Political Attitudes Toward Women as Backwards as Ever

Rhetoric in the current campaigns displays attitudes towards women that are even more backward and hostile than 20 years ago.

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It's been more than two decades since Susan Faludi published Backlash, a book chronicling the social and legislative efforts to undo the advances women made during the second wave of the feminist movement in the '60s and '70s. It was the following year, 1992, which was the "Year of the Woman" in politics, with a record number of women being sent to Congress. And yet, the rhetoric in the current campaigns displays attitudes towards women that are even more backward and hostile than we were hearing 20 years ago.

There's Wisconsin Senate candidate Tommy Thompson, explaining why he took a high-paid job in lobbying after he left his job as President George Bush's secretary of Health and Human Services. "My wife likes to shop," Thompson told supporters, who chuckled knowingly. Thompson's wife, according to the GOP candidate, wanted to be able to buy things without putting it on a credit card.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

There are enough reasons to be offended by this—not the least of which that Thompson was making pretty good bucks (about $190,000 a year), and that many Americans are forced to put things like hospital bills on the credit cards. But it reflects an attitude towards women that is not only antiquated, but bizarre, as though women in the 21st century are like the named character in the "Blondie" comic strip, spending their time gossiping with their girlfriends, buying dresses, and bursting helplessly into tears at the slightest provocation. Heck, even the fictional Blondie is running a catering business now. And Mitt Romney, based on what he said during the second presidential debate, seems to believe—still—that what women want at work is the "flexibility" to be home by 5 p.m. so they can make dinner for their families.

Then there's GOP congressional candidate John Koster, who twice referred to violent sexual assault as "the rape thing" when talking about his opposition to abortion in cases of rape and incest. Said Koster:

But on the rape thing, it's like, how does putting more violence onto a woman's body and taking the life of an innocent child that's a consequence of this crime, how does that make it better? You know what I mean?

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Koster's entitled to his no-excuses position on abortion, which, to its credit, is more intellectually consistent than the policies of those who will let women have abortions as long as they didn't really want to have sex. It's the callous reference to a horrible assault and violence that is troubling—just as it was for Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who said that even a pregnancy resulting from rape is God's will.

Sadly, the attitude is not just coming from men. At New York's Senate debate last month, a female moderator asked both candidates—both women, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and GOP nominee Wendy Long—whether they had read the blockbuster soft-core porn novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. Both said no, but it put them in an awkward situation: Do they point out the outrageous sexism of the question (oh, you middle-aged women, desperate for some kind of sexual spark, reading an erotic novel) and risk alienating women who might have actually read it? Or do they just go along with the "joke," allowing themselves to be humiliated for votes?

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Long had the better response, telling ABC:

I was trying to be a good sport and everyone was laughing. But I thought it was completely bizarre and sort of sexist.

[ Take the U.S. News Poll: Will Richard Mourdock's Comments on God and Rape Sink the GOP?]

The moderator said she was just trying to lighten things up. I'll believe that when she or any other moderator asks a pair of male contenders whether they rifle through the recycling pile for old copies of the Victoria's Secret catalogue, or whether they only subscribe to Sports Illustrated for the swimsuit edition.

There was a record number of women, again, running for federal office this year, although it's not clear how many will be elected. How many more Years of the Woman will we need before females are seen as something other than a curiosity or threat in policy making?