Republican War on Women: Parsing the Issues

The battle for women’s votes is heating up in the United States.  Though pollsters disagree somewhat in their estimates of the size of the gender gap between Obama and Romney, the potential for women to swing even more to Obama than they did in 2008 is now in focus.  So, suddenly, the Republicans are trying to cover over their recent attacks on women’s reproductive rights–which range widely beyond the cost coverage of contraceptives–in order to get women into their fold.

There appear to be two strategies emerging from the Republicans.  In both, they avoid confronting the attacks made on women’s reproductive rights in recent months and instead try to redirect attention in a way that will make women voters forget that this is an issue they share and should stand together on.

The first strategy is to claim that what women really are concerned about is the economy, a tactic that lumps women back in with men, in order to obfuscate the division that emerges when reproduction is the topic.  This false division between women’s economic interests and their reproductive rights was the key focus on my inaugural speech, given at Oxford last Tuesday.

Women’s economic disadvantage, still massive in the United States despite the even match between the sexes in qualifications, is fundamentally rooted in their reproductive vulnerability.  As long as women bear the main burden of child care, as they do in the US and around the world, they experience significant economic inequality. Expenses of daycare are still mentally deducted against the woman’s income, not the man’s, within households, for instance.  And studies show that women will hold back their efforts to win promotions, will choose less competitive careers, and will resist growing their own businesses just because they fear the stress that their own career advancement brings in the unbearable balancing act the society requires from them.

It is worth noting that Obama holds a 62% to 32% advantage among single women, but only 49% to 42% among the married.  I think the difference between married and single women on their attitude toward the Republicans reflects, in part, the fact that many young single women are still facing the future challenge of taking care of children.  It has been my experience as a professor that, for young single women who have not had children, apprehension about managing this family conflict is a constant worry, one that affects their career decisions even while they are still in school.

Older married women who already have raised their children and have, perhaps, become desensitized to that issue should be encouraged to reflect on their own past anxieties, but also to consider what better future they might want for their daughters.

The burden of child-bearing, from the interruptions of maternity to the stress of managing child care, falls heavily on women in the form of economic disadvantage.  It is disingenuous of the Republicans to be conflating these issues, as if men and women are equal in either the economic or reproductive realm.

We can see the way Republicans’ desire to keep women unequal in the reproductive domain matches perfectly with their intention to keep them unequal in the economic domain in Romney’s unwillingness to endorse  the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which the President signed in 2009.  Romney is apparently unsure whether he supports equal pay for equal work.  Make no mistake:  a key reason why women are paid less than men is child-bearing.

The second tactic is equally dishonorable.  That strategy is the “divide and conquer” approach, in which Republicans shout that women are not a monolith, but instead often disagree on issues.  It is, of course, true that women have differences of opinion among them.  And, sadly, many of these differences are highlighted, manipulated, and magnified by the fear-mongering rhetoric often employed by the Republicans.

American women need to focus on their commonalities and start demanding that their government address things like reproductive health as a human rights issue that applies to half the citizenry.  They should not tolerate political rhetoric that actively and obviously attempts to divide them, nor disingenuous attempts to suggest that their economic interests are identical to those of men.

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