Working moms and military sex assaults: More GOP insensitivity

Gov. Bryant
Gov. Bryant

After their party lost two Senate seats last year in part because of obtuse statements GOP candidates made about rape, Republicans vowed to become more sensitive when talking about women and the issues that concern them.

Tuesday will not be remembered as a good day in that endeavor.

At a Washington Post-sponsored conference on education, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant opined that American children’s lackluster academic performance can be blamed on the fact that “both parents started working. The mom got in the workplace.”

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, during a tense hearing on sexual assaults in the military, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) seemed to blame the problem on youthful exuberance among the troops.

“The young folks coming in to each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23. Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. So we’ve got to be very careful how we address it on our side,” Chambliss told the top military officials who were called to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Beyond the shakiness of the logic underpinning these comments, they suggest that some Republican politicians still haven’t learned the lessons of the 2012 election, in which the GOP struggled to connect with female voters.

“Whenever any male politician is talking about issues that directly affect females, they need to pick their words exceedingly carefully,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said.

That is particularly true for Republicans, he added. “You never want to verify a rap against you.”

President Obama owed his reelection to female voters, where he ran 11 percentage points ahead of GOP nominee Mitt Romney, overwhelming the former Massachusetts governor’s seven-point advantage among men. The Gallup organization reported that the gender gap was the widest since it began compiling that data in 1952.

Republicans also squandered advantages in two U.S. Senate races in 2012, after comments their candidates — Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana — made about rape. Akin said that in cases of “legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” to avoid pregnancy, while Mourdock said that pregnancies resulting from rape are “something that God intended to happen.”

Bryant’s comment about mothers entering the workforce is undercut by data. Many countries that have a greater share of mothers in the workforce also have high levels of children who perform well academically.

His remarks landed on the heels of  a report  last week  by the Pew Research Center that found that women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households with children — which stirred up a new controversy on the right.

Speaking on an all-male panel on Fox News Channel, conservative blogger Erick Erickson  said, “When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and female in society, and the other animals, the male typically is the dominant role.”

In his blog, Erickson wrote that children “most likely will do best in households where they have a mom at home nurturing them while dad is out bringing home the bacon.”

Fox News host Megyn Kelly — pregnant with her third child, and, as she noted, no liberal —  invited Erickson back for another appearance and tore into him: “What’s unstable about having a working mother, and a nurturing, loving stay-at-home father?”

Similarly, the women on the Armed Services Committee seemed to reject Chambliss’s logic that equated passion with rape.

“My years of experience in this tells me they are committing crimes of domination and violence. This isn’t about sex. This is about assaultive domination and violence,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former sex-crimes prosecutor.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) concurred.

“I think all of us need to acknowledge that this isn’t a gender issue,” she said. “This is a violence issue, as my colleague Senator McCaskill so eloquently reminded all of us.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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