On Thursday, from both inside and outside the Republican National Convention, Republicans simultaneously tried to woo women voters while opposing essential women’s rights.
The RNC largely ignored social issues, but socially conservative organizations held many events outside of the RNC security perimeter. On Thursday afternoon, two such groups that are composed solely of women—Concerned Women for America and the Susan B. Anthony List—honored anti–abortion rights female politicians in a restaurant upstairs from the Hooters just past the RNC security gate.
The common theme of the various politicians’ remarks was that the truly feminist position is to oppose reproductive freedom. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) called President Obama, “the most anti-woman, anti-life president in history.” In essence, the argument is that women are mothers and fetuses are babies, so legalized abortion leads to widespread infanticide, and that is disrespectful to women.
But those were just some of the provocative statements. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) claimed that, “the president is doing everything in his power to radically expand abortions in this country.”
Another persistent theme was that society must protect the defenseless. But the interest in doing so only lasts until they exit the womb. “How we treat the most vulnerable among us is a reflection of who we are,” said Ayotte. She did not mean that we should feed the hungry or house the homeless, only that we should not allow abortions. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said that her newborn niece’s Down Syndrome has reified her commitment to opposing abortion. “It breaks my heart to think how many people would not have chosen to keep that precious angel,” said Bondi.
Bondi gave a speech with Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens at the RNC on the evils of healthcare reform that was widely panned for its awkward, flat delivery. After the event on Thursday, I buttonholed Bondi and asked her how she responds to disability rights groups that all support healthcare reform. If she does not believe in preventing insurers from excluding people with prior conditions and expanding Medicaid, I wondered, how does she propose to provide healthcare for disabled people who may be less fortunate than her niece? The answer? She doesn’t. “Our insurance system isn’t perfect,” conceded Bondi. “But my niece has incredible insurance. I haven’t experienced [inadequate coverage] at all.” That, of course, is no answer at all.
In his acceptance speech on Thursday night, Romney followed up on the RNC’s week-long theme of appealing to women through tokenism and condescending rhetoric. Here is what he had to say about his mother and how her foray into electoral politics shaped his own behavior:
My mom and dad were true partners, a life lesson that shaped me by everyday example. When my mom ran for the Senate, my dad was there for her every step of the way. I can still hear her saying in her beautiful voice, “Why should women have any less say than men, about the great decisions facing our nation?”
I wish she could have been here at the convention and heard leaders like Governor Mary Fallin, Governor Nikki Haley, Governor Susana Martinez, Senator Kelly Ayotte and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
As governor of Massachusetts, I chose a woman lieutenant governor, a woman chief of staff, half of my cabinet and senior officials were women, and in business, I mentored and supported great women leaders who went on to run great companies.
That’s the tokenism. Everything Romney said about appointing women is good, but none of it is a substitute for policy. The number of women Romney appointed in Massachusetts would be a rounding error on the total workforce in the state. The question is whether Romney supports policies that would help all women obtain equal treatment in the workplace. His record on that is mixed at best. Although his campaign said he would not appeal the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, they initially waffled on it. And he refuses to say whether he would support the Paycheck Fairness Act, a Democratic bill in Congress that would crack down on pay disparities between men and women. Compared to President Obama, Romney is simply not a leader on gender equality. Planning your pregnancies is also essential to women’s ability to manage their careers, and Romney’s policies would create obstacles to that as well. He opposes abortion rights and requiring hospitals and health insurance companies to provide access to contraception.
Romney’s efforts to substitute hiring women for supporting their legal equality is reminiscent of his misleading answer to a debate question on gay rights. He said he opposes discrimination and hired openly gay employees. Hiring gay employees means you do not practice discrimination, but it does not mean you actually oppose discrimination. To do so would require pledging to sign into a law bill that would protect them from being discriminated against by employers who are not inclined to be as kind as Romney. And that is something Romney opposes.
Then there was Romney’s grossly patronizing paean to stay-at-home mothers, in the person of his privileged wife. Recalling their early years of marriage, Romney said:
Those days were toughest on Ann, of course. She was heroic. Five boys, with our families a long way away. I had to travel a lot for my job then and I’d call and try to offer support. But every mom knows that doesn’t help get the homework done or the kids out the door to school.
I knew that her job as a mom was harder than mine. And I knew without question, that her job as a mom was a lot more important than mine. And as America saw Tuesday night, Ann would have succeeded at anything she wanted to.
As Matthew Yglesias pointed out in Slate, this makes no sense. If Ann’s job was harder and more important than Mitt’s, why is Mitt the one running for president? And if raising kids is more important than working in a job, why did Romney earlier tout his record of appointing women to high office?
His comments also raise a number of unpleasant questions. Are women who work outside of the home engaged in less important work than stay-at-home moms? If so, Romney is denigrating the majority of American mothers. And why does he create this false dichotomy of more and less important jobs? Families need money and they need childcare. Some, such as the Romneys, are fortunate to get enough of the former from one parent that the other can focus full-time on providing the latter. As is typical of the Romneys, they seem blissfully unaware of their own class privilege. And since Romney also blasted Obama for supposedly undermining the work requirements in welfare reform, he is contradicting himself. If the best thing for Ann to do was to stay at home with her children, why is that not the case for single mothers on welfare? If Mitt believes that Ann’s child-rearing was harder and more important than his job in private equity, then why does he not believe that unemployed single mothers are also engaged in harder, more important work than he? Why does he want them to abandon that work for, say, menial jobs in the service economy? And why is he running for president instead of finding the welfare recipient with the most children and nominating her?
Romney’s appeals to women make no sense because his positions are not good for women. Therefore, he, like Republican women, tries to spin policies that would limit women’s rights as being in their best interest. It’s an impressive feat of mental dexterity, but it’s a far less honest approach than making the more straightforward “traditional family values” argument that Republicans used to rely upon. They’ve realized that won’t work, but this probably won’t either.