The Bipartisan Interest in Making Women Feel Bad

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Democrats want you to think there's a war on women. And Republicans want you to think there's a war on moms. Who loses? Anyone who believes them.
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MoveOn.org

Reflecting on the life prospects of my fiance, my sister, my mother, and my female friends and acquaintances, I can only conclude that they're mostly unaffected by whether President Obama wins the White House or Mitt Romney manages to unseat him. Were my preferred candidate, Gary Johnson, to improbably be elected, Muslims, innocents accused of terrorism, and folks proximate to the drug trade would be better off. But I doubt he'd do much to make the lives of women appreciably better. It's one of the many privileges of living in this country: daily life goes on largely unaffected by the whims of the man or woman who inhabits the White House. Unlike in Saudi Arabia or Iran, women as a class aren't vulnerable to gendered oppression.

Don't get me wrong. More than any other single individual, presidents influence public policy, and some of it matters. President Obama is perfectly within his rights to argue that his health care bill makes women marginally better off. And Mitt Romney can legitimately argue the converse. Abortion is a legitimate issue. There are many others besides that bear on women. Have at 'em.

But there is a perverse incentive for people trying to elect both of these men to go much farther, doing their utmost to persuade female voters that they're under attack by the other side.

To wit:

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What I love about that Twitter exchange is how clearly it lays out what's going on here. Partisans willfully use dubious, unfair rhetoric in a never ending effort to zing "the other side," which deserves it, because don't they do the same thing? And it's morally okay, because "anyone sensible" can see through it, where "sensible" is defined as media savvy political junkies.

The losers? Women out in America who take the "war" rhetoric seriously -- that is to say, the intended audience for the talking points, without whom there'd be no point in trotting them out at all. 

So there's a WarOnWomen.com. MoveOn.org has a Web page listing "10 shocking attacks from the GOP's War on Women." Here's Democratic National Committee Chair and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz invoking the phrase on a March episode of "Meet the Press":

MR. GREGORY: Nice to have you here in studio. So let me ask you about this issue of contraception and this fight over social issues. Just as I've asked your-the two other guests I've had this morning, can you appreciate where they're coming from, which is-this is not a war on women, which they say is a vast overstatement, or about access to contraception, but this is about religious liberty that started with the president's new regulation about faith institutions and access and who pays for contraception.

REP. SCHULTZ: Well, if it's not a war on women, then let's just look at what happened this week in contraception. First, you had the Blunt-Rubio bill that was on the floor in the United States Senate that wouldn't just deal with making sure that women couldn't have access to contraception, it would actually say that any boss could use their own moral conviction to decide what access to health care their employees could have, making sure that women would have to have their own access to health care, whether it's to mammograms or contraception or to amniocenteses or any other type of health care access, decided by their boss. And that was defeated in the Senate. So the Republicans actually want to go much further than just saying women shouldn't have access to, to contraception. They want to say that bosses should be able to decide what kind of access to health care women can have.

It's perfectly legitimate to criticize the Blunt-Rubio bill and to set forth reasons why its passage would be bad for women. What's objectionable is 1) the implication that the Republicans who voted for this bill are motivated by antagonism toward women and engaged in an aggressive campaign to war on them (the truthful motivation is some mix of concern for protecting religious liberty and pandering to religious conservatives and opponents of sweeping health-care mandates). 2) The sly invocation of the phrase "access to contraception," as if what's at issue here is the ability to buy condoms or birth control as opposed to a debate about who covers their cost.

As stated, the politically savvy see through the hyperbole and subtly inaccurate language. The true victims aren't GOP political operatives, who engage in distortions of their own, but the class of women who don't pay close attention to politics, hear these talking points, and erroneously conclude that if the GOP candidate wins the election birth control may disappear from commerce.

Women ought to know that Republicans don't think the government should force private employers to include contraception in the health-care plans they offer, and that Democrats disagree. It's easy to get that truth across without stoking fears that access to contraception might totally disappear. And if you think it's wrong to mislead women into being more frightened than facts justify, more care with language and less deliberate fear-mongering is needed.

For Republicans, one perverse incentive is to make homemakers feel as demeaned and disrespected by liberals as possible. Enter Hilary Rosen. The obscure Obama supporter goes on CNN, mentions in passing that Mitt Romney's wife has never worked a day in her life, and ignites a kerfuffle. On substance and style, her remarks are worthy of criticism, but seeing her mistake, some on the right are treating this advocate, unknown to almost all Americans, as if she is speaking for the Obama Administration and the entire left. If the president has been antagonistic to stay-at-home moms since he took office in 2008 I surely haven't noticed the digs.

This instance is fleeting enough that it wouldn't much bother me if not for the sustained talking point in 2008 that liberal criticism of Sarah Palin was explained mostly by the fact that she had lots of kids, or didn't abort when notified that she'd have a special needs child, or that liberals are afraid of powerful conservative women. Those sentiments existed in the minds of some people -- news flash, there are all sorts of prejudices in the world -- but their commonness was vastly exaggerated.

Again, the real victim wasn't so much Palin. Unfortunately, any VP candidate is going to be subject to unfair attacks of some kind. She's a tough, professional politician, equipped to handle them. But the stay-at-home moms and Christians with special needs kids who suddenly felt as if the amount of antagonism toward them in the country was much greater than it actually is?

They were the real losers.

By all means, let's debate the full range of issues that affect women, along with every other issue in Election 2012. As it rages on, women as a class would be a whole lot better off if those of us framing the national conversation maintained a modicum of perspective. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney dislikes women, nor is either driven by hostility to working women or stay-at-home moms. If elected, both are going to pursue policies that they earnestly think are good for Americans generally and, when aimed at women as a class, advantageous for them too. Both candidates are going to enjoy the support of millions of women, and neither group of supporters are going to be acting irrationally or suffering from false consciousness or demeaning themselves. Finally, while America circa 2013 is going to be waging wars on drugs and terrorism -- with many innocents bloodied and killed as a result -- it won't be waging a war on women.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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