A phrase that keeps coming up this Republican primary season is "war on women." We heard it when women were kept out of a hearing on Obama's contraception ruling, when Foster Friess made his joke about birth control, when Rick Santorum attacked single moms, when Susan G. Komen withdrew funding to Planned Parenthood for reasons that looked suspiciously like the decision of anti-abortion activists. And, most recently, when Rush Limbaugh called a reasonable woman testifying reasonably about birth control a "slut," taking the discussion way, way downhill.
It would be easy to look at all this as a threat to women's progress over the past century. And in some ways it is. But what's interesting in the conversations about a so-called "war on women" is that women do not seem to be having it. According to a recent article in The New York Times, these women, who might have otherwise voted Republican, are being swayed by the discussions of birth control, the name-calling, the, as Margaret Talbot writes in the New Yorker, "eighty new restrictions on abortion rights that were enacted by state legislatures in 2011." And those women, at least anecdotally, are leaning toward Obama. (Some of them, more worrisomely, are leaning toward not voting at all.) Why? Because of how the GOP is treating women.
One retired teacher quoted by The Times' Susan Saulny, "who describes herself as an evangelical Christian and 'old school' Republican of the moderate mold" said of the Republican presidential candidates, "If they’re going to decide on women’s reproductive issues, I’m not going to vote for any of them. Women’s reproduction is our own business.” And, from The New Yorker: "Just after Limbaugh lashed out at Fluke, a Georgetown professor attended a reunion at a Catholic school in Queens. An elderly nun asked her, 'Do you know that girl?' She added, 'That awful man should be fired for what he said. How’s she holding up?'”
Women -- religious, Republican women -- don't appreciate Romney's response (or lack thereof) to Rush Limbaugh's naming a Georgetown law student a "slut." In comparison, Barack Obama's call to Sandra Fluke is a gesture that women both Republican and Democrat can appreciate. Women -- single or married -- don't appreciate Rick Santorum calling hard-working, doing-the-best-they-can single women a drain on society. Women -- single or married -- don't appreciate being told what to do with their bodies. Per Saulny:
"Everybody is so busy telling us how we should act in the bedroom, they’re letting the country fall through the cracks,” said Fran Kelley, a retired public school worker in Seattle who voted for Senator John McCain over Mr. Obama in the 2008 election. Of the Republican candidates this year, she added, “They’re nothing but hatemongers trying to control everyone, saying, ‘Live as I live.’ ”
She continued, “If Republicans would stop all this ridiculous talk about contraception, I’d consider voting in November."
In The New Yorker, Talbot points out that "ninety-nine per cent of all American women who have had sex have used contraception at some point in their lives. For Catholic women, the percentage is almost the same—ninety-eight per cent, according to an analysis released last spring by the Guttmacher Institute." Further, "forty per cent of working wives now earn more than their husbands." Women make up a majority of undergraduate and graduate students. (And those numbers are rising.) "This is an economic and educational order predicated on the freedom of women, married and unmarried, to protect their own health and to decide when they’re going to have children," writes Talbot.
And so, the key difference between now and 60 years ago may in fact be women themselves, who are unwilling to be the losers in the war on women.