Is Obama Condescending to Women?

Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown had an interesting op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times, where she criticized Obama for condescending to women voters in his attempt to gain their support:

It’s obvious why the president is doing a full-court press for the vote of college-educated women in particular. The Republican primaries probably did turn some women away. Rick Santorum did his party no favors when he spoke about women in combat[…]; when he described the birth of a child from rape as “a gift in a very broken way”; and how, if he was president, he would make the case for the damage caused by contraception.

But Mitt Romney will never be confused with Rick Santorum on these issues, and many women understand that. […] The struggling women in my life all laughed when I asked them if contraception or abortion rights would be a major factor in their decision about this election. For them, and for most other women, the economy overwhelms everything else.

Where Brown goes wrong, I think, is in assuming Republicans aren’t actually that serious about social issues. Her nod to Mitt Romney is meant to bolster the case that, in fact, Republicans are most concerned about the economy, and that’s how they can perform well with the majority of women who say the same.

But Brown’s view of the landscape is at odds with the facts. Republicans, at all levels of government, are peoccupied with efforts to restrict abortion rights and access to contraception. In Oklahoma last week, GOP Governor Mary Fallin signed a law that permits lawsuits against abortion providers—including those who proscribe medication—who do not follow the state’s informed-consent laws. Likewise, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has signed a law that excludes Planned Parenthood from state funding, and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has signed a “conscience law” which allows pharamacists to refuse to provide drugs they believe might cause an abortion. On a different front, congressional Republicans have passed a version of the Violence Against Women Act that ends protections for immigrants.

Mitt Romney might not talk about his views on abortion and contraception, but he is only a stone's throw away from Rick Santorum on the issue. He supports a personhood amendment to the Constitution, which would define human personhood as starting from the moment fertilization; ending federal funding for Planned Parenthood; and hopes the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. President Romney would appoint anti-abortion judges to the federal judiciary, and in all likelihood oppose legislation like the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Indeed, the core problem with Brown’s argument is that she imagines a neat division between economic and social issues where one doesn’t exist. Laws that limit reproductive health care have a direct effect on the economic lives of women. Without the ability to control and delay reproduction, it’s incredibly difficult for women to pursue education, develop careers, and carve out fulfilling, independent lives. A personhood amendment would result in an unprecedented attack on women’s privacy—everything from birth control to a miscarriage could potentially be illegal—and the absence of laws for fair pay would entrench the pay gap between men and women.

When Obama talks about the Republican record on social issues, he’s making an argument about economic opportunity as well, and my guess is that women—or at least, those who pay attention to these things—are well aware of that fact.

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