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Originally published Friday, March 9, 2012 at 4:54 PM

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Kathleen Parker: Time to relax the rhetoric and see if sanity exists

War has been declared, and there's hardly any way to change the impression among a growing percentage of women that the GOP is the party of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. What say we relax the rhetoric and see what sanity lies beneath?

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WASHINGTON — Introducing her husband on Super Tuesday night, Ann Romney said women this election season are interested in jobs, the economy and the debt.

Translation: So could we shut up already about contraception?

Republicans might wish nothing more than to stuff birth-control pills back into the bottle, but Democrats aren't about to let them. The narrative already has a title: "The Republican War on Women." Cue theme from "Psycho."

One can hardly blame Democrats for taking advantage of a perfect storm of stupefying proportions. The only thing Republicans failed to do was put a bow on this mess. Consider the headline-grabbing events that came together almost at once:

Virginia's pre-abortion sonogram law that could have included a transvaginal probe; the religious liberty versus contraception mandate prompted by health-care reform; Rush Limbaugh's commentary about a female law student in which he called her a slut, a prostitute and, in a final flourish, suggested she provide him sex tapes so he could watch her in the activities precipitating the need for birth control.

Individually, these anecdotes would have been problematic, but combined they've had the effect on women voters of a Tyrannosaurus rex approaching a Gallimimus herd. (Picture the stampede scene in "Jurassic Park.")

War has been declared, and there's hardly any way to change the impression among a growing percentage of women that the GOP is the party of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. It's a smart move for Democrats to keep replaying the message, but is it fair — and is it true?

What say we relax the rhetoric and see what sanity lies beneath?

Not to tempt the gods of non sequitur, and contrary to what the White House insists, Rush Limbaugh is not the leader of the GOP. Even so, he does have a large audience and it is disconcerting that so many seem to share his obvious hostility toward women. Several of his cohorts in discourtesy are snorting and grunting in my inbox even now.

One who wrote in defense of Limbaugh informed me of my place in God's hierarchy, slightly above goats, and gave me a tutorial about why women have been saddled with the monthly inconvenience and painful childbirth — for tempting men to do evil and failing to recognize their roles as "helpmeets" for men.

"Pagan women like yourself," he patiently averred, "have no regard for the natural order of God's plan and shamelessly promulgate the 'we are goddesses' bile that has infected the entire country and pretty much stopped it in its tracks from incurring God's blessing." I'm leaving out the best parts.

You don't have to read many such letters to think that maybe Democrats have a point. Yet it is false to imagine that any objection to abortion is necessarily anti-woman. It may feel that way to women seeking an abortion. And it may look that way when those pushing anti-abortion measures are men whose experience in such matters is biologically irrelevant.

As feminist Flo Kennedy once said, "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."

But Republicans are waging war on women only if you believe that the morality of abortion should never be questioned, or if you believe the federal government can order people to pay for something that violates their conscience.

These issues are not so simple, nor are Republicans simpletons for trying to protect the unborn or challenging what they view as government overreach.

Unfortunately, the conservative-governing principles that traditionally attracted level heads to the right side of the aisle have been incrementally subsumed by social issues — a bull's-eye for Democrats and a black eye for Republicans.

Inasmuch as women are the ones who most urgently require access to family planning, any opposition can be conflated to be anti-woman. Hence, Ann Romney's well-placed remarks.

She is right, of course, but the problem she was implicitly trying to address is not short-term. The GOP long ago made its bed with social conservatives, a large percentage of them Southern evangelicals, and now must sleep with them. After marriage, of course. In Laurens County, S.C., where the local GOP recently tried to create a purity tribunal to screen and monitor aspiring Republican candidates, this is more than a punch line.

Although the state party ruled the county initiative inconsistent with state law, the Laurens mindset burbles just beneath the surface of the once-Grand Old Party. And that is a problem only Democrats could love.

Kathleen Parker's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Email: kathleenparker@washpost.com

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