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The Denver Debate Proved that "Women" and "People" are Different Categories in Campaign 2012

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(Article changed on October 9, 2012 at 17:27)

Yes, like many liberals, I found the dynamics of last night's debate pretty depressing. And, as many have pointed out, there was no mention of issues that specifically impact women in the debate. (Martin Bashir pointed out on his show that Romney liked to talk about random women he met on the campaign trail, however.)

This debate crystallized what I have felt was evident during this entire election season: that there are two main tracks to the campaign, and that the rhetoric keeps switching back and forth between the two: one, where the talk is about "people" and the other, where the talk is about "women."

The idea that the " normal " state of humanity is male is not new, and is the impetus for the move to more gender neutral language in many settings, including religious ones. And scientific data back up the widespread tendency to assume person=male and male=person.

This bias, cognitive error, frame - whatever you want to call it - has had huge consequences for the campaign, and for women. It means that when the topic is the economy, the problem of jobs is discussed without any mention of the need for child care, because it is assumed that only women - not people - have to worry about child care. It means that when health care is discussed, contraception access is contentious, but coverage for Erectile Dysfunction treatment is not. It means that even discussion of subjects like abortion and rape, focus on the abstract fetus, or the rapist, or the male religious authority for whom someone else's health care is a problem; not the rape victim, or the woman whose body is being appropriated by government.

But it also means something else, which I find lacking even in other feminist critiques of the invisibility of women in Campaign 2012: the exclusive focus on paid labor in talking about women's contribution to the economy, which skews, and weakens, women's relationship to other aspects of the economy. For  instance, in this article in the Nation by Bryce Covert, women's contributions are limited to paid jobs. Thus, she makes the argument that the focus in - as Obama put it today - "real" Romney's rhetoric about cutting government workers, is that a disproportionate percentage of women are in those government jobs. But this glosses over the fact that traditionally female-dominated professions tend to be lower paying, with the hidden assumption that women will invest less in their professions, due to their child-rearing responsibilities. That is, our economy does factor in women's unpaid work, but only to punish them, not to reward them. Thus, the pay gap for women is mostly attributed to "life choices," without acknowledging the contribution those life choices make to the economy.

On the other hand, when Covert switches to issues of health care, social security and medicare, she points out that women are in greater need of government's largesse in these categories.

What this analysis leaves out, as I have mentioned elsewhere , is the contributions that women's unpaid work makes to the economy. Given the obsession of the GOP with "makers" and "takers," this inclusion would certainly be empowering for women.

The truth is, that these two dynamics - the "generic male" assumption, and the exclusion of the work of childbirth, breast-feeding, child care and even community involvement and elder care that women disproportionately perform - tends to cast women as an asset of government; a resource to be utilized and " harvested " (to use Romney's chilling word from his Bain days) at will. This would explain why male politicians think they have any business forcing a woman to undergo an invasive, unnecessary medical procedure - not to mention pregnancy and childbirth - against her will. After all, if you accept the anti-choice stance that a fertilized egg is a person, you could argue that  bone marrow transplants, organ transplants and blood transfusions also save lives. But we don't force people to submit to those things, because "people" have sovereignty over their own bodies, but women don't. I believe this is the real reason why women's issues have been both an obsession, and invisible, in Campaign 2012.


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Amy Fried is the author of "Escaping Dick Cheney's Stomach." She received her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior, and has been an advocate for church-state separation and other civil liberties issues. She writes on women's issues, media, veganism (more...)

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