In the sixth century b.c., the Chinese tactician Sun Tzu observed: “All warfare is based on deception.” If only he could have seen the “war on women.” This whopping deception—that Republicans are out to destroy women and everything they hold dear—looks increasingly like the Democrats’ entire battle plan heading into November. For well over a year, party leaders, strategists, and elected officials have tried to rekindle hostilities at every opportunity—congressional votes on abortion, debates over the Obama-care contraceptive mandate, the selection of Paul Ryan as the Republican vice presidential nominee, and, most recently, Missouri congressman Todd Akin’s bizarre comments on rape. Leaving nothing to doubt, the Democrats have orchestrated their convention agenda to press the same case: Speakers include Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America; Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood; and Sandra Fluke, who, as a 30-year-old Georgetown law student, became a household name by demanding free birth-control pills.
This is more than just stroking an important constituency: Democrats are making the “war on women” the centerpiece of their case for reelection. The motivations are as much tactical as ideological; young, unmarried women did not turn out for Democrats in the 2010 cycle, and if they stay home in 2012, it could spell doom for Obama’s hopes of a second term.
In the meantime, a perceptive observer may notice a curious thing about this “war on women.” It is based entirely on one set of policies: those pertaining to women’s reproductive systems. By the Democrats’ logic, to oppose abortion on demand and taxpayer-funded contraception is to be “anti-woman.” Womanhood is thus defined by the desire for unrestricted abortion and free birth control; women themselves are reducible to ovaries.
It was once permissible in American politics to view women as incapable of concerns beyond childbearing—but not in this century. And in addition to insulting women’s intelligence, this approach may well backfire. American women are active, thoughtful citizens; their political concerns are focused on the future of their nation, not the cheapest and easiest way to shut down their reproductive tracts.
There is thus good reason to believe that the party that takes women seriously—speaking to them about their true aspirations for themselves, their families, and their country—will do better in November. So it is worth dispensing with gender-war deceptions to ask a much more relevant question: What do women really want—and which governing vision will best help them achieve it?
The War on Opportunity
It’s ironic that so-called feminists have caricatured women’s voting priorities as the “girl issues.” In truth, women’s prime concerns in this election cycle are the same as men’s, and can be summed up in two words: the economy.
In an August Gallup poll, voters were asked to identify the most important problem facing the country today. Men and women listed the same top two issues: the economy in general (32 percent men, 30 percent women), and unemployment/jobs (22 percent men, 25 percent women). (“Abortion issues” fell near the very bottom, failing to register even one half of one percent.)
Obama’s record on the economy and jobs is nothing short of dismal. After nearly four years and trillions of dollars of spending and “stimulus,” the unemployment rate in July was exactly the same as the rate in Obama’s first full month in office: 8.3 percent. Flatlining job prospects are discouraging for everyone, but the numbers are particularly discouraging for women. In an economy in which underemployment is a staggering 17 percent, many women have had to settle for part-time work. The unemployment rate for people age 20 and older seeking full-time work is higher among women than men—8.4 percent versus 8.0 percent. For young, unmarried women supporting themselves—the demographic Obama is targeting with the “war on women”—unlimited free birth control is poor consolation for not having a full-time job.
Another perspective on job figures is even more dismaying. During Obama’s first full month in office, according to Department of Labor statistics, the unemployment rate for men was 9.2 percent, and for women, 7.3 percent. Today, the unemployment rate for men is actually lower than it was in February 2009—8.4 percent. For women, however, unemployment is up—now at 8.1 percent. While men’s unemployment spiked and has declined steadily since, women’s rose and has remained basically level. This means that, heading into the election, men’s recent experience with the Obama economy is slightly more hopeful: For them, hiring is picking up, while for women, it has stagnated. To the extent that there has been an Obama “recovery,” it certainly hasn’t done much for women.
