Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: Republicans losing the 51 percent

April 7, 2012

Sheila Suess KennedyIn a recent New York Times column, Gail Collins observed “the thing that makes our current politics particularly awful isn’t procedural. It’s that the Republican Party has become over-the-top extreme.”

She left out “mean-spirited and patriarchal.”

I was an active Republican for 35 years, but the party I belonged to no longer exists. There is no more striking evidence of that fact than the poisonous brew of policies that have been collectively dubbed the “war on women.”

The party I belonged to made at least some room for good-faith disagreements about abortion. Today’s GOP not only uses opposition to reproductive rights as an absolute litmus test, it proposes to deny thousands of poor women access to basic health services provided by Planned Parenthood, because that organization spends 3 percent of its own money on abortions.

Sorry you’re dying of breast cancer, sister, but hey—we’re “pro-life.”

Recently, the extremists have ventured beyond attacks on reproductive choice. The fight over access to contraception was a wake-up call. The fact that Rick Santorum has been taken seriously as a presidential candidate by a major political party, despite criticizing both birth control and women who work outside the home, is simply chilling.

It’s not just the unremitting attack on women’s right to control our own bodies. A larger message is that women and children (at least those no longer in utero) are simply unimportant.

In Washington, the GOP defends subsidies for big oil while it proposes deep cuts to social programs that primarily serve women and children.

Speaking of sending a message: In several states, Republicans have championed deeply offensive bills requiring women to submit to demeaning trans-vaginal ultrasounds before terminating a pregnancy, and they have proposed “personhood” amendments that would redefine most widely used birth control methods as abortion, and outlaw their use.

These and literally hundreds of other efforts—silly and serious—convey a breathtaking condescension to those who comprise 51 percent of the voting population. That condescension was perfectly captured by Rush Limbaugh—he of the “if you want birth control you’re a slut” rant—when he dismissed the idea of a war on women by protesting that Republican men simply want to “protect” us.

When I first went to law school in 1971, I encountered this patronizing, belittling attitude everywhere. But I have news for today’s smug lawmakers: Women are no longer willing to smile sweetly and seethe internally.

Pundits talk a lot about the gender gap. It is going to grow.

Here in Indiana, a group of Democratic women did some electoral research, and discovered that over 400,000 Hoosier women who had voted in the 2008 Democratic primary failed to vote in 2010. Had they done so, a number of results would have changed.

There is always a fall-off in voting in non-presidential years, and a significant number of those women will probably return to the polls in 2012, but this group isn’t taking that for granted. They have formed a 51% Club, with the express purpose of making sure women vote in May and November. The 51% Club held its first event last week.

I go to lots of fundraisers, but I have rarely been to one as well attended as this one. There are a lot of angry women—and men—right now.

Gail Collins was right. “You can try to fix that [GOP extremism] by working from within to groom a more sensible pack of future candidates, or from without by voting against the Republicans’ nominees until they agree to shape up.”

Those are the choices. A lot of us have made ours.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. Her column appears monthly. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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