Commentary Human Rights

Why Both Republicans and Democrats Are Wrong About the ‘War on Women’

Zerlina Maxwell

To listen to conservatives tell the story about the "war on women" is to pretend it doesn’t exist at all. To listen to Democrats, though, is to limit the fight for gender equity to the issue of abortion, which, while important, is part of a larger fight for justice on all fronts.

Many Republicans insist that there is no “war on women.”

When asked recently about the subject, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said, “Well, you know, I think we have a lot of debates in Washington that get dumbed down and are used for political purposes. This whole sort of ‘war on women’ thing, I’m scratching my head because if there was a ‘war on women,’ I think they won. You know, the women in my family are incredibly successful.”

Republicans routinely cite the anecdotal success of the women they know as evidence that gender inequality is a relic of the past. The GOP has also tried to spin the “war on women” as a rhetorical political device that hypocritical Democrats are using to trick women into voting for democratic candidates. On this, Republicans are wrong.

What’s more, many Democrats insist that the “war on women” begins and ends with the massive wave of Republican sponsored anti-choice legislation sweeping the nation since 2010. Predictably, at the start of the 2014 legislative session, Republicans introduced more than 300 pieces of legislation to restrict access to legal abortion procedures. State after state is proposing and passing abortion restrictions, some of which clearly violate the Supreme Court precedent set in Roe v. Wade 41 years ago, but that also make certain forms of birth control illegal.

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When women are unable to control their reproduction (when to have children and under what circumstances), they are left as passive bystanders in their own lives. The risk of pregnancy is forever present, despite the fact that Roe is supposed to allow women the freedom to make their own choices about a private matter such as their health.

These legislative assaults on women’s rights at the state level since 2010 have stripped away much of the feminist progress of the past generation. Yes, we may just be on the cusp of the return of the “back alley” abortion. Texas, West Virginia, and Alabama are just a couple of the states attempting to codify abortion restrictions that clearly violate the precedent in Roe v. Wade. Many of the new restrictions, most notably TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws, unfairly burden low-income women who already have limited resources and access to necessary care and abortion services.

But Democrats are also wrong about the “war on women.” The war on women is not only about access to reproductive health care, it’s a multifaceted and structural perpetuation of second-class status for women in all aspects of American life. Reproductive justice is intertwined with economic justice.

Physical safety and bodily autonomy are an essential part of any human’s quest for self-determination. Women who are not safe to walk the streets because of persistent catcalling and sexual harassment are not really free citizens. Rape culture is real, and a culture that blames victims, empathizes with perpetrators while failing to hold them accountable, and forces many women into shame and silence may not be considered engaged in a “war on women,” but it certainly is an assault on their right to move about the world with their dignity intact.

More broadly, the “war on women” also includes the fight for minimum wage. Since the majority of low-wage work is performed by women (and, more specifically, women of color), increasing the minimum wage will not only help these women and their families, it will improve the economy overall.

The “war on women” also includes the ongoing fight for pay equity. While the GOP decries women for being poor negotiators, the gender pay gap remains unchanged for nearly a decade as women in all facets of life move up into leadership positions. That women on average make 77 cents for every dollar a white man earns is a stubborn statistic that is no match for the social and structural factors that have even those women doing the same job as a man earning less.

Immigration reform is rarely an issue put under the umbrella of the “war on women,” largely because there is little intersectional analysis by the mainstream media. Rarely is there a mainstream news segment about the impact of mass deportations, beyond the statistics. The media fails to go into depth regarding the details and Americans are left without the facts and not feeling the necessary urgency to get a humane immigration reform package through Congress immediately.

To listen to conservatives tell the story about the “war on women,” there is no assault on women’s bodily autonomy that deems it unsafe to walk in the street and attend a college or university. To listen to conservatives tell the story about the “war on women,” there are no threats of gender-based violence that leave nearly a quarter of American women traumatized by sexual violence. To listen to conservatives tell the story about the “war on women,” there is no gender pay gap that leaves women with $400,000 less in lifetime earnings. To listen to conservatives tell the story about the “war on women” is to pretend it doesn’t exist at all.

To listen to Democrats, though, is to limit the fight for gender equity to the issue of abortion, which, while important, is part of a larger fight for justice on all fronts.

There may not be a “war on women” in the traditional sense. There is, however, an all-out and persistent assault on women’s bodies, choices, equality, freedom, and rights.

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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