It doesn’t help that Obama’s policies have harmed women’s job prospects specifically. In his first few weeks in office, Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, touted by the administration as one of its earliest achievements on behalf of women. The law makes it easier for women to sue their employers if they suspect unequal pay; the result, critics of the law note, will be to encourage employers to avoid the risk of such lawsuits up front by covertly discriminating against women in hiring decisions. The law also curtails women’s options: Many women, after all, have their own reasons for taking jobs at lower pay. They might want to price themselves competitively when trying to reenter the job market after raising children; they might take a lower salary in exchange for more flexible hours or working conditions. Lilly Ledbetter restricts their ability to do so, making it harder for some women to find jobs that fit with the other demands of their lives.
Of course, women do not participate in the economy only as job-seekers. According to MRI’s Survey of the American Consumer, around three-quarters of principal household shoppers are female. In a sluggish economy, the struggle to meet rising prices with limited income is a burden that falls disproportionately on women. Obama’s (anti-)energy policies haven’t helped: Under his presidency, the price for a gallon of gas has more than doubled—rising from $1.84 to $3.83. This is not making women’s task of stretching tight household budgets any easier.
One service that women consume much more than men do is health care—“poor health care” ranks high on their list of the nation’s problems—and the Obama record here barely needs explanation. Obama-care will force millions of families out of the insurance plans they have now, reduce the quality of care, and introduce delays, rationing, and inefficiencies throughout the system. In selling the law, Democrats often noted that women make most health care decisions in America; moreover, mothers are more likely to wait with sick children at pediatricians’ offices, and daughters are more likely to care for aging parents. As seeking medical care becomes more difficult and time-consuming—all for worse health outcomes and lower patient satisfaction—the pain will be more intense for American women.
Obama-care’s employer mandates also make life much more difficult for women who are starting and running their own businesses. Indeed, the Obama agenda in general is a disaster for entrepreneurs, men and women alike. The president has promised to raise taxes on “the rich”—anyone making more than $200,000 a year. But according to a study from earlier this year by the National Federation of Independent Business, about 75 percent of the nation’s small businesses are structured as “pass-through” businesses that report income and losses on owners’ personal income-tax returns. This means that business income is assessed at the owners’ personal rates. As a result of Obama’s pledge and taxes that will go into effect as part of Obama-care, the top marginal tax rate will climb from 35 percent to 44 percent at the beginning of next year. For small-business owners, it’s that much less money to invest in capital purchases and new hires. And as a 2010 Department of Commerce report (prepared for Obama’s own White House Council on Women and Girls) noted, businesses owned by women tend to be smaller and start smaller than male-owned businesses. Obama’s tax policies will thus disproportionately harm women entrepreneurs.
And these are only the taxes Obama has openly promised to raise. There are also the tax hikes he won’t talk about: the ones that will come if nothing is done to rein in federal spending and deficits. In less than four years, Obama has swelled the size of the federal debt by an astonishing $5 trillion, bringing the total to nearly $16 trillion. This means Obama has added some $64,000 in debt for every single federal taxpayer. Meanwhile, he and his party have offered no plausible solutions for curbing the out-of-control cost growth of Social Security and Medicare, the main causes of our impending fiscal catastrophe.
At some point, the bill for this spending and irresponsibility will come due. As a recent Congressional Budget Office report noted, in order to try to get deficits back under control, federal spending on everything else—defense, education, other domestic programs—would have to decline to the lowest percentage of GDP since before World War II. Taxes, meanwhile, would have to rise to the point that revenues would reach 24 percent of GDP—“much higher,” the CBO notes, “than has typically been seen in recent decades.” Gutted government services and confiscatory taxes: This is what the Democratic agenda has to offer today’s young Americans, including the same young women whose votes the party is now so aggressively trying to court.
