First, let’s swallow hard and be fair. There is something to cheer in the so-called Year of the Woman. You don’t have to credit the Republican Party, which did next to nothing to bring on the wave that swept Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Sharron Angle and Nikki Haley to victory in June’s primary elections. Indeed, before the RNC began heralding its Mama Grizzlies, in Sarah Palin’s typically catchy but grating phrase, it was brushing off complaints about how its roster of 104 rising "Young Guns," lavished with party attention and resources, included only seven women. Fiorina and Whitman bought their gleaming California wins with their own money, while Angle charged to victory in Nevada on sheer Tea Party adrenaline. There’s certainly nothing progressive about these women, but their brash, unapologetic and largely unsolicited emergence in Republican politics—in American politics—does represent progress, of a sort.
That being said, it’s maddening that a party that has resisted every advance of feminism and undermined women’s economic strength at every turn now claims to embody "the overall triumph of the women’s movement," as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it. To appreciate the breadth of the chasm between the party’s symbolism and its substance, consider the subject of working mothers. Some of today’s GOP women, like many more Democratic women before them, have indeed broken barriers by campaigning around the clock with young children at home. But what does it mean to be "comfortable" with the spectacle of a working mother, as Douthat claims Republicans now are, when you oppose the very supports that would make the lives of working mothers comfortable?
Fresh new faces aside, the Republican Party’s stance on the issues that matter to working mothers is as regressive as it has ever been. Recall how Republicans in Congress, at the behest of their corporate backers, tried mightily to block President Clinton’s Family and Medical Leave Act, which granted women the right to take unpaid time off to have a baby and still keep their jobs. The passage of the FMLA in 1993 was a real advance, but it is hardly sufficient. Because so many more men have lost their jobs in the Great Recession, an increasing number of families depend on a female wage-earner’s paycheck to survive, and many women simply cannot take unpaid time off to care for a baby without imperiling their families. President Obama slipped $50 million into his budget proposal to aid states interested in addressing this problem by guaranteeing paid leave. But this item, along with nearly all the other expenditures to blunt the pain of the downturn and restore economic health, has no support from Republicans, who have signed countless pledges to freeze spending, cut taxes and reduce the deficit, regardless of the human consequences.
The new GOP women are at the front of the fiscal conservative pack. Fiorina, for example, signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge put out by Americans for Tax Reform, promising as a US senator to oppose any new taxes on California citizens or businesses—this when the state desperately needs federal help to close its $19.1 billion deficit and is poised to slash daycare, welfare, public school, and drug treatment programs and services for the poor. Obama has proposed another round of stimulus, which would put $50 billion into state coffers to ease the crisis California and other states are experiencing, but fiscal conservatives like Fiorina and South Carolina’s Haley (who stands by Governor Mark Sanford’s notorious decision to refuse federal stimulus money) oppose such intervention.
The fiscal crisis in the states cuts to the core of women’s economic security: as Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress points out, women are suffering the brunt of it because they make up 60 percent of state and local government employees, and they depend disproportionately on the social services, such as childcare, that states provide. Although the first wave of this recession hit men hardest, Boushey says we are undergoing a shift toward job losses for women as cuts in the public sector mount. The reductions in childcare subsidies that states are contemplating, for example, will affect a workforce that is 95 percent female; and at the same time, the loss of services will surely make holding jobs impossible for many former welfare recipients who now, thanks to Democrat-inspired welfare reform, have nowhere else to turn. Women caught in this crisis definitely can’t count on the GOP’s new female leaders for solidarity. California’s Whitman—she of the $1.3 billion eBay fortune—pledges to reduce the lifetime limit on welfare from five years to two if she is elected governor. Nevada’s Angle, who makes Sarah Palin look like Eleanor Roosevelt, not only opposes all stimulus spending but wants to phase out Social Security and, for good measure, the IRS.
It’s insidious how Republicans are deploying women candidates to pitch government belt-tightening to women as the "keepers of the family budget," as if the stresses of working families are increased by childcare, healthcare, eldercare, after-school and other social programs. New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, the Tea Party favorite running for the Senate, who signed the Club for Growth Repeal It healthcare pledge, declares, "You can’t spend money you don’t have. Like most New Hampshire families, Joe and I sit around our kitchen table, and we have to prioritize and live within our budget. Our government should be no different." This analogy is not only flawed—the state, unlike individuals, must create the conditions for economic prosperity—it ignores how families frequently borrow money to invest in their future, to pay for education, for example. It’s not clear this message is resonating with women. According to a new survey by the Ms. Foundation for Women and the Center for Community Change, women—especially women of color, low-income women and single mothers—are more likely than men to believe the government should take a more active role in making the economy work (a majority of men believe this too).
It’s one thing—and not a small thing—to celebrate the strength of women in politics. But it’s supremely cynical to do so, as the GOP Year-of-the-Woman revelers have, while working to undercut the strength of women in society. Now, will the real Mama Grizzlies please rise up?