Women watching the debate last night let out a collective “hallelujah”: issues of direct importance to our lives finally merited a mention. We got equal pay, contraception, Planned Parenthood, poverty and bizarre discussions of single mothers.
Mitt Romney tried hard to pretend he’ll come down on women’s side in these issues. But as is classic Mitt, his positions send mixed messages. What does Mitt Romney really want for women? What would he do to improve their economic outlook? It depends on which talking point you listen to.
Romney took a few opportunities last night to discuss the ways in which he wants more women in the workforce. When asked a direct question about equal pay, he sidestepped to talk about how few women tend to be represented in top political posts, bringing out his now infamous “binders full of women” story to describe how he asked aides to find qualified women to fill his cabinet as governor. He also talked about wanting women to have more flexible work hours and brought up the fact that women have lost a huge number of jobs in the recovery. All signs point to: Mitt wants to help women get to work.
But does he? First, there’s the debunk now being widely circulated  claiming that the binders Mitt asked for were actually put together before he even asked for them—not to mention that a study found the percentage of senior-level positions he appointed to women actually declined during his administration. But these statements clash heavily with some other comments he’s made. When discussing early childhood education recently, he commented , “It’s an advantage to have two parents, but to have one parent to stay closely connected and at home during those early years of education can be very, very important.” Which gender tends to be that “parent” who stay out of the workforce to be home? It is overwhelmingly mothers .
There’s also a big question as to how much he really wants to help unemployed women get back to work. He may cite the statistic that 580,000 women lost their jobs in the last four years, but he rarely makes mention of why. I’ll fill in that blank: mostly because of public sector layoffs. Women have lost  383,000 government jobs since the beginning of the recovery, wiping out more than a third of their private sector job gains. Yet Romney has repeatedly said  he wants to see fewer workers on the government payrolls, including teachers, who are overwhelmingly women. He’s yet to explain how those two viewpoints can coexist.
Mitt would also have you believe he wants fewer women living in poverty. When talking about rising poverty rates, he rightly pointed out that the majority are women . “There are three and a half million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office,” he said. “We don’t have to live like this.”
It’s true, Mitt, we don’t. Because we could be doing far more to support people who fall below the poverty line, particularly women, by shoring up programs that are failing them such as TANF (formally known as welfare) and child care assistance. Yet that’s not what he would do once in office. His running mate’s budget, which Romney has said he’d sign if it made it to his desk, would focus 62 percent of its spending cuts  on programs that support the poor, such as food stamps, Medicaid and Pell Grants. There’s reason to believe Romney would go even further: he’s calling for  about $2 trillion more spending on defense over the next decade that Ryan is, which would mean drastic cuts—about 40 percent across the board—in all other programs.
And then there are his feelings about single mothers. When asked a question about gun control, he inexplicably ended up talking about single mothers and how they are apparently at fault for gun violence. (Never mind studies that show  no correlation between the two.) In his wandering response, he said, “We need moms and dads helping raise kids. Wherever possible, the—the benefit of having two parents in the home—and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone—that’s a great idea because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically.” (Emphasis mine.) That sounds quite a lot like family planning to me. How does one plan a family? By using contraception to control fertility and have children when and with whom one wants.
And contraception did come up. Romney decided that last night to be on the pro side, stating unequivocally, “Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.” Unfortunately that’s not always his position. First, there are those around him who don’t share this view. The GOP platform, for example, calls for  a personhood amendment, which would endanger some forms of contraception. Then there’s Paul Ryan’s statement that he and Romney would do away with co-pay-free birth control access as provided by the Affordable Care Act on “day one.” And, oh yeah, Romney has previously condemned  that very provision himself, even supporting Senator Roy Blunt’s bizarre proposal to allow employers to refuse birth control coverage in their insurance policies if they feel icky about it.
For his part, President Obama pointed out that contraception is an economic issue  for the women who need and want access to it. He also made a case for the Lilly Ledbetter Act, a bill that takes a step toward closing the gender wage gap (even though there is much more that needs to be done ) while Romney offered up no policy solutions. Obama has previously proposed spending money to hire back some of the teachers who have been laid off in the crisis. He would expand Medicaid to cover more people living in poverty and has expanded  Pell Grants and job training programs to help those living in poverty. Clearly there are ways Obama can be pushed to do more for women. But it’s not even clear which side Romney is on.
For more rundown on Romney’s gender issue flip-flops, check out Ben Adler on Obama’s missed opportunity to skewer Romney on pay equity.