Bye-Bye, Cooch

What Women Really Think
Nov. 5 2013 9:50 PM

Bye-Bye, Cooch   

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Ken Cuccinelli, an "issue of special concern to women."

Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

One of the funniest Facebook posts I read Tuesday morning came from an Arlington, Va., voter who simply quoted her 5-year-old daughter telling her kindergarten teacher that her mom and dad were “voting for the man who doesn't think women are stupid.” I also liked Laura Galgano, the owner of a local diner, who simply posted: “That's right. I voted. With my lady parts.” Or John Higgins: "Today, Virginia voters will decide the future of oral sex in their state." My friend Lisa posted, “Cuccinelli: bad for vaginas, oops bad for Virginia.”  

There will be a lot of finger-pointing and blame-throwing about Virginia’s gubernatorial race in the coming weeks, mainly in the key of regret (and relief, from the McAuliffe camp): Depending on what you feel like hollering about, Ken Cuccinelli’s loss proves that the Tea Party has had its day, that money is the only thing that counts, that you can’t govern from the extreme right in a purple state, and that he was tragically saddled with his crazy-talking lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson. Blame will be ladled out to Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who will pull a not-insignificant proportion of votes from the right; to the government shutdown, which soured some Republican Virginia voters on the Tea Party; and to the Virginia ethics scandal, which swept in Cuccinelli with the gifting and the vacationing.

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But don’t let that distract from what really happened in Virginia on Tuesday: an official who consistently used his elected office to promote policies that shamed, marginalized, and patronized women and other minorities was met with a “no.” This wasn’t just about money, or the shutdown, or Star Scientific, or Terry McAuliffe’s fancy Clinton-era friends. It was about voters and what they know to be true. The vote may have been close, but in the end Virginians, especially women, showed that they simply don’t believe that the commonwealth of Virginia should be in the business of discriminating against homosexuals, legislating an extreme anti-sodomy agenda, shuttering Planned Parenthood clinics, pressing an invasive transvaginal ultrasound law, and supporting a draconian illegal immigration law.

You can dismiss all the Virginians—men and women—who posted on Facebook today about their lady parts, and their aversion to forced ultrasounds, and the weird feeling they get when the state regulates consensual sodomy as silly sheep who were led astray by an expensive McAuliffe smear campaign. But most of them knew a year ago, sometimes much earlier than that, what Gov. Cuccinelli would mean for their freedom to do what they wanted, with whom they wanted, without government’s oversight.

Cuccinelli was proudly and self-avowedly one of the most activist attorneys general the commonwealth had ever seen. From the very outset, his political ambition was to impose upon the state a social and religious code that may have made perfect sense to him, his supporters, and his conscience but came across as extreme, hateful, and intrusive to most everyone else. It didn’t help that Cuccinelli then had to combine his fate with that of the unfortunate E.W. Jackson, who calls Democrats "anti-Christian, anti-Bible, anti-family, anti-life, and anti-God." But long before Jackson came along, Cuccinelli was on the record opposing abortion for survivors of rape and incest, refusing to support the Violence Against Women Act, browbeating state entities into closing abortion clinics, denying equal protection for gay workers at state schools, and insisting that unconstitutional state sodomy laws need to stay on the books to protect children. He endorsed “personhood” laws that would have limited access to at least some forms of birth control. He urged people to go to jail to protest women's access to contraception. He has pushed to keep state funding for sex education focused on "abstinence-only" programs and favored putting armed guards in schools after Sandy Hook. And women who may have balked at any of that eventually tended to balk at him.

In a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, Cuccinelli trailed McAuliffe by six percentage points, but female voters broke for McAuliffe by a 14-point margin. An October Washington Post–SRBI poll found voters trusting McAuliffe by 57 percent to 30 percent to handle “issues of special concern to women.” That’s not a surprise. Whether you want to call it a war on women or just a battle over who gets to decide what’s truly important to women, most female voters don’t want the government telling them what women care about and who’s going to regulate it.

Throughout the campaign, Cuccinelli has insisted that he is not attempting to push radical legislation on women, that the criticisms are all lies. As recently as Monday, his spokeswoman charged that Vice President Joe Biden’s recent statements about Cuccinelli’s record on women "encapsulates a campaign for governor on the part of Democrats littered with absurdities and falsehoods." Cuccinelli thought that by continuing to insist that his approach didn’t shame and marginalize women and minorities, it would magically come to be true. He ran ads featuring an African-American woman calling McAuliffe’s attacks on his social stances “ridiculous.” He repeatedly claimed that McAuliffe was lying about his record. Here is Mallory Quigley, media coordinator for a pro-Cuccinelli group, Women Speak Out Virginia, asserting that “these ads lie about [Cuccinelli’s] record and insult women by reducing them to only a few issues,” thus, reducing women to only her issues.

In recent weeks, Cuccinelli has tried to deflect attention from his radical attacks on women’s reproductive privacy by claiming that he did lots of important work to protect women from domestic violence and human trafficking. He did, and he should be credited for that. But therein lies the problem: Government acting to “protect” women is only half the story. Trusting them is the other half, and that’s the part that’s gone missing here in Virginia and around much of the country in recent years.

Ken Cuccinelli never, ever seemed to understand that all the phony Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws used to close abortion clinics and the mandatory ultrasounds and the bogus counseling and the clinic closures and the other policies styled as “protection” for Virginia’s vulnerable women are not protective. They are condescending. And pretextual. Most women know that policies and laws aimed at protecting them when they are vulnerable (like VAWA) are not comparable or interchangeable with laws that treat them as incapable of making autonomous, informed choices about abortion and birth control.

Virginia women, who were mostly affronted by talk of transvaginal ultrasounds and clinic closures and constraints on birth control, know a whole lot about what they need to be protected from and when. And today they voted to “protect” themselves from Ken Cuccinelli.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

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