After the first Presidential debate, Governor Romney slashed President Obama's lead with women likely voters in swing states. A Gallup poll had the two candidates effectively tied, with Obama at 48 percent and Romney at 47 percent. After last night, I have a funny feeling that Obama has the women's vote locked down.
In last night's debate, the two candidates showed their true level of commitment to women's rights when, to the delight of viewers who were massively frustrated with the failure to mention women in the first debate, a question on equal pay came up: "In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?"
President Obama's response was stellar. He showed that he understood why equal pay is such an important problem, saying, "Women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family. This is not just a women's issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle-class issue, and that's why we've got to fight for it." He referenced the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to recoup damages in equal pay lawsuits, and stated that enforcing laws such as that will be key going forward. Later on in the back-and-forth, Obama eloquently defended contraceptive coverage under the affordable care act, showing a serious dedication to women's rights as he explained how women's participation in the workforce, our economic health as a nation, and women's reproductive rights are inextricably linked.
Then the Romney trainwreck happened.
Romney started off hilariously awkwardly, telling a story of how he bent over backwards as governor of Massachusetts to go out and search for "binders full of women" who were qualified to serve in his cabinet, because gosh, he just cares about women so much. (Let's ignore the fact that Bain Capital had no female partners when Romney was the CEO.) This anecdote was excusable, if eye roll-worthy, and irritating in its implication that all that women need to succeed is a more powerful man to help them. But the real disaster happened next, when Romney launched into his next anecdote with, "But number two, because I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible."
The rest of Romney's answer was as bad, out of touch, and sexist as the first sentence promised. In answering a question about equal pay, Romney told a story of his chief of staff, who asked to be home by 5 to make dinner for her children, and generalized her story to all working women. He finished off his answer with, "What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers that are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford," followed by the sound of every woman in America collectively smacking her hand against her forehead.
Mitt Romney apparently thinks that the gender pay gap is due to the fact that women can't possibly compete in the labor market because they're constantly rushing home to take care of babies and cook for the children. Therefore, women simply can't be as productive as men due to their duties in the home. There is so much wrong with this, starting with the blatantly sexist implication that the home is still a woman's sphere, and that after she gets home from work, she is still expected to do the "second shift" of cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Romney goes further than affirming old, tired, gender roles; his answer shows that in his mind, not only are women responsible for the domestic sphere, but that they should put family first, even if it means a sacrifice in their career. Jessica Valenti had a brilliant takedown of this "mom first" ideology in her blog at The Nation -- in 2012, it is simply unfair to say that women shouldn't be approaching their careers in the same way that men have for most of the 20th century.
Don't get me wrong -- there was a grain of truth in Romney's mess of an answer. Statistically, women are still responsible for the majority of childcare, even when they also have a career. But any answer of Romney's which acknowledges this truth without also acknowledging and condemning the antiquated gender roles behind it simply perpetuates the sexist status quo. It's like Romney did all his research on women in the workforce from a bad summary of Anne-Marie Slaughter's article. Until we deal with work/life balance as a parental issue, not a women's issue, and seriously address unequal distribution of work in the home, we aren't going to solve anything.
Furthermore, Romney's answer -- that the pay gap is because of women's domestic responsibilities -- protects him from actually having to do anything if he were president. This is convenient, since his campaign could never actually decide whether he supported the Lilly Ledbetter Act. If the problem is simply that women are rushing home to feed their children, well, that's not a problem the president can solve. Unfortunately for Romney, that isn't the problem. Lots of factors go into the gender pay gap, and unequal distribution of work in the home is certainly one of them, but placing the onus of closing the gap on women and their life choices is simply disingenuous and dishonest. Numerous studies show that men in "traditional" marriages with a wife who stays home find it nearly impossible to treat women equally in the workforce. They prove that women ask for raises less often than men, but when they do, they are more likely to be viewed negatively than equally qualified men are. They show that hair and makeup can influence whether a woman succeeds at work. With women up against such blatant discrimination, it is incorrect, dishonest, and wildly out-of-touch to claim that the gender pay gap can be closed with a "flexible work schedule."
After self-immolating on the equal pay question, Romney attempted to flip-flop on contraceptive coverage, stating, to the shock of every Democrat and Republican listening, "I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives." The Romney spin doctors should have a fun time cleaning that up.
There is only so much that candidates can pander to voters before those voters realize that they are being condescended to. Mitt Romney, with his etch-a-sketch politics, may believe otherwise, but tonight he displayed in spectacular fashion his true lack of concern for the real problems facing America's women. President Obama, by contrast, showed his understanding of the complex economic and health issues which women deal with every day. President Obama came out of this question looking so good because he cares about women's rights, not just about women's votes.