The debate on women we should be having
By Ruth Marcus,
The Mommy Wars are a conflict that is never really extinguished. It doesn’t take much, as Hilary Rosen discovered, for the embers to erupt.
This mommy, for one, is tired of the stale debate over Who Made The Right Choice and Whose Job Matters More. There is no universally correct answer. More to the point, whether the tempest involves Hillary Clinton 1992 (remember staying home and baking cookies?) or Hilary Rosen 2012, the Mommy Wars are irrelevant to the presidential election.
Women, of course, are not some monolithic voting bloc. It verges on insulting to think that female voters decide solely, or even primarily, whom they will support based on “women’s issues.” Yet it is also true that certain concerns are of particular importance to women.
So maybe, instead of taking turns disavowing Rosen and proclaiming their undying admiration for mothers everywhere, President Obama and Mitt Romney could engage on some of these points. That would be a more productive use of their time — and ours.
Take, for example, the issue of equal pay. The first legislation that Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which reversed a 2007 Supreme Court decision that made it harder for women to bring lawsuits about pay discrimination. (The court said that Ledbetter had waited too long to complain that she had consistently received smaller raises than her male counterparts, even though she hadn’t known of the pay disparity.)
During the 2008 campaign, when he was the one struggling to make inroads with women after a bruising primary battle against Hillary Clinton, Obama used the ruling as a cudgel against Republican nominee John McCain, who said he opposed the bill because it “opens us up to lawsuits for all kinds of problems.”
What is Romney’s view? Asked about it this week, his campaign at first demurred, then issued an unenlightening statement affirming Romney’s dedication to “pay equity.” Well, duh. No modern candidate is going to announce that he — or she — supports unequal pay for equal work. But given that only five Republican senators voted for the Ledbetter law — the four female GOP members and Arlen Specter, who was soon to be an ex-Republican — it’s fair to ask Romney’s view. Pay disparities, and disputes over what, if any, legislative measures should be taken to address them, aren’t disappearing any time soon.
Likewise, what is Romney’s view on the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which established domestic violence and stalking as federal crimes, and provided funding for services for victims? Republicans in Congress are holding up reauthorization of the measure because of protections it would add for undocumented immigrants and gay men and lesbians. Asked about the issue four years ago, Romney drew a blank. “I’m not familiar with the act,” he said during an “Ask Mitt Anything” forum in New Hampshire. This might be a good time to bone up on it.
Obama has pressed companies to implement flexible workplaces that help working parents juggle job and family. Does Romney consider that an appropriate federal role? Where does he come down on proposals to expand — or contract — the protections of the Clinton-era Family and Medical Leave Act? How would his budget proposals affect already strained federal funding for child care?
And then there is contraception. Romney’s stance on the new mandate for insurance coverage is well known, as is his vow to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood. What I’d like to hear from him is why, in an economic proposal that is otherwise sketchy on budgetary details, he specifically endorses eliminating the federal family planning program, which serves low- and middle-income women. Does Romney want to end contraceptive coverage as part of the Medicaid program as well?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just reported that the nation’s teen pregnancy rate is at an all-time low. Increased contraceptive use appears to have played a significant role in the decline. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that without Title X services, hundreds of thousands more teenagers would become pregnant every year. Why does Romney think eliminating the federal money for family planning — $327 million annually — is wise?
In the end, women’s votes in November, much like men’s, will be determined by a broader set of issues, from gasoline prices to unemployment to health care. But the existence — and magnitude — of the gender gap pretty much guarantees that we’re going to be talking about gender issues until Election Day. So let’s at least make the conversation about the candidates’ views and issues on which either, as president, could make a real difference, not just a political point.