What women want

The female vote will be a huge factor in the US presidential election. Has the tone of the gender debate swung it far enough in President Obama’s direction? John Riordan reports

What women want

ON the mark with his razor-sharp satirical television show, Stephen Colbert held up a board for the camera and scrubbed out the number 13.

The prop read ‘Days Since a GOP Candidate Has Mentioned Rape,’ above the small space in which he forlornly wrote the new number: 0.

A response by Richard Mourdock to a question about abortion, at a political debate on Oct 23, propelled him into the national spotlight and brought the so-called ‘war on women’ back into the presidential election race, much to the chagrin of more moderate voices on the American right.

Mourdock is a Mitt Romney-endorsed Republican candidate in Indiana for the US Senate, and his stance on exceptions that would render abortion necessary landed like a bomb: “I struggled with it myself, for a long time, but I came to realise life is a gift from God. And I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Here was a Tea Party candidate who edged out long-time Senator Richard Lugar in Republican primaries earlier this year, on the back of a wave of extreme discontent on the right.

Senator Lugar had been a voice of reason in the Democrat-controlled Upper House in Washington, DC. Now, he was being retired by one of the many loose cannons who could disrupt conservative plans for total control of the White House and Congress.

Mourdock’s opponent, Joe Donnelly — a pro-lifer who supports exceptions for rape and incest — didn’t make political capital at the debate, but waited for his camp to carefully word a statement.

“The God I believe in, and the God I know most Hoosiers (the nickname for the residents of the state of Indiana) believe in, does not intend for rape to happen — ever,” Donnelly and his advisers said.

“What Mr Mourdock said is shocking, and it is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape.”

Mourdock was on the defensive. “What I said was, in answering the question from my position of faith, I said I believe that God creates life. I believe that as wholly, and as fully, as I can believe it. That God creates life. Are you trying to suggest that, somehow, I think that God pre-ordained rape? No, I don’t think that. That’s sick. Twisted. That’s not even close to what I said. What I said is that God creates life.”

Even this past week, he was still reeling from the chaos. “When I walked off the stage, I expected — walking to my green room — high-fives, because I had no idea that the statement that I made would possibly go a direction that it went,” he said on Monday. “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, you can’t un-ring the bell … I apologise that anyone might have been offended by it personally, and we’ve moved on and are talking about what people are talking about.”

Mourdock was right: the damage had been done and even President Barack Obama gave a nod to the treasured, undecided suburban and young women when, during an NBC interview on Air Force One, he summed up the furore: “This is exactly why you don’t want a bunch of politicians, mostly male, making decisions about women’s healthcare.”

It was an opportunity too good to miss for the under-pressure incumbent. It was a baffling own goal for conservatives, who had only to turn up this election cycle to take advantage of the gloom about a shattered US economy.

Instead, it leaves open the possibility that independent-minded women will react to what they see as a barrage of archaic statements from mostly conservative white males, and will help Obama over the line in battleground states such as Ohio, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado.

impassioned debate

Stephen Colbert’s mock weariness when contemplating white men discussing women’s issues was inspired by several tumultuous months of impassioned debate, which first exploded in late February when a 30-year-old Georgetown University Law student, Sandra Fluke, testified before an unofficial Democratic House panel on contraception, an invitation that had been necessitated by the real panel’s failure to invite women to discuss the topic.

Fluke found herself at the coalface of a clash that pitted religious leaders, and other conservative voices, against President Obama’s term-long battle for a more inclusive federal healthcare system.

In her Feb 23 testimony, Fluke described the costly nature of life, at the Jesuit university, without contraception insurance: “Georgetown does not cover contraceptives in its student insurance, although it does cover contraceptives for faculty and staff. On a daily basis, I hear from yet another woman who has suffered financial, emotional and medical burdens because of this lack of contraception coverage.”

The right-wing backlash was swift, but much heavier than expected — most notably, she was branded a prostitute by outspoken conservative radio host, Rush Limbaugh.

“What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke,” he asked listeners, “who goes before a congressional committee and, essentially, says that she must be paid to have sex. What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

“She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me, and the taxpayers, to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.”

Limbaugh doubled down on his vitriol a day later.

“The reaction that they are having to what I said, yesterday, about Susan Fluke — or Sandra Fluke, whatever her name is — the Georgetown student who went before a congressional committee and said she’s having so much sex, she’s going broke buying contraceptives and wants us to buy them. I said, ‘Well, what would you call someone who wants us to pay for her to have sex? What would you call that woman? You’d call them a slut, a prostitute or whatever’.”

A non-apology apology finally arrived that weekend, after the all-important sponsors recoiled from his show, but the intensity of the fallout was best exemplified by the president himself calling up Ms Fluke and offering his support, telling her that her parents should be very proud of her. Lesser voices kept the argument simmering throughout spring, but as soon as the election began to dominate the news cycle there wasn’t a single microphone or newspaper column that didn’t operate under close scrutiny.

Still, though, there was relative calm when it came to women’s issues, until a Missouri candidate for the Senate made a name for himself in August.

