Female Presidential Candidates Aren’t the Answer: Republicans and the Reframing of the War on Women in 2016

Female Presidential Candidates Aren’t the Answer: Republicans and the Reframing of the War on Women in 2016

There seems to be some confusion about what the controversial term “the Republican war on women” actually means. Most became familiar with the concept during the 2011 midterm elections when Republicans swept the majority of seats. Left-leaning media outlets began wringing their hands over the kind of restrictive anti-abortion legislation they feared would pass, and the phrase emerged as a visible part of the political lexicon in the months afterwards.

Four years on, the phrase still elicits passionate reactions from both sides. After all, it is abundantly clear that women’s issues are having a moment. Daily stories compete for headline space and cover topics as diverse as the treatment of women in the developing world, the misogyny of Silicon Valley, Park Avenue “wife bonuses,” or whether popular shows like Game of Thrones are perpetuating rape culture.

Republicans have since argued the idea of a war on women is “insulting and disingenuous,” part of the bandwagon radical feminism usually spouted by “libtards,” whose favorite hobby is to insert gender and racial outrage into every possible policy issue. Usually this is followed by some sort of statement that it’s actually Republicans who support women’s equality, intellect, and independence, while Democrats want to keep women trapped as helpless, sex-crazed, mindless dupes of the government who think only with and about their vaginas.

Meanwhile, Democrats insist it’s actually the Republicans who are the hypocritical idiots if they can’t see that there’s been a sustained legal assault on both the state and federal levels on a variety of issues affecting women and, yes, their vaginas (but also their wages and social status). For those who lean to the left, these attacks on the female sex include increasingly restrictive access to reproductive healthcare, shrinking definitions of rape and domestic violence, the defunding of government assistance programs that historically have benefited women and children, and the widespread legislative rejection of equal pay proposals.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton (photo from 2007). (Marc Nozell/Flickr | CC BY-SA)

With the advent of the 2016 Presidential race upon us, the battle over the phrase is only going to heat up further because two women are officially running for the Presidential nomination — Republican Carly Fiorina and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Some media talking heads have already (and nonsensically) begun to hold that this will somehow mitigate the “war” — as though the fact that there are two candidates who also happen to have lady parts might settle the question once and for all that “a war on women” doesn’t exist in the first place.

Then, there are the political stances of both candidates themselves. Though it is difficult to predict if Fiorina will earn the nomination of her party (unlike Clinton, who seems all but assured the Democratic spot), one thing is certain — all of the Presidential hopefuls will certainly be talking about women on the campaign trail. There is also little doubt that Clinton will easily rally her liberal base by heavily focusing on the legislative attacks on reproductive health access laws, earning her the official endorsements of the likes of Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Carly Fiorina
Carly Fiorina speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), in 2015. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr | CC BY-SA)

Fiorina, on the other hand, has been sharply critical of the idea of a “war on women,” going so far last year as to establish a new political action committee, the “Unlocking Potential Project” which aims to recruit more women to the GOP. During a recent interview she gave to conservative news site Breitbart, she told reporter Sarah Rumpf that:

[gblockquote]”I can’t speak for the whole party, but what I can say is that, as a woman, I find it insulting when Democrats talk about ‘women’s issues’ — I mean, every issue is a woman’s issue. We’re 53 percent of the vote; we’re the majority of Americans. And so women care about the economy, and jobs, and health care, and education, and immigration, and national security, and debts and deficits. There’s no question that the Democrats play identity politics … it’s called ‘divide and conquer.’ And there’s no question that Hillary Clinton wants to be able to run on the war on women. And so, I think what we need to do, what I will continue to do, is talk with men and women about all of the issues. I think our tone matters. There are a lot of women who are really struggling, and they deserve our empathy and our support, but we also can’t back off of our principles.”[/gblockquote]

This position is certainly a newly savvy one from a Republican standpoint. By insisting that the party move away from the spate of cringe-worthy comments male Republicans have offered thus far about women’s uncontrolled libidos, “legitimate rape” or performing vaginal examinations by swallowing cameras, Fiorina is positioning herself to at least appear as though she has a smarter grasp on a comprehensive range of policy issues affecting women. Indeed, by broadening the argument, she’s offering the most effective Republican critique against the idea of a “war on women” to date.