Clearly, women are right to worry first and foremost about the economy and jobs. Over the past several decades, they’ve increased their share of the labor force, now accounting for 47 percent of workers. Glass ceilings have shattered; women are increasingly assuming leadership roles as presidents and chief executives. Since the early 1980s, women have outpaced men in higher education: According to the Department of Education, in the 2009-2010 school year, women earned 57.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60.3 percent of master’s degrees, and 51.7 percent of doctoral degrees. Women are well-prepared, active participants in America’s economy—as taxpayers and investors, job-seekers and consumers, employers and employees.
And what does the Obama agenda have to offer them? Nothing. To the woman trying to decide whether to get another degree, or to build a startup, today’s anemic economy promises little return on her investment. It’s small wonder the Democrats are trying to distract women from economic problems: After four years, they’ve shown themselves to be incapable of solving them.
The War on Self-Determination
Women want jobs and economic opportunity, just as men do. Still, there are some policy issues that disproportionately affect women or are of special concern to them; in evaluating the Democrats’ agenda, these merit consideration, too.
Consider, for instance, the administration’s vast expansion of federal welfare programs. Enrollment for Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Women, Infants, and Children program have all increased dramatically under President Obama. Part of the increase understandably results from the dismal economy, but much of it can be attributed to stretched eligibility requirements and increased per-person benefits. These expansions have raised the effective marginal cost of finding a low-paying job (and thereby losing welfare benefits), giving beneficiaries greater incentive to remain on the dole. Indeed, in the case of food stamps, the administration has actively recruited participants—going so far as to use the White House faith-based office to pressure churches into using religious services and facilities to sign people up for SNAP.
A huge increase in welfare is a problem for the nation, but it’s particularly damaging to women. These programs are designed to cover mostly women and their dependent children; as the programs have grown, so has the number of women reliant on them. When the 1996 welfare reform converted Aid to Families with Dependent Children to TANF—introducing work requirements and limiting welfare benefits to five years—it meant that millions of women, including many mothers, went back to work and took greater control over their own lives. This is real progress for women—progress that Obama’s welfare-expanding policies would reverse.
And with long-lasting effects. Decades of experience have shown that welfare begets cycles of dependency that stretch across generations; daughters and granddaughters collect benefits from the same welfare offices as their mothers and grandmothers. No little girl in America should say, “I want to be a ward of the state when I grow up.” Increasingly, however, it seems this is what President Obama envisions for them.
The starkest example came in the now-infamous “Life of Julia” slideshow published by the Obama campaign, meant to show how the president’s policies would help a supposedly typical American female. What it illustrated was a woman dependent on the government from cradle to grave—for education, work, investment capital, health care, retirement income, and, of course, birth control. This is hardly an inspiring vision of women’s empowerment.
As if to prove the point, Obama administration policies have undermined organizations that help lift women out of poverty without forcing them to become dependent on the state. The administration’s assault on religious freedom has imperiled faith-based charities that serve women with a humanity and compassion that no government bureaucracy can match. For example, the archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, has warned that the HHS contraceptive mandate might well force the city’s Catholic social services to close down. In Barack Obama’s own backyard, women may no longer have access to archdiocesan programs that support pregnant women and teens and provide counseling and case management for victims of domestic violence. Across the country, countless women being educated, healed, and supported by religious schools, hospitals, and charities may see these lifelines cut by Obama’s policies.
The “war on women” narrative smears the Catholic church for being rigid about “women’s issues.” But it’s the Obama administration insisting that, if religious institutions don’t conform to the administration’s orthodoxy on abortion and contraception, they can’t continue providing other services that meet women’s very real needs. Obama’s assault on religious freedom may also make for bad politics: Historically, research has shown women to be more religious and involved in congregational life than men; a 2010 Gallup poll showed that 47 percent of women reported attending church “frequently”—“at least once a week” or “almost every week”—compared to 39 percent of men. Undermining the work of churches, and forcing them into protracted legal battles, harms institutions that matter disproportionately to women.
