Things aren’t looking good for the GOP when it comes to women voters, according to a large survey by party strategists this summer. On Republicans’ top issues—jobs and the economy—the poll showed only flagging advantages, and in some cases, outright defeats. As Politico reported this week:
“Even on fiscal matters—traditionally the party’s strongest issue set—Republicans hold only slight advantages that do not come close to outweighing their negative attributes. The GOP holds a 3 percent advantage over Democrats when female voters are asked who has “good ideas to grow the economy and create jobs,” and the same advantage on who is “fiscally responsible and can be trusted with our tax dollars.”
[…] Female voters who care about the top four issues —the economy, health care, education, and jobs—vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Most striking, Democrats hold a 35-point advantage with female voters who care about jobs and a 26 percent advantage when asked which party is willing to compromise. House Republicans say jobs and the economy are their top priorities.”
In other words, it seems Republicans haven’t persuaded women that the party is capable of fulfilling promises of prosperity via economic growth and job creation. What are GOP strategists’ plans for improving women voters’ appraisal of their economic and employment policies? For one, “[Strategists] suggest Republican lawmakers criticize Democrats for “growing government programs that encourage dependency rather than opportunities to get ahead.”
Republican criticisms of the alleged Democratic failure to encourage social mobility are some of the most tired political saws around. But the Republican track record for selling their “dependency” narrative to women is even worse, possibly one of their most shameful, ill-faring strategies to date.
It seems every time Republicans pair their paranoia over government dependency with any kind of focus on women, a nauseating prostitution allusion simmers to the surface. Consider, for example, Mike Huckabee’s infamous remarks on ‘Uncle Sugar’:
“…Because the fact is, the Republicans don’t have a war on women. They have a war FOR women. For them to be empowered; to be something other than victims of their gender. Women I know are outraged that Democrats think that women are nothing more than helpless and hopeless creatures whose only goal in life is to have a government provide for them birth control medication […] That’s not a war ON them, it’s a war FOR them. And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it, let’s take that discussion all across America because women are far more than Democrats have made them to be…”
Huckabee’s world features two types of women: those who are smart, educated, and independent, and those who are hapless, helpless, dependent harlots, relying on Uncle Sam’s licentious alter ego, Uncle Sugar. Dependency may mean sloth and parasitism at large, but in the context of women the same old smear takes on a strangely sexualized shape, with state-as-sugar-daddy and dependency-as-prostitution, or something like it. And the odd bleed between various conservative moral paranoias isn’t limited to discussions of women’s health care.
The “welfare queen” may be the coup-de-grace of Republican dependency animus, a coalescence of every ounce of fear and loathing for the ostensibly indolent that Reaganites could muster. The idea of the welfare queen has been enormously successful, clinging even now to the public imagination when assistance programs are debated. While the image of the welfare queen has been called out for its racialized components, it’s worth nothing that it’s also a heavily gendered, markedly sexualized vision of dependency.
Because the “welfare queen” of stereotypical lore is imagined to rely on the state for support instead of a husband, people tend to see women who use welfare as having failed to aptly live out “family ethics.” The association between state and husband in conservative dependency mythology goes a long way to intimating a pernicious pseudo-sexual relationship between the woman welfare recipient and the “welfare regime,” such as it is. No such accusations tend to fall upon male welfare recipients who, though they may be construed as deadbeats or losers, at least aren’t depicted as ersatz prostitutes.
So the dependency story is strange and uneven, and especially nasty when it comes to women. It probably isn’t such a slam-dunk rhetorical strategy for luring women voters into the Republican fold. Why rely on it?
Because Republican policies themselves genuinely do not favor the interests of women. Though even Republican voters favor policies to secure the jobs and income of working families, the Democrat-sponsored FAMILY Act, which would actually protect working moms from job loss and severe income reduction, remains stalled in Congress. Unsurprisingly, the biggest opponents to the possibility of paid parental leave are conservatives—take, for instance, the parental leave-position detailed in the reformocon handbook Room to Grow, a policy publication produced by the YG Network this year:
“Proponents claim this program would inexpensively provide needed assistance to those lacking paid leave, and would particularly benefit women by providing paid maternity leave. But while it would assist some women, it would also disrupt the employment con- tracts of the majority of working Americans who currently have leave benefits. This new federal entitlement would encourage businesses currently providing paid leave programs—including more generous leave packages—to cease doing so.”
Which is to say: Though paid leave would absolutely help women with the least income and most unstable employment, it might cause companies with highly paid female employees to offer less cushy benefits to those wealthy women. It’s a long-form version of “I’ve got mine, you get yours”—a brush-off of epic proportions, and one that harms working mothers more than any other population. With policy positions like these, Republicans can rely on the same old destructive narratives all they want, but women voters are unlikely to be fooled by bad storytelling or awful family policy. If Republican strategists really want to snare the female vote, they’ll need more than better optics.