Why Some Women Don't Vote With Their Vaginas

A woman casts her ballot for the US presidential election at an early voting center in Columbus, Ohio, on October 15, 2012. T
A woman casts her ballot for the US presidential election at an early voting center in Columbus, Ohio, on October 15, 2012. Three weeks before election day, the White House race between US president Barack Obama and his Republican foe Mitt Romney remains statistically tied, with Obama maintaining just a slight advantage, a new opinion poll found Monday. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GettyImages)

Just when we all thought Todd Akin was a shoo-in for the award for the dumbest thing said or done in the 2012 election cycle, Richard Mourdock comes out of nowhere to give Akin a run for his money just before Election Day. If only these two could be forced into the political-gaffe equivalent of a dance-off to determine who takes the crown for the biggest, dumbest, most offensive campaign blunder.

As everyone who doesn't live under a rock now knows, Mourdock, Indiana's Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, described his position on abortion as follows:

The only exception I have to have an abortion is in the case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

In my column about the brouhaha, I noted that the timing of the gaffe presents a headache not only for Mourdock but for his latest high-profile endorser, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The Romney campaign has spent the last 36 hours attempting the tightrope act to end all tightrope acts, claiming to disavow Mourdock's comments while refusing to pull down the campaign ad in which Romney touts his support for Mourdock. While the Romney campaign's unwillingness to cut Mourdock completely loose has left some conservatives scratching their heads, what has left progressives scratching their heads is the question of why so many women don't seem to be buying the Democrats' "war on women" rhetoric. If women did, then we would not have seen Romney gain ground with women voters in recent weeks. That said, it remains to be seen whether "bindergate," the Mourdock controversy and Gloria Allred's potential "October surprise" will put a permanent end to Romney's rise.

But why is it that despite so many high-profile, heavily covered stories about conservative candidates making offensive, demeaning comments about rape and abortion (or privately trying to bully a mistress into having an abortion, despite publicly calling for the procedure to be illegal for others), not to mention trying to limit contraception access, there are still plenty of women who have not been scared away from conservatives?

Apparently many women simply choose not to vote with their vaginas. Allow me to explain.

There are two warring schools of thought regarding how you should live your life as a member of a minority or oppressed group. I say this as a member of two of them, being both black and a woman. (Yes, I know that statistically, women are not a minority in America, but given the power structure, I do believe we qualify as oppressed.) One school of thought is that as a member of a minority or oppressed group, you must always fly the flag of your tribe. Some might call this "never forgetting who you are or where you come from." That means that if you are black, then no matter how successful you become, you must remember that you are black first, second, third and last, because, the thinking goes, you may think you've arrived and choose to try to forget or pretend that your race doesn't it matter, but there will be plenty of people out there to remind you that they haven't forgotten and never will, and that it does matter. For this reason, the thinking goes, regardless of your tax bracket, you'd be a fool to vote based on tax policy if you are black, because your tax bracket ultimately doesn't matter very much when you still have to worry about policies like racial profiling. In other words, whether you drive a Honda or a Ferrari, if you're black, then you're still likely to be treated the same if you (or your son) gets pulled over by the wrong policeman in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The other school of thought is that the reason that minorities and oppressed groups fight the civil rights battles that we have fought so hard for so long is so that we can ultimately enjoy the same rights and privileges as everybody else, among them the right to think for ourselves and to succeed or fail as individuals, not as representatives of an entire community.

So which school of thought is right? Both of them -- to a degree.

There's no question that every American has the right to succeed or fail on his or her own merits and to be judged accordingly. But it's also true that when you are a member of a minority or an oppressed community, you will still be judged in the context of the community as a whole, whether you like it or not. (Think I'm wrong? Then ask yourself whether you truly believe that President Obama could survive a Lewinsky-like scandal like President Clinton did, or whether you think he would be perceived as a black man embodying some of the most negative stereotypes out there about black men, whereas President Clinton was viewed as just one white guy who, as an individual, made a mistake.)

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spent much of his professional life in conservatism, advocating for the notion of succeeding or failing as an individual, and subsequently turning his back on the merits of affirmative action, despite previously acknowledging that he had been a beneficiary of it himself. Of course, when he found himself in trouble, with his Supreme Court appointment on the line, he invoked his membership in the black community as a shield, decrying his hearing as "high-tech lynching." The perception he left many black Americans with is that "when I'm succeeding, I did it on my own, but when I'm in trouble, it's because I'm being lumped in with the community and discriminated against accordingly. That's not fair. Help!"

Though there are some women whose politics are legitimately defined by their moral opposition to abortion, there are plenty of others who, like Thomas, have simply decided that they are not going to allow the body they were born into to define their politics. Most of them probably enjoy a measure of privilege that allows them the luxury of thinking that way. They may be white or wealthy or both, so as far as they are concerned, why vote on whether or not a politician supports or opposes limiting contraception access, because at the end of the day, they (or their husbands) make enough money that if push came to shove, they could pay out of pocket for contraception access without giving it too much thought? Why vote on whether or not a politician has a firm position on fair pay if you've already gotten your promotion and are doing just fine -- as an individual?

Of course, that all makes perfect sense until it doesn't. Just ask Lily Ledbetter, or, better yet, ask Gov. Romney's predecessor.

Jane Swift was the acting governor of Massachusetts prior to Gov. Romney's election. Though she was dubbed a national rising star at the time, being one of the youngest governors in our nation's history, she has since become a trivia question. The reason? The Republican faced constant criticism and eventually ethical complaints regarding her struggle to balance motherhood with her role as governor. Swift gave birth while in office, and lacking an official governor's mansion, she took a state helicopter to reach her sick child quickly and was also accused of utilizing government staff to watch her small children. In the end, despite her interest in running for a full term as governor, Swift was pushed out of the race by concerned Republicans, many of whom were supporters of her successor, Gov. Mitt Romney.

I've never spoken with Swift, so I don't know whether she would say that her politics as governor were defined in part by being a woman, or whether she merely saw herself as an individual who just happened to be a woman, but my guess is that looking back on it all, she might surmise that ultimately, no matter how much you strive to be seen as more than just a woman, there are plenty of challenges -- and opportunities -- unique to womanhood, and you will be judged accordingly.

So maybe women should define their politics accordingly, too.

Keli Goff is the political correspondent for TheRoot.com, and she is the author of The GQ Candidate.