct serves to bring the tools of bioethics into any issue with ties to the political, social, or economic spheres. By seizing this opportunity to shift the current political conversation to a moral focus on sexual assault and the systemic oppression of women, Obama has opened an avenue for addressing intersectional, ethical concerns.
Obama, Michelle. "Remarks by the First Lady at Hillary for America Campaign Event in Manchester, Nh." Speech, Hillary for American, Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, October 14, 2016. October 13, 2016. Accessed October 14, 2016.
Kalra, Gurvinder, and Dinesh Bhugra. "Sexual violence against women: Understanding cross-cultural intersections." Indian journal of psychiatry 55, no. 3 (2013): 244.
García-Moreno, Claudia. Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. World Health Organization, 2013.
Clinton, Hillary Rodham. "Women's Rights Are Human Rights." Address, The United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, September 5, 1995. Accessed October 18, 2016.
Chozik, Amy. "Issues in Hillary Clinton’s Past Leave Her Muted in Furor Over Donald Trump." New York Times, October 15, 2016. Accessed October 18, 2016.