October 2, 2012

A little more than 20 years ago, Anita Hill sat before a panel of 14 U.S. senators, all male, who aggressively questioned her claim that she had been sexually harassed by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. As the nation watched the hearings, riveted and repulsed, one Washington state senator couldn’t help but ask herself: “Who’s saying what I would say if I was there?”

The answer? No one — there were only two women in the Senate at the time and neither was on the Judiciary Committee. And so, in 1992, Patty Murray, the self-proclaimed “mom in tennis shoes,” laced up and ran for U.S. Senate. The Anita Hill effect spawned the “Year of the Woman,” when 19 women won seats in the House, and four women, including Murray, won in the Senate.

Two decades later, a slew of Republican attacks on women, women’s health and women’s economic futures might just turn 2012 into another “Year of the Woman.” To understand why, it’s worth recapping this year’s parade of anti-women horrors.

News broke in late January that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer foundation would stop providing funds to Planned Parenthood for cancer screenings for low-income women. After facing the wrath of its supporters for politicizing women’s health — while Planned Parenthood was showered with donations — Komen quickly reversed its decision.

In February, House Republicans organized a hearing on access to contraception— but neglected to invite any women to testify. In a stunning echo of the Anita Hill moment, a group of five men, mostly religious clergy, shared their “expertise” about the issue. And when Georgetown Law student and women’s health advocate Sandra Fluke protested being left off the panel, Rush Limbaugh hurled crude and cruel comments at her.

The same day, Foster Friess, a major supporter of Rick Santorum’s presidential bid, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he didn’t understand the fuss over insurance coverage for contraception. “Back in my days, they’d use Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly,” he said, leaving Mitchell speechless on live television.

Also in February, the Virginia House of Delegates tried to pass a measure requiring women to undergo a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion— a procedure that is exactly as invasive as it sounds. After a nationwide uproar, legislators passed a scaled-back, but equally unnecessary and insulting, ultrasound bill, which Republican governor Bob McDonnell signed into law.

The kicker came in August, when Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin said in a TV interview, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing [pregnancy] down.” Many top Republicans initially distanced themselves from Akin and his false, degrading remark. But he called their bluff, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee recently suggested that it will likely back his campaign against Democratic senator Claire McCaskill.

The Republican establishment’s revived support of Akin isn’t surprising. This is a party whose convention platform called for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.

In stark contrast, Democrats held one of the most pro-women conventions in history. Besides Michelle Obama, the Democrats featured as speakers Cecile Richards, Sandra Fluke, Sister Simone Campbell, Tammy Baldwin, Donna Edwards, Jennifer Granholm, Elizabeth Warren and more, and the convention platform stood up for women’s health, women’s rights and women’s economic futures. The more openly feminist convention increased enthusiasm among the women voters that Democrats rely on, driving President Obama’s post-convention bounce.

Meanwhile, the Republican convention skirted the fact that Mitt Romney has been, as Sen. Edward Kennedy famously said, “multiple choice” on abortion. Republicans didn’t mention Paul Ryan’s co-sponsorship of Todd Akin’s personhood bill. And Ann Romney, the convention’s ambassador to women, was unable to rise above platitudes.

No wonder there’s a sizable gender gap in this election. In Ohio, a recent poll found 60 percent of likely female voters favored Obama, compared to 35 percent for Romney. In Virginia, Obama holds a 19-point lead among women voters. And women in Pennsylvania support Obama by 21 points over Romney.

Many of the most exciting Senate races are being waged by progressive Democratic women — Warren in Massachusetts, Baldwin in Wisconsin, Mazie Hirono in Hawaii, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. These Democrats can win if they support women’s health while also safeguarding the social safety net.

“Social issues matter in the gender gap,” Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center recently told NPR, “but the real big dividing lines are what government should be doing for the poor, the elderly, and the size of the safety net.” Mitt Romney’s callous dismissal of 47 percent of Americans might be just as damaging to the party as Todd Akin’s views on rape.

As polling in this election suggests, good, fair, progressive policies can be good politics — for women, for Democrats and for the country. President Obama will only win if the gender gap holds. Democrats will only hang onto the Senate if candidates such as Warren and Baldwin win. And a focus on women’s economic needs could result in the biggest surprise of all – Democrats retaking the House of Representatives.

If women voters have their way, 2012 will be more than another “Year of the Woman.” It will be a year in which Americans — members of both the 47 and the 53 percent — reject the GOP’s “you’re on your own” economics, and affirm a commitment to one another for a shared, fair, and healthy future.