Obama vs. Romney: When It Comes to Feminist Issues, Both Candidates Lose

With the presidential election only about a week away, the feminist and progressive blogosphere has kept a sharp eye on the debates. Part of the reason why many on the left found these debates unsatisfying is because so many issues were glossed over, issues that continue to have implications in the lives of working-class Americans, who are often featured in electoral anecdotes but whose concerns all too often are rendered invisible.

The framing of political issues in the debates presumes that certain concerns are of national importance, while others are merely distractions. While some have turned to social media to curate and make sense of information, the same systemic problems remain.

During last Monday’s foreign policy the candidates’ similarities on foreign policy, and refusal to discuss climate change even as this issue looms large on both regional and national levels, proved troubling. Questions on drones were more or less nonexistent, even though it has been widely reported by sources, including the Guardian (UK) and ProPublica, that the drone program systematically kills civilians. Katie Halper, a contributor to Feministing, noted that it’s problematic that Obama and Romney wee falling over themselves to cozy up to Israel when most Israeli Jews support apartheid, which should be especially problematic considering America’s racial legacies. And although climate change and alternative fuel sources are important issues that are increasingly coming up on the state level, you wouldn’t know it by watching the debates.

Chris Mooney suggests this is a matter of framing. Journalists and policy advisers alike believe that issues like climate change aren't as pressing as the economy for the election and respond in kind by shelving these questions. They fail to see how these issues might have the possibility of intersecting with one another. The limiting discussion on interconnected geopolitical issues is a reminder that the debate framing remains deeply flawed and limited when it comes to keeping candidates accountable.

A major way framing continues to be limited is through the labeling of certain concerns as "women's issues." Despite women being more than half of the population, many issues that affect all of us, and have ramifications on the economy, are shoehorned into the box of women’s issues. Their wider ramifications are not examined or even assumed to be important to the “average” debate watcher.

So much is at stake in this election, as the strides women have made over the past 40 years, including reproductive rights, threaten to be rolled back by the current tide of religious extremism. Romney has consistently refused to acknowledge that women’s reproductive health directly influences their ability to contribute as productive members to the economy. His telling asides have even alienated Mormon feminists, who feel more inclined to support Obama's progressive social politics and more egalitarian gender roles for women.

However, the mainstream media overwhelmingly continues to assume the primary audience watching the debates (and, indeed, clued into politics) is white, male, and upper-middle-class, which deeply affects what questions are asked and prioritized. Indeed, Katherine Fenton’s question at the town-hall-style debate, which spurred the “binders full of women” meme, was the first mention of pay disparities and how they might bear on women’s access to social mobility.

Perhaps the first debate was the most telling with regards to these glaring omissions, as taxes and balancing the federal budget remained the primary preoccupation. Yet the manner in which it was discussed remained in abstractions. (Perhaps in no small part because Romney continued to elide any prodding to reveal specific examples of any policies he may or may not implement.) Furthermore, the startling lack of specifics by which this oft-alluded to “strong economy” might come about (a much-derided idiosyncrasy of Romney’s when forced to talk to the masses) is also important to keep stressing. Without specifics, we have no standards to hold this chamelon candidate accountable to.

As Irin Carmon notes in a recent article on Salon, a “strong economy” is not enough to ensure that women get hired, as most hiring managers tend to hire men as opposed to similarly qualified women. While women currently hold more positions than men, many of the jobs women are taking are reflective of our postindustrial economy: low-wage and low-skill. These positions lack the support either from employers or on a national level, to sustain someone in a rapidly-inflatingeconomy with a diminishing safety net.

Perhaps this is why social media has become the powerful site that it has to continue discussions that may have been neglected, or holding the candidates to task. ( I will not make that argument, as I am not sure it is the case; however, it does seem to be true that a lot of things that started on social media have been picked up on by larger organizations.)

In the days after the second debate, many of the “Binders Full of Women” memes, such as the @RomneyBinders account of Twitter (as of this writing, was briefly renamed and now no longer active) and several groups on Facebook, turned into literal sites of activism. These sites were able to discuss Romney’s problematic politics and how the gridlock against any meaningful institutional change to the wage gap continues to affect women’s salaries and life outcomes. Recent posts have included studies on the pay gap for women, stressing the continuing need for systemic changes in a sustained manner, instead of something that is simply nodded to and never mentioned again.

Speaking to the frenzied election cycle and the constant need to produce clickbait at the expense of sustained discourse, Eric Alterman notes, “the system ultimately fails to justify itself in its most essential purpose: to ensure accountability for citizens and their leaders and to offer the kind of information necessary to help voters make an educated choice for the future of their country.” The mainstream media must continue to play the role of fourth estate as opposed to uncritically airing everything with disastrous consequences for public discourse and understanding.