Outside observers have noted the recent barrage of statements and facts that have repeatedly reminded interested parties that the GOP has a female problem. These pricks of conscience have been an almost daily disturbance to the message discipline of the Republican National Convention. Todd Akin may have teed up the subject more precisely than most, but the ball was rolling back in May, when polls showed an astounding 20-point gender gap between Obama and Romney. Since Akin misspoke himself into a soundbite, we’ve seen things that seem to explain that gap.There was the party’s decision to ratify the policy that Akin was championing when he introduced the idea of “legitimate rape”: the Republican party platform, designated to be formally adopted Tuesday, calls for outlawing all abortions, with no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or if the pregnancy puts the life of the mother at risk.
The selection of Paul Ryan as the party’s vice-presidential nominee highlighted a more immediately relevant view: in Congress, Ryan voted to support banning federal funding to any clinic that performs abortions and denying payment for abortions via federal insurance voucher or Medicaid. This seems a less extreme position, allowing at least a woman with the means to do so control over her reproductive organs. You see just how radical the legislation really was only if you consider its articulated exceptions for federal funding of abortions: first of all, for those “forcible rapes” that so excited Akin’s imagination, and second, for incest survivors – if the pregnant woman in question is still a minor. Over 18 and pregnant by a relative? What, your uterus didn’t know?
And then, there’s serial hatchet man and noted genealogist Donald Trump. Tuesday morning, he unleashed an unprovoked attack on internet publisher Arianna Huffington: she “is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man – he made a good decision.”
All things considered, I think marriage equality advocates would rather not have Trump on their side.
Which brings us to the unlikely allies at question: women and the Republican party. Right?
The kind of people who notice the things that have happened in the last week are the kind of people who have trouble understanding conservative women’s loyalty. Why would women support candidates who ally themselves with misogynists such as Trump? Why don’t they do something to change the minds of the men who assert a difference between rape and “forcible rape”, and judge the trauma of incest to be less if you happen to be old enough to vote?
Why isn’t there open revolt here in Tampa: perfectly-coiffed ladies burning their Spanx and shouting down the men who want to decide their futures for them?
To call them all radical pro-lifers would explain their priorities, but the numbers just don’t back up that hypothesis. Polling done just this month shows fully 76% of Republicans (men and women) at odds with their party’s official stance, believing that abortion should be legal in certain situations. So, then it’s tempting to write off Republican women as perhaps just “not knowing” something – most significantly, their party’s official position, but maybe also the impact of such policies. But is that an explanation or just condescension?
More equitably, maybe they’re secretly conflicted – or, in the case such lawmakers as Olympia Snowe, not-so-secretly conflicted – aware of the perceived trade-off between “economic liberty” and civil liberties, and simply willing to compromise. Some form of that compromise is probably the most accurate explanation. Women I talk to here literally roll their eyes at any line of questioning that begins, “So, as a woman … ?”
Kim Ferguson, a Massachusetts delegate and state representative, articulated what she’s seen, as a self-described moderate and elected official, when it comes to women’s issues. Her constituents, she says, “don’t want to talk about that”:
“They want to talk about the fiscal train wreck we’re in. Even if I raise it, they’ll say something – but qualify it by saying, ‘But that’s not what I want to talk about.'”
And when it comes to the issue that’s flared so brightly in the past week, the numbers bear out anecdotal observation: only 34% of those polled (and 38% of women polled) say they couldn’t vote for a candidate who differed with them on abortion rights.
I have come to believe that, at the very least, there’s a strong connection between reproductive rights and women’s economic progress. But I’ve also come to believe that the connections intertwining a woman’s life, her body and her child are so deep and ultimately mysterious that I’m no longer sure whether, if I was faced with an unwanted pregnancy of any kind, I could be able to make the distinction between – as Paul Ryan maladroitly put it – “methods of conception”. If life is life, and I feel that connection within me, could I give myself the choice I am so sure other women should have?
Reproductive policy doesn’t actually lend itself to the binary answers available in polls. My one attempt to question a “typical” female delegate on the issue (I asked the first woman I saw) ended in an extended philosophical discussion with Sherry Wright, a black Republican alternate delegate from Nebraska, who dodged my question with disarming earnestness. Yes, she was aware of the party’s platform. Yes, she believed life begins at conception. But if another woman chooses to get an abortion? “I am not going to condemn you.”
In fact, though she repeatedly insisted “I’m not for abortion,” she also said, “I wouldn’t want you to make that decision for me.” She didn’t know how she’d react if a family member had to face pregnancy in the wake of a rape, but “I’d probably abide by her decision.”
When we followed the logic of a “consistent” pro-life position (making abortion illegal without exception), we wound up in a theological and moral rabbit hole, talking about artificial insemination, adoption, and the human desire to know whose blood flows through one’s veins.
Wright was unconcerned that the simplicity of her party’s official position was at odds with the complexity that kept us in conversation for half an hour. “I’m for everyone having their voice,” she said. “People try to change the platform” on kinds of issues, she said. “It usually doesn’t happen.” (This is true: the “no exceptions” ban has been in place since 1980.)
In the end, Wright had to get to the business of being a delegate. I thanked her for her time and admitted that I am usually more reticent in interviews with conservatives, if I do them at all. I know I’m considered the enemy. She laughed and gave me advice that might explain everything.
“Eventually, you’ll find someone to talk to,” she said. “Just act like you belong.”
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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