In 2013, Texas senator Wendy Davis, slipped on a pair of pink sneakers and filibustered a bill regulating abortion clinics for 11 hours straight. The bill, which passed amid protests after Davis was removed from the Senate floor, prohibits abortions after 20 weeks, requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, and regulates abortion clinics as ambulatory surgical centers.
Davis’ efforts drew praise and criticism across the country. Supporters of safe and legal abortion cheered her stand and continue to use the hash tags – #SupportWendyDavis and #SupportWendy – to discuss the “war on women” in Texas. Davis’ opponents called her an extremist and, playing on Davis’ good looks and blonde hair, labeled her “Abortion Barbie.”
In a surprising move Davis distanced herself from the abortion issue in her recent gubernatorial run. Her website listed education – not battling the “war on women” – as the top issue. Davis, however, was not the only Democrat who avoided the once galvanizing phrase during the most recent election cycle. Why? Did the “war on women” end?
According to Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, progressive-leaning politicians largely avoided the “war on women” in the fall because the gender politics that animated the 2012 elections failed to mobilize women in 2014. Lake noted, the argument that “Republicans are waging a war on women actually doesn’t test very well… Women find it divisive, political – they don’t like it.”
Polling data seems to support Lake’s argument – at least on the abortion issue. The table below summarizes voters’ responses to the survey question, “Do you think the issue of abortion is a critical issue facing the country, one among many important issues, or not that important compared to other issues?” asked by the Pew Research Center in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2013. It is clear that voter concern over legal abortion is volatile. Voters considered the abortion issue to be a more critical issue in 2011 and 2012 than they did in either 2009 or 2013.
“Do you think the issue of abortion is a critical issue facing the country, one among many important issues, or not that important compared to other issues?” From the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Religion & Public Life Survey
|A critical issue facing the country
|One among many important issues
|Not that important compared to other issues
Volatility on the abortion issue alone, however, does not explain what happened to the “war on women.” Particularly since the Republican Party used the “war on women” rhetoric in its mid-term campaign messaging.
2012 was a bad year for the Republican Party in terms of its relationship with women voters. Several Republican candidates made politically unfortunate comments about rape and abortion. Todd Akin infamously explained that women rarely become pregnant from rape because “The female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.” Richard Mourdock, another Republican U.S. Senate candidate, argued that pregnancy from rape was God’s will. He opined, “I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”
Republicans’ poor relationship with women voters was evident in the 2012 elections. The “gender gap,” which refers to the differences in how men and women vote, reached a new high. According to Gallup, President Obama won women’s vote by 12 percentage points while Mitt Romney won men’s vote by eight points. This 20-point gender gap is the largest Gallup has measured since it began tracking presidential voting behavior by subgroup in 1952.
In response, the Republican Party made attracting women voters a 2014 priority. Republican strategists recognized that winning women was unlikely, but narrowing the gender gap was an achievable goal. The Republican Party’s efforts to woo women changed quickly. It began as a straightforward effort to refute that a “war on women” existed – or that it existed, just in places like the Middle East rather than in the U.S. This effort was combined with a campaign to highlight instances in which the actions of Democrats did not match their “pro-women” rhetoric.
However, Republicans realized that they could use a popular issue to combat the “war on women” rhetoric directly. The issue? Birth control. The table below summarizes voters’ responses to the survey question, “Do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients?” asked by the Pew Research Center in 2011, 2012, and 2014. Unlike abortion, birth control is consistently a winning political issue – and one that voters typically associated with the Democratic Party. Republican support for over-the-counter oral contraception (aka “the pill”) helped the GOP position itself as “woman friendly.”
“Do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients?” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Beating the drum for over-the-counter birth control has another political purpose. Republicans needed to attract women without alienating their socially conservative base, which opposes some kinds of birth control, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs). Easy access to the pill, Republicans maintain, balances religious freedom and women’s rights because it makes the pill available to women whose employers who do not want to offer contraceptives on religious grounds.
Democrats and women’s organizations were furious with the Republican Party’s rhetorical turn, calling it a cynical ploy to get votes before the November election. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told NPR, “It really is quite ironic that suddenly now the Republican Party and candidates, after voting repeatedly to take away birth control access for women, are trying to kind of do this before the November elections.” Additionally, proponents of women’s rights have pointed out that making the pill available over-the-counter does not resolve the tension between women’s rights and religious freedom. IUDs, for instance, are eligible for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Since some religious denominations argue that life begins at fertilization, they consider IUDs abortifacients – an argument with which users of IUDs disagree.
Republicans dismiss this claim, noting that Democrats are just angry because they were caught off guard by the successful efforts to “defang” the so-called “war on women.” Kelly Anne Conway, a Republican pollster, told NPR, “They [Democrats] think that they’ve got a monopoly on talking to women from the waist down. Anything that has to do with reproduction and birth control and abortion – they call it, quote, “women’s health” and they call it women’s issues.”
So, the “war on women” has become the “war for women voters.” This shift is important because it explains why many Democrats, especially those seeking office, distanced themselves from the “war on women” rhetoric while Republicans embraced it. For the Democratic Party the “war on women” because a losing issue. The “war on women” mantra, which assumes that women have the right to control their reproductive decisions, was directly pitted against the ability of individuals (as corporate owners) to exercise their religious freedom. Choosing what or whose rights take precedence meant that the Democratic Party could only alienate some subset of voters and corporate contributors – a losing prospect, electorally speaking. The Republican Party, however, had nothing to lose and much to gain by combating a rhetorical war – even a rhetorical war that for all intent and purposes had ended.