Commentary Politics

What the 2012 Election Means for Women and for Feminism

Amanda Marcotte

Pro-choice candidates gained big time this election cycle, while anti-choice politicians lost even more power, at least on a national level. The lesson of all this is simple: After decades of feminists arguing for women's rights, the majority of the public is on board.

The Obama campaign really pushed the idea that this election would be in large part a referendum on the war on women, to see if the majority of voting Americans were for or against it. Turns out that they were more right than they knew, because the voters across the country took a long, hard look at the war on women and said no. Think Progress had a quick item:

While the parties controlling the House and Senate did not change after the 2012 election, the number of pro-choice members of Congress increased. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, Congress gained 18 pro-choice lawmakers in the House and Senate and lost 10 anti-choice representatives in the House. Congress also lost nine “mixed choice” members. For several anti-choice candidates, their out of touch, often medically inaccurate comments about sexual assault, women’s reproductive systems, and abortion rights doomed their campaigns.

The issue of reproductive rights is becoming, along with many other issues, more polarized. The right has become more extremist, with anti-choice Republicans increasingly a “no exceptions” stance on their calls for an abortion ban (though Romney’s platform demanded the usual near-worthless calls for an exception for rape, as well as the health of the mother). Meanwhile, instead of merely defending the status quo, Obama took strong action this year to expand reproductive health care access, when his HHS included contraception in the list of preventive health care services that have to be covered by insurance without a copay. The voters not only rewarded Obama, but pro-choice candidates generally, as NARAL and Think Progress note.

Indeed, generally speaking, voters came out strong in support of women this year. We now have a record number of female members coming into the 2013 Senate, for instance, with some female candidates such as Heidi Heitkamp overcoming long odds to win their seats. Tammy Baldwin will be the first openly lesbian Senator ever elected. To make it even more exciting, some of the new Senators are strongly progressive, such as Elizabeth Warren and Mazie Hirono, with quite a few eyes looking to Warren especially to take a bold leadership position on pushing for a more progressive Senate.

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The main takeaway for feminists in all this is simple: Feminism wins at the ballot box, especially if you’re looking at a high voter turnout election like this one. While our opposition is loud and powerful, the reality is that we’ve been making our arguments for decades to the public, and it looks like the public actually agrees, even if the word “feminist” continues to be treated like a dirty word. It’s not just that candidates who protect and expand women’s rights won, but candidates who revealed the ugly streak of misogyny lurking under a feigned concern for “life”—such as Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin—grossed the voters out, and were voted down in elections they would have easily won if they could have restrained themselves.

I think the reason for this is two-fold and simple. First, Americans really prioritize thinking of themselves as fair people, and the issues of feminism really can be boiled down to issues of fairness. The other reason, which Obama emphasized in the second debate, is that liberal feminists have really driven home the message that when women do better, everyone does better. While there’s still lingering cultural anxiety over myths such as the belief that it’s better for kids to have a stay-at-home mother, by and large, people know how far women have come and how much better the lives of everyone, including men and children, are for it.

The birth control benefit is a really good example. While conservative pundits ran around calling women who use prescription contraceptives sluts and trying to frame it as a woman-only issue, I suspect the average American is more than a little aware that a wide range of women, from women who have been in monogamous relationships for decades to women who are juggling a number of sex partners, need contraception. Not only that, most people understand very well that men benefit from contraception, too. Children, too, as all but a handful of “Quiverfull” people and deluded but rich right-wing men know that families who limit the number of children they have are better able to care for the ones they do have.

The writer and blogger Roy Edroso, whose main political wheelhouse is poking righteous fun at silly conservative bloggers, blamed the out-of-touch sexism of conservative politicians and pundits for the Democrats performing better at the polls than they were expected to do:

And here conservatives turned out to be a big, fat liability for their cause. As Republican after Republican made crackpot comments about rape, contraception, and abortion, the GOP’s rightwing brain trust unfailingly followed up and said, yeah, that’s what we believe, that’s what we’ve always believed.

And because the conventional wisdom had always been that autonomous, sexually active women and the men who love them are just a fringe constituency, instead of questioning the wisdom of attacking them, the big brains questioned the wisdom of having Sandra Fluke speak at the Democratic Convention.

After this election, if conservatives are smart, they’ll realized the public doesn’t share their belief that it’s weird and perverted to support women’s basic right to be sexual. But already we’re seeing that this isn’t going to be the case, with Fox News and talk radio hosts going right back to making these kinds of gross assumptions about people who care about contraception access. No doubt my podcast will have plenty of mocking-the-opposition-for-prudery material for months to come as a result of this. 

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