The only all-female panel at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) took the stage Saturday, in the final hours of the final day of the convention, to rail against Republicans for not giving women enough support and against Democrats for “infantilizing” women.
Crystal Wright, editor and publisher of the blog Conservative Black Chick, called out CPAC for failing at “basic optics” with its obvious gender disparity. “How did we start this conference? With one gender representing the movement of the conservative party,” she said. “We shouldn’t have all the women stacked up on one day.”
Thursday’s mainstage program had no featured female speakers, while Saturday’s program had the women’s panel, Sarah Palin, Carly Fiorina, Michelle Bachmann, Ann Coulter, and several other female speakers and panelists. Robin Abcarian at the Los Angeles Times estimated that about 78 percent of all CPAC speakers and panelists, mainstage and not, were male.
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Saturday also happened to be both International Women’s Day and the most sparsely attended day of the convention.
The panel was called “Why Conservatism Is Right for Women: How Conservatives Should Talk About Life, Prosperity, and National Security.” If “life” was intended to be a reference to abortion, the panelists didn’t get the memo. Reproductive rights and birth control came up a few times, but mostly in the context of why it’s a problem for male politicians to be dominating the discussion of “women’s issues.” No one specified what kinds of reproductive rights policies the right should be pursuing in a time of rampant state-level attacks on abortion access and high-level court fights over contraception.
“A lot of folks are saying [the ‘war on women’ meme] has run its course, that the messaging doesn’t work anymore,” said Kate Obenshain, Republican strategist and author of Divider-In-Chief. “That’s our head in the sands, folks. It works. It works really well.” Ken Cuccinelli’s defeat in the Virginia governor’s race, Obenshain said, was solely attributable to the “war on women” messaging. And it hurts the party, she said, to listen to consultant conventional wisdom to just not to talk about these issues. If all voters hear is that Cuccinelli opposes the Violence Against Women Act, “that’s just hanging out there,” and people wonder whether he takes women’s safety seriously. It’s better, Obenshain said, to come back with alternate proposals.
Wright said that polling found 55 percent of Americans think Republicans don’t understand women, and 60 percent of U.S. women think as such. Women won’t vote for you if they think you hate them, the panelists agreed.
Obenshain also begged her male Republican colleagues: “We cannot have any stupid comments this year. OK? No stupid comments.” As in, stop making pithy remarks about rape or anything else that could play into the “war on women” theme.
The panelists had other words of advice for, and requests of, the male Republican establishment:
- Talk about fairness. “The left doesn’t own the idea of fairness,” said Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of Independent Women’s Forum, noting that research from her organization said that perception of fairness was the best indication of whether a woman “supports big government” ideas like the Paycheck Fairness Act.
- Encourage more female candidates to run, and back them up when they’re attacked. New Hampshire state Rep. Marilinda Garcia said she never thought of running for office until someone specifically asked her to, and that she was subject to sexist attacks once she did. Obenshain said male party leaders have to publicly back up female candidates because they are “attacked more viciously than male candidates.” Wright said women always second-guess themselves and don’t want to take on leadership roles because they’re socialized not to.
- Spend more money on women and female candidates. Schaeffer said that the left has out-researched and outspent the right on reaching women for the past decade with organizations like Emily’s List, the American Association of University Women, and the National Women’s Law Center. Wright said that only 26 percent of campaign funds raised in 2010 midterm elections went to female candidates.
- Be more compassionate in pro-family messaging, and be unapologetic about advocating for conservative policies. While panelists said that marriage, strong families, and education are the best routes out of poverty, they said that conservatives too often sound judgmental of single mothers, childless women, or divorced women. Obenshain said President Obama is “intentionally” decimating women’s economic circumstances, and that the astronomical poverty rate for single women can be blamed on regulations and taxes that inhibit hiring.
The panelists agreed that women need to take initiative and run for office. They also agreed that Democrats “infantilize” women by encouraging them to depend on big government, as moderator Tammy Bruce, deputy editor at the Washington Times, put it several times. Government is morally and financially bankrupt, Wright said, and so “if you want to be a millionaire you have to do it on your own, and we have the tools to help you do that.”
Do it on your own, but vote for us because we can help you, but getting help from your elected representatives is an insult. To hear Sarah Palin and Carly Fiorina talk, it’s also an insult to mention reproductive freedom at all; Palin said Democrats think women are “cheap dates” who can be lured with “free” birth control, and Fiorina said Democrats “insult” women by “thinking all they care about is reproductive rights.” Obenshain echoed this line of thinking by saying that Republicans think of women as “more than the sum of their body parts.”
“Conservatism empowers me to be the kind of woman I want to be,” said Wright, who later mentioned it was “sad that so many women in our party feel powerless.” For all the panelists’ encouragement of conservative women to stand up, be heard, and run for office, they also acknowledged that doing so will be extremely difficult without the male leadership agreeing to support them, and refraining from making them look bad.