By Margaret Fortney ’13
Republican women are in a tight spot. For the past two years, the liberal establishment has been telling Americans that we are fighting a civil war: The Republican War Against Women. Once a hyperbolic commentary on women’s issues, the war is now taken for granted. This war largely comprises the issues of abortion, contraception, and women’s career opportunities. As a woman who cares about her own body and career as well as the bodies and careers of other women, I am concerned. But not about a Republican War Against Women. I am concerned that this distorted dialogue obscures arguments and elicits emotional responses rather than encourages productive discussions. The real war is not between Republicans and women, but between two different ideas of feminism.
Is there a War?
The term “war” is a complete misnomer in describing the Republican stance on abortion, contraception, and women’s rights in the workplace. First of all, “Republican” and “woman” are not mutually exclusive labels (I offer myself as evidence). Democrats interpreted Obama’s lead among women as verification of their hypothetical war’s existence. According to CNN exit polls in the 2012 election, 55% of women voted for Obama, and 44% voted for Romney. Either 44% of women are waging war against themselves, or else there are two viable conceptions of womanhood. A closer look at demographic votes further complicates the picture. Fewer women voted for Obama in 2012 than did in 2008. If a war on women had been raging for the past two years, would we not expect the opposite shift? Liberals might respond that Republican women, misinformed about their party’s objectives, are unknowingly voting against their own self-interests. This claim belittles the intelligence of Republican women. Women can – and, I will argue, should – prefer the Republican stance on these issues to the Democratic alternative. This war’s existence is not supported by statistics. It is disingenuous for the women who disagree with the Republican party’s views on these issues to speak for all women.
The War on Abortion
Modern feminists claim that the right to have an abortion is fundamental to women’s progress. Historically, however, feminists opposed abortion. They viewed it as an evil forced upon women by men. Women were once legally recognized as property. The doctrine of coverture subsumed a wife’s rights under those of her husband. Feminists fought hard to gain the legal rights afforded to men. And yet abortion is but another form of coverture. It treats unborn children like property, to be disposed of when they are inconvenient, without regard to their rights.
Today’s liberal feminists equate a pro-life stance with an anti-woman stance. However, many American women themselves are pro-life. In fact, they are almost evenly divided on the issue: 46% identify as pro-life, and 44% identify as pro-choice. If abortion were so central to women’s progress, would we not expect greater consensus among women?
Pro-choice feminists must grapple with the fact that abortion is often an act of despair, not of empowerment. It has a troubling association with poverty. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research organization, 64% of women having abortions are minorities and 42% are poor, while only 36% and 15% of the population are minorities and poor, respectively. 83% of women seeking abortions are unmarried. The prevalence of abortion is a reflection of the disintegration of the family. Instead of expecting men to take parental and financial responsibility for their children, we encourage women to abort them. This produces an anti-motherhood attitude in which pregnancy is treated as an obstacle to women’s fulfillment. A better feminism would expect the father to take paternal responsibility and help the mother pursue motherhood alongside her education and career, if that is what she desires. Abortion is a symptom of – not a solution to – our social problems.
Abortion can even be used to fuel the great social problem that feminism seeks to overcome: sexism. In many nations, sex-selective abortions lead to the disproportionate killing of females. Democrats in Congress recently rejected legislation that would ban this gendercide. Amidst all this talk about a ‘Republican War on Women’ no one seems to notice that it is women who are often the casualties of the liberal feminist agenda.
The empowering effects (or lack thereof) of abortion tell us nothing about its morality. Scientists agree that life begins at conception, and no appeals to women’s rights can change the fact that abortion ends a life. Republicans do not oppose abortion because of a lack of concern for women, but rather because of a great concern for children. A belief that the value of a human life (even one in utero) is infinitely greater than any inconvenience that the responsibility for that life might bring is not anti-woman. It is simply pro-life.
The War on Contraception
The current debate about contraception and the HHS mandate is woefully misleading. Liberals accuse Republicans of wanting to limit women’s access to birth control. However, the HHS mandate has nothing to do with access to birth control. Women (and men) have possessed the legal right to buy and use contraception for decades. Griswold v. Connecticut secured this right for married couples in 1965 and Eisenstadt v. Baird extended it to singles in 1972. This right is not in jeopardy. Moreover, birth control is accessible and affordable. Walmart and Target provide it for $9/month for individuals whose health insurance does not cover it.
