Exclusive: Ashley Judd on Why She’s Voting for Obama, GOP’s War on Women, & More

In an exclusive interview, the actress talks to Marlow Stern about the GOP war on women's bodies, her impression of Obama, running for Senate, and more.

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Renowned film and television actress Ashley Judd, 44, is experiencing an impressive second act as a political activist and humanitarian.

In 2010, she received a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; is a global ambassador for YouthAIDS, an organization promoting AIDS prevention and treatment; and is a regular fixture at pro-choice events. She recently penned an eloquent open letter to the media about their misogynistic treatment of women that went viral.

Judd also campaigned on behalf of Barack Obama in 2008, and is down in Charlotte, N.C., during the Democratic National Convention to do so again. After the EMILY’s List Town Hall event hosted by Marie Claire that discussed the changing role of women and leadership in America, The Daily Beast sat down with Judd to discuss why she’s voting Obama in 2012, why Republicans like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are waging a war against women’s bodies, the Clint Eastwood Republican National Convention speech, and more.

Why are you voting for Barack Obama in 2012? I’m voting for Barack Obama because he embodies American values and because he has a policy and vision that actually works for regenerating our middle class and growing it from the middle class out instead of from the top down and proposing the same failed policies that got us into economic collapse in the first place. I do believe that opportunity creates prosperity, and those of us who’ve had a chance to work hard, play by the rules, and have a fair shot—which is part of the American ethic—when we attain some success, we don’t slam the door on the people coming up behind us.

The next U.S. president will in all likelihood be nominating a new Supreme Court justice, and Mitt Romney has vowed to appoint someone who would strike down Roe v. Wade. As a vocal pro-choice advocate, do you find that disturbing? It’s unacceptable; and I think that this contest is about individuals’ values and hearts and souls, and thus, collectively, about the American soul. I encourage people to read the Romney-Ryan platform closely because I do believe Governor Romney is an honorable person and he will do what they say in that platform, and it will be disastrous. I talk a lot about abortion because to me, abortion in and of itself is not what the conversation is. When people have medically accurate sex education and access to modern family planning and can choose the method that works best for them, we can prevent unintended pregnancy. And, if unintended pregnancy is prevented, it significantly reduces the need for abortion; and there’s no controversy in that. I would be very uncomfortable if I was on set and the person running the set had a conversation with me about what kind of family planning my husband and I could practice because of what I have access to according to my job and health care. That would apply to me and the other women on the set only and not to the men, and it’s so fundamentally unfair.

And Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, has a 100 percent pro-life voting record, according to the National Right to Life Committee, while Rep. Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin had only a 98 percent pro-life voting record. I don’t know if everyone knows this, but Ryan worked with Mr. Akin on the constitutional amendment, and the legislation he proposed, including narrowing the definition of rape, yet they scrambled to distance themselves from Mr. Akin when his controversial statements came out. Even the Department of Justice amended their definition of rape and took out this offensive and inaccurate word: “forcible rape.” Part of the reason why they didn’t want to is it would become such a law enforcement burden because there are so many rapes in this country. If they broadened the definition of rape to what it actually includes, they’d have a higher caseload.

By wishing to ban emergency contraception and abortion, are the Republicans waging a war on women’s bodies? It seems like they don’t want women being single and having sex for pleasure.Right. To have sex and be obliged to procreate. There’s a critical distinction that we don’t always talk about in the public space: I think that position is pro-birth but it’s not pro-life. Having children requires love and the resources to properly feed, educate, and support the child, and the Romney-Ryan proposed budget does everything from cut Head Start, so you’re obliged to have this child but if you’re in a lower- or middle-class income bracket, you don’t have access to Head Start. Plus, they want to totally slash education, and it would be devastating. And voucherizing Medicare and Medicaid disproportionately affects women, children, and the elderly. So, you have to have the baby, but you lose the safety net that so many of them would need.

What did you think of Clint Eastwood’s “invisible chair” speech at the Republican National Convention? I was on a plane on my way to Iowa to campaign on behalf of the president, so I didn’t see it live, and then I’ve chosen not to watch it because I think we all have our own way of supporting our candidate, and that was his way, so who am I to find fault in it? It’s really none of my business.

What has impressed you about Obama’s first four years in office? I’m very impressed with his ability to pass historic health-care reform in spite of consolidated opposition from Congress; I’m really impressed with the first bill he signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, because we hear the numbers, and the average woman loses $340,000 in income over her lifetime due to paycheck inequality; and it really strikes me how his own story informs his vision for America and the world. His grandmother was paid less than the men she trained; his wife was a woman of color from a lower-income household who did something at the time that was very unusual, which was going to an Ivy League school; and he sits down at night as often as he can to help his two girls with homework. Those things speak very highly to me, and I loved when the first lady said, “Being president doesn’t change who you are—it reveals who you are.” Plus, helping young people who were brought to this country without any say-so in the matter eventually become citizens when the only flag they’ve ever pledged allegiance to is our flag is responsible, compassionate, and fair.

And in what areas has he let you down? When he came into office, his first order of business was to stop the bleeding and perform this massive economic triage. It would have been nice if he could manifest the “Yes We Can” platform immediately, but the meetings that he was having in November and December before he was even inaugurated were the gravest any incumbent president could have—deciding on a stimulus package that gave a tax credit to 95 percent of all Americans, but it only seems like 10 percent noticed. Even when he was doing something that was a tourniquet on the hemorrhaging, the good in that isn’t as circulated as part of the news narrative. Yes, there was a pretty lofty promise about transformational ways of doing government, and when he got into office; some of it, by the nature of this Congress, had to be more transactional. But he has done some things that were transformative, like not taking money from lobbyists, cutting federal subsidies for Wall Street banks and putting the savings into Pell grants.

On stage this afternoon, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand encouraged you to run for Senate. Is politics in your future? [Laughs] It’s obviously very honoring that a lot of people encourage me to run. What I’m most interested in is being helpful and of service; that’s the greatest match with my skill set and the career that I’ve created—and I don’t just mean as an actor, because that’s more of a distraction at this point. I’m just interested in what’s the best use of me, and right now, the best use of me is working in international development, and doing the kind of work that I do in the U.S.

Lastly, in what other areas would you like to see improvement in the next four years? We need to transcend the silliness of the debate around women’s health and put that to rest with finality so we can tackle the big-picture issues that are very pressing, like the economy and responsibly paying down the debt, bringing our troops home from Afghanistan, working by showing both our might and our compassion in making the world a more stable and safe place, and we have some infrastructure things to tackle—education, in particular. So, to me, the first order of business is to resettle what was settled about women’s health because it’s a big distraction, and it shouldn’t be.