GOP’s economic war on women about to explode

But can feminists put the power of the women’s vote behind a populist economic agenda? They’re about to try

By Joan Walsh
September 25, 2013 8:03PM (UTC)
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Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz (AP/Steven Senne/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

I laugh when I hear people warn that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic women are trying to annex economic issues as “women’s issues,” as though they’re being supremely politically crafty, or sneaky, if not downright dishonest. (Even the Huffington Post depicted Pelosi’s recent framing of a “women’s economic agenda” as “rebranding.”)

Feminists know economic issues have always been women’s issues. The pro-Democrat gender gap that first afflicted Ronald Reagan in the 1980 elections and has mostly persisted since is at least partly driven by women’s economic concerns, and their singular economic vulnerability. Back in the '80s I covered a Bay Area group called the Women’s Economic Agenda Project, whose slogan was “Two out of three adults in poverty are women – what if we all were to go to the polls?”


Almost 30 years later, that’s still a good question. Women still make up three out of five adults living in poverty, as well as two-thirds of minimum wage workers and two-thirds of food stamp recipients. Women are twice as likely as men (23 percent vs. 12 percent) to rely on food stamps over the course of their lives. So that $40 billion cut to the SNAP program, more commonly known as food stamps, orchestrated by Rep. Eric Cantor? It’s as much a salvo in the GOP war on women as any new transvaginal probe law or the latest Republican assertion about “legitimate rape.” Likewise: Paul Ryan’s budget? Its cuts hit women hardest, of course.

Also 30 years later, though, feminists are still trying to marshal the power of the women’s vote behind a populist economic agenda. Lately that movement has taken on new momentum. Last week four powerful progressive groups, not coincidentally led by women – the Center for American Progress, Planned Parenthood, the Service Employees International Union and American Women, an affiliate of Emily’s List -- came together behind the Fair Shot campaign, to build support for an agenda that advances women’s economic equality. House Democrats have named their economic agenda project “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds,” labeling that shows a sensitivity to the conservative framing of social progress as a zero-sum game, so that when women succeed, somehow men lose.

With polls showing women oppose shutting down the government to defund Obamacare 68-21 – men don’t like it either, but the margin is much narrower – this seems like a perfect time to focus on an alternative agenda that might galvanize women and act as a countervailing force to the rightward pull of the Tea Party. When Sen. Ted Cruz talks, and talks, and talks, women listen – and are more likely to vote for Democrats. But can it make a difference in 2014?


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I was surprised to learn about the relatively small-bore, kitchen-table focus of these latest organizing efforts: pleasantly surprised, in fact. Most are targeted at making a difference in the lives of low-income and working-class women, where they’re needed most.

Let’s face it: One big issue that impedes feminism’s progress is its image as the province of relatively privileged white women, concerned about “choice” – whether to have a child, and if they do, whether to stay home with that child – when so many women who aren’t white and/or privileged have no such choices. They might be unable to “choose” to afford contraception (until Obamacare) or find or afford an abortion. Or they might very much want a child but be unable to afford that “choice” too. And as far as staying home, the “opt out, “lean in” and “mommy wars” debates are so irrelevant as to seem an insult. Mikki Kendall put it best in Salon: “The real ‘mommy wars’ are against women who have no choices.”


That’s why the core focus of the latest women’s economic agenda organizing appealed to me. Fair Shot makes lots of policy prescriptions – they’re here – but at an event last week to launch the campaign (full disclosure: I moderated one panel) there was particular energy around the House Democrats' women's economic agenda, including Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s “Paycheck Fairness Act,” which closes some of the loopholes enabling pay inequities and bills raising the minimum wage, mandating paid sick and family leave and expanding affordable childcare.

Someone else might have expected a grander agenda, but this agenda is both practical, helping many millions of women – and it’s actually sadly ambitious. Let’s take paid family leave: The U.S. joined the 20thcentury, sort of, by passing the Family and Medical Leave Act 20 years ago, but it was an unpaid leave. Many of us believed it was a short trip to making it paid – that’s the way social change happens, we pass important, imperfect legislation, like Social Security and Medicare and, more recently, Obamacare, and then fix its flaws and make it more inclusive and helpful to more people. But we were wrong about family and medical leave (and, so far, about Obamacare.)


It’s true a few states now mandate some period of paid leave, but a federal mandate feels far, far away in this Congress. The FMLA wasn’t nothing: More than 100 million families have used it over those 20 years. But many more would use it if they could afford to, or if they lived in the dozens of Western industrialized countries that provide paid leave. So paid leave shouldn’t be an ambitious goal, but it is.

The same is true of raising the minimum wage. Many of us were pleasantly surprised when President Obama included that proposal in his State of the Union address; we weren’t surprised, sadly, that it went nowhere in this Congress. Again, some states and cities have higher minimum wages, but the federal rate is always a floor that, once raised, pushes the ceilings higher. It’s going nowhere in this Congress, but DeLauro and others are still pushing.

