Remember that classic Far Side cartoon, the one about what dogs hear when we talk to them? The person is jabbering away but all the dog can hear is “Blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah.” Presidential elections are now a variant on that same theme. Everyone seems to think that women will simply vote for whichever side says, “blah blah blah, women, blah blah women,” louder.
Every four years, in the spring, timed artfully to coincide with Mother’s Day—or the return of wedge heels—public attention swings briefly toward that great lumbering beast we like to call “the women’s vote.” And for a brief mad spree, there are women pundits on television and women journalists on the opinion pages and everyone goes all pink and soft focus for a few weeks as we attempt to assess, yet again, what these creatures we call “women” might be, and how we can con them into voting en masse. (Hint: Use the word “woman” frequently.) Like most women, we ignored the silliness of the Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney flap because it felt so transparently made for TV. The Mommy Wars were boring in the late ‘90s when the New York Times invented them to terrorize stay-at-home and working women into beating up on one another in what little spare time they had. They’re even more boring in 2012, engineered for election purposes, when most women have a stay-at-home sister, a working best friend, and (shocker!) a husband who cares for the kids part-time, yet doesn’t feel the need to launch the Daddy Wars blog.
Back when the term “postmodern feminism” hit its heyday, conservatives first weaponized the equality issue by citing bold theories from extreme thinkers and shoving them in front of average women, taunting them with the dreaded warning that “she says she speaks for you!” In some cases, it worked. Who wanted to be grouped with a strident harpy like Catherine Mackinnon, who said all sex is like rape? That this was an outrageous distortion linked to her work on the impact of pornography seemed unimportant. The damage was done; feminism was about women who made bad choices: the choice to work, the choice to have (and enjoy) non-procreative sex, and the choice to delay marriage. To be a feminist was to be defined by one’s poor choices. And two decades later, that “bad choices” argument has been mainstreamed. There is so much that is foolish about trying to turn America’s women against America’s other women based on their jobs, their incomes, and their parenting. Ann Romney is no more “Everywoman” than the rest of us, precisely because there is no such thing as everywoman. There are just many, many women, making the same compromises and bargains that men make. So why is it still OK to talk about women in stark, cartoonish terms?
For starters, ask yourself why we talk about American men using the language of “freedom” and women in the language of “choice?”
Virtually everything we have heard in the week since the War on the War on Women was waged has been another mindnumbing meditation on “women” and “choice.” Whether it’s Ann Romney’s “choice” to stay home and care for her five sons, or working women and their “choice” to be in the workplace, or the “choice” to marry a rich guy, or the choice not to marry at all. Why is it that women are the sum of their “choices” and men get to just live their lives?
A few precatory observations on this language of choice: For one thing, it has become so bound up with the fight over reproductive rights in this country that it never really means just “choice” anymore. You can almost hear the silent “unfortunate” that precedes it every time it’s mentioned in political discourse. For another, not all women have all the choices they are alleged to be pondering. Most of us simply don’t have the luxury of a “choice” to stay home, or a choice to work part-time. Most women, like most men, do what they have to do. “Choice” is usually a misnomer, especially during a recession, for women as much as it is for men.
But talking about women in the language of choice is also a political trap. Because it suggests that while men are free to optimize their lifestyle decisions, women are always forced to “choose.” Men may design their lives. Women’s lives are a sequence of impossible trade-offs, made even more complex when they must mesh with the custom designs of the men with whom they marry and co-parent.
The first and most primary decision, of course, is whether to assume the role of mother at all—and, if so, when. A new twist on this year’s season of women-as-legitimate-voters is long-overdue attention to a rather jaw-dropping trend found in statehouses around the country, where Republican legislators have floated a record 916 pieces of legislation restricting female reproductive choice since 2011, coincidentally (or not) the year the GOP took control of the House of Representatives.
And at the national level, the ruckus over health insurance reform has zeroed in on access to contraception. Contraception. When was the last time birth control was a viable topic for political debate? The fact that 99 percent of women use contraception at some point in their lifetimes suggests it is only a “choice” in the same way food is a “choice.” Yet the crippling language of choice has been deployed this year to suggest that if women want to be sexually active, well, there are trade-offs they must make, up to and including their jobs.
For decades, conservatives have tried to convince women that their choices were merely a series of tricks and traps. And the current anti-women policies of the GOP represent an effort to make that warning a reality. Dodging real-world explanations for the state of the economy and high unemployment, conservatives are now attempting a backdoor campaign to chase women out of the workplace and into their proper roles as homemakers. How else to explain increasing moves toward repealing wage-discrimination laws, rollbacks on mandatory parental leave laws, and making it all-but impossible for poor women who work to choose when to bear children?
A longstanding justification for the iconic glass ceiling is, of course, the idea that women will enter and exit the workplace to have children, racking up costs to retrain replacements. Women: choice. But ask corporate types about their efforts to improve working conditions for male employees so they will resist the urge to hop over to the competition for a better offer, and they’ll sing a different tune. It’s money well spent, they argue, to “keep good talent.” Men: design.
So let’s put politics and mommy wars aside as we address this strange separate “interest group”—comprised of 53 percent of the population—and agree that it’s harmful to stir up needless infighting while attempting to address a critical issue in this (and any) election. Men and women both make choices. Men and women both seek to optimize their freedom. The economy is an equal-opportunity enabler or destroyer of dreams; it sinks or floats pending responsible handling of macro issues such as national debt, a capitalized working class, and fair tax policies. This perpetual sideshow wherein women are forced into combat with one another over the best way to raise children advances a discussion of U.S. economic policy not one iota. It’s time to acknowledge that, and retire the humiliating faux war among women. Choices and freedom are worthy goals for both genders, in and out of the workplace. Speak to women in non-cartoonish language, and we will choose to cast our vote as we see fit.