The XX Factor

Why History Matters in Understanding the War on Women

In the War on Women, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are part of a long tradition. 

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As the GOP’s War on Women has ratcheted up over the past few months, many of the anti-feminist moves—particularly the question of access to contraception as a legitimate issue—have been met with surprise. “Wasn’t this stuff supposed to be settled already?” is the common refrain. But as a couple of articles out this week demonstrate, the Republican gallop to the medieval right on women’s bodies, agency, and freedom is just the continuation of a decades-long trend. These history lessons come at a good time, too, because GOP strategists would very much like for this turmoil to fade away as we near November—or at least be considered an anomalous and uncharacteristic flash attributable solely to some over-sexed talk radio host—when, in truth, the misogynistic rhetoric has become alarmingly definitive of the party.

Frank Rich’s lengthy survey in New York magazine this week does the most legwork. Relying on the 1996 memoir The Republican War on Women, by Republican insider Tanya Melich, Rich shows how a party that was once “committed to women” began a disturbing about-face around the time of the Nixon presidency. Tracing the trend up to the present, Rich concludes that even if the most vocally anti-woman candidate, Rick Santorum, doesn’t get the nomination, the favored winner, Mitt Romney, isn’t much better. In fact, as was demonstrated in his measured deflection of a question on contraception posed by George Stephanopoulos, his brand of sexism may be more insidious:

Santorum has always been completely candid about his view of women and their status; Romney was the one who had to be smoked out. Romney didn’t take the bait, but even so, his record is clear, and, unlike the angry Santorum, he has the smooth style of a fifties retro patriarch to camouflage the reactionary content. … He would never be so politically foolhardy as to spell out on-camera just how broad and nasty its goals really are.

Over in the American Prospect, Amanda Marcotte (a regular DoubleX contributor) also looks back to the 1960s and ‘70s in order to understand our current situation, in her case through the lens of Mad Men. She notes that since the show last aired in the fall of 2010, much of the ostensibly dated sexism on display at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has enjoyed a frightening resurgence. Her closing question is a good one: “[W]ill seeing the parallels between the 60s and today help wake viewers out of their complacency, and push us to demand more action to preserve the gains made during the 60s and after, and which are currently under serious threat from an invigorated conservative movement?”

I certainly hope so, because while the GOP’s turn to extremism may well be, as many seem to hope, the last stand of a cornered and dying party, we could also be witnessing the re-entrenchment of an old and nasty status quo. Incredulity in the face of apparent absurdity can be mobilizing, but it’s equally capable of causing paralysis—and that, in turn, has the potential to disturb all kinds of “settled” specters from the past.