In the latest development in America’s political war over women, Republican hopeful Rand Paul has decided to take the offensive. Breaking with his party’s usual habit, he has decided not to deflect, change the subject, or shift uncomfortably whenever women’s issues arise. Instead, he is hitting back hard by calling Democrats to account for their continued reliance on America’s womanizer-in-chief, Bill Clinton.
Liberals have been quick to denounce this effort as a ridiculous and futile, but it’s clear that Paul has set them back on their heels. It’s less clear how his strategy will work out in the long run, but we should not draw the wrong lessons from previous GOP failures to capitalize on Clinton’s personal misconduct. In the ’90s, the sustained attacks on the president came across to many Americans as unseemly, because embroiling the chief executive in never-ending scandals was injurious to the health of the nation.
But Clinton is not president any more, and the Democrats’ continued willingness to drink from that well (he is still a top fundraiser, and no one has forgotten the impact of his speech in the 2012 Democratic convention) is obviously in tension with their claim to champion the interests of women. Many younger voters may not realize the full extent of Clinton’s mistreatment of women. It will be interesting to see how they react to that information.
The effectiveness of these efforts could be increased tenfold, however, if conservatives could find a credible way to present a positive message to women. Dredging up old scandals, even when justified, is always distasteful, and the risk may not pay off unless Republicans can follow up on it by speaking to women in a more effective way. Unfortunately, they find this very difficult to do.
In part, conservatives’ ineptitude at addressing women just reflects their general distaste for identity politics, but it also reflects the mood of the Republican base. Between feminism, the “women’s issue” lobby, and now the war-on-women narrative, conservatives are feeling rather sour just now toward American women as a group. This sourness manifests itself occasionally in unwise or snide remarks, like Mike Huckabee’s recent speech in which he implied that Democrats think women want birth control primarily to tame their out-of-control sexual urges.
Democrats can easily spin these kinds of remarks into evidence that conservatives are contemptuous of modern women, which in turn further supplements their argument that conservatives are possessed of an overweening chauvinism that seeks to relegate women to subservience. This is not really fair, of course. But because women do feel “embattled” in modern society, they are easily persuaded that Republicans must be the aggressors. Having allowed this situation to fester for far too long, the onus is now on conservatives to demonstrate insight into the factors that create so much angst for American women. They must then explain how women will benefit more from their proposed policies than from free contraceptives and abortion on demand.
Diagnosing the Problem
This is a tall order. Women’s issues provoke cultural conflict for a reason, and there is no easy fix. From an early age, girls feel saddled with a very diverse range of demands and expectations, and they are faced with difficult choices. The painful trade-offs that underlie those choices, between the goods of professional life and the goods of domesticity, are very real. Hardly anyone—of either sex—can look on this quandary with detachment, because everyone is affected in some very personal way by the decisions women make.
Women have always played a very central role in the all-important but hugely onerous project of raising the next generation. This endeavor requires an enormous reserve of patience, along with countless hours of unpaid labor, and while fathers, grandparents, or others can help by adopting a significant caretaking role, the fact remains that mothers are hard to replace. When women as a group become anxious to reduce their caregiving hours, children tend to become scarcer and more vulnerable to neglect.
At the same time, women can see that the professional world also has much to offer. Most wish to be involved in some capacity or other. Conservatives sometimes try to downplay this desire as nothing more than a by-product of feminism, which urges women to bypass their true bliss in order to join the ranks of the hapless widget-makers who are trapped in the corporate rat race. If homemaking is the topic of discussion, many conservatives will happily recast entrepreneurial visionaries they admire (along with accomplished scholars, researchers, artists, and professionals) as loyal husbands who merely keep the bills paid, enabling their wives to do the really important work of raising a family. Remember Mitt Romney’s convention speech, in which he remarked on how his homemaker wife had a harder job than he, as the president of Bain Capital?
