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.