At the time, back in January in New Hampshire, it didn’t seem like that big a deal, certainly nothing to rival previous debate flash points like “9-9-9” and “Oops!” But in retrospect it may have been one of the more fateful twists of the Republican presidential campaign. The exchange was prompted by George Stephanopoulos, who seemingly out of nowhere asked Mitt Romney if he shared Rick Santorum’s view that “states have the right to ban contraception.” Romney stiffened, as he is wont to do, and took the tone of a men’s club factotum tut-tutting a member for violating the dress code. “George, this is an unusual topic that you’re raising,” he said. “I know of no reason to talk about contraception in this regard.” The partisan audience would soon jeer the moderator for his effrontery.
Afterward, Romney’s spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom accused Stephanopoulos of asking “the oddest question in a debate this year” and of having “a strange obsession with contraception.” It was actually Santorum who had the strange obsession. He had first turned the subject into a cause in October by talking about “the dangers of contraception in this country.” Birth control is “not okay,” he said then. “It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
As we know now, Santorum, flaky though he may sound, is not some outlier in his party or in its presidential field. He was an advance man for a rancorous national brawl about to ambush an unsuspecting America that thought women’s access to birth control had been resolved by the Supreme Court almost a half century ago.
The hostilities would break out just weeks after the New Hampshire debate, with the back-to-back controversies of the White House health-care rule on contraceptives and the Komen Foundation’s dumping of Planned Parenthood. Though those two conflicts ended with speedy cease-fires, an emboldened GOP kept fighting. It had women’s sex lives on the brain and would not stop rolling out jaw-dropping sideshows: an all-male panel at a hearing on birth control in the House. A fat-cat Santorum bankroller joking that “gals” could stay out of trouble by putting Bayer aspirin “between their knees.” A Virginia governor endorsing a state bill requiring that an ultrasound “wand” be inserted into the vagina of any woman seeking an abortion.
It’s not news that the GOP is the anti-abortion party, that it panders to the religious right, and that it’s particularly dependent on white men with less education and less income—a displaced demographic that has been as threatened by the rise of the empowered modern woman as it has been by the cosmopolitan multiracial male elites symbolized by Barack Obama. That aggrieved class is, indeed, Santorum’s constituency. But, as Stephanopoulos was trying to get at when he challenged Romney, this new rush of anti-woman activity on the right isn’t coming exclusively from the Santorum crowd. It’s a phenomenon extending across the GOP. On March 1, every Republican in the Senate except the about-to-flee Olympia Snowe—that would be 45 in total—voted for the so-called Blunt Amendment, which would allow any employer with any undefined “moral” objection to veto any provision in health-care coverage, from birth control to mammograms to diabetes screening for women (or, for that matter, men) judged immorally overweight.
After the Blunt Amendment lost (albeit by only three votes), public attention to the strange 2012 Republican fixation on women might have dissipated had it not been for Rush Limbaugh. His verbal assault on a female Georgetown University law student transformed what half-attentive onlookers might have tracked as a hodgepodge of discrete and possibly fleeting primary-season skirmishes into a big-boned narrative—a full-fledged Republican war on women. And in part because Limbaugh pumped up his hysteria for three straight days, he gave that war a unifying theme: pure unadulterated misogyny.
The GOP Establishment didn’t know what to do about Rush. Conservatives had tried to make the case that the only issue at stake in the contraception debate was religious liberty—Obama’s health-care czars forcing religiously affiliated institutions (or more specifically Catholic institutions) to pay for birth-control coverage (which 98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women use at some point, according to the Guttmacher Institute). But the Obama administration had walked back that rule in a compromise acceptable to mainstream Catholics, including the Catholic Health Association. So what was Rush yelling about now except his own fantasies (videos included) about this young woman’s sex life?
The right’s immediate solution was simple: The best defense of Rush was a good offense. He was guilty mainly of a poor choice of words (as he himself said in his “apology”) and so was really no different from Bill Maher, Ed Schultz, and Keith Olbermann, among other liberal hypocrites who had used “slut,” “whore,” or worse to slime Republican women. It was an entirely valid point—and also a convenient distraction from Virginia’s vaginal wands, Congressman Darrell Issa’s all-male panel, Foster Friess’s aspirin-between-the-knees, and that ugly Blunt business in the Senate.
