The XX Factor

Republican Strategy on Women: “Rape Is a Four-Letter Word. Purge It From Your Lexicon.’

SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser argues that the less Republicans say about abortion, the better.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In the New York Times, Jeremy Peters covers the next chapter of the continuing saga of Republican efforts to appeal to women without having to give up warring on women. This time it’s about conservative strategists’ efforts to help Republican politicians talk about abortion.

“Our self-mute strategy permits the Democrats to frame the issue on their own terms,” says a report written by the Republican group American Principles in Action. On the other hand, Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List, thinks the self-mute button could be hit more frequently. “Two sentences is really the goal” when talking about abortion. “Then stop talking.” (For what it’s worth, hers is probably the right answer, as the more people hear about conservative views on abortion, the less they like them.) 

Rape is another subject to play dumb about. “Rape is a four-letter word,” Peters reports that a Republican consultant advises. “Purge it from your lexicon.” How Republicans are supposed to do that when rape exceptions in abortion legislation are real issues in campaigns is a mystery.

But there’s one thing that all these folks can agree on, which is that the way to battle the perception that Republicans are out to get women is to ape compassion for women you wish to force unwanted childbearing upon. “They are urging greater compassion for women with unplanned pregnancies and aggressive confrontation whenever Democrats accuse them of opposing women’s best interests.” Unfortunately for Republicans, it’s hard to argue that you’re looking out for women when you are literally trying to take away access to medical care that one in three women has to use at least once in her life. Their only choice is to infantilize women by arguing that abortion rights need to be stripped from women for their own good, a strategy that’s on full display with the justifications for everything from mandatory waiting periods to unnecessary clinic restrictions that shut clinics down. 

You’d think infantilizing women would hurt you with female voters, but Republicans have found an interesting workaround for that: Convince some female voters that it’s just a war on other women and not them. Republican consultant Kellyanne Conway explained how, for instance, to argue against the assertion that attacks on reproductive health care access equal attacks on women’s health care. “Women’s health issues are osteoporosis or breast cancer or seniors living alone who don’t have enough money for health care,” she advises.

This strategy pits older women against younger women, making it seem like “health care” is a limited term and that breast cancer patients are somehow losing out if abortion is considered medical care just like chemo is. 

Pitting different groups of women against each other is a smart move, politically speaking. While women do lean left more than men, women can’t really be understood as a stand-alone voting block. White women, married women, wealthier women, and older women all vote Republican more than women of color, single women, lower income women, and younger women. Getting older women to think of their health care as the real health care and to look at reproductive health care as a “lifestyle” choice convinces older female voters that they don’t have to worry about this “war on women” at all. More than that, it casts them as a privileged class of women who has earned, through age, the right to make their own health care choices. (You see the same strategy in pitting married moms against single women.) It’s still up in the air how many sentences any candidate should devote to talking about osteoporosis.