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A member of the National Abortion Rights Action League protests outside a hotel in Washington, D.C., where Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was holding a political fundraiser on March 22, 2012. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

The Bright Side of the War on Women

By making bigotry so visible, GOP extremism may have awakened the nation’s feminist conscience.

BY Sady Doyle

It's unlikely that voters who have spent the past year getting outraged about GOP sexism will simply forget about sexism altogether once the year is over.

The Republicans are flailing. The outrage over their “War on Women” is reaching its umpteenth peak. Their pet attack dog Rush Limbaugh is being put down by sponsors. And for some strange reason, their choice to complain about re-authorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is being made to look as if they don’t care to protect women against violence. In response, they have pulled out their ultimate trump card: Exposing the top-secret misogyny of the man at the head of the Democratic Party.

That man, of course, is cable talk show host Bill Maher.

What the Republican Party has on Maher is that he (a) called Sarah Palin a “cunt” and (b) donated to Obama’s PAC. This is announced to thudding, ominous synth music, comprises at least 50 percent of the Republican National Committee’s “Obama’s War on Women” ad, and comes as a surprise to precisely no one. In fact, aside from being an asinine attack on Obama, it betrays some distinctly poor research skills when it comes to Maher: Feminists have been calling Maher out for years, which you’d think would have provided them with more fodder. (“[D]eeply misogynist, routinely homophobic, fat-hating, ableist, transphobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic and…a one-man rape joke machine” is one of the nicer descriptions of Maher on the linked page. “Total fucking misogybag rape-joking asshole” is another.)

But this surprising concordance between Republican propagandists and feminist bloggers demonstrates a new approach from the party of knee aspirin and personhood initiatives. Rather than actually backing off on offensive legislation, they’ve chosen to go on an entirely new offensive: Accusing the Democrats of cynically exploiting women’s issues in order to get votes.

They may be partially correct. Women, and particularly single women, are an important voting demographic, and they tend to vote for Democrats. In 2008, 70 percent of single female voters supported Obama over John McCain. (Married women, on the other hand, were about evenly split–McCain got about 3 percent more of their votes.) In 2012, the public enthusiasm that pushed Obama into office has largely dissipated, and his presidency has frequently disappointed many of the young progressives who were so crucial to his success. Rallying the women may be his best bet–and, given the extremist anti-choice legislation pushed by the GOP, his surest.

The most recent fight over the re-authorization of VAWA–which would be expanded to provide additional protections to Native American populations, undocumented immigrants and GLBTQ people–has been covered ably by many, including In These Times’ own Alison Kilkenny, who appeared on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show to discuss it. The new inclusions are good ones: there is an epidemic of sexual violence against Native American women, undocumented immigrants fear reporting assaults because of the possibility of deportation, and domestic violence in same-sex partnerships is a widely neglected topic.

But the timing of all this has tipped off the cynicism of some feminists, who are used to having their concerns marginalized or neglected. J. Bryan Lowder, writing at Slate’s XX Factor, has wondered whether the Democrats are overplaying their hand.

“[As] a feminist writer, I obviously support the exposure and opposition, as you put it, of anti-choice, anti-woman and generally anti-things-intelligent-people-should-agree-upon thinking and policy-making within the GOP [and] conservative movement,” Lowder told me in an e-mail. “We should be writing and working against this stuff as a matter of course, and if the Democrats want to support that goal, I’m all for it. The second thought, though, is that the Dems [and] liberals, as the ostensible representatives of ‘minority’ groups, don’t deserve special praise for doing their job.”

But it’s hard to argue that “their job” is unnecessary or undeserving of praise. Rachel Kincaid, a senior editor at Autostraddle, rejects the idea that the VAWA reforms are motivated by the desire to put Republicans at a disadvantage–and notes that, even if they are, they’re still helping people.

“The Republican Party is no stranger to coupling unfavorable legislation with desirable ones in order to put their opponents in a tough position–for instance, trying to tack a DADT repeal onto defense spending that Democrats opposed in order to block its passage,” she says. “But the VAWA is now genuinely a stronger and more comprehensive piece of legislation, providing support to populations that really need it.”

Kincaid also notes that “more than just using [Republicans’] anti-gay bias to call attention to an anti-woman current, Dems are also calling them out on their anti-gay bias itself.” This, she argues, may ultimately be useful both to GLBTQ people who aren’t women and to women who happen to be straight. She notes the increasing public opposition to homophobia, and the “halo effect” surrounding candidates who support GLBTQ rights.

“As anti-gay as the current GOP candidates are, they’re also obliged to reference mysterious gay friends, and preface their stance against same-sex marriage with ‘I don’t have anything against gay people, but,’” she says. “When was the last time a Republican said ‘I respect women, but I just don’t happen to believe in their autonomy?’ At this point, opposing equal rights for gay people makes you look like a bigot, at least to a significant portion of the population. Opposing equal rights for women still just makes you look like a conservative.”

Ultimately, the promise of the “War on Women” is that bigotry against women will become more visible. The hope is that we are in the midst of a cultural shift, in which the extremist pushback on reproductive rights has awakened a real feminist conscience in the nation. And this may very well happen: it’s unlikely that voters who have spent the past year getting outraged about the sexism of the Republican Party will simply forget about sexism altogether once the year is over.

But such a shift will require more than a year’s worth of outreach. The Democrats who court female voters during election years will have to remember to protect their interests during the three years in between. And women will have to keep the pressure on Democrats to remember the value of their votes.

This last part, actually, may be the easiest. Anger over attacks on reproductive rights, and political misogyny, is both genuine and deep–and, as such, not likely to be politely respectful of party lines. After all, even with thudding synth music and an election to win, the Republican National Committee still couldn’t match feminists when it came to calling out Bill Maher.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times Staff Writer. She also contributes regularly to Rookie Magazine, and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. She's the winner of the first Women's Media Center Social Media Award. She's interested in women in pop culture, women creating pop culture, reproductive rights, and women's relationship to the Internet and the Left. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady inthesetimes.com.

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