Fireworks went off all around the world this week to celebrate the close of 2012. It was a fitting end to a year besieged not only by an embittered presidential race, but also by the re-ignition of America’s long-fought culture war.
Indeed, 2012 was a year surprisingly dominated by so-called ‘cultural’ issues and, in particular, how these cultural values apply to the lives of women. Whether it was the winter debate on employer-subsidized contraception, the springtime Story of Julia, the heated summer controversy on legitimate rape, or the fall ads comparing a vote for Obama with a sexual encounter, we will remember 2012 as the year when American politics tried — and, I believe, failed — to cubbyhole the struggles of female voters into self-styled women’s issues.
Women should not expect the same in 2013.
Absent the frenzy of a national election, self-styled women’s issues will likely sit on the political backbench this coming year. The silence is nothing to mourn. The media hoopla surrounding questions of abortion, contraception, and sexual liberation imposes a false unity on women — as if women were a hive-mind whose every struggle and remedy narrow down to their reproductive parts. This year’s expected intermission, therefore, will give women the chance to evade a clichéd, 1970s’ label and pursue policies that apply to their unique circumstances.
Although popular around election time, self-styled women’s issues lose momentum during non-election years. This is in part because the issues lose some of their political utility and in part because women notice that the exertions spent on cultural issues have little effect on the struggles closest to them.
Elected officials often use women’s issues to salvage a struggling campaign, either as a means of rallying the base or as a means of distracting the electorate from a candidate’s weakness (i.e. weak record, struggling economy, sluggish job numbers, etc.). Once the election is over, those advantages soon dissipate. You combine that with the fact that women are not actually unified behind many of these issues, and politicians begin viewing hard-line cultural stances as an inconvenience.
That is not to say that every public invocation arises from a politician’s pragmatic self-interest. Many individuals hold passionate opinions on these topics, and many advocates genuinely fear the consequences of even minute changes to the law. However, the culture war gains an extra boost during election time, when relatively peripheral policies take a sudden veer into the national spotlight. After November, the once national emergency returns to the playground of think tanks and lobbyists with no one the wiser.
Moreover, politicians are not the only ones who withdraw from lengthy cultural battles. Women themselves begin to lose interest. Despite the common narrative, many proposed changes to social legislation have little effect on the immediate livelihoods of women. In fact, most hot-button controversies of 2012 involved marginal exceptions of already settled issues that applied to a tiny subset of women. For example, before the Obama administration enacted its controversial mandate, only 10% of employers failed to offer health insurance that covered contraception. The percentage asking for a religious exemption is even smaller. The rape exception — the affirmative right to which was never implicated by the election — accounts for only 1% of all abortions. Even the highly praised Lilly Ledbetter Act only changed the way the law calculated the statute of limitations. It did not change the requirement that employers offer women equal pay, and its critics never sought that requirement’s repeal.
Can be it be any wonder why, then, in this stagnant economy, women started redirecting their attention to more bread-on-the-table concerns even before the election was over? Chances are that the war over women’s issues will take a low priority in 2013.
Women should not mourn the shift in priorities. The attempt to cubbyhole female voters into pre-set narratives imposed an artificial understanding of what it means to be an engaged and concerned woman. It reduced the entirety of the female experience into 30-second clip, cited during the opening of a presidential debate. As any dating man can tell you, women are complex. Our experiences vary, as do our needs. We believe in different faiths, share different values, and endure different hardships. We are married, single, in school and looking for work. We are black, white, God fearing, and non-believing. We are individuals, and any effort that attempts define us solely by our gender is a great disservice.
The struggles of women extend beyond the narrow debates of 2012. Women are unique individuals; we care about bread-and-butter concerns that cannot be answered by more conversations on abortion and contraception. Thus, 2013 offers many women a great opportunity — one where women can define themselves and focus on policy questions directly applicable to them.