In the 2012 elections, Republicans discovered that the party’s rightward drift on the subject of reproductive rights had put them in a tough spot. On one hand, the Christian right—whom the GOP relies upon to turn out at the polls—demands that the party take positions hostile to contraception access and wage an increasingly ugly battle when it comes to abortion rights. On the other hand, many Republican candidates discovered that proposing that women who experience “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant and that women who support insurance coverage for contraception are “sluts” hurts them in the polls.
Despite angry disavowals from Republicans that a right-wing war on woman even exists, there’s overwhelming evidence to back up that buzzy phrase. Obviously, Republicans would like to shake the stink of being seen as warriors against women for the 2014 and 2016 rounds, but that’s probably not going to work out for them. After all, the war on women has expanded beyond just attacks on reproductive health care. Republicans are increasingly embracing a hard right agenda that seeks to undermine protections for women against domestic violence and rape, putting the party in very serious danger of being seen on the wrong side of what was previously believed to be a largely non-controversial issue.
Taking a stand against wife-beating and rape used to be a no-brainer for most politicians, which is why the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized handily in the years in which it came up for a vote between 1994 and 2012. During this time, there’s been a small but apparently growing movement of anti-feminists who object to that law and a general cluster of laws that make it easier for women to leave abusive marriages. They often call themselves “fathers’ rights” activists, claiming to be motivated primarily by interest in child welfare. The ugly reality, however, is most of their efforts are aimed at undermining court authority and legal protections that happen to make it easier for women in abusive marriages to get out and get on with their lives. And, in the past few years, these activists have been quietly gaining some power in the Republican Party.
As is typical with these things, Virginia Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli is a leading light in the push to the right on issues around sex and family life. Unsurprisingly, he has serious ties to this movement to reinstitute male power over the domestic realm, even when it makes it harder for women to escape abuse. As reported in the Washington Post, Cuccinelli made the unorthodox move of working a private case after being sworn in as Attorney General, on behalf of Ron M. Grignol, a former House candidate who (surprise, surprise) was embroiled in a custody dispute with his ex-wife.
Grignol is the former leader of the anti-feminist “fathers’ rights” group Fathers for Virginia. The group supports a bevy of policy measures aimed at making it difficult for women to leave their marriages and sever ties with their husbands, even abusive husbands. They support bills that make it harder to collect child support and push heavily for automatic joint custody, two measures that will make it far harder for women to make a clean break with abusive husbands. These groups also encourage men to keep hiring lawyers to sue their ex-wives, in order to—as a NOW report found—“keep ex-wives in court and drain them of their resources.”
Grignol has personally supported legislation that would award custody to the parent who resisted divorce, a measure that would give abusive men an insidious tool to keep their victims in the marriage, by threatening to take away access to children. Grignol has also spoken disparagingly about the use of restraining orders. No wonder Cuccinelli, who opposes no-fault divorce laws, was so loyal to him.
Right up there with attempts to make it harder for women to keep custody, even in abuse situations, “fathers’ rights” groups—who eagerly claim Cuccinelli as a supporter—really hate most modern protections against domestic violence, especially VAWA. These activists routinely claim that domestic violence is an exaggerated problem and that women and children frequently lie about it as a way to deprive men of their rights. Even though there’s strong evidence of physical violence in the majority of highly-contested divorce cases, “fathers’ rights” groups insist that the real issue is that women lie about domestic violence in order to gain an upper hand in court, and that legislation like VAWA victimizes innocent men.
Cuccinelli is trying to distance himself from these groups, who are still far out of the mainstream, in no small part because it’s clear that there’s a lot of self-interest going on with men who want to spread the myth that women routinely lie about domestic violence. While he’s an extreme example with his documented ties to the “fathers’ rights” movement, Cuccinelli’s situation hints at a problem that’s just going to get worse for Republicans: They’re increasingly sympathetic to these hard-right ideologues who are trying to turn back policies that are known to reduce domestic violence—but those sympathies are deeply unpopular with ordinary voters.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky demonstrated how difficult this tightrope act will be for Republicans to navigate. He clearly wants to be on the popular side of the domestic violence issue, which is why he released a press release touting his support for VAWA at a recent campaign event. The problem is that McConnell has not been supportive of VAWA, voting against it not just in 1994, but in 2012 and 2013, a move that made “fathers’ rights” groups very happy. McConnell has tried to hedge on this, suggesting he held out for a better version of the bill, but that claim is belied by the fact that he voted against both the Democratic and Republican versions of VAWA.
McConnell is hardly alone. While all the female Republicans in the Senate voted for VAWA, 22 male Republicans voted against it. The thin justifications emanating from the right focused on very small items in the bill, such as protections for LGBT people and Native Americans—but even if the Senators did object to these provisions, they are so small that it’s hard to imagine that it would change a vote completely. The more likely explanation is that Republicans are drifting to the right on this issue and being more influenced by the endless drumbeat of hard-right anti-feminists who want VAWA to disappear completely.
If so, we can expect more Ken Cuccinellis to start popping up, looking for any way they can to quietly undermine hard won legislative battles that benefit battered women who are trying to escape bad marriages. And when they get caught at it—like Todd Akin was caught minimizing rape—it’s not likely to work out for them at the polls.