“If it’s a legitimate rape,” Congressman Todd Akin told a local television show in his home state, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

As the backlash subsumed the race for the White House, it fell to Mitt Romney to ask the Missourian to step away from his candidacy, and allow another Republican into the race before it was too late. This request was respectfully denied.

“Many Missourians were disturbed by the remark,” wrote the New York Times columnist, Gail Collins, in her uniquely deadpan way, the week before last. “Recently, Akin skilfully attempted to change the subject by comparing his opponent, Senator Claire McCaskill, to a dog.”

Collins added, on a serious note: “One of the truly disturbing parts of our current politics is that we have begun to identify as moderates (as long as they’re OK with the rape exemption) people who want to impose their religious beliefs on millions of women who don’t share them.”

KEEPING WOMEN DOWN

The direction some of these debates takes relate back to power, and the oppression of women, says Claudia Garcia-Rojas, the Chicago regional manager of The OpEd Project, a non-profit organisation that seeks to increase the number of women who contribute to national commentary.

“These men are not expert on women’s healthcare,” she told the Irish Examiner this past week.

“Their voting track record shows that they have never supported women’s rights. The recent upsurge of political contention they have generated has muddled sound knowledge with hyperbolic ideology.

“What they have demonstrated is that they have no regard for women or women’s human rights, and they are willing to generate false beliefs, articulated as facts, for the sake of advancing their own political agendas.”

While the more malicious utterances remain safely at the fringes of the election’s volatile rhetoric, Romney unwittingly sharpened the focus on his own stance on the gender divide when, in the second debate with Obama at Hofstra University, in Long Island last month, he evoked the “binders full of women” he received as governor of Massachusetts, after apparently asking for more female candidates to fill roles in his cabinet.

This claim was publicly rebuked by the very organisation that provided those binders, but the clumsy choice of collective noun rendered shallow Romney’s counter-argument to Obama’s boast about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation the president signed, almost four years ago, and one that gave women the ability to properly address unequal pay.

STRONG ADVOCATE

Still, though, at least one of the women in that binder, Jane Edmonds, has emerged as a strong advocate of her former boss, more than willing to call on voters to look beyond a misstep that may, or may not, have offered a glimpse into Romney’s true conservatism, a moveable feast if ever there was one.

Edmonds, whose father was one of the first black men to graduate from Syracuse University, was one of ten women named to top policy-making posts in the early months of Governor Romney’s administration in Massachusetts — she was put in charge of the Department of Workforce Development.

“Our state led the nation in terms of the ratio of women holding top spots in the administration, and, to this day, that’s something about which I am incredibly proud to have been a part of,” Edmonds wrote for CNN.com.

“I remember meeting him for the first time. I was struck by his authenticity, and, over the years that I worked with him, I saw the accuracy of my first impression. Governor Romney’s overriding commitment was not to self-promotion — as is so often the case for politicians — but for the people he served, and the people he served with.

“He believes in empowering women. I would know, because I was one of those women he recruited and respected.”

Jobs are foremost on the minds of the majority of voters. Just last week, respected columnist Mark Shields wondered if the Obama campaign had focused too much on reproductive rights and not enough on the economic needs of women, a theme that Edmonds elaborated on during her argument for a Romney victory.

“There are more than five million women around this country — mothers, daughters, breadwinners — who are unemployed,” she said.

“They are not only robbed of their dignity and their self-respect; they are also robbed of the results of decades of hard work. More women are in poverty — 25.7m — than at any time in our nation’s history.

“When Mitt Romney was governor, he worked, with a legislature that was 87% Democratic, to get things done. And, to me, that really meant something: I consider myself a liberal Democrat. For him, it wasn’t about who you were, it was about the quality of your ideas. That’s how he improved the economy and balanced the budget.”

NARAL is a moniker that has evolved, over the decades, with changes to the law on abortion. Originally, it was the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, before becoming the National Abortion Rights Action League, and then, later, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Andrea Miller is the president of NARAL Pro-Choice New York and, for her, women are faring much better today than they were four years ago.

“Healthcare is, by and large, a women’s issue,” she told the Irish Examiner. “Women use health insurance more, and are responsible for providing it to their families. Before the Affordable Care Act was passed, health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your health policy, deny you coverage, and charge women more than men. Being pregnant — even just being a woman — could be considered a pre-existing condition.

“Under Obamacare, we can get comprehensive insurance coverage, and women’s preventative services — like breast-cancer screening and contraception — are provided with no out-of-pocket costs. It will be illegal for women to be charged more than men for the same coverage.

“We have no fear that President Obama would appoint anyone to the nation’s highest court who didn’t believe in a woman’s right to choose. Roe v Wade (the 1973 Supreme Court case which legalised abortion), as Justice O’Connor so eloquently put it, granted women ‘The ability … to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation’. That’s what legal abortion means to us.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that the political climate in the next four years will be better for women if President Obama is re-elected into office,” says Garcia-Rojas.

“Women do not see him as a vanguard on women’s issues, but we know he is willing to champion some issues and to clarify the absurdity that is the political right.”

