The Conversation

By Nicole Hemmer

A president’s first act in office carries considerable symbolic weight. After President Obama was sworn in in 2009, the first piece of legislation he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Act, allowing women greater ability to sue for pay discrimination. Whether by coincidence or design, with a stroke of a pen Obama positioned himself perfectly for the 2012 election.

Women became a focus of the 2012 campaign when the “war on women” narrative emerged during fights over contraceptive coverage mandates. Though a potent rhetorical tool for Democrats, the “war on women” narrative obscured women’s centrality to this year’s race.

Initially, the Obama administration was losing the debate over contraceptive coverage. Conservatives had successfully framed the issues as one of religious liberty, not women’s rights. But then something happened: conservative men started talking. And it turned out they couldn’t talk about policies aimed at women without saying something remarkably retrograde.

Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown student a “slut” for advocating for birth control. Rick Santorum, runner-up for the Republican nomination, warned against “the dangers of contraception”. “You know, back in my days,” said conservative mega-donor Foster Friess, “they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”

In the wake of these comments, women began flocking to the Democratic Party. Democrats saw opportunity in the growing gender gap: They could win over voters by focusing on issues that elicited these kinds of responses from Republicans.

The strategy succeeded. Keeping the focus on so-called “women’s issues”, Democrats forced Republicans to defend their increasingly rigid stance on reproductive rights. Since the 1980s, the Republican platform has called for federal bans on abortion procedures, without specifying any exemptions for rape or the health of the mother. It was a remarkable development for a party that until the late 1960s was the party of feminism, contraception, and abortion rights.

Practiced Republicans have found ways to discuss this stance without sounding radical and regressive, though Mitt Romney did blunder in the second debate with his now infamous “binders full of women” comment. But when novices find themselves obliged to do the same, they end up inadvertently saying what they think. Todd Akin babbled on about legitimate rape and Richard Mourdock asserted pregnancies from rape were what “God intended.”

When they made these claims, voters fled – and not just women voters. Akin and Mourdock’s drubbings last night help illustrate what the “war on women” narrative often obscured: that voters concerned about so-called “women’s issues” aren’t just women. Men too were repelled by the idea of “legitimate rape”, and men too voiced support for the ability to control reproductive choices.

The “war on women” framework also distorted women’s role in the election. By focusing on women as voters, it diverted attention from the historic nature of women’s candidacies in 2012.

Women have long been underrepresented in America’s national politics. They make up only 17% of the current House and Senate – and those are historic highs. In terms of women in government, the U.S. lags behind nearly seventy other countries. While last night’s election results won’t suddenly make the Congress a gender-equal institution, the upper chamber will add four, possibly five, new women senators. This includes Elizabeth Warren, the popular Harvard law professor, and Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay senator.

And where does the newly re-elected president fit into all this? It is easy to interpret Obama’s decision to lead off with the Ledbetter Act as a play for women’s votes. And to some extent it was. But it was also a signal that the economy Obama planned to rebuild from the rubble of the global financial collapse would be a more equitable one, one in which women would command the same economic value as men.

Tuesday night’s results suggest the political system could become more equitable as well. One could imagine as the results came in that future debates over policies affecting women’s choices might actually include women as policymakers rather than bodies to be legislated.

The phrase “war on women” has real limitations. But to the extent the 2012 election was a battle over what role women would play as America moves forward, the results are clear. Americans rejected Akin and Mourdock, returned to office the man who signed the Ledbetter Act, and increased the number of women senators by at least 25%.

A war on women? If so, it wrapped up last night. And women won.