Mitt Romney, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for President and Reince Priebus recently attacked complaints that Republican leaders are conducting a war against women. They claimed that President Obama was twisting their words and deeds and there is no factual basis for complaints that the Republican Party supports policies and practices that hurt women. I have deliberately sought to avoid discussion of issues that involve partisan differences between the parties in my articles because I would hope ending domestic violence would be a non-partisan issue and protective mothers need the support of both parties to create the needed reforms. I feel compelled to write about the war against women because it is so related to domestic violence, but I hope to discuss it in a way that sheds more light than heat.
Sexism is critical to the discussion of domestic violence because it causes men to abuse their partners based on a sense of entitlement and superiority. It promotes many other practices and policies that mistreat women such as the issues that led to discussion of the Republican war on women. Most people become deeply insulted and angered when called sexist, but most sexism is far more subtle than the over-the-top hateful comments recently made by Rush Limbaugh. Good and caring men engage in sexist behavior, often without realizing they are doing so. I would urge Republican leaders, as well as Democrats and independents to avoid the normal defensiveness in responding to accusations of sexist behavior.
Instructors at the New York Model Batterer Program where I teach receive ninety minutes of training every week. Almost inevitably, male instructors, and sometimes also female instructors, say or do something sexist. The staff or other instructors explain that what they did was sexist. The normal response, particularly from newer instructors is to try to explain or suggest a misunderstanding. We ask the instructors to sit and listen and try to understand why someone says it was sexist because it almost always was. We consider this process of informing an instructor of his sexist behavior as a gift because it is hard in this society to say this to anyone. It is important to respond in a way that encourages colleagues to share this important information with us.
As part of this process, I have heard many things that made me uncomfortable. I needed to recognize my sexism, racism and other unearned privileges in order to work to change my behaviors. I wish the Republican leadership could understand the criticism of their war on women as a gift that should encourage them to consider the harm they are causing instead of defensive justifications and renewed attacks.
When we speak about oppressions, the experts are members of the group that is disadvantaged by that oppression. Women living with an abuser pay very close attention to his tone of voice, words, body language and other indications of his attitude in order to gain some advance warning of danger. They do this as a matter of survival and men do not need to pay similar attention because they are not at risk. When men in the batterer program or court professionals claim that men know as much about domestic violence as women, it is because they do not understand this fundamental dynamic. I believe it was significant that Republican Congressional Leaders held a hearing about contraception in which only men listened to only men. This is an example in which the damage they did to their reputation was self-inflicted and belies later claims by Republican leaders that their political problem was caused by unfair coverage or Democratic criticisms.
Republicans Earned Unpopularity by Hurting Women
In a society in which men tend to react defensively to their exposure for sexist behavior and a political environment where confident repetition of lies is often effective, it is not surprising Romney and Priebus would try to blame others for their party's mistakes. I hope the tactic will not work in this case and it will encourage them to change policies and more importantly start to listen to women's concerns. Here are some of their recent gaffes that caused a dramatic reduction in their support from women.
1. There was a dispute over requiring employers with religious affiliations to provide contraceptives to employees as part of their health insurance coverage. Some religious institutions such as the Catholic Church wanted a conscience provision to permit them to opt out. This was provided for religious institutions but not for affiliated entities that might cover employees from other religions. President Obama sought to arrange a compromise so in most cases the insurance company and not the religious institution would provide the contraceptives. There is room for reasonable people to differ over where the line should be drawn, but the Republicans sought to curry favor with religious supporters and aggressively attacked the compromise arrangement. In doing so they failed to consider that many women use contraceptive drugs for medical treatment or the longstanding right to contraceptives since the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut. House Republicans exacerbated the harm caused by holding hearings at which they refused to listen to any women.
2. One of the women Congressional Republicans refused to listen to was a Georgetown Law Student, Sandra Fluke. Ms. Fluke instead spoke to a hearing organized by House Democrats and pointed out the frequency with which women used contraception for medical uses and the expense of doing so if they were not covered by medical insurance. This led to an offensive and personal attack by Republican hero, Rush Limbaugh in which he used some of the most offensive and sexist language available. Many abusers claim that they were taught not to hit women and would not do so unless she is a (insert slur). In other words the kind of language Limbaugh used places all women, Republican and Democrat, Conservative and Liberal at risk. Limbaugh has great influence and power in the Republican Party and many of their leaders, including the presidential candidates seemed not to have the courage to forcefully condemn this unjustifiable personal attack. By way of contrast, Georgetown University which disagrees with her position supported her right to express her viewpoint and labeled Limbaugh's attack as improper. In another recent example that demonstrates even Democratic women could make offensive comments, Hillary Rosen claimed that Ann Romney never did any work. President Obama responded by unequivocally stating such comments are wrong.
3. In Virginia and some other states, Republican legislators in their haste to make it as difficult as possible for women to exercise their Constitutional right to have an abortion proposed legislation requiring the woman to be penetrated in order to see an ultrasound picture of the fetus. Many commentators recognized this as a form of rape. The legislation was amended so that penetration was not required, but they demonstrated a complete lack of concern over a woman's right to privacy.
4. The Violence Against Women Act has been one of the most effective laws in working to reduce domestic violence. It provides funds for many critical programs and practices that help prevent domestic violence. It has always been a bi-partisan measure with strong support from both parties. In the Senate supporters gained the 60 sponsors they needed which means several Republicans joined Democrats to provide bi-partisan support. Now Republican leaders are threatening to kill VAWA (and who knows how many women and children) because they object to provisions to protect victims in same sex relationships and immigrants. A few months ago, I wrote an article in this space about how we could save $500 billion by using best practices to prevent domestic violence crime. VAWA is part of these best practices and it is impossible to imagine a justification to interfere with legislation that could save both money and lives. Does being a "pro-life" party not include saving the lives of the living?
5. In Wisconsin the Republican majority in the legislature passed legislation, signed by the Republican governor, that undermines the ability of women to sue for employment discrimination. They repealed legislation providing remedies for women paid less than men for the same work.
Obviously complaints about the Republican war on women were not made up out of thin air or even exaggerated. Instead, women and their supporters brought together a recent group of outrageous actions by Republicans that are harmful to women to show a pattern of hostility. I don't think the Republicans were trying to hurt women and they certainly did not wish to give Democrats a powerful issue. Instead it was their sexism and privilege that blinded them to the harm they are causing.
In our personal lives, when men engage in sexist behavior, the best response is to apologize and make a commitment to avoid these offensive actions in the future. Politicians do not like to admit mistakes, but I believe Republicans could best defuse the harm they have caused to their political position by acknowledging their mistakes. They could join in the traditional non partisan cooperation to pass the reauthorization of VAWA and perhaps support the efforts of domestic violence advocates to save $500 billion by supporting proven plans that would drastically reduce domestic violence crimes (see my earlier article, "Why Don't We End Domestic Violence?").
The Nexus Between Sexism and Racism
The King Center in Atlanta is a wonderful monument to the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the most interesting exhibits is one dedicated to the continuation of his work that is proceeding all over the world. The exhibit focuses on movements to end many different oppressions and I was particularly drawn to information about the woman who started the domestic violence movement in Russia. The problems described in Russia in the 1990s were the same as in the United States in the 1970s. It is not that some societies permit domestic violence and others don't. Instead virtually all societies have a history of sexism and domestic violence and the differences reflect when movements started to respond to men's abuse of women.