Jay Fleitman: GOP’s supposed ‘war on women’ is anything but

Last modified: Thursday, April 03, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The Republican “war on women” had been waged for many years by the time Sandra Fluke took to the podium at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. This appearance crystallized her image as the face of a new generation of warriors to pick up the mantle.

Making this a keystone to the presidential election was a successful maneuver by the Democrats, as Obama won the presidency by taking the women’s vote by 55 percent over the share that went to Romney. The Democrats’ prominent use of the “war on women” during the 2012 national election seems to have framed this discussion not only for Democratic and independent women, but also for Republicans.

I was recently at a meeting of a nascent western Massachusetts Republican think tank, and was surprised that the women at this meeting were angered by the socially conservative planks included in the statewide Republican platform as being bad on women’s issues.

As I searched the web in preparation for writing this column, it became clear that the “war on women” is built around three fronts: abortion, the inclusion of payment for contraception by insurance provided by religious organizations and on equal pay across genders for equal work.

The struggle over abortion has the most emotional power of these issues and lies at the center of the Republicans’ supposed “war on women.” For many on both the conservative right and liberal left, it is the defining issue in the perception of cultural values.

For those social conservatives, half of whom are women, this is not a war on women but a war against abortion. In fact, in multiple statistical surveys by Gallup between 2009 and most recently in 2013, more Americans favor banning or restricting abortions by 58 percent over the 39 percent who believe there should be few restrictions.

More women identify with pro-life positions over pro-choice positions in these same surveys. In 2013, 57 percent of all women supported making all abortions illegal or permitting a few under special circumstances, far more than the 40 percent of women who support pro-choice positions. It would seem that a “war on women” that focuses on abortion is less a war of Republicans against women than a civil war among women.

Fluke’s appearance on our television screens at the 2012 convention was to demand her right to have her contraceptives paid for by her medical insurance at law school. At that time, she was in her final year at the prestigious law school of the Catholic institution of Georgetown University. The provision of contraception crosses the religious foundations of the parent church of Georgetown University, and Fluke was to soon graduate and immediately join the top 10 percent of earners in the United States.

Yet the $15 or $20 a month that this contraception would cost her became a rallying cry of a second front in the war against women.

I have never heard of a Republican wanting contraception to be illegal or unavailable. I have never heard of a Republican wanting to limit the availability of contraception to poor women through public insurance. We all recognize the damage that can be wrought on the future of a young poor woman by an unwanted pregnancy.

The only issue with provision of contraceptives that Republicans have raised is that of the federal government forcing religious-based institutions to provide services that are against their beliefs. This is hardly a gender-based assault.

In the same vein, I have never heard a Republican state the belief that a woman should be paid less than a man for equal work. Republican resistance in 2009 to the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is deployed by Democrats to create this imagined attack. Given a name like this, any work against this bill must be evidence that Republicans mean to suppress women’s rights. However, this bill does nothing to change existing equal rights protections, but only overturned a Supreme Court ruling as to when the clock on the statute of limitations starts to run on a lawsuit against this kind of discrimination.

The Republican and Supreme Court concern about this bill was that limitations became so open-ended that a lawsuit could be brought decades after the initial discrimination occurred against a management that was not even there. This bill was viewed as another bonanza for trial lawyers without offering any added protection for women.

Obama himself said that if you can’t win an election on the big things, then make it about little things.

The “war on women” was a successful manipulation of smoke and mirrors that helped give Democrats a majority of women’s votes in 2012. I fully expect to have this replayed in 2016 if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. However, Obama didn’t win all of the segments of female votes. Romney won a majority of white women and a majority of married women.

Perhaps it was the gallery of prominent Democrat champions of women’s rights that drove married women to the Republicans: Bill Maher, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner and, yes, Bill Clinton.

Jay Fleitman, M.D., lives in Northampton. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.