Republicans Invented the "Woman Card"

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 27: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses his supporters during a rally at the In
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 27: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses his supporters during a rally at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum on April 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Donald Trump accuses Hillary Clinton of "playing the woman card" and says if she were a man "she'd only get 5 percent of the vote."

Meanwhile, Ted Cruz announced with great fanfare Carly Fiorina as his "running mate" (whatever that means) whose greatest political asset is that she's an anti-choice woman who can really tear into Hillary Clinton without being accused of sexism.

These latest lines of attack -- Trump criticizing Hillary Clinton for belonging to the female gender and Cruz turning to Fiorina as the anti-Hillary -- not only expose Trump's misogyny and Cruz's cynicism, but the underlying Republican attitude toward women in politics generally.

The Republicans know the "woman card" well since they're the ones who invented it. They've been playing it since 1984 when the Democrats nominated Geraldine Ferraro for vice president, the first woman to make it onto the ticket of a major American political party.

Back in 1984, the Republicans had to deal with the unprecedented event of the sitting vice president, George Herbert Walker Bush, debating the first-ever woman vice presidential candidate.

With a woman with strong ties to the major women's rights organizations in America running for the second highest office in the land the Reagan-Bush re-election campaign had to be careful. If Vice President Bush came on too strong in his sole debate with Ferraro it could be politically costly.

At the time the women's movement was still stunned by the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the ferocity of the anti-feminist backlash with the rise of the Christian Right and anti-choice women like Phyllis Schafly.

In the news cycles leading up to their sole debate the story surfaced that Barbara Bush, the vice president's wife, called Ferraro: "A four million dollar - I can't say it - but it rhymes with rich." (Quoted in The Eighties, p. 54) Shortly thereafter, Bush's press secretary, Peter Teeley, floated the same gender-loaded term when he confided to reporters that "some people" saw Ferraro's mannerisms as "bitchy."

When Ferraro heard about Mrs. Bush's remark, she asked an aide: "Why is that nice old lady calling me a bitch?"

Involving the wife of the Republican candidate neutralized the gender component in the same way Ted Cruz is trying to do with Carly Fiorina. It turned voters' attention to a public fight between two women representing the opposing political parties.

On October 11, 1984, the first American vice presidential debate took place between a woman and a man. Throughout the encounter Bush took on the air of an educator and began mansplaining the ways of Washington and the world to Ferraro, repeatedly saying: "Let me help you." Ferraro pushed back, "I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude," she said. (The Eighties, p. 55)

After the drubbing the Democrats endured in 1984 (appointing Ferraro to the ticket didn't stop Reagan from winning 54 percent of the female vote, a 7 percent gain over 1980), neither party would put a woman on the ticket until 2008 when John McCain dug deep to pull out of the muck the anti-choice Sarah Palin as his running mate.

First came the "tragedy" of McCain elevating Palin; now comes the "farce" of Cruz bringing forth Fiorina.

With Hillary Rodham Clinton looking more like the Democratic nominee for president this November and the Trump juggernaut unstoppable the election promises to be a fascinating sociological clinic exposing the deep-seated misogyny that permeates the contemporary Republican Party.

Since 1984, the GOP has seen women as little more than adornments to be used as political slings and arrows. Trump and Cruz are only the latest manifestation. If Clinton is the nominee the cunning Republican strategists are guaranteed to turn up the volume to eleven on their sexist attacks. They can't help themselves.