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Clashing Views of Women Emerge in Presidential Debate (5383)

News analysis on courting the women's vote before Election 2012.

10/17/2012 Comments (17)

Just before yesterday’s debate, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed Gov. Mitt Romney taking the lead over President Barack Obama. The lead was largely attributed to more women giving their support to the governor. As I wrote yesterday, this suggests that maybe, just maybe, women care about more than “pelvic politics” (abortion, contraception, abortion and abortion).

The debates gave considerable evidence of each candidate’s view of women. When asked about pay equity, Obama started with a personal story about his grandmother and wound up talking about Planned Parenthood. Romney, on the other hand, spoke about what he’d done as governor in Massachusetts. Yes, he made an awkward statement about having “binders full of women.” But his actions resulted in having a state government with the highest number of women in senior positions in the country. He was also explicit that part of that success lay in accommodating the busy lives of women by offering flexible hours.

President Obama, meanwhile, spoke about the Lily Ledbetter law (an attempt to achieve workplace equity). However, his record on acknowledging women as real contributors in his own administration indicates that they may be equal, but they are certainly separate. The Weekly Standard highlights reports from The Washington Post that one of the president’s own debate coaches, Anita Dunn, called the White House “a hostile work environment” for women. Christina Romer, an economic adviser, said that she “felt like a piece of meat.” Amy Sullivan, writing for Time, called the White House a “boys club.”

Two competing visions of women appear to underlie each candidate’s views. The president backed up his efforts by arguing, “Women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family.” While this may be true, do we want to continue to facilitate an economy and a society in which more women continue to shoulder the burdens of family?

In the past 40 years, women have made tremendous gains in the workplace. But in this same period, contraception and abortion have become the norm. As a result, we are now at a point, perhaps never before experienced in the U.S., where single women account for more than 40% of births. Generally, that means that a woman can’t count on the father to do his share of the work in providing for and raising a child. It shouldn’t surprise us that these individual women struggle to do the work of two parents. As a result, being a single mom is one of the strongest predictors of poverty.

Last night, Romney made some very important points which were never refuted by the president. When Obama took office in 2008, 32 million people were receiving food stamps. Four years later, that number has grown to 47 million. Our job increases don’t keep up with population growth (hence, all those college graduates without jobs). One in six Americans lives in poverty. Three and a half million more women are living in poverty than four years ago.

The president responded, continuing his discussion of pay equity, by bringing in contraception and Planned Parenthood. Currently, Planned Parenthood receives about $1 million per day from the federal government. When Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown Law, testified that birth control, which she estimated at $1,000 per year, was too expensive, fact-checkers quickly found that a month's supply of the pill costs $9 at a drugstore within three miles of her university and that condoms are readily available (there's even an app). So contraceptives are widely accessible regardless of one’s personal beliefs. Nevertheless, the president fixated on contraception and failed to address the  question of the economy and what can be done to help everyone, including women, have more financial security.

Unfortunately, the candidates were never asked specific questions about family policy. However, Romney used the question about gun control to go to the deeper issues surrounding violence, particularly the absence of family structure.

The advantages of a two-parent family are not being touted solely by groups like the Family Research Council and The Heritage Foundation. In 2003, the Brookings Institution analyzed the data on poverty and came up with some key solutions, one of which included marriage and family. Just this past summer, The New York Times compared the advantages and disadvantages of children being raised by their two married parents and single parents. Not surprisingly, two people tend to be able to give more to children than one person. 

I would suggest that each candidate has underlying feminist beliefs that shape his ideas.

Obama relies on an adversarial feminism that sees women having to fight the world around them. Sadly, this vision suggests a necessary patriarchy in the form of government, whether it be passing legislation about pay equity or making sure there’s a pack of birth-control pills in every purse.

Romney’s actions indicate a feminism of constructive dialogue where women and men work together. He didn’t pass laws requiring the presence of women in his gubernatorial administration. He actively recruited qualified women and hired them for senior positions. He delivered real results.

And, for the record, he’s not planning to take away anyone’s birth control. He just makes the case that individuals and groups who have conscientious objections shouldn’t be forced to violate their consciences and pay for someone else’s contraceptives.

Women have multidimensional concerns regardless of their family-planning choices. Yesterday’s poll confirmed this, yet last night one candidate failed to grasp the point.

Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian and cultural analyst. She writes from Seattle.

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