The paid sick leave issue? That’s gaining real traction locally, but again, not nationally. I’ve always had paid sick leave for myself, but it’s always been hit or miss whether workers with paid sick leave can use it to care for children. (I thank my late mother-in-aw regularly for being there for us when our daughter was sick.) Today, more than 40 percent of private sector workers, and 80 percent of low-wage workers – roughly two-thirds of whom are women – have no paid sick leave, for themselves or their children. So that matters, too.


If DeLauro’s Paycheck Fairness Act seems like common sense, it is. And it passed the House under Pelosi in 2009, but couldn’t get through the Senate. Now it can’t even get a vote in the House. But Pelosi and other Democrats think it can be the centerpiece of an organizing campaign to make clear that it’s not just on abortion and contraception that Republicans are terrible for women.

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It's fitting that women are leading the way toward a progressive economic agenda. Because the march of American progress, the steady if belated development of a social welfare system comparable to those of other Western nations, stopped in its tracks, and then moved into reverse, when Richard Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act in 1972. You hear a lot about how Nixon abetted the expansion of government that commenced with the New Deal, and it’s true – he signed bills establishing the Environmental Protection and Occupational Safety and Health Agencies, the Clean Air and Water Acts and more. But when it came to a bill that would subsidize childcare for millions of Americans – a bill that passed the Senate 63-17 – he balked. “For the Federal Government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against [sic] the family-centered approach," he wrote in a veto message crafted by Pat Buchanan.


The Culture Wars were on. The country’s march to conservatism began that day. The shift right was the result of a concerted class war that was only fought by one side, the very wealthy, as Democrats squabbled among themselves and moved right, too. But the culture wars drove the shift and attracted economically vulnerable people, including some women, who were worried about what seemed like growing family instability but blamed it on the wrong culprits.

Still, women continued surging into the workplace, whether or not they “chose” to do so, as male wages leveled off or even declined starting in the 1970s.  By 1980, it was women who were having doubts about the dismantling of government promised by Republicans, especially Ronald Reagan. A White House Coordinating Council on Women appointed by Reagan to study the emerging gender gap favoring Democrats concluded in 1982 that it was heavily driven by economics. “Women tend to be poorer, to earn less money on the job, and to be more dependent on the government for assistance,” its report explained.  The council argued that Reagan was unlikely to win back working-class, poor, minority or single women, but that he should concentrate on upper-middle-class women with an appeal to “free-market feminism” that emphasized "the removal of artificial barriers that prevent women from making choices.”

It's galling to remember that conservatives helped spread the notion that feminism was mainly about "choices" and most relevant to affluent white women. And of course "free market feminism" is a contradiction in terms, since women have always required government to secure their rights – and still do.

Ever since the age of Reagan, women have consistently favored a larger role for government than men do, through today. A 2011 Pew poll found a large gender gap on the question of whether people preferred a larger government with more services, or a smaller, leaner government – 45 percent of women said larger, compared to only 36 percent of men. And women overwhelmingly oppose Ted Cruz’s crackpot crusade to shut down the government in order to defund Obamacare.


But can a better crafted message and an organizing push draw more women to the Democratic Party? The gender gap that reelected President Obama was an astonishing 20 points, up from an already large 12 points in 2008. It seems hard to imagine it could get larger -- until you imagine the Republican Party nominating someone like Cruz.

To me, the real question is whether and how organizing around an economic agenda can change the balance in Congress and in state legislatures. To that end, the Center for American Progress, as part of the Fair Shot campaign, is launching a 50-state report card on the status of women, examining data on economics, health and leadership opportunities. The bottom line: Women fare best in Maryland and worst in Louisiana, but you can look at the whole thing here. It’s fascinating.

Organizing around women’s economic concerns may not lure Republicans or appeal to their conscience, since they’ve mostly had Tea Party-provided conscience-ectomies. But it puts feminism on the side of women without enough choices, as well as women who struggle with too many. It holds the promise of narrowing the racial and class gaps within feminism, which are real. I would also argue: It likewise holds the potential to win not just college-educated white women, but working-class white women, to the Democrats’ agenda. In my family experience working-class white women have felt almost as marginalized by at least the stereotype of white feminism as women of color. (Those who come by feminism via their unions, by the way, have a different perspective.) Still: It’s the growing affiliation of African-American and Latino women with the Democratic Party that provides the basis for a real progressive shift on economic issues in the years to come.

I’ve never accepted the framing that issues like contraception and abortion are somehow “lifestyle” issues that only matter to privileged women – they may be the most important economic issues, since choosing whether or when to have children is the first requirement of women’s autonomy. But I think the effort to integrate issues of health and autonomy with economic issues is worth making. It seems fitting: Fear about the changing role of women helped derail the country’s economic progress 40 years ago. Maybe our recognition of that permanently changed role can get us back on track.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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