University of Colorado
Mitt Romney’s infelicitous phrase “binders full of women” has dominated coverage of the second Presidential Debate over the past few days at the cost of a deeper exploration of how both he and Barack Obama are framing so-called “women’s issues” to appeal to female voters. Romney and Obama use feminist rhetoric to appeal to women while also occluding the possibility of a more radical analysis of the issues they claim are important.
The way that Romney appeals to women voters is by arguing that the true women’s issues in the current election are economic issues. In the debate, he recited statistics that the “Women for Mitt” segment of his campaign has been pushing for months now: that more women have lost their jobs than men since Obama assumed the presidency, and that 3.5 million more women are living in poverty now than in 2008. His supporters argue that it is Obama, not Republicans, who is truly waging a war on women by not having turned around the economy fast enough.
This technique – expressing support for women’s issues by arguing that some other issue is the real women’s issue – has been a favorite among Republicans at least back to the “W is for Women” Bush/Cheney campaign of 2000. The logic of this rhetorical technique is to claim that if women care about an issue, it is by definition a women’s issue. Obama borrowed this approach in 2008, claiming on his campaign website that everything from national security to education to Medicare to the economy was a women’s issue.
Interestingly, on Tuesday night Obama flipped the logic of this rhetorical technique on its head. In response to a question about gender pay equity, he said, “This is not just a women’s issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle-class issue, and that’s why we’ve got to fight for it.” He repeated this rhetoric when speaking of contraception: “These are not just women’s issues. These are family issues. These are economic issues.” Women’s issues matter not only because they impact women, but because they impact the entire society.
Back in the spring, Obama gave us a preview of this rhetorical shift in his recorded message to supporters of Planned Parenthood. In that speech, he argued that “women are not an interest group.” Supporting women’s access to affordable health care and contraception is not about serving a special interest, it is about supporting our families and our community as a whole. Women, he explains, are “mothers and daughters and sisters and wives. They’re half of this country.” We should support Planned Parenthood because it benefits all of us, not just women.
Romney and Obama are both walking a very fine line in their appeals to women voters in this campaign: they want to address women specifically (or at least those demographics of women that are likely to support their campaigns), yet they cannot alienate male voters. As a consequence of this balancing act both candidates obscure the structures that cause the gender inequities they say they want to redress.
Romney and his supporters frequently mention that women have been disproportionately affected by the economic downturn since Obama took office, and yet they never talk about why this is so. More women than men have been laid off since the start of 2009, yet this is because job losses over the past four years have been primarily in the public sector, where women are more likely to have been employed. Romney cannot explain why women have lost more jobs under Obama, because that would require recognizing that the cuts in local and state government that his Republican base champions have been primarily to blame. Similarly, he cannot talk about why women are more likely to be in poverty because that would require examining the gendered division of labor, the causes of the gendered wage gap, and the lack of quality, affordable child care – let alone contraceptive care. Romney’s support for economic issues as a women’s issue, therefore, is only ever expressed in general terms.
This strategy, moreover, gives him a way to address women without alienating the white men he needs to win the election: if women’s issues can be reduced to economic issues, then he helps women by fixing the economy – which is also how he proposes to help men. As he said at the debate, ”I’m going to help women in America get good work by getting a stronger economy and by supporting women in the workforce.” He doesn’t specify what he would do to support women in the workforce as President (although he suggests it might have to do with those binders), and so he appeals to women without promising them any special treatment that might alienate his white male base.
Obama, by contrast, noted that women in the workforce face discrimination, but it is a peculiar kind of discrimination: it oppresses women, but does not create any corresponding male privilege. He said, “One of the things that makes us grow as an economy is when everybody participates and women are getting the same fair deal as men are.” Men are getting a fair deal in the workplace. The men who surpassed the glass ceiling that kept his grandmother limited to the vice-presidency of a local bank deserved the promotions they were given. It is just that she did not deserve to be held back. Here, we can see Obama making his own version of the tradeoff that Romney has to make: he wants to appeal to women by talking about issues he thinks they care about, and yet he does not want men to think he is blaming them for discriminating against women, or claiming that they do not deserve their higher positions and higher wages.
Both candidates get caught in an odd dance between appealing to women while trying not to alienate men because they treat “women’s issues” as important primarily as a way to get women’s votes. It is no wonder that Obama had no evidence to demonstrate how he has opposed gendered discrimination since he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act when he first took office. For all his talk, his actions suggest that women’s issues matter only when women’s votes are on the line.