Young: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are both patronizing to women
Someday we may look back at Campaign 2012 as the war over women. The Democrats claim to stand as women's champions. The Republicans fend against charges of being anti-woman and try to deflect them at the Democrats. But each side trafficks in its own brand of condescension and sexism -- and neither speaks to women as simply human.
On the Republican side, there are politicians saying bizarre things about rape and pregnancy, whether suggesting that pregnancy from rape never happens or calling it a divine blessing. No, not everyone who opposes abortion even for rape victims is a misogynist; some men and women passionately believe that an embryo is a full person with a full right to life. Still, a lot of pro-life rhetoric treats women as vessels for embryos, and it's cavalier about the real consequences of unwanted pregnancy.
Beyond abortion, there's a sense that the Republican camp is a haven for people who haven't accepted equality -- from activist preacher and frequent Fox News guest Jesse Lee Peterson, who says women are too crazy to vote, to less extreme traditionalists who pine for women's place in the home. To many women, Mitt Romney's assertion that his wife's job as a mother was more important than his own smacks of the patronizing flattery long used to deny women opportunities.
Think patronizing flattery doesn't exist on the Democratic side? Look at the Obama for America ad in which Lena Dunham, of the HBO show "Girls," likens first-time voting to first-time sex. Dunham tells young women to "do it with a great guy" who "understands women" and "cares whether you get health insurance," especially birth control.
This video not only echoes cliches that reduce women's lives to sex and romance, it portrays the president as a surrogate boyfriend/husband, a strong, sensitive man who takes care of the little woman. Critics saw similar themes in the Obama campaign's "Life of Julia" ad chronicling how government helps a woman through life. But at least that was a general, if female-geared, pitch for government's role. The "first time" spot could be called "Looking for Mr. Good Government."
Yes, some government programs are essential for both sexes. But when women are courted as special beneficiaries of activist government -- when even affluent women are offered full coverage for contraception and sterilization but men are not, as may be the case under Obamacare -- this hardly advances female autonomy.
Most female voters' concerns in a presidential election are not gender-based, and the White House has limited impact on gender issues. An abortion ban is not coming, and even the repeal of Roe v. Wade is at most a distant risk; the threat to abortion rights today is at the state level, so voters concerned about it should focus there. Women's job opportunities are aided by economic growth more than by more access to discrimination lawsuits. Perhaps the presidency's greatest effect on women's issues is symbolic: Does our leadership embrace a vision of women and men as equal citizens? At this, the Romney and the Obama campaigns have both failed.