Women Problem

04.09.14

What That RNC Aide’s Equal Pay Blunder on MSNBC Says About Her Party

It’s not Kirsten Kukowski’s fault she only had gibberish to spout about workplace gender fairness. It’s the fault of her party and its culture—and the GOP will pay for it with women.

Just a wild guess, but I have a hunch that Kirsten Kukowski is glad Tuesday is over. Kukowski is a press aide at the Republican National Committee. I do believe I’ve spoken with her on an occasion or two, something to do with credentials. She seemed nice enough.

And so I almost felt a little sorry for her Tuesday as I watched her performance on Jansing & Co. on MSNBC, hurtling herself into enemy territory, burdened with the task of defending her party’s record and posture on women. Kirsten, I’ve been there. All of us who’ve done television have—those moments when you know you’ve got nothing, so you keep talking and talking, saying nothing, larding your sentences down with “you know”s and “uh”s, wondering if the viewers can see your face turning red, praying that any second now you’ll hear the host say, “Sorry, we’re out of time.”

OK, I don’t feel sorry for her. She made her bed, as they say. Besides which, knowing she was appearing on the liberal cable channel and would surely be asked the obvious question of what the Republican Party’s women-centric policy ideas consisted of, she damn well should have had a better answer than that we should study “corporate best stand...best practices. How are, are some of these large companies going about, um, you know, paying men, paying women? And, and let’s have this conversation and be transparent about the need, um, to close this gender gap, but I think it’s the way the Democrats are going about it and it’s just in a dishonest fashion.”

OK, on reflection, I do feel a little sorry for her. That she had only gibberish to spout in response to that question isn’t really her fault. It’s the fault of her party, all those men in her party, all those Southern men and their Southern beliefs and ways. One is tempted to believe that Republicans vote against things like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act because of the demands of their corporate contributors, and that’s undoubtedly true, to some extent. But it isn’t corporate benefactors who make Todd Akin and some of these other men say the batshit crazy things about women they say. That’s culture.

It’s partly a corporate thing, a business thing. But mostly it’s cultural. Women just aren’t supposed to be that pushy.

I have a little story, something that happened in my life that just blew my mind. I’ve told this before, so to my longer-suffering readers, please indulge me.

This was, oh, 1990. Down South. A wedding. At the morning-after breakfast on Sunday, the groom’s father got up and gave a little speech and suggested that everyone introduce themselves. So he said my name is such-and-such, and then—tapping his wife solicitously on the shoulder—introduced his wife and spoke for her as she beamed up at him. And so it went, around the Dixie half of the room, men standing and speaking, solicitously tapping, wives remaining seated and silently beaming.

Those of us in the Yankee half of the room stared at each other in disbelief. Are they putting us on? This is how these people live? In short order, as I counted noses, it became clear that the first Northern couple who would seize the floor would be my parents. Mom before Dad. I studied them to see if they were whispering to each other, to talk about what to do. They did not.

But sure enough, when the crucial moment came, Mom shot right up and introduced herself, saying what she did. Dad followed her. And every Yankee couple followed their lead. It was just as emphatic a display of our warring outlooks and values systems as I’d ever been exposed to. And I still think of that day on weeks like this, when Republicans trot out to cable television to talk about women, because it still explains a lot, I think.

Kukowski had nothing to say because George W. Bush sat in the White House for eight years, six of them with a compliant Republican Congress, and never passed or that I can recall even introduced or even talked about one bill aimed at workplace gender fairness. She had nothing to say because since Barack Obama became president, the Republicans have voted no no no on any measure of this sort. Four Senate Republicans did vote aye on Lilly Ledbetter back in 2009. Yep, you guessed it: the “girls”—Collins, Hutchison, Murkowski, Snowe. Not a single man. In the House, Ledbetter got three.

It’s partly a corporate thing, a business thing. But mostly it’s cultural. Women just aren’t supposed to be that pushy. “All Republicans support equal pay for equal work,” claimed the first sentence of the memo Kukowski and two colleagues released Tuesday. Of course, they have to say that. But obviously, all Republicans do not, or they’d have done something, on their terms, during those six years Bush and Denny Hastert and Bill Frist were running things. Very few Republicans do. Especially the Southern ones, who by and large run the party, or at least provide its cultural ballast. It isn’t how they were raised, and it doesn’t feel right to them. They think the Paycheck Fairness Act has its origins in that night when a likkered-up Mickey Gilley slashed Johnny Paycheck’s tires.

Look at these interesting Gallup numbers,  which show the gender gap in presidential elections going back to 1952. Eisenhower walloped Stevenson among women. Nixon beat Kennedy! George H.W. Bush beat Mike Dukakis by four points among women, Gallup says. But since 1992, the Democrats haven’t lost among women. I should note that Republicans win among white women, but their share of the pie is shrinking, and Obama won massively among women of color. So the GOP’s “women problem” is also to some extent a minority problem; that population is growing, and Republicans sure don’t appear to be fixing that anytime soon.

Indeed, as we move forward, as we have more single mothers, fewer stay-at-home wives, more women who speak for themselves at cross-cultural gatherings, eventually, the GOP is going to lose that edge among white women, too. Eventually? If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic candidate next time, the Republican Party will lose it then. And if the Republican gets, oh, 46 percent of the white women’s vote, we’ll be looking at a huge blowout. But remember: All Republicans support equal pay for equal work!