Yet, as some politicos have pointed out, abortion remains the elephant in the room when talking about the “war on women.” Washington Post opinion writer Kathleen Parker wrote last fall, “Let’s be clear. The war on women is based on just one thing — abortion rights.” Like Fiorina, she goes on to castigate this single-minded focus as “silly” and “selective,” because it ignores other problems facing women. Similarly, Charles Krauthammer in the National Review urged conservatives to debunk the war through one strategy only — focusing on outlawing “the horror” of late-term abortions and ignoring everything else. He explained, “Why go wandering into the psychology of female sexuality in the first place? It’s ridiculous. This is politics. Stick to policy . . . The same principle of sticking to policy and forswearing amateur psychology should apply to every so-called women’s issue . . . Stay away from the minefield of gender politics.”

Critically, these arguments essentially allow Republicans to make the claim that restricting reproductive rights has nothing to do with the larger problem of women’s inequality.

Protest by the group, Focus On Jobs, Not Vaginas
Protest by the group, Focus On Jobs, Not Vaginas. (Light Brigading/Flickr | CC BY-NC)

This stance is the one that is insulting and disingenuous. Sex, birth control, and abortion are, by their very nature, irreversibly linked to the larger fight over the place of women in society. Fiorina’s list — “the economy, and jobs, and health care, and education, and immigration, and national security, and debts and deficits” are part and parcel connected to women’s status and legal rights. The Right knows it, but won’t acknowledge it.

It’s not hard to see how this resistance fits neatly into many conservative tropes. When Republicans talk about policing our borders, part of their subtext is that illegal immigrants not only place burdens on social services that they wish to defund anyway, but also will most assuredly change the racial landscape of this country through sex and intermarriage. When rallying around their most reliable political cause, the economy, conservatives can’t help but decry the fact that Americans’ financial struggles have “forced” women away from traditional roles and into the workplace, putting the household at risk. This same logic also underlies their opposition to same-sex marriage, in that it forces a threatening social reorientation of what constitutes marriage and family. It’s what they are really thinking about when they talk about dismantling the Affordable Care Act or defunding Planned Parenthood. It’s not about saving money — it’s insisting that women shouldn’t have the public right to have sex without consequences.

Perhaps most critically, Republicans’ new strategy is apparently to either win or debunk “the war on women” by creating an air of utter condescension around the idea that female reproductive health is critical for a vigorous, democratic society. This arrogance shuts down the possibility for any sort of nuanced conversation about women’s rights, birth control, and abortion. Instead, it makes it seem as though daring to broach the subject is a frivolous pet-peeve of a bunch of one-note “feminazis” who want the right to murder the unborn at any stage while showing their boobs, then suing for harassment, all in the name of “personal freedom.”

But for those of us familiar with American women’s history, there is nothing “silly” or “selective” in insisting that reproductive autonomy is women’s most basic and essential right, except, perhaps, for the right to vote.

Moreover, acknowledging that we have a long way to go in the United States before women achieve full parity with men does not mean we think our problems are more important than women’s status in countries where they cannot drive, let alone obtain an abortion at any stage. We are not depraved, anti-Christian, anti-Constitutionalists to insist that religion should have no place in deciding public questions of women’s health. It isn’t “playing identity politics” to argue about why a functional economy and society depends on raising women’s wages and mandating better parental leave. There is nothing radical or extreme about broaching the reasons why birth control and even late-term abortions should have a legal and protected place in women’s healthcare overall. It is not obfuscating morality to point out that the “problem” of abortion rests on much larger, structural evils with women’s status and motherhood in American society. It does not make us “sluts” to argue that free birth control, funded through employers and taxpayers, is part of elevating women to full and equal citizenship rights.

Uterus Embroidery Hoop Art. (Hey Paul Studios/Flickr | CC BY)
Uterus Embroidery Hoop Art. (Hey Paul Studios/Flickr | CC BY)

Indeed, the Republicans are right. It is actually all about the vagina. So what if it is? Until the day that we figure out how to separate the making of the population from women’s anatomy, sex, pregnancy, and childbirth are part of our collective responsibility. Conservatives think sexual freedom ought to have consequences. It certainly does, but they are everyone’s consequences.

As such, it is true, as Fiorina points out, that women both care deeply about and form the very center of every social problem facing the American public. But it will be the Right’s profound mistake in the coming months if they belittle or refuse to acknowledge the ways in which female sexuality and women’s rights have always been an integral part of those social issues.

Perhaps what’s the most revealing of all is that Republicans have finally acknowledged that they need a new strategy to approach the “war on women.” If it does not exist, then why go to all the trouble?

Lauren MacIvor Thompson is a Faculty Fellow in the Georgia State University College of Law's Center for Law, Health, & Society. Her research centers on the forces of law and medicine, and their role in the early history of public health and the birth control movement. She has a background in Public History and before returning for her doctorate, worked for various history museums and state agencies on historic garden preservation, public history projects, and Section 106 federal and state historic resource protection.