At the very top of the Washington GOP Establishment, however, there was a dawning recognition that a grave danger had arisen—not to women, but to their own brand. A month of noisy Republican intrusion into women’s health and sex organs, amplified by the megaphone of Limbaugh’s aria, was a potentially apocalyptic combination for an election year. No one expressed this fear more nakedly than Peggy Noonan, speaking, again with Stephanopoulos, on ABC’s This Week. After duly calling out Rush for being “crude, rude, even piggish,” she added: “But what he said was also destructive. It confused the issue. It played into this trope that the Republicans have a war on women. No, they don’t, but he made it look that way.”
Note that she found Limbaugh “destructive” not because he was harming women but because he was harming her party. But the problem wasn’t that Limbaugh confused the issue. His real transgression was that he had given away the GOP game, crystallizing an issue that had been in full view for weeks. That’s why his behavior resonated with and angered so many Americans who otherwise might have tuned out his rant as just another sloppy helping of his aging shtick. It’s precisely because there is a Republican war on women that he hit a nerve. And surely no one knows that better than Noonan, a foot soldier in some of the war’s early battles well before Rush became a phenomenon. In her 1990 memoir about her service in the Reagan administration, What I Saw at the Revolution, she recalls likening Americans who favored legal abortions to Germans who favored killing Jews—a construct Limbaugh wouldn’t seize on and popularize (“feminazis”) until Reagan was leaving office and Anita Hill and Hillary Clinton emerged on the national stage.
GOP apologists like Noonan are hoping now that Limbaugh and Limbaugh alone will remain the issue—a useful big fat idiot whom Republicans can scapegoat for all the right’s misogynistic sins and use as a club to smack down piggish liberal media stars. The hope is that he will change the subject of the conversation altogether, from a Republican war on women to, as Noonan now frames it, the bipartisan “coarsening of discourse in public life.” That’s a side issue, if not a red herring. Coarse and destructive as sexist invective is—whether deployed by Limbaugh or liberals—it is nonetheless policies and laws that inflict the most insidious and serious casualties in the war on women. It’s Republicans in power, not radio talk-show hosts or comedians or cable-news anchors, who try and too often succeed at enacting punitive measures aimed at more than half the population. The war on women is rightly named because those who are waging it do real harm to real women with their actions, not words.
If that war were all about Rush Limbaugh—or all about abortion—it would be easy to understand and perhaps easy to file away as the same old same old. But a sweeping edict with full GOP support like the Blunt Amendment, which has nothing to do with abortion, indicates how much broader the animus is. The Republican Party in its pathological reaction to the rise of Obama has now moved so far to the right that it seems determined to turn back the clock to that supposedly halcyon time when Ralph Kramden was king of his domestic castle. Back then, as Santorum would have it, women just didn’t do things “counter to how things are supposed to be.”
For much of its history, misogyny was not the style of the party of Lincoln. For most of the twentieth century, the GOP was ahead of the curve in bestowing women’s rights. When the Nineteenth Amendment granting suffrage was ratified in 1920, roughly three-quarters of the 36 state legislatures that did so were controlled by Republicans. In 1940, the GOP mandated that women be equally represented in its national and executive committees—a standard not imposed by the Democrats until more than three decades later.
Barry Goldwater’s wife Peggy, inspired by a Margaret Sanger lecture in Phoenix in 1937, would help build one of the nation’s largest Planned Parenthood affiliates. Her husband favored abortion rights. “I think the average woman feels, ‘My God, that’s my business,’ and that’s the way we should keep it,” he said late in his career. Prescott Bush, the Connecticut senator who sired a presidential dynasty, was another Sanger enthusiast and treasurer for the first national Planned Parenthood fund-raising campaign. His son George, when a congressman in the sixties, was an ardent birth-control advocate and the principal Republican author of the trailblazing Family Planning Act of 1970. Capitol Hill colleagues jokingly nicknamed him “Rubbers.”
One loyal Republican woman whose political engagement began during this relatively enlightened time was Tanya Melich, the daughter of a state senator in ultraconservative Utah. Melich, who had passed out leaflets for Wendell Willkie as a child in the forties, had grown up to be a stalwart New York Republican and a 1992 Bush convention delegate. She was no fan of Democrats, who “stood for big government that obstructed individual freedom.”
Melich wrote those words in a memoir published in 1996. The book’s title was The Republican War Against Women. When it came out, it caused a small stir, but these days her eyewitness account of her party’s transformation seems more pertinent and prescient than ever. It gives the lie to the notion that a Republican war on women is some Democratic trope, trumped up in recent weeks for political use in 2012. Her history also reminds us that the hostility toward modern women resurfacing in the GOP today was baked into the party before the religious right gained its power and before recriminalizing abortion became a volatile cause.
