U.S. Culture War With Women at Its Center

Posted on 4 April 2012


Published: April 3, 2012

NEW YORK — For all the alarm and outrage that conservative Republicans have ignited lately with actions perceived as attacks on U.S. women’s rights, there has been a fierce counteroffensive that is giving activists on the other side a larger voice and greater visibility than in recent years.

oppression of women and girls worldwide and enact laws to advance gender equality, here in the United States, where women have earned more rights than in many other places, a cadre of conservative Republicans is being accused of waging a concerted campaign to turn the clock back.

The revival of the culture wars led the Nobel Peace Prize recipient Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, speaking at a recent meeting here, to cry out, “Where are the angry American women?”

Well, they are showing up. Escalating attacks in Congress and state legislatures and on the campaign trail, in the eyes of many women, have jolted them into action, spurred liberals and moderates to protest in the U.S. Senate and House, and galvanized thousands of ordinary women to speak out. Not least, the three-month battle may backfire on the Republican Party. The gender gap between President Barack Obama and the Republican presidential candidates is widening going into the elections this year, according to a Pew Research Center survey released March 29.

Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, an organization committed to the election of female Democrats who support abortion rights, reflected the new sense of determination among many women.

“What we are committed to doing at Emily’s List is drive a political movement to get these Republican men out of office,” she said by telephone from Washington. “What’s going on in the Republican Party is that they are being hijacked by an extremely conservative faction of the party, and the entire party has taken up the right-wing social agenda to prevent women from having all the choices they need in their lives to be successful.”

What began a year ago with a failed conservative move to cut off U.S. government aid to Planned Parenthood on grounds that it was funneling taxpayer money to facilitate abortions was followed earlier this year by a decision by the leading U.S. breast cancer charity, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, to sever ties. But under intense public pressure, with thousands of people threatening to withhold donations to the foundation, Komen executives reversed that decision.

Not long after that bruising fight, conservatives in Congress tried to roll back access to contraception under employer health plans, drumming up opposition to the mandate for such coverage in Mr. Obama’s health care law. A Republican-led House committee convened a hearing. An all-male panel was called to testify, but a female Georgetown University law student who wanted to speak for the mandate was banned. To make things worse, she was called a “slut” and a “prostitute” by a conservative radio commentator.

For Ms. Schriock, that was the tipping point. She directed Emily’s List — which has one million members — to conduct a nationwide TV ad campaign objecting to the all-male hearing. “We went on television because we wanted to make sure that every woman we could get our hands on saw that picture,” she said. Emily’s List was not alone. NARAL Pro-Choice America says it spent $250,000 on radio ads in addition to 70,000 e-mails its advocates sent to their senators.

After that hearing, a financial supporter of Rick Santorum, the anti-abortion rights and anti-contraceptives Republican presidential candidate, suggested that “gals” could prevent pregnancies by putting an aspirin “between their knees.” And in Virginia, the Republican governor supported a state bill to require that women seeking abortions undergo invasive vaginal ultrasounds. (He backed off later, but states like Ohio, Texas and Tennessee are considering similar measures.)

Now the Republicans are taking on provisions of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, a bipartisan measure that had sailed through the Congress every year until now.

This latest firestorm propelled female Senate Democrats to march in unison to the Senate floor to demand the law’s reauthorization. They didn’t get that — the vote is set for sometime in April. “It is pathetic and it is disappointing that it’s come to this,” Representative Gwen Moore, a Wisconsin Democrat, said on the floor of the House on March 27, revealing that she had been a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault. Violence against women in America — indeed everywhere, she said — “knows no gender, it knows no ethnicity, it knows nothing.”

The battle over these issues is not pitting women versus men. Rather, it breaks along ideological lines. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State, the top-ranking Republican woman in the House, was quoted by The Daily Beast last week as saying that Democrats were fabricating the “war on women” to distract from real issues.

What seems certain is that the hostilities are trending to benefit Democrats and groups that support abortion rights. “You are going to see come November a lot of independent women and probably a number of Republican women voting for Democrats across the country,” Ms. Schriock predicts.

She’s got some numbers to back her up. First, she says, “a growing number of women are stepping up to run for office,” and Emily’s List is endorsing a record number of female candidates this year: 11 for the U.S. Senate and 27 for the House. Second, she says Emily’s List has doubled its membership in the past year and has raised more money for candidates at this point in the campaign cycle than at any other time in its 27-year history (she declined to say how much).

There’s little question that what’s being called the “war on women” has prodded female senators and congresswomen and their advocates to come forward. Says Ms. Schriock: “It’s a moment in time for women, both elected women and women voters, to be highlighted in ways they haven’t been highlighted before.”