Those who read the news during the election were given the impression that women today care about sex, free contraception, more sex, unrestricted abortion, and more sex. In this respect, the election was a twofold tragedy for women.
First was the Left’s shameless but effective framing of women as helpless “Julias” dependent upon the government forcing religious employers into violating their consciences in order to ensure women’s “reproductive rights.”
Second was the fact that many women actually bought this narrative and helped deliver President Obama four more years in the White House, and the Democrats a smug claim to a mandate on these issues, instead of punishing him and his party for treating them like a ballot in panties.
But things aren’t quite as bad as they look. Romney won married women’s vote by seven points and white women’s vote by fourteen points. Obama won among all women by a narrower margin than in 2008, including among young women.
In other words, it’s not fully correct to say that President Obama was re-elected because he dangled free Yaz packs in front of female voters. And it’s certainly not correct to assert that women as a monolith were a part of Obama’s winning coalition.
It is, however, worthwhile for conservatives to take a hard look at how they are framing the issues that were at stake in this election. And it is essential that conservatives not abandon their social principles on religious liberty and abortion out of a mistaken fear that taking principled stands on those issues will cost the party female voters.
How it is that an educated woman anywhere in Western civilization could seriously believe that simply because Catholic Charities will not pay for a woman’s contraception, Republicans and the Catholic Church are therefore denying women access to contraception, I cannot say. How Todd Akin can lose a shoo-in Senate seat because he used the phrase “legitimate rape,” I can.
When it comes to “women’s issues” (for lack of a better phrase) and elections, Republicans are losing the messaging battle. But we should be winning.
The number of Americans who are self-described pro-lifers is at a record high. More women today self-identify as pro-life than as pro-choice. Sixty percent of women say they want all or almost all abortions illegal. A majority of women say that having an abortion is morally wrong. And when polled about abortion, only eight percent of single women this past election cycle considered it a priority issue. Meanwhile, young pro-lifers are twice as likely to vote based on abortion than their pro-choice counterparts. Women, on the whole, are more pro-life than men.
When polled during election season on the issue of free contraception, an overwhelming majority of women agreed that contraception should be treated like any other drug by the federal government. On the question of whether employers at religious institutions should be forced to violate their consciences in order to provide free contraception, majorities of women both older and younger than forty-five disagreed. The very notion that women should agree basically assumes that women are not employers, that women don’t hold religious values, or that women don’t have conscience rights. Yet any opposition to the mandate was labeled as part of the ever-nebulous "war on women."
The Right should be schooling the Left on a whole host of issues affecting women, yet we are the ones framed as warring on women’s rights. Below I offer three concrete ways to redraw the battle lines.
Let the Women Do the Talking
Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan are wrong about Sandra Fluke. She’s not a ninny or a slut. She’s a cunning and accomplished law student with a strategic message. She was groomed by the Left as a torchbearer. She was effective.
The Right needs to get some Sandra Flukes.
In general, the Left is very good about finding female policymakers and talking heads to rally the troops on issues that affect women. During the Planned Parenthood / Komen Foundation debacle, during the (ongoing) HHS mandate debate, and on anything related to abortion, equal pay, and so on, there is always a woman leading the front from their camp.
This past election cycle, whenever anyone so much as uttered the word “woman,” liberals trotted out Fluke, Wasserman-Shultz, Pelosi, Boxer, Gillibrand, Maddow . . . et alia.
The Right brought out . . . ?
We need more women out front. We should be actively cultivating a horde of Sandra Flukes. Carly Fiorina and Jane Norton should not have lost their races. Republicans should focus with special care on electing socially conservative female officeholders, especially senators and governors.
Admittedly we have less of a selection from which to choose, probably because socially conservative women are more likely to be home taking care of their husbands and children, rather than spinning on Sunday talk shows about how full-time moms like Ann Romney have never “worked a day” in their lives.
But nonetheless, it’s pretty simple. Think less crinkly faces and less gray hair. More lipstick and highlights. The women are there. Find them. Fund them. Elevate them.
Tackle Some Pro-Woman, Pro-Family Policies
Democrats excel at putting Republicans on defense over policy tailored to women. The Lilly-Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Violence Against Women Act are just two recent examples of laws that Democrats used to tee up renewed threats of a Republican war on women. They made sure to include something objectionable (undermining the valid causes behind the laws) to ensnare Republicans and then hammered away at the slightest croak of objection. They milked the legislation for weeks of earned media and bulked their tepid case in the raging HHS mandate debate.
These types of fights aren’t going anywhere soon, and so Republicans should take the offensive by proposing pro-family policies in line with the conservative approach to massaging social change (carrots, not sticks). They could propose enlarging childcare tax credits, tax breaks for women who are second earners (the Pew Research Center recently found that an overwhelming majority of working moms actually want to be second earners), or tax incentives for businesses that offer generous maternity leave to women, to start.
Reframe, Reframe, Reframe
This election’s lesson was that framing one’s position on social issues attractively counts for everything. There was no war on women. The very concept is absurd. Women make up more than half of our population and their views on social issues (and all issues, for that matter) are as varied as those of men. (One could argue that the real “war on women” was the treatment of women as a mindless monolith only interested in what goes on between their waists and their knees in order to score political points.)
Senator Kelly Ayotte put it nicely in a recent tweet when she said, “All issues are women’s issues.” A shockingly simple, yet strangely controversial, proposition.
But the war-on-women campaign is a testament to the power of good marketing. Conservatives cannot be afraid of phrases like “female empowerment” and “women’s rights.” We simply need to reclaim them and frame policies in these terms. The truth and the numbers are on our side.
We should still be hearing about Democrats’ sexist refusal to block gender-selective abortion. We should be hearing about female business owners and employees who will be forced out of business by the HHS mandate. We should never see a panel of all-white males testifying against the HHS mandate again.
Back to things-not-looking-as-bad-as-they-seem. Married women get it. Probably because they are the CEOs of their households and know that free birth control pills are nothing compared to their husband getting a steady job and their mortgage becoming affordable again. Conservatives should focus on expanding their margins with such women.
Single women are a greater challenge. But not an impossible one. Might President Obama’s already shrunken margins with this demographic have been even slimmer if the Democrats had not used smoke and mirrors to distract a lot of unemployed young woman at home watching Girls from the fact that they are . . . unemployed at home watching Girls?
The key to their votes, and the votes of all women, lies not in abandoning our social principles, but rather in learning to present them with upgraded marketing tactics, with fresh pro-woman policy proposals, and with more feline ambassadors.
Ashley McGuire is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow, a Senior Fellow with The Catholic Association, and editor-in-chief of the online women’s magazine Altcatholicah.