Why did Mitt Romney’s reference to “whole binders full of women” in response to a question from a town hall attendee in Tuesday night’s second presidential debate at Hofstra University simply drive many women up the wall?
Romney’s seemingly off-hand remark sparked outrage. The visceral response was crystallized by Amy Sullivan. She spoke for many when she wrote pointedly about “Mitt the Jerk: A Woman’s View of the Debate.” Sullivan pointed out how many women know “Mitt the Man” who talks over you like he talked over moderator Candy Crowley of CNN. This is the kind of guy who is charming when he gets his way and then turns testy when he doesn’t. Women know this guy, frankly.
But we need to go a little deeper. Women’s health, life, work and rights have been at the center of this presidential election season for a long time now. Dubbed the “War on Women,” the issues of most concern to women in terms of their reproductive freedoms and equal pay rights seemed to be very important through the summer and early fall. Women’s rights groups and progressive organizations pressed home these policy-related questions, and debate over who was more “anti-woman,” the Democrats or the Republicans, ensued.
But that wasn’t enough to keep a “gender gap” going, that is, women voters stating they preferred President Obama and his agenda on women’s rights, after the first presidential debate. Why?
In my view, this was due to the fact that the fundamental question of women’s full humanity was not brought sufficiently and clearly enough into the whole presidential contest. Women’s health, life, work and rights cannot be reduced simply to a matter of good policy, though those issues are, of course, important in terms of crafting good policy. It just isn’t only about policy.
The most compelling question to me, from a theological perspective is why women should be treated equally.
From a Christian feminist theological perspective, as theologian Letty Russell wrote so well, we, as male and female, “are known by God.” Women are created in God’s image and when Mitt Romney, or anyone else, treats women as “less than,” it is not only an offense to them, but to their Creator.
All the rest follows. Religious patriarchy is grounded in the idea that only males image God, and women are secondary, derivative and not completely in the image of God. So you don’t have to treat them equally. As feminist Mary Daly so tellingly said, “When God is male, the male is God.” This exact equation has had devastating consequences for the lives and health of women and girls throughout the world.
My colleague and co-author, Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock, with whom I wrote the book “Casting Stones: Prostitution and Liberation in Asia and the United States,” did research in many areas popular with the so-called “sex tourists.” As Brock recently reminded me, as we walked in these areas, men would rush up to us with binders full of the pictures of women, some very young women.
That’s the bottom line. Women and young girls aren’t fully human. They are a commodity.
It is not up to President Obama, of course, to make the Christian theological claim as part of a political debate. It is up to me and millions of Christian women, and male allies, who believe that women too are created in God’s image. Women of other faiths are equally capable of making their own religious case, and women of humanist values similarly.
What we most need is the values case to be made forcefully. Why is it wrong to treat women this way?
Unless and until we go deeper on why women are paid less, are told they don’t have the religious freedom to act on their own consciences in regard to their reproductive health choices, and why they are abused in their bodies, minds and spirits with little or no legal protections, then we will not get to the real problem and real and more permanent solutions will elude us.
And would somebody, in some debate, please bring up the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act?
Pass that legislation. For God’s sake. Pass it. Enforce it.
Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress .
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