The XX Factor

Does It Matter if Obama’s Overtures to Women Are Genuine?

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Earlier this week, my colleague Hanna Rosin wrote a brief post observing that women are dominating the presidential election these days. Noting the swiftness with which Obama turned Rush Limbaugh’s recent attack on Sandra Fluke to his advantage by way of a sympathetic phone call, Hanna argued that “the left seems to be playing this one perfectly.” Women statistically control the vote in this country, and Obama and the Democrats seem well along in their wooing of the demographic.

But, given the atrocious attacks we’ve witnessed on women’s bodies and character these past few weeks, I wonder if women will cotton to being “played” as political pawns, even if the outcome might be in their interest. The New York Review of Books published a post by Elizabeth Drew touching on this question a few days ago, and it’s an argument that’s stuck with me. Drew concludes her piece with the somewhat unsavory observation that, in the end, all this talk about contraception and “sluts” amounts to so much political maneuvering:

In the end the noisy and often passionate argument over insurance coverage for contraception came down not to “religious freedom,” nor even to women’s health, but to a contest over whether the issue would be more efficacious for turning out the Democrats’ or the Republicans’ base in November.

Now, it’s entirely possible for the President to be sincerely interested in the well-being of women—a fact which I think he touchingly illustrated via his recent comments regarding his own daughters—while reaping more calculated political benefits. But perception is reality in campaign season and taking too Machiavellian a tone could make women think twice about Obama’s true commitments, especially considering the President’s checkered reputation among the similarly courted LGBT community. Still, even a mercenary championing of women’s issues will appeal to left-leaning voters of all genders, suggesting that instead of controlling the election, as Hanna put it, women have simply become an effective political decoy.

And to be sure, it’s a decoy that draws out the vilest sides of certain people, as demonstrated by the recent explosion of misogyny at Columbia University (full-disclosure: my alma mater) over Obama’s decision to speak at sister college Barnard’s commencement, just as well as by Limbaugh’s outbursts. Considering this, maybe being a political ploy is a worthy price for knowing one’s enemies—it’s just that such victories have a way of feeling pyrrhic.