The so-called “war on women” used to have fairly clear rules of engagement. A Republican candidate for office, say Todd Akin of Missouri, would say something outrageously offensive (victims of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant). Generally it was something about sex or pregnancy or abortion or some other staple of the culture wars. Democrats would upload the comment into every campaign ad, political speech, and friendly blog, and the Republican would lose. It was almost too easy, like guerrilla warfare against an enemy who didn’t know how to operate the weapons.
But then late last year Republican candidates were subject to sensitivity training by the National Republican Congressional Committee because, as one staffer put it, they have “a lot to learn.” As a result, this campaign season has been short on actual ammunition, but that hasn’t stopped the fight. Instead the war on women has morphed into one of those diffuse campaigns with no clear purpose. The issues involved no longer necessarily have to be anything specific to women. And when Republicans don’t say anything stupid, Democrats just pretend they did.
In Michigan, Democrats are making a lot of the fact that Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land said that women care more about flexibility than pay. “Well, we all like to be paid more and that’s great, but the reality is that women have a different lifestyle,” Land said in a speech to a local women’s club. “They have kids, they have to take them to get dentist appointments, doctors appointments, all those kinds of things and they’re more interested in flexibility in a job than pay.” Outraged, Democratic groups have used the comment to show that Land opposes equal pay. Even Obama mentioned Land’s statement in a speech recently.
But Land is nowhere near Akin territory here. In fact she’s totally right. Women do often sacrifice pay for flexibility, which is one of the biggest reasons for the gender gap. On top of that, the quoting of Land is highly selective. In the rest of her speech, Land talks about fighting with a heavily male union to get more fair work policies for her heavily female staff. All of which allowed Land, in her first campaign ad, to make much fun of the idea that she’s waging a war on women. “Reaaally?” she says, picking up her coffee mug. “Think about that for a moment.”
As for Republicans, they are now overcompensating for past mistakes, filtering all the issues — health care, jobs, crime — through a woman’s lens. The Washington Post has an excellent summary of all the campaign ads aimed at women. The most offensive is one against Democratic gubernatorial candidate and criminal defense attorney Vincent Sheheen, which feels like a promo for Nancy Grace, accusing him of defending “violent criminals who abused women.”
It’s obvious why the “war on women” continues. Campaigns are often won or lost on the votes of women, who tend to turn out more. Democrats in particular are anxious right now because they rely on the votes of single women, who are less likely than married women to turn out for the midterms. But the war on women used to actually be about substance: Someone who talks about legitimate rape and pregnancy is likely to severely restrict abortion rights, and Democrats should shout that candidate down from every corner. If that tactic should also win them the election, perfect. Now the “war on women” has been reduced to just pure tactic, an indiscriminate weapon, equally good for every occasion, fit for any hands.
Hanna Rosin is the author of “The End of Men,” a co-founder of Slate’s DoubleX and a senior editor at the Atlantic. This column appeared on Slate.com, an online current affairs and culture magazine owned by The Washington Post.