RNC Ladies’ Night: Will It Work?

RNC Ladies’ Night: Will It Work?

The opening night of the RNC tried to woo women with condescension instead of substance. And the women delegates don’t know how to handle gender issues either. 


Tampa—As I previously reported, the Republican National Convention—in the hopes of softening the party’s well-deserved reputation for being hostile to women—scheduled many women speakers on Tuesday night. So when I ventured onto the floor this evening, I tried to ask influential Republican women about the challenge their party faces among women voters. Their answers varied widely, and demonstrated that, other than constantly changing the subject to the economy, they do not have an answer.

The most useless attitude for Republican women to adopt is one of pure self-delusion. Despite years of women mostly favoring abortion rights, some Republican activists simply assert that women are opposed to them. Republicans don’t have to worry that their platform’s call to ban all abortions will turn off women, Jean Turner, the president of the Ohio Federation of Republican Women, told me. Why is that? “Women know what life means,” she explained. “Women have babies.”

Some Republican women are not so certain. Charlotte Rasmussen, the former president of the Wisconsin Federation of Republican Women, embodies the conflicted discomfort that many Republican women feel on reproductive issues. On the one hand, she thinks it should be ignored because the economy is more important and the law is in the hands of the Supreme Court. On the other hand, she is against abortion, but she does not know if exceptions should be made. “I don’t want to talk about abortion,” she said. The reasons she offered are that “it’s a controversial issue,” and women are more concerned about the economy. Rasmussen thinks “abortion is not an issue,” because “it’s not going to change.” What she means is that Roe v. Wade is unlikely to overturned, although, “I’d be fine with it being overturned.” Rasmussen also believes that “every abortion is bad.” But does that mean she agrees with the GOP’s stance that a girl who is raped by her father should not be allowed to have an abortion? “I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s not an issue I’ve had to deal with so I don’t want to comment on it.” That’s not a winning message for women who are concerned that Republicans are insensitive to issues women’s health.

The best explanation for the Republican platform plank on abortion actually came from a woman who disagrees with it, Karen Dove, a delegate from Florida. “If you look at party platforms, Democrats say partial birth abortion is good,” she said. Democrats, of course, don’t actually say any abortion is good, but it’s true that the party has not come out for banning so-called “partial birth” abortions. “Would most Democrats say partial birth abortion is OK?” asked Dove rhetorically. “I don’t think so.” Her point, which is fair insofar as it goes, is that both parties have to cater to their interest groups, even if the resulting platform statements are not supported by most party members. “We have a big contingent that thinks abortion is wrong in every case,” noted Dove. “Every party has to cater to people who come out and vote. On both sides you have extremes.” Analytically, this is accurate. But, if the next time Dove goes out canvassing in her neighborhood and a woman who answers the door says she is thinking of voting for Mitt Romney but just can’t get behind that abortion plank, Dove’s answer is unlikely to fully reassure her.

And, as I predicted, the appeal to women was about tokenism, not substance. It worked on some of the delegates. Mia Love, the black mayor of Sarasota Springs, Utah, and a Congressional candidate spoke, early Tuesday evening. Shortly thereafter I spotted Deidre Harper, a Colorado delegate, sporting a Love campaign button because she was so impressed by Love’s speech. “It’s great to see a black woman in Utah [running for Congress as a Republican],” said Harper. “I think that’s a question you hear about Republicans: there aren’t blacks or Latinos [in the party.] But from what I’m hearing, in high offices there are more blacks and Latinos than among Democrats.” A cursory glance at the Democratic and Republican Congressional delegations will show that to be wildly false. But Republicans seem to have at least convinced themselves that minorities are well represented in their ranks.

Rebecca Kleefisch, the politically adept Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, was by far the best at shifting the abortion question to safer territory. Kleefisch deploys an ostentatiously modest demeanor to present herself as a down-to-earth soccer mom. “The president does not dictate the priority list of American women,” Kleefisch told me. “It’s insulting and irritating that [Obama] thinks he can tell women that birth control and abortion are their top priorities. Women value their personal relationships, their families and making ends meet and having enough left over to fill up their tank to take their kids to soccer practice.” After that hokey, broad brush shtick that presumed all women are middle class suburbanites with children, Kleefisch asserted, “Women are done with the president throwing a blanket of generalizations over my gender.”

Ultimately, Kleefisch argues, “The Barack Obama presidency is expensive, and we can’t afford him any more.” This might work with some female swing voters when unemployment and gas prices are high. It’s not a long-term answer as to how the anti–women’s rights party can appeal to women.

The speeches from the dais were condescending to women, if they mentioned them at all. Here, for example, was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s sole reference to gender equality in his keynote address: “My Mom, who I lost eight years ago, was the enforcer. She made sure we all knew who set the rules. In the automobile of life, Dad was just a passenger. Mom was the driver.”

The night featured several women who are notable solely for being married to a male politician. Ann Romney was introduced by Lucé Fortuño, the First Lady of Puerto Rico. Fortuño was clearly chosen just because she could deliver her first line: “I am the proud mother of 20-year-old triplets, a practicing attorney, a proud Latina and a die-hard Republican!”

Ann Romney’s address was filled with such treacly pabulum, that it is worth quoting at length:

Sometimes I think that late at night, if we were all silent for just a few moments and listened carefully, we could hear a great collective sigh from the moms and dads across America who made it through another day, and know that they’ll make it through another one tomorrow. But in that end of the day moment, they just aren’t sure how.

And if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men. It’s how it is, isn’t it?

It’s the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right.

It’s the moms of this nation — single, married, widowed — who really hold this country together. We’re the mothers, we’re the wives, we’re the grandmothers, we’re the big sisters, we’re the little sisters, we’re the daughters.

You know it’s true, don’t you?

You’re the ones who always have to do a little more.

You know what it’s like to work a little harder during the day to earn the respect you deserve at work and then come home to help with that book report which just has to be done.

You know what those late night phone calls with an elderly parent are like and the long weekend drives just to see how they’re doing.

You know the fastest route to the local emergency room and which doctors actually answer the phone when you call at night.

You know what it’s like to sit in that graduation ceremony and wonder how it was that so many long days turned into years that went by so quickly.

You are the best of America.

You are the hope of America.

There would not be an America without you.

Tonight, we salute you and sing your praises.

The notion that such meaningless gibberish would convince women to toss their interests aside in the voting booth is offensive. Many of the other women speakers, such as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Representative Cathy McMorris-Rogers (R-WA), simply did not mention women at all. Rather they stuck to the evening’s message of “We built it,” a rejoinder to the apocryphal quote by President Obama that business owners didn’t build their companies. If undecided women were watching the RNC on Tuesday to see if they would be given any meaningful support on issues of gender equality, they were surely disappointed.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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