Column: Republicans need to declare ceasefire in War on Women

Does anyone remember when Rush Limbaugh labeled Sandra Fluke a slut? Does anyone remember when five males and zero females walked into the Republican hearing on birth control one month later? In April, an ABC News poll showed Barack Obama holding a 19-point edge over Mitt Romney among female voters. That lead shrunk to 11, but it wasn’t enough — Obama went on to win the election on the backs of female voters.

Of the 90 elected women serving in Congress, only 29 are Republicans. No Republican woman has ever served as the leader of her caucus. Last session, every GOP male senator voted against the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which would maintain funding toward the investigation and prosecution of sexual miscreants. All 10 of the female Republican senators joined the Democratic majority. The bill passed 68-31-1.

So perhaps it is no surprise Republicans are regularly accused of waging a war on women. The Republican Party must change. It needs to prove it's serious about women’s issues and concerns. It needs more than Sarah Palin and Condoleezza Rice.

All that sounds like hard work for a party that revels in tradition and orthodoxy. But during the last election, Republican strategists stumbled upon a possible solution. Maybe it’s not actually necessary to cultivate a diverse class of leaders. After all, Republican male politicians have wives!

Enter Ann Romney, wife of the recently-defeated Republican presidential nominee. In April, leaping on statements by a Democratic strategist (What is that, anyway? Is there some strategy room where cynical politicos push armies across a table Risk-style?) that Mrs. Romney had “actually never worked a day in her life,” Ann pushed back by declaring she “made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.” The tides of the War on Women had suddenly turned. Look at those Democrats, out of touch with the work done by the child-rearing mother! Checkmate, Democrats!

Mrs. Romney had a point. Raising kids is hard work. At least, that’s what my dad told me when I called him up and asked. Yet the more I thought about the rebuttal and the implication that there is no distinction between a mother and a person with a job, the more I resented it.

Because the fact is that women, for most of this country’s history, were not expected nor allowed to “work” in the modern sense. The 9-to-5 slog was the exclusive realm of men. As late as 1950, 70 percent of women did not earn wages. Female labor force participation did not exceed 50 percent until the Carter administration.

When Republicans attempt to redefine “work” as something housewives do, they are embracing the antiquated notion that motherhood and employment must be mutually exclusive. They erase the work of generations of feminists who strove tirelessly to ensure women did not have to choose between their kids and their careers. The feminists succeeded, but much work remains. Republicans, in their subtle way, are still trying to salvage a battle they lost long ago.

It’s not Ann Romney’s fault she fell in love with a rich and talented soon-to-be businessman. It’s not Ann Romney’s fault she does not naturally think about the millions of working poor who don’t have the choice that she does — the choice between cooking dinner and earning wages to pay for the ingredients. The Republican Party’s tone-deaf approach to gender politics is so frustrating, largely because it so often inadvertent.

Yet inadvertent sexism is still sexism. It’s something Americans notice, and if the 2012 election results are any indication, it’s something they vote on. The road to recovery for the GOP begins by fighting for true equality for women and rejecting Ann Romney’s obsolete gender politics.

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