All Common Ground Lost: The Right’s Opposition to the Violence Against Women Act

The brewing fight over VAWA suggests there is today no common ground in American politics as to how best to wage the struggle for gender equality—or even if that is a shared desirable goal.

“Its billion-dollar-a-year price tag spent by the radical feminists to pursue their ideology and goals (known as feminist pork) make it an embarrassment to members of Congress who voted for it.” Phyllis Schlafly.

A “boondoggle…(it) creates an ideology that all men are guilty and all women are victims.” Janice Crouse, Concerned Women for America.

So spoke two leading conservative spokeswomen on the current attempts in the Senate to renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). And yet another front in this long season of the War on Women by Republicans has been launched.  But the reconsideration of this policy issue, first brought to the fore by second wave feminists in the 1970s, is particularly jarring to me. It has made it depressingly clear that in 2012, its not just abortion, or even contraception, anymore—seemingly all of policy items brought forward by the women’s movement are being reevaluated, and refought, even those considered less contentious and long settled. The brewing fight over VAWA suggests there is today no common ground in American politics as to how best to wage the struggle for gender equality—or even if that is a shared desirable goal. So take a depressing walk with me down memory lane of the feminist agenda of the 1970s, and that agenda’s largely sad fate at the current moment.

Abortion, of course, was always fated to be the outlier in terms of public consensus, though the attacks of this past year are unprecedented. But contraception for a time did serve as common ground between supporters and opponents of abortion. Recall that George H.W. Bush as a congressman introduced the legislation for Title X, the first federal program that provided family planning services, and Richard Nixon, as president, signed it. Today, of course, all Republican candidates are on record as wanting to abolish Title X, the Bishops are not giving up the contraception coverage fight, Rick Santorum tells us that contraception permits evil things to happen “in the sexual realm,” and Mitt Romney [the same Mitt Romney who once asked Planned Parenthood for support in his senatorial campaign] recently said he’d “get rid of Planned Parenthood “ to lower the deficit.

Okay, lets  acknowledge that any policy issues that directly deal with sexuality are doomed to be divisive in sexually immature America. How about breast cancer? A disease that of course strikes women across the political spectrum. In that realm, too, there was once widespread consensus that this was an issue around which women, and the men who cared about them, could unite. Indeed, once Republican women started being elected to Congress, the Congressional Women’s Caucus found abortion too toxic to address, and breast cancer legislation became the glue that held the caucus together. The recent disastrous attempt by the Susan G. Komen Fund, the nation’s largest breast cancer organization to cut off funding from Planned Parenthood because of pressure from anti-abortion groups has not only wounded the Fund; that episode was a reminder that that breast cancer had long been entwined with anti-choice politics, given the repeated attempts to argue that abortion patients were more likely to get this disease (Scientists have decisively repudiated this link).

In some policy areas there have, to be sure, been a few symbolic successes: for example, the Lily Ledbetter Act on equal pay was one of the first pieces of legislation that Obama signed as president (36 Republican senators voted against the bill). But women still earn less than men and families headed by single women are the most economically vulnerable in our society.  Childcare, once demonized by the Right in the 1970s, as I have argued in my book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars, has become routine for many Americans, including conservatives—but the supply is still not enough, childcare workers are woefully underpaid, and too many childcare centers are simply of inadequate quality.

Which brings us back to domestic violence. Given the current opposition by some Republicans, things appear to have come full circle with that item. When the issue was first brought to the fore by feminists in the 1970s, social conservatives (including Schlafly) denounced the issue in much the same terms as they are using today. But for a while domestic violence did become arguably the most successful of the policy items brought forward by second wave feminists. Federal, state and local entities, not to mention private funders, supported shelters and educational programs and while many of these shelters predictably struggle for funding, the issue of domestic violence probably comes closest (along with equal pay) to being something that most people–Schlafly and her followers aside—agree is a legitimate issue of public concern. Indeed, in the thank God for small favors department, it is gratifying to see at least some Republican senators squirm as they decide if and how to vote against this legislation. As Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri (author of the infamous amendment which would drastically limit contraceptive coverage) said of the Violence Against Women Act. “If Republicans can’t be for it, we need to have a very convincing alternative.”

There are two narratives circulating now about the Republicans’ War on Women. One is that of overreach—they have gone too far with their attacks on abortion, contraception, and now, domestic violence programs, and women will respond by massively voting for Democrats in November, and assuring an Obama win. The other is that gas prices and unemployment (or some yet unknown issue) will trump this War for sufficient numbers of women voters, Romney or Santorum will win, and the new Republican president will reward his base by really eviscerating the policy areas I have spoken of.  Obviously, I fervently hope that the first narrative will prove to be the correct one, but whichever occurs, it is striking to contemplate that in our current political culture, there is seemingly no item of gender equality that transcends polarization.