You can’t blame Republicans for wanting to change the subject. Rush Limbaugh’s slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke turned into an unmitigated disaster for the GOP, making clear how the campaign to defund Planned Parenthood—supported by all the pillars of the party, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney—ultimately derives from a Cro-Magnon view of women’s place in society. Two short years after the “Year of the GOP Woman,” it was all too much for some of them; Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski said, “It makes no sense to make this attack on women,” explaining to the male attendees of a local Chamber of Commerce luncheon, “If you don’t feel this is an attack, you need to go home and talk to your wife and your daughters.”
The social distance between the sexes Murkowski perceived as preventing these men from understanding their own actions—a distance immortalized in the image of the all-male Congressional panel that excluded Fluke—was also reflected in the fumbling of the GOP’s presidential front-runner as he sought to reassure women that he gets where they are coming from. Speaking gratefully of his wife, Ann, Romney said, “She says that she’s going across the country and talking with women, and what they’re talking about is the debt that we’re leaving the next generation and the failure of this economy to put people back to work.”
On mop-up duty was Republican National Committee co-chair Sharon Day, who declared on April 6, after the release of a disappointing jobs report, “For far too long, women have been left behind in Obama’s job market”; she cited statistics showing that of the 740,000 jobs lost since Obama took office, 683,000 had been held by women.
Those stats are stark indeed—and for most women, it is the economy, not contraception, that is the paramount concern—but the caricature of Obama as a job-killer for women smacks of GOP desperation. Day’s claim was quickly criticized for painting a misleading picture. It’s true that men, who hemorrhaged jobs during the 2007-08 ”Mancession,” enjoyed an edge over women in the jobs gained in the subsequent “Hecovery.” But the real problem for women is that they are concentrated in sectors that rely on public funding (education, healthcare, social services) at a time when state budgets are under the knife—and when that knife is often wielded by a Republican governor backed by Republican legislatures. As Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert have documented on TheNation .com, eleven states where the GOP seized control in 2010 were responsible for 40 percent of the state and local public sector job losses in 2011. And it was Obama’s stimulus that prevented the layoffs of many thousands of public employees, most of them female.
The Democrats are not eager to stop talking about the Republican “war on women,” as they watch their poll numbers rise with each mention of contraception. And though Obama has not done enough for women in this harsh economy—like those denied welfare benefits despite the downturn—he is entitled to boast about signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. His rhetoric also reflects a degree of ease with women that eludes his Republican rivals. “Women are not some monolithic bloc. Women are not an interest group. You shouldn’t be treated this way,” he said. And yet it’s undeniable that women as a voting bloc are very much on Democrats’ minds. If women come through for them in November, let’s hope that sparks a new conversation about their lives and needs—reproductive and otherwise.