Common wisdom in the political media is that Republicans have a woman problem. GOP politicians on both the state and federal level attack legal abortion with an obsession rivaling Captain Ahab. Attacks on contraception have grown more shrill, culminating in Mike Huckabee’s instantly notorious RNC speech wherein he claimed Democrats who support contraception access are telling women they can’t control “their libidos.” A number of Republican politicians, most notably Todd Akin, lost in the last election after making offensive remarks about rape victims. The phrase “the Republican war on women” approached “Just Do It” levels of cultural recognition. Most importantly, Barack Obama was handed the White House because of women: 55 percent of women voted for Obama in 2012, but men voted for Romney at 52 percent. Women vote more than men, making the Republican’s woman problem seemingly intractable. Women hate the Republicans, end of story, right?
Republicans, unsurprisingly, disagree that it’s a lost cause, and have spent the past year dumping huge amounts of money on consultants and prodding politicians into meetings to craft a new strategy when it comes to women. The goal isn’t exactly to win the majority of female votes during a presidential election, which Republicans haven’t done since 1988. The goal is more to derail the “war on women” narrative, and in the early part of 2014, it seems they’ve landed on a strategy that is as brilliant as it is simple: Deny that “women” constitutes a meaningful category that anyone can make broad statements about. Instead, Republicans intend to say that while they don’t speak for all women, they certainly speak for some women, and because of that, it’s false to say they are warring on “women.” If effective, that will make it harder for Republican opponents to use the phrase “war on women” without getting bogged down in a derailing discussion about what women and who feels warred upon.
In addition, it’s clear Republicans hope that if they can strengthen their pitch to the demographics of female voters they already have, they will be able to woo just enough of those kind of women that they can shift the margin of victory back to the Republican camp. So who are these women that already vote Republican? Married white women. White women voted for Romney in 2012. Married women voted for Romney. Republicans clearly hope that singling married white mothers out as a group that’s different from the rest of the herd of “women”—and by insinuating that they are better than all those other women—they can flatter even more married white women into voting for them than already do. They already have them, after all. Getting more of them is probably not going to be hard.
The past month, major Republicans have been rolling out this strategy. The most prominent example is the selection of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers to offer the Republican response to the State of the Union. McMorris Rodgers centered her pitch on her own biography, clearly holding herself up as a model for how women should be, with her husband she married in 2005 and her three children born over the space of six years, which she offered as evidence that abortion (and perhaps contraception—hard to tell, as she spoke in coded terms about “life”) is not necessary for women.
One had to read in between the lines to pick up on McMorris Rodger’s insinuation that she is strong while other women are weak, but other Republicans have been more blunt about pitting different groups of women against each other. Specifically, pitting married mothers against single mothers and childless women by claiming that married mothers are “strong,” with powerful hints that those other women are weak and grasping and sexually loose harlots. Or, in some cases, not hinting at all. Huckabee’s remarks at the RNC were incredibly blunt on this subject:
Our party stands for the recognition of the equality of women and the capacity of women. That’s not a war on them; it’s a war for them. And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it, let’s that that discussion all across America, because women are far more than Democrats have made them to be.
Despite a spiraling rabbit hole of media quibbling about what Huckabee supposedly said, the basic gist of his remarks were clear. There are “good” women who demonstrate their worthiness by rejecting contraception, especially any form covered by insurance or government programs, and “good” women who know how to chaste and upright vote Republican. Then there are the “bad” women who vote Democratic and, well, have sex for non-procreative purposes. While Huckabee’s utter lack of knowledge of how women really live caused him to way overstate the case, he’s clearly dialed into the narrative: Flatter married mothers by calling them chaste and pure and hard-working, and contrast them with all those other women who are slutty, lazy, and dependent.
Rand Paul worked the same angle in his recent remarks dismissing the “war on women,” though he was less colorfully sex-phobic than Huckabee, by citing his sister who is “an OB-GYN with six kids and is doing great.” He was roundly mocked for pointing to his immediate family members as evidence that women are doing great as a group. Less noticed was the way he was plugging into the same narrative as Huckabee and McMorris Rodgers, highlighting well-off, very fertile married women as exemplars of womanhood, and implying that all those other women are just weaklings who are failing because of their insufficiencies as people instead of because of systematic oppression of women.
All this seems counterintuitive, because the same Democratic policies that help single mothers, childless women, and low income women also help better-off married mothers. Married mothers need contraception and abortion access just as much as single mothers and childless women, which makes it quite a head-scratcher for more reality-based observers when someone like Huckabee flat-out claims there’s a substantial constituency of women that have never have or will never need contraception and would be insulted at the suggestion that they would. But what that criticism misses is that this kind of politicking that aims to pit various groups against each other has very little to do with actual policies and everything to do with identity. Just as a lot of men have been able to overlook how affordable contraception benefits them personally in order to launch nasty, slut-shaming attacks at Sandra Fluke and other reproductive rights activists, plenty of women are happy to overlook how much pro-choice policies help them out for the sake of feeling superior.
Early evidence shows that the gamble of flattering one group of women as chaste and hard-working while insinuating that all other women are terrible people is working. The latest poll of Republican primary voters shows that Huckabee, who has been the most aggressive Republican in the field pushing the women-vs-women narrative, pulled ahead of earlier favorites like Ted Cruz or Chris Christie. It seems that a lot of people did like Huckabee’s baseless fairy tale about how there are good, pure women who have no need for contraception out there, and how they’re better than those bad women who use contraception. A story doesn’t need to make sense if it flatters its audience. That’s just what Republicans are counting on with this new narrative pitting married mothers against everyone else.