What has been dubbed the "War on Women," has seemed to take many liberals and feminists by surprise. No less a mind than the Rhodes Scholar and Oxford Ph.D. Rachel Maddow has recently asked on her popular MSNBC show: "Why now?"
I believe one clue to why women's rights, health care, and even safety are being attacked by the right in this election cycle is also what the left is missing in its response - not only on the war on women, but on a variety of economic issues, as well.
George Lakoff became known around the 2004 election for popularizing the term "framing." Lakoff based his theory of framing on different moral outlooks by conservatives and liberals, based on different visions of the ideal family. Unfortunately, much of what people remember of Lakoff's message is phrases like "tax relief." However, Lakoff's point - that Republicans often speak to voter views on morality, while Democrats recite policy agendas - is as pertinent today as ever.
In keeping with the GOP's amazing ability to turn 9/11 happening on their watch, into a national security virtue, this time, the message is that only a corporate turnover artist can get us out of the mess that the financial industry got us into under the last Republican administration. They're pulling it off by reading right out of the Lakoff playbook: cast the winners in this economy as morally entitled, and the losers as takers. However, in this cycle, this moral judgment is taking a decidedly gendered turn.
This is where the War on Women and the dueling visions on the economy intersect. The nurturing and care-taking functions often performed by women as well as by government, have been fused as belonging in the "dependent" category. I've written elsewhere on opednews, of the long history of feminist scholarship that has argued for public policy recognition of the contributions of women's reproductive and child-rearing functions. Martha Fineman, in particular, has pointed to the economic dependency of those who take care of children and others - the elderly, the disabled - that are necessarily dependent. The "welfare queen" line of rhetoric makes it easy to equate recipients of government "hand-outs" with recipients of government paychecks.
Almost as if for foreshadowing effect,
shortly after the financial debacle, a strange set of "gendered"
rhetorical flourishes were set in motion by Republicans who - regardless of
their own gender - implied positive attributes to "maleness," and
negative attibutes to "femaleness." Thus, we had Sharron Angle hurling the insult "Man up!" to Harry Reid in the 2010
Senatorial race, Christine O'Donnell admonishing her male opponent to get his "man pants on." This followed
the 2008 candidacy of Sarah Palin, who talked of "Mama Grizzlies,"
and emphasized her hunting skills. (An academic article analyzed her Convention speech as being a kind of homage to
stereotypical masculinity hiding behind a veneer of motherhood); cue the "welfare queen" rhetoric of the 2012 election, voiced
most starkly by Newt Gingrich.
This, I believe, is why the war on women has been accompanied by calls to stop hiring public school teachers, police officers, and fire fighters. Feminists have railed against the former by asserting the rights of women to control their own bodies, and the needs of women for health care, protection from violence, and fair pay. Democrats have railed against the latter by asserting the need for teachers, police and fire fighters. But they're both missing the point. What is being attacked is the moral fiber of those who, by virtue of caring for dependents, become dependent themselves. I believe that - especially in this age of Citizens United - liberals, Democrats and feminists will not win the argument if we don't confront head-on, the right's appeal to morality, and deservedness, in its rhetoric.