What’s A Republican Feminist To Do?
In the winter line-up of Republican presidential candidates, a moderate pro-choice Republican woman has no choice. She might feel as if she were so, well, last century.
It is not news that the Republican Party has moved further right on social issues over the past few decades, but the 2012 campaign is a clear marker showing that the party has left legal abortion behind. All the contenders, past and present, adamantly oppose legal abortion, even the libertarian obstetrician-gynecologist, Ron Paul. Overturning legal abortion may in fact be the one thing they all agree on — so it doesn’t come up much in debates, speeches or interviews. But it is on their agenda.
The one woman in the race, Michele Bachmann, made her anti-abortion views known more strongly than most before dropping out after the Iowa caucuses. At a debate in December, she chastised Gingrich for missing a chance to “defund” Planned Parenthood when he was speaker of the House. Then Bachmann pressed Gingrich harder still for supporting House candidates who favor keeping late-term abortions legal: “He said he would support and campaign for Republicans that support the barbaric practice of ‘partial birth’ abortion,” Bachmann said. “I would never do that.”
Early on, at summer forums before a vote was cast, Rick Santorum staked out the most extreme ground: requiring women and girls who are victims of rape or incest to carry a pregnancy to term. “To put them through another trauma of an abortion, I think is too much to ask,” he declared at an Iowa presidential debate. “One violence is enough.” In June, Santorum told David Gregory on Meet the Press that doctors who performed abortions in cases of rape or incest should be criminally charged.
For two generations of American women, Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision, defined abortion as a private individual decision. Broadly speaking, polls show the American public lives with this framework and is not looking for a fight to tear it down. But a recent Pew Research Center poll shows that the question is a close call, with 54% of the public supporting legal abortion in most or all cases and 42% of the public opposed to legal abortion in most or all cases. The numbers show that the argument over abortion remains divisive, but also that there is an uneasy equilibrium.
Even Jon Huntsman, supposedly the Republican who was most appealing to Democrats, signed a law when he was governor of Utah to outlaw most abortions if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Running for president, he liked to say that two of his daughters were adopted and that he was grateful to their mothers for bearing them. Lest he seem soft next to the rest, Huntsman reminded voters of the “trigger” law: “I signed the bill that would trigger the ban on abortion in Utah if Roe v. Wade were overturned.”
Mitt Romney, the winner in Florida and now the clear front-runner, was pro-choice when he ran against the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, although Romney was personally against abortion. During a debate with Romney, Kennedy remarked, “I am pro-choice. My opponent is multiple-choice.” During the same debate, Romney said, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal. I have since the time that my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S Senate candidate.”
Romney also spoke with sorrow about a death in the family from an illegal abortion. By 2002, however, when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, he presented himself as a “pro-life” politician who would not change the pro-choice laws of the liberal state he would govern. In the last decade, Romney has become more outspoken in his opposition to abortion, though as a “pro-life president” he says he’d make exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at stake.
Romney likes to brag about how many years he has been married (42), in a not-so-subtle dig at the thrice-wed Newt Gingrich. The race’s most mercurial candidate, Gingrich never presented himself as a feminist, far from it. In private, his messy divorces do not hold up well to scrutiny from any direction. Women voters in Florida substantially favored Romney. Gingrich’s opposition to abortion rights, always solid, became more aggressive over the course of the campaign. To the surprise of some, he took a “personhood” movement pledge to oppose abortion, with no exceptions.
More significant in shaping the Republican stance toward women was Gingrich’s Contract with America, which lifted him to the perch of House Speaker in 1995. The Contract with America cut women out of the picture of Republican policy and rhetoric. As it turns out, the contract was a harbinger of a wave in Republican politics that is regathering its strength this winter.
On the Republican campaign trail, all candidates ever talk about when they talk about women is abortion – and to some extent, marriage and motherhood. That reduces Republican women primary voters down to a simple equation. This silence — or absence of political dialogue — on women takes a while to notice, but it is plainly there. With abortion a hot topic that Republicans prefer to avoid in front of large national audiences, women seem scarce and even invisible. Yet they are a majority of the American electorate.
Early in the campaign, workplace issues like sexual harassment flickered only when allegations of improper sexual conduct toward women colleagues caused Herman Cain’s downfall.
By contrast, whatever he did in his personal life, President Clinton brought a sound grasp of women’s lives to the stump and to the Oval Office. The first bill he signed into law, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, was a huge gift to working women. President Obama signed the pay equity act named for Lilly Ledbetter. His affordable health care act would make birth control more freely available.
Republicanism has not always been this way, even recently. Constance Morella, a popular Republican pro-choice congresswoman from Maryland, represented a liberal district, but was defeated in 2002 by a Democrat, Chris Van Hollen. There are not many more like her on the House side.
Margaret Chase Smith, a senator from Maine, the grand old dame of the Republican party, wore a rose every day, including on the first of June in 1950 when she gave the brave, brilliant “Declaration of Conscience” speech she is best know for, denouncing her fellow Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. Beforehand, she saw McCarthy on the Senate trolley car, looked him in the eye, and told him he would not like what he was about to hear. Smith ran for president in 1964; she lost her seat in the senate in 1972, after serving four terms.
What would she say about Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann — the two leading Republican women during the campaigns of 2008 and 2012 — and their brand of Christian right politics?
Senator Smith’s memory in the Capitol building lingers. She gave New England Republican women a proud name. To this day, Maine’s senators are both Republican pro-choice women, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
Out of five Republican women in the Senate, Snowe and Collins may be the last of the moderates. Seen as period pieces from a lost Republicanism, they are vulnerable to challenges from their right. Snowe, up for re-election this fall, is a target of the Tea Party movement. If she loses, Republican women will have even less choice.
By: Jamie Stiehm, The New York Times, February 2, 2012
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