The Bipartisan Interest in Making Women Feel Bad

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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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:


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 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.

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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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