The GOP started backing away from its traditional beneficence on women’s issues at the tail end of the Nixon presidency. Nixon had a progressive GOP take for his time: He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, appointed an impressive number of talented women, and in 1972 signed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act to strengthen the policing of workplace discrimination. But, in a telling shift a few months earlier, he also vetoed a bipartisan bill enabling child care for the millions of mothers then rapidly joining the workforce. As Melich observes, it would have been consistent with GOP frugality if Nixon had rejected the bill solely because of its cost. But his veto was accompanied by a jarring statement that child care would threaten American families by encouraging women to work. The inspiration for this unexpected reactionary broadside came not from fundamentalist clergy but from cynical, secular political strategists eager to exploit the growing backlash against the sixties feminist movement, much as the “southern strategy” was exploiting the backlash against the sixties civil-rights movement.
This tactic preceded Roe v. Wade, which was decided in 1973. The new GOP was hostile to female liberation, period, not just female sexual freedom. The pitch was articulated by Newt Gingrich in his first successful congressional race in Georgia in 1978. His opponent, a state senator named Virginia Shapard, crusaded for the Equal Rights Amendment and bankrolled her own campaign. That uppity profile gave the Gingrich forces an advertising message: “Newt will take his family to Washington and keep them together; Virginia will go to Washington and leave her husband and children in the care of a nanny.” Newt won by nine percentage points. One of his campaign officials tied his victory to the strategy of “appealing to the prejudice against working women, against their not being home.”
This hostility to independent women was codified in the national Republican platform throughout the seventies. A 1972 plank supporting federal assistance for day-care services was softened in 1976, then dropped entirely at the Reagan convention of 1980. A 1972 stipulation that “every woman should have the freedom to choose whatever career she wishes—and an equal chance to pursue it” also vanished. The 1980 platform instead took a patriarchal stance, applauding mothers and homemakers for “maintaining the values of this country.”
By then the anti-choice extremists of the religious right had merged with the hard right to produce the GOP convention from hell in 1992 in Houston. As if Pat Buchanan’s legendary address calling for an all-out culture war were not crazed enough, the vice-president’s wife, Marilyn Quayle, declared that “most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women.” Women, in fact, had now fallen to a status lower than the fetus as far as this recalibrated Republican Party was concerned. “I can’t imagine a crime more egregiously awful than forcible rape,” said Congressman Henry Hyde at a convention platform hearing, before going on to add: “There is honor in having to carry to term, not exterminating the child. From a great tragedy, goodness can come.”
The indignities of the 1992 Republican convention and campaign were all countenanced by Melich’s own candidate, the former “Rubbers,” who had long since repudiated his past good works on family planning. In disgust, she and many other Republican women voted for Bill Clinton. In what would later be dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” four new women were elected to the Senate in 1992, all Democrats. The gender gap, which had made its first appearance in the Reagan ascendancy of 1980, kept growing during the Clinton presidency. Mary Matalin blamed the problem, much as Noonan does now, on faulty communications that confused the issue for women voters. Conservatives needn’t worry about “changing their message,” Matalin condescendingly advised in 1996, but should instead focus on “conveying it in ways intelligible to women.”
Such tactics didn’t close the gender gap, which would remain intact until the Democratic shellacking of 2010, when women split between the parties. Unsurprisingly, the gap has returned with a vengeance this year. A post-Blunt-Limbaugh March Wall Street Journal–NBC News poll found that in an Obama-Romney matchup, Romney was winning among men by six points and losing among women by eighteen points, giving Obama an overall advantage of six points. Male Republican political hands aren’t losing sleep about it, for they assume that the gals will quickly forget these silly little tussles over contraception. “Nobody thinks it will matter in a couple of months,” said Vin Weber, the former Republican congressman and current Romney backer. “If Rick Santorum is not the nominee,” said Whit Ayres, the GOP pollster, “all the attention to these issues is going to evaporate.” According to Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, the requiring of ultrasound procedures in states like his has nothing to do with all the tumult. “This constant focus on social issues is largely coming from the Democrats,” he said on Meet the Press.
Whatever happens in November, there will be no Republican retreat in this war. Santorum is unlikely to be the GOP nominee, if he isn’t toast already, but his fade-out would no more change the state of play than if Limbaugh suddenly announced his retirement. What matters, and will continue to matter, is the damage inflicted by politicians and officials on women’s daily lives. Even a renewal of the once-bipartisan 1994 Violence Against Women Act is up for grabs in the current Congress.
