Last Friday, President Obama held a forum on women and the economy at the White House in which he performed the impressive feat of totally pandering to women as a demographic group while simultaneously claiming that he does not think of them as “some monolithic bloc.”
“Women are not an interest group,” he said. “You shouldn’t be treated that way. Women are over half this country and its workforce.”
But politics being what it is (and the administration’s policies regarding women generally being productive), the dissonance isn’t worth much analysis. And in any case, a sleight-of-hand even more audacious than Obama’s was attempted that morning. Sharon Day, the co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, spun some gossamer rhetoric meant to reframe the “war on women” her party has been accused of perpetrating in recent months in terms of job loss:
Across America, women are feeling the pain of the weak economy—in the job market and at the kitchen table. … As today’s jobs report shows, unemployment remains much too high. The number of employed women declined last month and the number who have dropped out of the labor force increased. For far too long women have been left behind in Obama’s job market. Of the 740,000 jobs lost since Obama took office, 683,000 of them were held by women. That is truly unsustainable. President Obama and his fellow Democrats love to say they stand for women, but women can no longer stand the Obama economy. Women deserve better, and in November we will hold him accountable.
Day is correct that during the period from January 2009 to March 2012, women did lose more jobs relative to the national rate of decline, but as fact-checking maestro Glenn Kessler over at the Washington Post shows, that discovery may not mean much.
In fact, the latest employment report shows that male participation in the work force was up 14,000 while female participation fell 177,000, in part because women tend to work in retail or government jobs, which have been cut in recent months. Is this a function of Obama’s policies? It’s unclear at this point, but it certainly is an under-reported phenomenon that the RNC, in its use of this statistic, is trying to highlight … We cannot fault the RNC’s math, as the numbers add up. But at this point this figure doesn’t mean very much. It may simply a function of a coincidence of timing—a brief blip that could have little to do with “Obama’s job market.”
Kessler admits that if the trend continues, the Republicans may have a valid point, but until then, the meaning of the math is a bit fuzzy. And even if the decline continues, assigning blame to Obama alone—especially in terms of a Democratic “war on women,” as Day suggests—is a hard sell. Job growth is a complex process that no president can single-handedly control, much less direct toward the exclusion of a certain group. But you know what isn’t complicated? Giving women the freedom to determine their own reproductive and overall health.
The “war on women” is an effective rhetorical concept because the recent bevy of legislation and policymaking aimed at bringing ever-higher levels of scrutiny and control on women’s bodies feels like a violent attack. Day and the GOP’s attempt to apply the term to a far more amorphous problem for their own political benefit is weak—and that’s saying something in a year of increasingly transparent political gamesmanship.