Political InQueery: A Low Bar for Women's Rights

Barack Obama and Patty Murray at a rally on 10/21

I spent two hours standing in line today to hear President Obama and Senator Murray rally the troops for her reelection bid. In the University of Washington’s Huskies stadium, there were reminders of the basketball court under our feet, the Democrat’s passage of student loan reform, and several rounds of the wave that people do in sports arenas. So imagine my surprise when the AP wire put out a story that today’s rally was all about getting women to the polls on November 2. Uh, what?

I’d wandered over to Seattle’s U District because I wanted to hear President Obama’s stump speech first hand, and heck, I’ve never seen a sitting President in person before. There was that Valentine’s Day run-in with Bill and Hillary in 2005, but he’d been long out of office at that point. And that’s another story. I wasn’t sure what I’d hear, but I’d learned of some of the talking points he’s mentioned this election cycle: the car metaphor about how the GOP ran America into a ditch, the Democrats pushed it out, and now the Republicans want the keys back. We heard from a couple of Washington Congressmen who gave us anecdotes from the Hill and told us stories about Huskies basketball. I found the metaphor about Murray “batting away” bad GOP ideas like jump shot balls particularly clunky, given that Patty Murray is short in stature. But political rallies often pull in mental models from everywhere.

There was talk about what the Democrats have done for the people, and since we had gathered on a public university campus, we were reminded almost constantly that we had these people to thank for reforming the student loan process. Between Murray and Obama the phrase “a woman’s right to choose” was uttered three or four times; another easy selling point for college-age women, as pollsters tell us. The State of Washington got a loud cheer for being the first and only state to elect all women at once to the governor’s office and both senate posts. But to call this a rallying cry for women—only 54 percent of whom, nationally, say they feel inspired to vote this year—seems a far stretch.

Digging into media reports, I see that it was the President’s own staff who put out a press release saying there would be a focus on women in today’s events. So the reporters who came up with the headline, “Fearing Rout, Dems Reach out to Female Voters” didn’t invent the concept out of nothing. And apparently the “backyard” event focused much more on why women should vote in this election. According to Obama:

The economy has changed where women have made such enormous strides that they now constitute fully half of the workforce. And so when you talk about what’s happened in the middle class, part of what you’re talking about is what’s happening to women in the workforce.

Bringing the larger economic mood back to individual experiences, he also said:

…things like equal pay for equal work aren’t just women’s issues; those are middle-class family issues.  Because, you know, how well women do is—will help determine how well our families are doing as a whole.

These would have been fantastic statements to make to the assembled group of 10,000 in the stadium, but he held them until the much smaller backyard meal. I’m glad the press were there to take note of these ideas, however it strikes me as too subtle to make a significant shift in how many women will come out to vote next month. And why keep positing women as only middle class? With half of the country’s population, ought progressive politicans not be interested in working class women as well? I know, elections bring out the middle class rhetoric. I just go to that place of reminding myself that there are all kinds of families in America, and that while parenting is important for many women, I’m not sure we need to value women vis a vis their families. What Obama is talking about when he ties together women, families and the economy comes in part from a very recent report that shows that many more women are the breadwinners in their households. Again, a subtle reference. Why not highlight this more clearly?

For me, to see “a woman’s right to choose” phrase thrown out at a rally and have some later conversation about how women’s successes will shore up our family units… well, I’m not convinced that’s the way to get women to the polls.

Here are just a few messages that I would love to talked up or committed to by earnest progressive-type politicians:

  • Create training programs and education specifically for women in or entering the workplace
  • Tout the benefits of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
  • Remind voters about education parity gains for women, especially minority women and explain what goals will be met next
  • Describe specifically any ideas for shoring up reproductive rights in the next congressional session

Twelve days remain until the 2010 midterm elections are finished. What do all of you want to see brought up and discussed by the candidates?


by Everett Maroon
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Everett Maroon is a memoirist, essayist, and fiction writer originally from New Jersey and now living in Walla Walla, Washington. His blog is transplantportation.com and he tweets at @EverettMaroon.

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

"I just go to that place of

"I just go to that place of reminding myself that there are all kinds of families in America, and that while parenting is important for many women, I'm not sure we need to value women vis a vis their families."
I don't think that was the intent of his speech at all. I think he was countering the "Mama Grizzly" rhetoric of the tea party (which has picked up a lot of undecided middle class women who weren't politically involved before) ala Sarah Palin. Since so many women are now the bread-winners of their families and they have spouses who are out of work, or underemployed, they worry and vote with the future of their family's welfare on their conscience. This does slightly hearken back to the ideology of Susan B. Anthony and the first wave suffragists that women should be involved in politics to better advocate for their families, but I don't think Obama was inferring that as some kind of limitation of why a woman should vote, rather he was trying to humanize himself and his candidate as "feeling their pain" (as Clinton often said). But I think this election cycle in particular, many women with families or hoping to start one are scared about the economy and what this would mean for their future.
I agree they should emphasize the Lily Ledbetter Equal Pay Act (one of the first pieces of legislation Obama signed into law) and the fact a Republican administration and Congress would never have allowed that to pass (not saying that to be partisan, it's just true).

Okay, I can go to this

Okay, I can go to this interpretation with you, even if I don't agree with how you pluralize Muppet. What do you think about my concern that the rhetoric for women is too toned down? Do you see that these messages are reaching women? I can't get a handle on that anecdotally, and so far the polling has been mixed.


Did he have any specific plans for increasing pay equity, enforcing the Equal Pay Act and Ledbetter? Because I don't think the problem with pay inequity is that we don't have enough legislation about it. It's that the legislation we have isn't enforced, or companies find ways around it, like enacting salary confidentiality policies or tweaking job titles based on sex and race.

Since more women are breadwinners, or heads of single-parent families, some kind of affordable day care would be very helpful. Women have been asking for that since at least the second wave. We've also been waiting since the Clinton administration for provisions to keep jobs from being shipped to other countries.
I watched the audience response ticker in the last election's debates, and women responded like gangbusters on the topic of CEO compensation. Or overcompensation, more accurately. We know it's crap when executives make millions for ruining markets and laying everybody off.

On the subject of reproductive choice, his administration has added more restrictions on abortion nobody asked for like the HHS ban on high-risk pools - presumably to "reach out" to "swing voters" - and hasn't addressed other restrictions already there, like conscience clauses or parental notification laws or recent state-level legislation mandating ultrasounds or mental health screenings. I'm not sure he can do much about state-level restrictions like that, but he hasn't even mentioned them. Being pro-choice doesn't mean just not reversing Roe v Wade or making sure rape and incest victims have access to abortion in a victim-blaming society with an abysmal conviction rate for sexual assault (which is another issue that needs to be addressed). Somebody needs to tell him to stop qualifying the hell out of his abortion comments with that "morality" angle, which women don't respond to positively. Hillary Clinton and Parry Murray can give him some tips on how to talk about reproductive choice if he'll listen to them.
He might be able to capitalize on the recent media attention on gender bullying to start some early sex-ed that teaches kids to respect boundaries and how to recognize and report abuse. But he'd have to be careful about the homophobes and the panickers who would frame that as "zomg sex ed for kindergartners."
I'd also like to know where these infrastructure jobs are and how does green energy factor into them, and how exactly we're going to improve schools in poor and minority districts other than persecuting underpaid teachers for not doing enough and implementing more standardized tests.

And then he'd have to actually <i>do what he says he'll do</i> when and if we reelect him! I'd still be skeptical because he's flaked on so many of his campaign promises already, like closing Gitmo and repealing DADT and DOMA and not restricting abortion access...

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