Feckless Republican Responses to the “War on Women”

Why has the strategy of a supposed Republican “War on Women” worked so well for the Democrats? It is an almost totally fake issue, yet it has proved to be a potent motivating factor in elections for not a few voters, including especially single women.

One obvious reason for this is that the current virtually universal availability of contraception and abortion is an active concern for a large segment of the population today. People do have to have access to their contraception and abortions, after all; and even though there is not, and never has been, the slightest prospect that these procedures might possibly be curtailed any time soon—how would the Republicans go about curtailing them even if they wanted to?—the fact that they continue to be prominent subjects of discussion in the news of the day in connection with such things as the Obamacare birth-prevention mandate means that, especially in the minds of uninformed voters not seriously following the issues, the fear can arise that maybe those Neanderthal Republicans could actually be contemplating a ban on birth control, as alleged.

Another major reason for the success of the strategy alleging that there is a Republican “War on Women,” however, lies in the fact that, from the time this allegation of this supposed “war” was first launched, the Republicans have never effectively countered or answered the charge—nor does it appear that most Republican candidates, like most of those in Republican leadership ranks, have even the remotest notion of how such a charge might be answered.

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The original charge came unexpectedly, in an election campaign that was supposed to be about “the economy,” leaving the Republicans non-plussed and fumbling for some kind of a response. Essentially they failed to produce any kind of an effective response, however, and this has continued to be the case up to the present day.

Mitt Romney, for example, who lost the women’s vote by 11 percent and the single women’s vote by 36 percent, when asked how he might have handled the issue more effectively, replied that “there are a lot of outrageous lies I just don’t think women believe, so I am not sure how damaging they are.” Instead of identifying and perhaps exposing these lies, though, the would-be Republican president simply denied the electoral evidence that at least some women apparently do believe the lies in question. Unfortunately, Romney’s kind of non-response pretty much became the standard Republican response.

Another recent example of the same thing came at the end of July in a debate in the current Virginia senatorial campaign. This debate took place between Virginia Senator Mark Warner, and well-known political operative, lobbyist, and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate vying for Warner’s Senate seat. Although the debate covered a range of issues such as energy, the federal budget, foreign policy, immigrations, and the like, in response to a moderator’s question about gay marriage, Senator Warner suddenly changed course and declared that his opponent would “vote to repeal Roe v. Wade.” He went on to add that his Republican opponent favored a “personhood amendment” to the Constitution that would define embryos as fully human, hence jeopardizing legalized abortion; and he also charged Gillespie with wanting to “ban certain forms of contraception”—all these charges being standard components of the alleged Republican “War on Women.”

It worked. These issues quickly became the principal subjects of the debate, and the headlines reporting on it became “Birth Control Inflames Debate” (Washington Post) and “Contraception Takes Center Stage at Debate” (Washington Times). Most Republicans do not seem to have caught on that whenever these issues are brought up, they almost always become the principal subjects of the debate. They represent charges that need to be answered. Yet most Republicans, like Mitt Romney, generally do not make any attempt to answer them.

Candidate Gillespie’s attempt at a response, such as it was, was to protest rather feebly that “this is an area where you are making up my view.” He went on to ask: “When did I support a personhood amendment?”

After the debate, Senator Warner’s campaign correctly noted for the record that the 2004 Republican Party platform—at a time when Ed Gillespie was RNC chairman—called for a personhood amendment as well as for the overturning of Roe v. Wade. In this era of legalized abortion, it has long been the policy of the Republican leadership, in fact, to please (or appease) its pro-life constituency by affirming various pro-life principles and positions, for instance, in the party’s platform, as in the present case. No one can deny that the Republican Party in our day creditably has officially declared itself to be the pro-life party.

But that Ed Gillespie apparently did not even remember the party platform’s advocacy of a personhood amendment (adopted during his tenure as party chairman) is unfortunately also only all too indicative. This is not to imply that the Republican leadership does not subscribe to the positions included in its party platforms; nevertheless the fact remains that its official advocacy of most pro-life positions typically does end up pretty far down on its priority list.

And what Ed Gillespie, a professed Catholic and pro-life candidate, actually did say further in reply to what amounted to a revival of the charge that the Republicans were conducting a “War on Women” was, again, in no way an adequate reply, or, strictly speaking, even a reply at all to the actual charge being made. What he said was that he himself favored making birth control pills available without a prescription. “I believe we should make contraceptives easier to obtain,” he announced.

We are probably long past the time when anybody any longer even takes particular note of the anomaly of a professed Catholic pro-life politician found favoring wider availability of birth control. Much less does it seem that anybody is any longer “scandalized” by this (as would once surely have been the automatic reaction). But what still remains exceedingly difficult to understand in the present case is how announcing this stand might constitute any kind of an effective response to the accusation that Republicans are conducting a “War on Women.” The logic here seems to be: “How could I possibly be engaged in such a war aimed at taking away your contraceptives when I myself am in favor of an even wider distribution of them?”

It is not at all clear, however, how affirming this position can in any way be considered a reply to such charges as that one wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned or a personhood amendment enacted. These were the accusations, along with the allegation that he wanted to “ban certain forms of contraception” that elicited Ed Gillespie’s response; but the response itself seems almost wholly arbitrary—right out of the blue—and mostly unrelated to the major charges.

How or why in this situation would a Republican candidate immediately jump to declare his advocacy of birth control at all? How could he ever have imagined that this in any way might constitute a suitable reply to the major charges being lodged against him? What Ed Gillespie really established with his reply here was that he himself was effectively buying into a significant part of the anti-life agenda of the Democrats, namely, the supposed need to “make contraceptives easier to obtain.”

Actually—and sadly—Ed Gillespie does not seem to be all that untypical of today’s Republican leaders generally. They do not oppose or criticize social policies aimed at subsidizing and distributing contraceptives—at any rate it is hard to think of a single one of them who ever has. Not only do they avoid any criticism of such policies; many of them, like Ed Gillespie, even seem to find it necessary to make sure that the whole world knows that they, at least, are not so ignorant or so backward as to be opposed to contraception, Not just tacitly but quite openly they are only too happy to let it be known that they too accept modern society’s estimate of the benefits that today’s virtual universal availability of contraceptives supposedly confers upon society.

But this is to buy into a significant part of the anti-life agenda of the Democrats. Having bought into this agenda in this fashion, however, there is certainly little prospect that these same Republican leaders are ever going to come up with cogent and consistent arguments against that same agenda, specifically, against the allegations that they are engaged in a “War on Women.” Given their own ambivalence in the matter, they are probably incapable of framing such arguments.

Yet not only is their advocacy of birth control of doubtful help in their electoral prospects anyway; it may actually make them seem unprincipled, since if promotion of birth control truly is one their issues, some voters will ask, why do they follow the Republican line at all? The sad fact is that they have probably already irretrievably lost the “War on Women.”

Do not, therefore, look for any serious effort to expose the “lies” that Mitt Romney spoke about. The fact of the matter is that the “War on Women” allegations launched by the Democrats have undergirded what has proved to be a brilliantly successful strategy that the Republicans have simply not been able to counter. Nor would it seem that we have yet seen the last of this strategy being successfully worked out in practice.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Ed Gillespie speaking to reporters after the U.S. Senate debate sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association in West Virginia, July 26, 2014. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown.)


  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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