As 87% of the votes have been processed by Wednesday afternoon European time, I took a look at the composition of the voters as shown in the exit polls. It has been predicted all along that more women would vote than men, and that became true: women made up 52%, men made up 48% of the voters. But let’s focus on another, more striking figure: 47% of the men and a stunning 58% of the women voted for Obama. I began to wonder: did the women’s vote make Obama president?
It might be so, as there are quite a number of pleasant gender-related surprises in this election. The state of New Hampshire made history as it elected the first all women delegation in history, made up of two women senators, a female governor and two female house representatives. The Senate also broke a record: the Congress will have 20 female senators, the most ever in U.S. history. Interestingly, one of those senators will be Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who is the first openly gay member of the Senate.
So what exactly happened? Did Romney lose as a result of the Republicans’ much quoted “War on Women”? According to its definition on Wikipedia (yes, this term already has an extensive entry on Wikipedia) the aptly named War on Women is a political catchphrase used in United States politics to describe Republican Party initiatives in federal and state legislatures that are seen as restricting women’s rights, especially with regard to reproductive rights. What did and does this include?
Among other things, it included hundreds of bills that have been introduced in the U.S. Congress since January 2010 and states attacking reproductive rights. As Karen Teegarden, the founder of unitewomen.org, a grassroots organization providing voter education and facilitating the mobilization of individual states and a nationwide voice wrote in a blogpost for The Huffington Post: “GOP presidential candidates are signing “Personhood” pledges and vowing to eliminate Planned Parenthood — an organization that provides millions of low-income women primary healthcare.”
Then there was the issue of violence against women. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was first passed in 1994, increased federal penalties for domestic violence and provided funding for groups and services that aid victims of domestic abuse. This bill has been reauthorized twice since 1994, but in February 2012 all eight GOP senators on the Judiciary Committee voted against the bill when the committee considered it.
As the War on Women began to unfold in 2011, in August 2012, Republican representative Todd Akin’s comments regarding pregnancy and “legitimate” rape sparked (world)wide media attention, and this time even those who did not follow politics very closely were forced to face some of the extreme opinions of various GOP candidates. Similarly to Todd’s, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh made outrageous remarks when he called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her support of women’s access to birth control. Even though Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski criticized GOP presidential candidates for not condemning Limbaugh, neither Romney, nor Gingrich or Santorum said more than that “Limbaugh’s comments were absurd”.
In addition to influencing domestic U.S. politics, the War on Women has had an effect on the situation of women globally. Religious groups attacked a London family planning summit which was co-hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. NOW, the National Organization for Women in the U.S. had posted a statement on their website, stating that “sadly, the “War on Women” isn’t restricted to U.S. women. The House is poised to deliver a huge blow to the global women’s health community by cutting international family planning assistance. This strike would include the elimination of all U.S. funds designated for UNFPA, the international development agency that works to reduce poverty and promote women’s reproductive health in underserved areas around the world.”
So could all these have pushed women (and men) into opposition of the Republicans and into voting for the Democrats? It is quite certain that they had an effect, but so did other issues, like Obamacare. Obama’s vision of a united nation (see his election speech for best illustration), social inclusion and cohesion and his fight for the middle class must have appealed to many, and not only to women: polls show that he also got the majority of the Latino vote and the vote of the youth. The Republicans’ War on Women could have been “just” a final push, but it was a strong one. Todd Akin, for example, was defeated by Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill on Tuesday.
However, for women the journey is still not over. We can certainly cheer for the all-women delegation of New Hampshire but we should keep in mind that the state’s governor, Maggie Hassan became the only female Democratic governor starting office in 2012. (Moreover, nearly half of the states never actually had a female governor.) Likewise, we should applaud the Senate’s record on the number of female senators, but we should not forget that 20 female senators only make up for one fifth of the U.S. Senate. Far from a gender-balanced composition.
On November 6th, the election day, Chloe Angyal, one of the editors of feministing.com published a blogpost on the Guardian stating that “regardless of this election result, women face a long struggle to reverse Republican attacks on abortion and contraception rights.”
Let’s hope that this struggle will not last too long.