When I moved to Washington, D.C., I looked forward to meeting people who would test my political beliefs. I expected to find people who grew up in cities far less progressive than my New York roots or Boston art school. However, I was surprised to find that after one of my feminist rants, young people that I talked to from both liberal and conservative backgrounds seemed to echo one sentiment: fighting the “War on Women” is a civil rights issue.
When I first noticed the rhetoric surrounding women in this cycle, I was angry, but more than that, I was empowered to do something about it. Spending the semester in D.C., I began to volunteer for women’s organizations and talk to my peers about how they felt regarding where women stand. I was surprised to find that even across state and party lines, one thing was clear. The movement known in the media as the “War on Women” was real for many young female voters.
Noting the trend, I sought out peers also participating in the internship program hosted by The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, who are from different parties and places, to see if they believed the rhetoric was an accurate representation of the issue and whether it would affect their vote. I posted to a Facebook group set up for those in in the program to find people to interview, and screened the respondents based on location and party affiliation to secure a diverse sample size.
I expected to find that many voters, like the conservative pundits and media, might believe that this issue was an invention of the liberal media and a distraction from more pressing issues like the economy. I expected to maybe understand how growing up in conservative hot beds, for many of these people, influenced the way they viewed traditional female roles and provide some insight into what breeds the controversial anti-women comments that have become so prevalent during this election.
This cycle has been full of ignorant gender references, like Todd Akin’s now infamous “legitimate rape” comments, or more recently, Wisconsin state representative Roger Rivard’s comment that “girls rape easy.” From the fiery rhetoric to laws like the personhood amendment supported by Paul Ryan, which gives a fertilized egg equal human rights and would make many forms of contraception illegal, has worked to create what is now deemed the “War on Women.”
One reason for the gender gap in the presidential election is Paul Ryan’s strict view on abortion, allowing no exceptions for rape, incest, or life of the mother, and the Romney ticket’s pledge to defund Planned Parenthood, a sexual and reproductive health care provider and advocate. For many female voters, these Republican views about reproductive health will play a large role in how they decide to cast their ballot this November.
Missouri resident Ellie Myers said this criticism is frustrating due to the clear inequality in regard to pay and stature in the workforce.
“Most people know that women are graduating with Ph.D.s, law degrees, and [other graduate degrees] nowadays at higher rates, but when you look at the Forbes CEO list there is, like, five women,” said Myers, a registered Democrat and senior at the University of Dayton.
I wanted to understand how female voters from red states viewed gender equality and whether in conservative hot beds, young women could rise above their socialization to fight for causes that are often viewed as risqué. I found that voice in Nancy Harwood, a young voter from Memphis, Tennessee who became impassioned about women’s rights while growing up. Harwood became infuriated as she watched her mother’s quiet strength while working 50 hours a week, seeing men pass her for promotions and raises. The college senior believes that the battle of this generation is having control over her own body.
“I do feel attacked by some of the policies and comments,” said Harwood, a registered Republican. “I feel like if you have a vagina you should feel, in some form or fashion, attacked.”
Even young voters from more liberal states, who may not feel the impact of this agenda, have been inspired to join the movement. Nora Foote, an Independent from Vermont, believes this legislation is an abuse of power, despite her initial hesitance to jump on the anti-war on women bandwagon because of the vocabulary.
“I do think there are parts of the GOP platform that are approaching the violence and the gruesome disregard for human integrity that is war,” said Foote. “Like, the phrase forcible rape. As if a woman should have to prove that she is not consenting.”
Foote, a sophomore at Lewis and Clarke University in Oregon, is referencing the recent court case in Connecticut in which a rape charge was overturned due to a lack of evidence that the disabled victim, who has cerebral palsy, physically resisted.
I was curious to see a male perspective on the focus on women’s issues this cycle, to see if these sentiments would be persuasive enough to change their vote. Jack Ruley, a graduate of Elon University and a native of Charlestown, South Carolina, said that the reaction to the Affordable Care Act, part of which makes it mandatory for insurance companies to cover birth control, and the push to make abortion unavailable is a clear form of slut shaming, and enough to influence his vote in the upcoming election.
Ruley, who completed his thesis on the media framing of female politicians, said he votes entirely on social issues because he feels it gives him a better view of the candidate’s character.
“You can tell how someone is going to vote in session based on social issues more than economic issues because those are based solely on their district,” said Ruley. “Social issues can really show how someone sees the world.”
The next step toward ending anti-women policies is mobilizing a grassroots effort to end the true misrepresentation in the media regarding the anti-women agenda: that voters don’t care. Young women need to stand up and find the women’s issue that is most important to them, whether that is employment rights, media representation or choice and actively campaign for the social change they hope to see. The point is to do something, anything, to fight for the rights that are under attack and prove that this generation will not live up to its apathetic reputation.
For me, this war became about more than casting a vote. Spending this time in D.C., a city truly filled with people who believe that they can change the world, has inspired me to take such action. From spending my weekends canvassing door to door in northern Virginia for Obama and the Democratic Senate candidate, to phone banking at NARAL Pro-Choice America to ensure voters in swing states understand where the candidates stand on women’s reproductive health issues.
Coming from such a liberal background, it was often easy for me to take a progressive attitude toward women for granted. In D.C., working at a progressive Super PAC covering nationwide campaigns, I have seen what is being said and done in states like Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin. I have heard what the Todd Akins of the world have to say, and it has created a call to action, a call for women everywhere to rise above the gender bias that is still very real. True equality is more than the right to vote or Title IX, and until women can choose their own fate in the workplace and the doctor’s office, there is still work to be done. This “war” may be negative in connotation, but it can be a catalyst for change that will inspire young women across the country and across party lines.