This points to the common fallacy that on “culture war” issues—marriage, family, and sex—Democrats are on the side of women, while Republicans seek (to borrow a Bidenism) to put them back in chains. Painful experience shows this to be untrue. Family breakdown—climbing divorce rates, the rise of unwed parenting—disproportionately harms women, who head nearly 80 percent of single-parent families. Aside from the emotional strain of single parenting, and the demonstrably poorer outcomes for children, the economic harm is significant. Census data from 2010 found the percentage of married parents living below the poverty line to be just 8.8 percent; for single-parent households headed by men, the number was 24.2 percent. But for single-parent households headed by women, an astonishing 40.7 percent were living in poverty.
Those peddling the “war on women” might argue that this is precisely why women need more access to abortion and contraceptives—so that they can avoid being unmarried parents. But access to contraception and abortion has been treated by the law as a constitutional right since Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 and Roe v. Wade in 1973. And strangely enough, it was right around that time that the out-of-wedlock birthrate began to climb dramatically. In 1970, the percentage of births to unmarried mothers was around 10 percent, compared with more than 40 percent today; making it easier for unmarried women to avoid babies seems to have had exactly the opposite effect. If the goal is to help women avoid the impoverishment of single motherhood, the Democrats’ preferred approach—more contraception and abortion—hasn’t worked so far. The Republicans’ approach—traditional, married child-rearing—offers more promise.
Besides, for all the allegations that Republican opposition to abortion constitutes a “war on women,” most women themselves don’t even support the practice. A Gallup poll in May showed that slightly more women describe themselves as “pro-life” than “pro-choice”—46 percent to 44 percent. Overall, America is a pro-life nation; on the questions of late-term and taxpayer-funded abortions, other polls show public opposition becoming even more intense.
On this issue, President Obama is well out of the mainstream. A clarifying episode came this May, when legislation to ban sex-selective abortion failed to secure the necessary two-thirds support in the House of Representatives because of Democratic opposition. Obama’s White House piled on, releasing a statement saying the president, too, opposed the ban.
Martial metaphors are vastly overused, and the “war on women” is no exception. But if any policy amounts to a “war on women,” surely allowing sex-selective abortion, which overwhelmingly targets unborn girls for the sole offense of possessing XX chromosomes, must be it.
Historically, Democrats have had a strong electoral advantage among women, and the polls going into November suggest similar trends. But for Mitt Romney, the challenge is not insurmountable: He and his running mate just need to convince enough female voters that the “war on women” is bogus, that President Obama has little to offer them, and that Republicans will do more to deliver on what American women really want.
There are signs that Romney and Ryan understand the task before them. During an interview at the Republican Convention, NBC’s Brian Williams tried to bait Ryan into a “war on women” dialogue by asking how the party’s positions on abortion would play among suburban women. Ryan redirected, responding: “You know, I think what suburban women are mostly worried about is jobs. I mean, look who got hit hardest in this economy. It’s women. Poverty among women is at a 17-year high. . . . So, that’s what most women are asking us about.” And in his prime-time convention speech, the “women’s issue” Romney highlighted was the threat of tax hikes faced by female entrepreneurs.
Romney and Ryan need to keep making this case, because it is a powerful one. Obama’s record, after all, is clear. The president’s vision of “women’s empowerment” is economic stagnation and welfare-state dependency, papered over with platitudes about abortions that many women don’t want and government-subsidized contraception many women don’t need.
What women really need is jobs. They need opportunities to apply their education and their talents. They want to be rewarded justly for hard work, not to see the fruits of their labor confiscated by a government that refuses to deal with irresponsible deficits and debt. They want to choose their own doctors, and want access to good health care for themselves and their children. They want their marriages to be happy and stable, and their churches free and thriving. It’s impossible to poll unborn girls, of course, but presumably they’d like to live. On the whole, women want to be taken seriously as voters. They want to be free and equal citizens—not wards of the state.
Romney and Ryan need to speak to these concerns and show how Republican policies will advance these aims. President Obama surely won’t. After four years, he has nothing to show for himself—hence the great deception of the “war on women.”
Meghan Clyne is managing editor of National Affairs.