It was not a battle of their choosing. They wanted peace, they say. But more than two years after the first shots were fired in the “war on women,” when Todd Akin mused aloud about “legitimate rape,” a group of conservative women say the war is over—and that they won.
“What do most women do every week? Do they fill up the gas tank and the grocery cart? Or do they get an abortion?” said GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway to a roomful of conservative activists and congressional staffers Monday afternoon.
The occasion was a panel discussion, “War No More, ” hosted by Concerned Women for America, an evangelical Christian woman’s group that stands as a counter to the liberal National Organization for Women.
As Conway and her co-panelists saw it, the Democrats pulled a masterful bait-and-switch in 2012, when they hyped up comments by Akin and by Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock—who said unintended pregnancies as a result of rape were “something God intended”—into a “war on women.”
“The notion that we can’t think about anything other than from the waist down is congenitally flawed,” Conway said. This was borne out in 2014, she said, when Democrats doubled down on the war plan but suffered a series of losses, even though at least one candidate, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, went so heavy on the reproductive health rhetoric that one of his own campaign supporters started calling him Mark Uterus.
As far as Republicans are concerned, the sooner this particular war is over, the sooner they can begin to clear the battlefield and tend to the wounded.
In 2012, women broke for Barack Obama by 11 points. And two-thirds of unmarried women, a growing slice of the electorate, voted for the Democrat. This year, with Hillary Clinton—or, as CWA president Penny Nance called her, “Claire Underwood”—the likely Democratic nominee, the margin could widen further.
“The right simply doesn’t take gender differences seriously enough,” said Sabrina Schaeffer, the president of the Independent Women’s Forum, warning that progressives were already far ahead of conservatives on their messaging. “Thinking about and talking to women is not the same as pandering. It is not the same as playing gender differences.”
According to the panelists, Republicans can cut into that gap by reminding voters that no matter how bad the war on women may seem, it is not as bad as a real war.
“Women are being violated at the hands of Islamic jihadists,” said Nance. According to Conway, the rise of terrorism overseas helped beat back the Democratic advance in 2014.
Women then found out, she said, that “ISIS’s idea of birth control is to eradicate Western civilization.”
The other prong to the 2016 strategy is to go on offense on the abortion question. If Republicans have to answer questions about whether they believe in birth control, Democrats should have to answer questions about exactly how far their support of abortion extends. Does it extend to taxpayer-funded abortions? Sex-selective abortions? Abortions after 20 weeks?
Finally, if Democrats have professed outrage at every ill-considered remark a Republican man makes, it is time for the GOP to do the same. Carly Fiorina, herself a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, showed the audience how it was done: She reminded them of the time that Sen. Joni Ernst, “a sitting senator, a mother, a wife, a veteran,” was called “window dressing” by EMILY’s List. The audience audibly gasped.
But if conservative female political strategists want to expand the notion of women’s issues to something beyond reproductive health care, they may find themselves with even more explaining to do.
The pay gap between men and women is “greatly exaggerated,” according to Nance, and according to Schaeffer, a result of “women’s choices, and maybe a little bit of discrimination as well.” Either way, they said, it is an issue not best redressed by Congress.
Instead, the panelists, which toward the end included Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress, said their task was to explain why increasing the minimum wage, expanding paid sick and family leave, and addressing the pay gap would hurt women more than it would help them.
According to Fiorina, the key to ending the pay gap was by giving the older generation a haircut. Seniority, she said, kept people from being paid their worth.
Seniority systems were the reason “we keep getting inspector general reports that say that people watching porn all day long are getting paid exactly the same as someone who works hard and does their job. And who supports the seniority system? Unions. Government bureaucracies. The constituencies that the Democrats like to protect.”
In other words, the war on women may be over. Long live the war on the bureaucratic masturbators.