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Progressives going retro

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Kathleen Parker
October 11, 2009
— Virginia women have plenty of reason to feel offended by their state’s gubernatorial race, though not because the Republican candidate once wrote a dissertation observing that the American family had suffered as a result of women joining the work force.

Who didn’t know that? The fact that we’ve worked hard to juggle jobs and kids doesn’t change the reality that families, especially children, have suffered from the strain.


No, the greater offense is being perpetrated by the Democratic contender, Creigh Deeds, who can’t stop talking about the dissertation that Robert McDonnell wrote 20 years ago. This, and the fact that McDonnell is pro-life.


In an onslaught of negative ads, Deeds has tried to hammer home the message that McDonnell is anti-woman, earning him at least nine editorials from newspapers condemning his tone. Choice words and phrases aimed at Deeds include “dishonest,” “outright lie,” “false,” “Dirty Deeds,” “below the belt,” “crossing the line” and “deceptive.”


Politicians will use what they can to cast a shadow on their opponent, obviously, but enough already. We get it. McDonnell is an old-fashioned, pro-life guy, but one who also says he’s changed his mind about some things, partly thanks to his three daughters, one of whom served in Iraq.


Women also get that the economy is in shambles, that the war in Afghanistan is escalating, and that the unemployment rate is growing—just to mention a few concerns outside the uterus.


Deeds’ attacks on McDonnell on behalf of women suggest desperation—or a lack of ideas. They also suggest a lack of awareness or connection to 21st-century women. Is there anything more patronizing than the assumption that women’s interests are limited by their biology? Rather retro for a progressive, if I do say so.


Polls confirm that his faux chivalry has backfired. The Washington Post reported Thursday that McDonnell leads 53 percent to 44 percent among likely voters, while the advantage Deeds sought with women voters seems not to have materialized.


The Virginia gubernatorial race, which many political observers had viewed as a referendum on the Obama administration, instead may have become a referendum on “women’s issues.” What are they, anyway? And is it time to rid ourselves of the bodice-like chokehold that traditional women’s issues have had on women specifically and on elections generally?


Women (and men) have come a long way since the 19th century when women stressed their biological uniqueness as an argument for civic participation. They reasoned that their roles as wife and mother made them especially qualified to execute certain tasks and public programs, such as health and education. They weren’t wrong, but that early emphasis served to ghettoize women and confine them to a particular issue set.


Fast forward to the 1960s, and reproductive rights were a natural add-on to the list of women’s concerns. But just as men care what happens to fetuses, especially their own, women care about what happens to the contents of their wallets.


A poll of women voters conducted by Lifetime Networks leading up to the 2008 presidential election may be helpful to future candidates. Although women have strong concern about abortion, on both sides of the issue, the poll found that “jobs/the economy is the issue most important to their vote.”


Asked to rate issues, 41 percent picked jobs and the economy as top priority. Twenty-four percent said the war in Iraq; 23 percent said health care and prescription drugs; 17 percent said education.


For years, politicians have been proclaiming that all issues are women’s issues. If that maxim is true, then the Democratic Party may want to figure out why its candidate in Virginia only wants to talk about two or three of them.


Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom that the Democratic Party is the women’s party—and the GOP, the men’s—may need reconsidering. To be sure, abortion rights have been a segregating factor, but data suggest that it is no longer a defining factor for a growing portion of women.


That event can only be viewed as progress for women, as well as the nation.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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