DAVID GREGORY: Let me ask you more about some of the debates within the Republican Party. Former candidate Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, got in some hot water this week with comments he made, I’ll play a portion of it, as he talked about a war for women. Here’s what he said.
MIKE HUCKABEE: The Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it. Let us take that discussion all across America because women are far more than the Democrats have played them to be.
DAVID GREGORY: Is this helpful?
SEN. RAND PAUL: Well, you know, I think we have a lot of debates in Washington that get dumbed down and are used for political purposes. This whole sort of war on women thing, I’m scratching my head because if there was a war on women, I think they won. You know, the women in my family are incredibly successful. I have a niece at Cornell vet school, and 85% of the young people there are women. In law school, 60% are women; in med school, 55%. My younger sister’s an ob-gyn with six kids and doing great. You know, I don’t see so much that women are downtrodden; I see women rising up and doing great things. And, in fact, I worry about our young men sometimes because I think the women really are out-competing the men in our world.
What Mike Huckabee said about “Uncle Sugar” and the relationship between women’s libidos and their need for contraceptive coverage was highly misleading at best, and at worst absurdly out of touch. But Paul’s comments in response were representative of something much more insidious about the way politicians on both sides of the aisle talk about “women.” While Huckabee’s comments reflect a conservative Christian ideology that some women do subscribe to, Paul seems to forget altogether that women might be listening to his interview.
Take these statements:
I have a lot of successful women in my family and I don’t hear them saying, “Oh, woe is me. This terrible, you know, misogynist world.”
You know, the women in my family are incredibly successful.
I have a niece at Cornell vet school, and 85% of the young people there are women. In law school, 60% are women; in med school, 55%. My younger sister’s an ob-gyn with six kids and doing great.
Those would be great answers if David Gregory had asked him, “How’s your family doing?” But he didn’t. Sure, Paul referenced some statistics about enrollment in professional schools, but the bulk of his response to a question about the “war on women” was about the “incredibly successful” ladies of the Paul clan. As if that’s any comfort to the women who can no longer access the reproductive healthcare they need or struggle to get by on low wages.
Can you imagine a politician answering a question about the high unemployment rate by saying something like this?
You know, everyone in my family is doing great. My brother is a dentist, and my children all have jobs working for my businesses, and my wife has chosen to stay home and work in the domestic sphere, and we’ve always had plenty of money. So I really just don’t see this whole “recession” narrative playing out in reality.
No, because even Mitt Romney would know how out of touch that sounds.
In fact, Rand Paul took a very different approach when he talked about the economy on Meet the Press yesterday, saying: “You know, we’ve been talking a lot about poverty. It’s about debating not who wants to cure poverty but it’s about what policies work.” In this case he followed a pretty simple formula: acknowledge that the social problem exists and argue that your party has the best plan to fix it. A far cry from “I’m scratching my head, because if there was a war on women, I think they won.”
The problem of talking about women in the context of their relationship to others—primarily men—is not limited to conservatives. President Obama frequently employs this rhetorical device. In his State of the Union address last year, he framed his argument for passing VAWA and the Paycheck Fairness Act this way:
We know our economy is stronger when our wives, our mothers, our daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence.
Here the president is talking about women—more accurately, about wives mothers and daughters—not to us. In doing so, he implies that convincing men to support these policies is paramount, and that doing so will require appealing to their affections for the women in their families. As Melissa McEwan wrote at the time:
That framing is garbage. It is reductive, it is misogynist, it is alienating, it defines women by their relationships to other people, it suggests that Obama is speaking to The Men of America about their “wives, mothers, and daughters” and not speaking to those wives, mothers, daughters, and any women who are none of those things and/or do not define themselves that way.
The Republicans’ track record on this issue is so bad that the GOP has started training candidates on how to talk to women. But politicians from both parties could benefit from learning to talk to and about women as if they were people, rather than the mothers, sisters, daughters and wives of men.