The notion that Romney will somehow be more “moderate” on women’s issues than his opponents or party is not credible. The fact that he and his wife long ago supported Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts is no more a predictor of his agenda in the White House than the Bush family’s links to Planned Parenthood were of either Bush presidency. On policy, Romney and Santorum are on exactly the same page. Both endorsed the Blunt Amendment and the short-lived Komen defunding of Planned Parenthood. (Romney has called for the termination of all federal funding of Planned Parenthood.) Both men also want to shut down Title X—the main federal family-planning program supported by Nixon and then-Congressman Bush at its creation in 1970. Title X prevents abortions and unintended pregnancies by the hundreds of thousands per year, according to federal research. In addition to birth control, it also pays for preventive health care that includes cervical- and breast-cancer screening, testing for sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, and even some abstinence counseling for teenagers. It would be overstating the case to say that the men running for president and running Congress in the GOP are opposed to all these services; the evidence suggests that such female concerns aren’t on their radar screen.
Republicans in state government are not waiting for a Romney presidency to gut Title X and act on the rest of their wish list. Rick Perry has already rejected Title X money for Texas, assuring that countless poor women in his domain will be denied access to all reproductive health care, from birth-control pills to Pap smears. In other states from Pennsylvania to Arizona, Virginia-style laws mandating government medical procedures on pregnant women have made serious advances. So have “personhood” laws, which hold the promise to make birth control and family planning as endangered as abortion rights. The moment the state declares a fertilized egg a “person” is the moment when the morning-after pill and IUDs, not to mention in vitro fertilization, become, by definition, illegal.
To believe that Romney will somehow depart from his party’s misogyny in the White House, you have to believe that everything he has said about these issues during the primary campaign is a lie. You have to believe that the “real” Romney is the one who endorsed Roe v. Wade when he was running against Ted Kennedy in 1994, and that all the Etch A Sketch–ing since then has been a transitory attempt to pander to his party’s base. But a look at Romney’s personal history suggests that the real Romney is the one before us now—the sincere exponent of a deeply held faith whose entire top hierarchy is male and that still denies women the leadership roles that are bestowed on every Mormon male beginning at age 12. (At least blacks were finally granted full equality in the Church of Latter Day Saints in 1978.) The widely reported examples of Romney’s own personal behavior in his church roles as ward bishop and stake president in the Boston area suggest that he had not only never questioned this ethos but completely internalized it. He seems impervious to vulnerable women in crisis and need beyond his own family.
In one of these incidents, he turned his back on a 23-year-old single mother, Peggie Hayes, who had been a Romney family friend and teenage babysitter, because she refused to obey his and the church’s preference that she give up a second, out-of-wedlock child for adoption. Even when Hayes’s baby underwent frightening head surgery nine months after birth, Mitt spurned her call to come to the hospital to confer a blessing on her child. A similar Romney episode originally surfaced in an anonymous first-person account published by a Mormon feminist journal, Exponent II, in 1990. A mother of four learned that she had a blood clot in her pelvis during a later, unexpected pregnancy, putting her own health and that of the fetus at risk. Romney visited the hospital where she “lay helpless, hurt, and frightened,” as she described it, only to tell her that “as your bishop, my concern is with the child.” The woman, who has recently identified herself as Carrel Hilton Sheldon, was enraged that he cared more about “the eight-week possibility” in her uterus than he did about her—and that he offered “judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice, and rejection” at a time when she needed support from spiritual leaders and friends. In an interview with Ronald Scott, the author of a Romney biography published last year, Sheldon tried to be generous when looking back. “Mitt has many, many winning qualities,” she said, “but at the time he was blind to me as a human being.”
All of which is to affirm that George Stephanopoulos was addressing his question to the right candidate when he brought up the banning of contraception at that January debate. Santorum has always been completely candid about his view of women and their status; Romney was the one who had to be smoked out. Romney didn’t take the bait, but even so, his record is clear, and, unlike the angry Santorum, he has the smooth style of a fifties retro patriarch to camouflage the reactionary content. In this sense, his war on women would differ from Rick’s—and Rush’s—only in the way prized by GOP spin artists like Noonan and Matalin. He would never be so politically foolhardy as to spell out on-camera just how broad and nasty its goals really are.