In the essay "A Uterus Is Not a Substitute for a Conscience," which was also published in various media outlets as "A Uterus Is No Substitute for a Conscience," "What Abu Ghraib Taught Me," and "Feminism's Assumptions Upended," author Barbara Ehrenreich reacts to the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that became uncovered and publicized in early 2004. In the essay, Ehrenreich professes shock that three of the seven soldiers who were photographed with prisoners and charged with abuse in the scandal were women.
In Ehrenreich's view, this exposure that women were as capable of committing horrifying and unacceptable acts of cruelty as men upended one of the basic tenets of feminism. Most feminists believed that women held higher moral standards and were generally morally superior to men. This led to the further core assumption that if women assimilated into important positions in politics, the military, business, education, and other key institutions of society, these institutions would experience positive change. The change would come about automatically because women were more empathetic, kinder, and less violent than men.
What took place at Abu Ghraib shattered this illusion for Ehrenreich. She realized that women were as capable as men of committing unspeakable acts of cruelty.
The phrase "a uterus is not a substitute for a conscience" means that female gender alone does not guarantee anyone moral superiority. Not only were three of the soldiers torturing prisoners women, but also the prison director, the top US intelligence officer responsible for detainees, and the overall manager of the Iraq occupation were all women as well.
Ehrenreich adds that she still believes in fighting for gender equality. Women should have the right to do whatever men do. However, she no longer believes that gender equality alone will bring about a better world. Gender equality must be coupled with creating and maintaining higher standards of conscience for all.