The “War on Women” Is Over
The life cycle of a political talking point, from birth to adolescence to death.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz helped midwife "War on Women" as a talking point
Courtesy Debbie Wasserman Schultz's congressional website.
A moment of silence, please, for a talking point that was taken too soon. The “war on women” began its life in a February 2011 House speech about abortion. After a short life as a Democratic hobby horse, it died during the second week of April 2012. The cause of death: Rosengate, the latest and least explicable battle in the Umbrage Wars.
On Wednesday, in her capacity as a CNN political analyst, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen laughed at Mitt Romney’s claim that he stayed in touch with the economy through his wife, Ann. “His wife has never actually worked a day in her life,” said Rosen.
Over the next 24 hours, the Romney campaign managed to make Democrats—including First Lady Michelle Obama—stop what they were doing and denounce Rosen, who does not work for the Obama-Biden campaign or the Democratic National Committee. “The issues of stay-at-home moms and women being hurt by the economy are not good turf for [the Democrats],” explained RNC deputy communications director Tim Miller. “Their ‘war on women,’ which was milked for weeks, is definitely no longer. They have the woman problem right now.”
Even a dead talking point can teach us something. The “war on women” was a fitfully successful frame for Democrats to describe anti-abortion bills, then anti-equal-pay legislation.
Birth: The war on women line was born during the debate over the long-forgotten No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. The midwife was a man: Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York. “This legislation,” he said on Feb. 9, 2011, “represents an entirely new front in the war on women and their families.”
The bill—one of many that would pass John Boehner’s House and run aground in the Senate—was a mess. It would have prevented the use of any tax benefits to pay for abortions, and in its original version provided an out only in cases of “forcible rape.” Democrats, bruised and humbled by their landslide 2010 losses, started raising money with war-drum emails about the threat to choice. The newborn talking point rolled off the tongue and straight into press releases: The Center for American Progress described the bill as “the Right’s War on Women.” Planned Parenthood protested the doomed bill with pre-printed “War on Women” signs.
Awkward childhood: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, one of her party’s rising stars, started using the war on women line in March 2011. Nobody noticed. When she became the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee in May 2011, people started noticing. She noshed at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on May 26, after the House had voted to ban any taxpayer money from going to Planned Parenthood. “The war on women that the Republicans have been waging since they took over the House,” she said, “I think is going to not only restore but possibly helps us exceed the president's margin of victory in the next election.”
Republicans were miffed. “Apparently it's open season on Republican women,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking woman in Republican leadership. When a talking point is criticized, it becomes controversial. In June, Politico published a story about the “rocky start” of the new DNC chair, noting that “she’s accused Republicans of wanting to reinstate segregation and of waging a ‘war on women.’ ” This had drawn the ire of “some Democrats,” “one Democratic consultant,” and no Democrats with identifiable surnames.
Respectable adulthood. Talking points generally have the life expectancy of a frontier family on the Oregon Trail with no medicine. But if it doesn’t die, it thrives. Wasserman Schultz kept on saying “war on women,” and Republicans kept on giving her reasons to. The best was the “personhood amendment,” a constitutional addendum, rejected by Mississippi voters in November 2011, that would have defined life as starting at conception. This, said Wasserman Schultz on MSNBC, was especially offensive “for me as a woman who gave birth to two of my children through in vitro fertilization.”
For every Republican outrage, there was a three-word talking point in pocket, ready to drive the GOP up the wall. Between January 1 and April 12, the New York Times published 24 references to the “war on women” and the Washington Post published 26 such references. Most of the war talk came when Democrats, Wasserman Schultz included, used Rush Limbaugh’s feud with Sandra Fluke to warn about Republicans limiting birth control. The war on women was obvious, said Wasserman Schultz in an interview around the time of the Fluke contretemps, “whether it was the Blunt-Rubio amendment, personhood, or attempts to repeal Roe vs. Wade.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.