Supporters look on as President Barack Obama speaks, Friday, October 19, 2012, at a campaign event at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Women sent an unequivocal message to politicians on Tuesday. The gender gap was a whopping 18 percent; significantly higher than 2008’s twelve-point gap. Women made up a majority of the electorate, and unmarried women were 23 percent of voters.
There’s no doubt that an upswing in feminist activism had a demonstrable impact on the election. From the Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy to transvaginal ultrasounds to “binders of women”—the vociferous energy surrounding women’s issues is indisputable. But there’s an argument to be made that women’s silence also contributed to Democrats’ resounding wins on Tuesday.
Despite the media and feminist focus on “war on women” this election season, women remain largely mum around their personal experiences with abortion and sexual violence. Feminists have long fought to end the stigmas surrounding rape and abortion—urging women to tell their stories. After all, more than one-third of American women will have an abortion in her lifetime. More than 600,000 adult women were raped in the United States in 2010. Still, most American women don’t talk about ending their pregnancies or being assaulted. Though this silence is not necessarily the best tactic for feminism or for women themselves, it may have been the final nail in the GOP’s coffin.
Part of Republican’s cultural dissonance around feminist issues is that they drink their own Kool-Aid. When they say it’s rare for women to get pregnant from rape, it’s because they really believe it. When they frame abortion as the sinful refuge of promiscuous women, it’s because they actually think “good” women don’t terminate pregnancies. They don’t even fully trust rape statistics, instead choosing to believe that rape doesn’t happen to women who follow the rules. To them, sexual assault is mostly the unfortunate inevitability when women dress a certain way, drink, have consensual sex or do anything that transgresses traditional ideals of proper femininity.
Too many in the GOP simply cannot imagine that the women in their communities, in their families—or even in their political party—have been touched by these issues. And when women are silent about their personal experiences, it furthers that cultural ignorance. That’s why it was easy for Mitt Romney’s campaign to say—and perhaps believe—that female voters didn’t care about the “war on women.” Republicans certainly underestimated how important these issues are to women’s lives because of sexism and misogyny—but mainstream women’s silence made it a lot easier for them to believe their own hype.
Election results told a clear story, however. A Gallup poll released on Monday showed that women in crucial swing states favored Obama over Romney by sixteen points and that nearly 40 percent named abortion as the most important issue for women in the election. Women’s issues that are seen as “fringe” were actually central. And it may be that women who don’t like talking about how personally these issues affect their lives were not afraid to be loud in the voting booth.
Being silent about how abortion or sexual assault impacts us personally is not a political or personal strategy I recommend—I believe it furthers stigmas and shame, and contributes to a culture that mischaracterizes and dismisses women’s experiences. It’s a mainstream trend that must shift if we want real change and progress on feminist issues. But no matter how women made their voices heard—through activism and speaking out or votes alone—there’s no more denying that these issues matter. The hurdle now is ensuring that we continue to be heard long past Election Day.
Thanks to women voters, rape deniers were handily defeated on Election Day. Check out Bryce Covert’s take.