I appreciate the effort to give homemakers their due, and I give all credit to toiling breadwinners who persist in unpleasant jobs. But as a diagnosis of the general state of society, we need to acknowledge that this double-talk can get a little disingenuous. Homemaking is indeed vitally important, and it should be respected for the same sorts of reasons that pastoral work or military service should be respected. All fill vitally important social functions, and involve significant self-sacrifice.
Nevertheless, we should not hide from the fact that our society respects specialized excellence—and with good reason. We value the high standard of living that a capitalist society can attain when it cultivates and uses human talents. Even more importantly, we take pride in having a society that fosters and celebrates real human excellence. It isn’t just empty ambition that makes us want our Olympians to be ever faster and stronger, our chefs and musicians ever more talented, and our scientists ever more ardent in their pursuit of knowledge. All of society is elevated by a genuine appreciation for what is good. Conservatives are ordinarily among the first to see this yearning for excellence as among the most positive of American traits.
Moreover, it should be evident that the benefits of participation in the competitive workforce are potentially much greater now than they were in the heyday of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. The much documented “creative class” of the post-Reagan era has showered opportunity, status, and wealth on those who can cultivate specialized excellence. It’s good to be good in modern-day America, and economic conservatives are inclined to see that as something to celebrate. We want our citizens to respect and aspire to high achievement.
Women, too, can yearn for that specialized excellence. Unfortunately, the harsh truth is that a competitive society easily dismisses domestically occupied women as low-status citizens. Their maternal responsibilities generally prevent them from developing the rarefied specializations that command admiration and high-level remuneration. And, in the end, there is no use in bravely contending that domestically occupied parents are the most excellent of all, because—when evaluated on their level of rarefied excellence—it just isn’t true. In a very real way, the domestic life prevents people from committing themselves to the pursuit of excellence. For some, resigning themselves to that fact is the hardest sacrifice of parenthood, far more painful than the loss of sleep or social time.
Both men and women must balance these goods to some degree, but the trade-offs tend to be more agonizing for women. At least in principle, young men can incorporate the elements of the good life together in a reasonably harmonious way. Professionally successful men in their thirties tend to have good marital prospects, and they can often find wives who are willing to adopt a more supportive, caretaking role. For young women, the pieces tend not to come together so neatly, and the angst they feel in navigating these choices spills over into a whole variety of subsidiary issues.
Young girls become familiar with the terrain quite early through girl-oriented career days and “take your daughter to work” programs. (As a child I can recall disliking the “what do you want to be” question, because it seemed meant as a gauge of my feminist or reactionary-religious proclivities.) Young adults demand guarantees that they can have sex without pregnancy, and then a few years later they become embroiled in the infamous “mommy wars.” Women don’t get much respite from the wider social tendency to see all of their choices as a personal manifesto on pressing political and social issues. It’s no wonder politicians are able to exploit this, because we have been soaking up the political implications of our personal lives from a fairly young age.
This puts Republicans in a delicate position. If they don’t seem properly sympathetic to the challenges women face, they are vulnerable to being blamed for them. At the same time, it is perilous to try to adjudicate the various claims and grievances, because there really is no neat solution. After years of being prodded from various angles about their work-family decisions, American women are a mess of grievances and hair-trigger sensitivities
Democrats have responded to this situation with a two-pronged approach. First, they regularly demand that the government provide more and more assistance for women, from affirmative action to welfare to promises of free day care or lengthy maternity leaves. Second, they offer to relieve women of the burdens of motherhood altogether through the ready provision of sterilization, contraception, and abortion. On the whole, these policies have left women even more conflicted and miserable than they were before. Liberals take advantage of this fact by blaming the Republicans for refusing to get with the program. Republicans obligingly avoid the issue, and the destructive cycle continues.
This script is all too familiar. Conservatives are regularly scrambling to avoid being blamed for messes that liberals have made. What alternative message, though, might the Republican Party offer? Is there a way to show sympathy for the challenges women face without appearing to scold or belittle them? In tomorrow’s article, I will briefly describe two answers to the work-family problem that have some currency among conservatives, but that will not, in my estimation, be helpful on the political front. I will then sketch the outline of a third position that may help conservative politicians to reach out to women.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.