Next in the War on the War on Women, Republicans Debut the "Who Are You Callin' a Lady?" Tack

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Jan. 29 2014 3:37 PM

Next in the War on the War on Women, Republicans Debut the "Who Are You Callin' a Lady?" Tack

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Mike Huckabee wants to empower women to transcend the limits of their gender—by making birth control less accessible.

Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Amanda Marcotte makes a very sharp observation Wednesday morning about the new front in the GOP war on the war on women. As she argues, the new idea is to try to split off married, working mothers from other, evidently more dubious female specimens and to encourage the former group to keep demonizing the latter. I agree completely but want to suggest another new war-on-the-war theme that has emerged in recent weeks. The new GOP attack on women who feel they are being attacked by Republicans? Trash Democrats as the party that sees women as wimpy wallowers in their own victimhood.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

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

Call it the “Who you callin’ a woman?” tack.

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This was the Big Idea last week when Mike Huckabee launched Uncle Sugar-gate in his speech at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting. Put aside all the crazy talk about our runaway libidos, and what Huckabee was really saying is that Democrats can’t help but see all women as victims. According to him, Democrats "think that women are nothing more than helpless and hopeless creatures whose only goal in life is to have the government provide for them birth control medication." In his alternative, loftier view of empowered womanhood, Huckabee posits that Republicans are fighting "a war for women, to empower them to be something other than victims of their gender." It’s confusing, yes, but the subtext seems to be that women are by definition “victims of their gender” but Republicans respect us enough not to treat us that way.

That was also the big theme of Rand Paul’s equally ahistoric, self-regarding celebration of female power this past weekend on Meet the Press when he announced: "If there was a war on women, I think they won." And what leads Paul to believe this? “You know, the women in my family are incredibly successful. I have a niece at Cornell vet school, and 85 percent of the young people there are women. Law school, 60 percent are women. In med school, 55 percent. My younger sister is an OB-GYN with six kids and doing great. I don’t see so much that women are downtrodden.” Here, Paul is making fundamentally the same point as Huckabee: Women are winners! Only loser Democrats insist on calling them losers.

An email blast from the Independent Women's Forum a few hours after the State of the Union speech Tuesday night took a substantially similar tack: "President Obama’s State of the Union once again advanced the narrative that women are a victim class in need of greater government protection. Certainly some women face challenges and hardship, but Mr. Obama ignored the very real causes of those difficulties and instead focused on even more big-government solutions.”

The unifying theme here is that real women are meant to resent being called victims, and we should all rise up against Democrats who belittle and demean us by trying to solve our problems. I get the surface appeal, I suppose. Who wants to be called a needy, pathetic weakling? But forgive me for thinking that this is one of those slurs that only works best—to the extent it works at all—when men say it about other men. Calling someone a big wuss is still, I imagine, a good way to get yourself clocked at a biker bar. But telling a bunch of women that the Democrats think they’re all a bunch of women, well ... maybe it works on Sarah Palin.

The deeper problem with the “You’re not disadvantaged at all, little lady!” meme is, of course, obvious: Even women who are not personally suffering from major structural gender disadvantages are pretty well aware that many other women are; women have been disadvantaged throughout American history; and those disadvantages persist for a lot of women, even as we all work to transcend them.

Also, one of the major structural disadvantages from which American women continue to suffer is condescension and hectoring from clueless elected officials.

Nobody is happier than I am for the professional and academic successes of Paul’s female blood relations. But it takes an almost pathological level of myopia to assert that since his sisters don’t suffer from a dramatic violence gap, a substantial wage gap, a poverty gap, and shrinking access to freedom over their reproductive choices, most other women don’t either. And while it may take epic, monster, galactic leaps of imagination for Paul to conjure up the existence of such a woman, most women have either suffered the direct indignities of pervasive inequality or have nine friends on speed dial to talk them through it. Women still have some disadvantages in the United States, but a complete failure of empathy and imagination are not among them.

This isn’t to say that some women won’t rally around the new GOP war cry that Democrats turn women into panty-waists while Republicans celebrate their intrinsic charms. But my unsolicited advice is that when you’re staring straight down the barrel of a gender gap that is sinking the Republican party, talking down to American women about how they aren’t smart enough to get that the other side is talking down to them may not be the winningest strategy.