Justin Elliott, who has been covering the story of Mitt Romney’s evolving position on abortion for Salon, had a quick but fascinating piece up last week disputing Romney’s 1994 claim that his mother was not only pro-choice, but took a leadership role in advocating for women’s rights. Back then, Romney was interested in convincing voters that he supported abortion rights, knowing that he had no chance whatsoever of winning the Senate seat in Massachusetts unless voters felt secure that they were voting for a pro-choice candidate. Not having much in his own history to reassure voters, Romney invoked his mother, saying, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country; I have since the time that my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S. Senate candidate.” He added that his support for abortion rights would never waver. (Of course it did, just in time for him to run for national office, requiring the support of the religious right.)
It’s a story that sounds good to people who don’t know the history of abortion rights, but for those of us who do, it seems a little fishy. It wasn’t unknown in 1970 for a politician to take a bold pro-choice stance, but it was unusual. The more common liberal position in 1970 was to support liberalizing abortion laws to make it easier for women to get permission to have an abortion. It was the radical activists at the time who instead demanded a repeal of all abortion laws so that women didn’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops to prove they “deserved” an abortion. Since then, liberals have become more feminist and have largely come around to the radical argument that women should not endure a bunch of laws largely designed around the sexist assumption that women have a duty to reproduce, whether they like it or not. Elliott’s research indicates that Lenore Romney was a moderate liberal by 1970 standards on the question of abortion.
What’s interesting about this to me is not that Romney may have fudged the facts a little nearly 20 years ago in order to seem more pro-choice, however. That’s to be expected at this point; in politics today, exaggeration hardly ever counts as lying, and even outright lying is widespread. What’s interesting here is that Romney was borrowing from a long tradition in the debate over women’s rights: male politicians using their female relatives in order to deflect suspicions that they’re sexist. It’s a cheap political trick that has serious long-term consequences, because it reinforces the myth that the only “real” sexists are men whose misogyny is so overwhelming that they spend no time with women and/or never allow the women in their families to have any freedom or a voice at all. It also erases the many women who support sexist social structures, and basically turns sexism from a real problem to more of an imaginary one that shouldn’t really be addressed at all.
Believe it or not, Romney’s take was probably the least offensive version I’ve seen of this strategy. He was using his mother to burnish claims that he personally was pro-choice (though it’s important to remember that he no longer supports abortion rights). But he was still using his mother to seem more moderate to voters who suspected that he wasn’t as pro-choice as he was making himself out to be.
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The more common use of this strategy is for a male politician to brandish female family members—often ones who are more liberal than he is—in order to send the message to moderate voters that he’s reasonable on reproductive rights while simultaneously pandering to the right. The first President Bush was a classic case of a politician who used this strategy. He personally denounced abortion, appealing to the religious right, but then let it be known that his wife, Barbara, was adamantly pro-choice. The message to moderates was, “If the person closest to him in the world can disagree with him on this issue, it’s clearly not that big a deal.” The second President Bush wasn’t nearly as explicit, but it was widely believed, by moderates and liberals alike, that Laura Bush was more liberal than her husband on these issues. Indeed, after he left office, she became more forthright about her liberal views on abortion, but frankly, I feel the implication was always there.
It’s not just Republicans who play this game, however. We saw another example recently with President Obama when he defended the HHS decision to overrule the FDA on making Plan B available over the counter without age restrictions. In his remarks, Obama made sure to mention his daughters, wielding them as a shield against suspicions that he cares more about pandering to the right than about the well-being of teenage girls. The strategy backfired on him, bringing about criticism that he was being patriarchal and indulging the routinely disproved argument that teenagers are best served by adults having a punishing attitude toward sex instead of an understanding-and-educating approach.
Obama’s inelegant approach exposed the entire problem with male politicians using female relatives as cover when faced with criticism for their approach to women’s rights: it’s condescending. It’s a rhetorical device that seems stuck in an era when men were the ones who went out in the world and did things, while women were expected to be satisfied living vicariously through men and were, at best, occasionally allowed to express an opinion that would be summarily dismissed by men, who by virtue of their sex were assumed to know better. Pro-choice wives of anti-choice politicians get to have their views treated like a cute, domestic eccentricity, rather than legitimate policy positions.
Having male politicians speak for their female relatives instead of allowing those women to speak for themselves is left over from some pre-feminist time. Instead of broadcasting respect for women, it actually suggests the opposite.