The question is whether the government can and should require insurers to pay for contraception, including abortifacients like Plan B, when the insurer, the employer, or even the women themselves object. It is unprecedented for the federal government to require citizens to provide or purchase something that violates their religious or moral beliefs. This is an unconstitutional infringement on the freedom of religion guaranteed in the First Amendment.
Taking a step back, it is surprising that modern feminists demand free contraception. The sexual revolution and resulting freedom to have casual sexual relationships was supposed to empower women and grant them autonomy and independence. However, an expectation that others should fund our sexual choices returns us to a state of dependence. It shirks responsibility and puts demands on people who neither affect nor are affected by our decisions. If feminism entails sexual license then it should also entail assuming the costs (including the financial cost of contraception) that this license brings.
This HHS mandate is a form of the governmental paternalism that feminists once sought to overcome. Women, like men, are rational agents capable of forming and dissolving contracts. Women who prioritize free birth control can exercise their preference by choosing employers and schools whose health coverage provides it. Yet there are other women who have been – and will remain – satisfied with plans that do not cover birth control. Women who associate with Catholic organizations weigh the benefits that the association provides against the costs of the lack of contraceptive coverage, if they do indeed consider it a cost.
The government, through the HHS mandate, imposes its own valuations on all women, thereby second-guessing women’s ability to make their own rational decisions. The misguided feminist opposition to the HHS mandate purports that women need to be protected from the evil machinations of the free market. A better feminism does not shield women from tough decisions but champions their ability to make them, unfettered by governmental interference. Women’s sexual freedom is hardly an achievement when it diminishes women’s economic freedom.
Equal Pay and the Lilly Ledbetter Act
Obama has touted his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as a major step towards female equality in the workplace. The media has condemned Republican opposition to the act as evidence of their opposition to women’s rights. These accusations betray a deep lack of understanding.
The Lilly Ledbetter Act is not about equal pay for women. It is about lawyers. Women have had the right to equal pay for nearly fifty years. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibits sex-based wage discrimination. The Lilly Ledbetter Act extends the time frame during which women can sue their employers for suspected unequal pay. Analysts expect that the greatest beneficiaries will be trial lawyers, and the Act might actually harm women. Employers, wary of lawsuits, may be reluctant to hire women. Republicans support equal pay for equal work, but the Lilly Ledbetter Act will not bring this about. Opponents of the Lilly Ledbetter Act are perspicacious enough to not tout this trial lawyers’ legislation as a victory for women.
Liberal indignation over Republican opposition to the Act is based on the faulty assumption that employers are still consistently underpaying women. When you control for relevant factors like college major, occupation, and length of employment, the wage gap nearly disappears. Equal pay is not the predominant challenge career women face. Less quantifiable barriers to advancement that prevent women from obtaining – or even pursuing – promotions need to be investigated. These barriers are more difficult to address and legislate, but if we really care about opportunities for women we will prioritize them.
The rhetoric of a “Republican War on Women” is a ploy of the liberal establishment. The issues the supposed war comprises are complex; the dichotomous reduction of Republicans on one side and women on the other is counterproductive and patently false. Liberal Democrats have commandeered the term ‘feminism’ for themselves, equating it with a desire for abortion-on-demand and free contraception. Feminism has transitioned from the noble pursuits of equal opportunities and essential rights to frivolous demands for entitlements and equality of outcome. The attachment of feminism to abortion and the Democratic party excludes many women. The insinuation that women require special legal protection that only Democrats will provide is false and condescending.
A better feminism is one which fully celebrates women. We can encourage career opportunities for women while still valuing marriage, motherhood, and homemaking. This also entails expecting men to embrace their roles as husbands and fathers. We must move away from empty phrases like “The Republican War on Women” and towards real debates about these issues. Both the Left and the Right are well-intentioned. However, the Left’s approach diminishes feminism. We do not have a war between Republicans and women but between two different versions of feminism. If we stop accusing the other side of anti-woman bigotry and hatred, we might work towards reconciling these visions and truly helping women.