Which brings us to another conservative bête noire who ruffled feathers with outdated attitudes: Foster Friess, a GOP donor who supports Romney, and who formally supported another candidate to be the Republican presidential nominee, the ultra-conservative Rick Santorum.

During an MSNBC interview that went viral in February, as much for Friess’ moment of frankness as for the interviewer’s obvious discomfort, Friess, with a curmudgeonly aside, defended Santorum’s stance on contraception: “You know, back in my days, (women) used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.”

Amusing, but not entirely so for Garcia-Rojas.

“The muddling of traditionalist beliefs with that of accurate knowledge has larger, and more dangerous, implications,” she said. Garcia-Rojas quoted an MSNBC news report, which calculated that less than a quarter of the way through 2012, “430 reproductive bills … surfaced in … states across the country.

“Conservative leaders are strategically employing the use of conservative media to advance their campaigns against women’s rights and to accelerate the adoption of controversial laws.”

“These laws are not only based on invasive, and threatening, measures that shame and violate women’s bodies, but have already led to an increase in violent repercussions against women and those who support their rights, such as abortion providers.”

NATIONAL OUTCRY

One such law that caused a national outcry was passed by Virginia’s state legislature in February and required women to have an ultrasound before they were allowed to have an abortion.

With the great majority of abortions occurring in the first 12 weeks, the only way of completing an ultrasound would be through a transvaginal procedure — a probe would be inserted into the vagina. It was, especially in the case of rape victims, another unnecessary invasion.

Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, has been honest about the fact that he has had to rein in his own beliefs to be on-message with a campaign that has, nonetheless, relied on his hardline approach to ensure a solid turnout from fiscally and socially conservative voters.

Ryan held a no-exceptions abortion stance until Romney, who would allow exceptions for rape and incest, gave him the nod for potential vice-presidency.

“I’m very proud of my pro-life record,” Ryan told a television station in Virginia in August. “I’ve always adopted the idea, the position, that the method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life.”

He said: “Let’s remember, I’m joining the Romney-Ryan ticket and the president makes policy. And, in this case, the future president, Mitt Romney, has exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. Which is a vast improvement of where we are right now.”

Romney has always been forced to walk a fine line, between the moderates and the less-so who make up the majority of America’s right.

The candidates for other posts during this election cycle could shift the balance of power in DC, and make his life much easier if he were to win on Tuesday.

Although he strongly rebuked Todd Akin for his “legitimate rape” nonsense, Romney has yet to withdraw his endorsement of Mourdock.

Then, there are the evangelical Protestants who, as of 2007, comprised 26% of American adults, according to the Pew Research Center. All along, it has been vital that Romney’s challenge be inclusive of their beliefs.

The question is whether or not their support will help him enough in the swing states, if there are more disillusioned women than his campaign bargained for.

Jessica Mack, a gender rights advocate and freelance writer from New York, but based in Thailand, is hopeful women will come out in numbers to support Obama.

“But, every election year, we see women voting for men who don’t support their rights,” she says. “It’s baffling, actually.

“That’s why the work of groups like Planned Parenthood, who have the power to mobilise the grassroots, is so important. Also, social media has been an incredibly powerful megaphone for publicising the deeply discriminatory and absurd notions many of our elected, or hoping-to-be elected, officials hold about women’s rights. They should be embarrassed, ashamed, and never elected to public office.

“Living outside the US during the election, I see how much this election matters to women everywhere. Not only because of the message that it sends about the value of women’s rights, but because of the pernicious foreign policies that Romney will support, and which will have a major impact on women everywhere.”

As with everything else, says Garcia-Rojas, the importance of the gender issue will vary state by state.

“I want to believe that enough women are unsettled and disquieted by Romney and the GOP. I want to believe that women will know that if they vote for President Obama they are voting for themselves.”

Miller is more confident that the anger of women could decide the election in the states that matter, and she cites interesting statistics from past results.

“In presidential elections ever since 1980, women have voted in vastly greater numbers than men and that gap has increased every year. In 2008, 12m more women voted than men, and President Obama got a 13% lead over Senator McCain among women. So women, in no small way, buoyed President Obama to victory in 2008.

“Candidates know the importance of the female vote, which is why we see candidates on all sides trying to appeal to women. It’s also why we see more attention on birth control and contraception, which has led to more statements that expose just how inept, uniformed and, yes, anti-woman so many candidates and pundits are.

“Women are listening. The candidates who prevail in this election are the candidates who can make a real, authentic appeal to women by showing us that they understand the circumstances of our lives and share our concerns about not only rights, but the health, well-being, and economic situations of our families.

“Women are certainly perturbed by the attacks on reproductive health care — because these attacks are not just on our rights, but also on our livelihoods and our pocketbooks. For so many women struggling in these tough economic times, threats to insurance coverage for birth control, for example, are further threats to their economic stability.

“In this election, we’re seeing an intersection of what we tend to think of as ‘women’s issues’ and economic issues, so that the two aren’t really separate any more. And women are making that connection — and I think that will be the determining factor in the major elections this year.”

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