It’s understandable that Republicans chafe at the phrase “war on women.” Not because they aren’t waging it—widespread hostility in the ranks to reproductive rights, equal pay, and even anti-violence legislation shows they are—but because women are more than half of voters in this country, and the fear is that the branding will erode their already poor reputation with female voters. But somehow efforts to put forward a more woman-friendly face on conservative politicians, especially the white male ones, end up backfiring more often than succeeding.
Take, for instance, a recent head-scratchingly stupid stunt from three male Republican state legislators in Michigan:
— Jake Neher (@GJNeher) June 5, 2014
Get it? They read “silly” fashion magazines and now they “understand” women!
The Michigan GOP has been getting a lot of heat from feminists in recent years because of its relentless attacks on reproductive rights, including
a new law that bans health insurance plans from covering abortion and an incident during which a female legislator was punished for saying the word “vagina” during a debate over another bill restricting abortion. This is a group of men who think female sexuality is so terrible that it can’t even be mentioned directly in public and must be subject to punitive, misogynist governmental control. But hey, they read some fashion tips, so they “get” women now!
The gesture cannot be understood as anything but a contemptuous one. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with fashion magazines like Glamour or Bazaar. But reducing “understanding women” to fashion magazines is a blunt statement of contempt for women, assuming that women are fundamentally frivolous people who are too busy worrying about shoes to think about important issues like economics or their own health-care needs. “We’re too good to care about what silly little women think about our actions,” the picture suggests. “And to show it, we’re going to mock the very idea of trying to understand women.”
In response, Michigan Democrats sent out a tweet of female legislators reading bills with the caption:
— MI House Democrats (@MIHouseDems) June 5, 2014
The picture is a hilarious rebuttal, but I do have to nitpick the caption. “Real” women read both fashion magazines and bills—some do one, some do the other, and many do both. Women shouldn’t be expected to be serious people with no fun or hobbies in order to deserve respect. After all, men are allowed to have all sorts of “silly” interests—video games, sports fandom, fly fishing—and no one thinks the lesser of them for it.
But nitpick aside, the retort drove home the problem with the GOP’s original tweet and attempts by conservatives to appeal to women generally: Conservatives aren’t very appealing to women when they act put out by having to appeal to women. While the women in their lives probably titter indulgently when these male politicians act like it’s beneath them to have to bother to listen to women’s interests, voters who aren’t their direct relatives will probably be less patient with this blatantly sexist nonsense.
Not that it’s any great surprise that conservative politicians would display seething contempt for women’s intelligence, even (and perhaps especially) in their attempts to “appeal” to women. The policies that they’re pushing are based in a belief that women really shouldn’t be making our own decisions or living independently at all. Abortion restrictions and a refusal to support equal pay legislation are both based in this heteronormative idea that women are meant to be at home, firmly under male guidance, and definitely not out in the world making decisions for ourselves. So, of course, their idea of what a “woman” is can be summed up in a fashion magazine (or what they imagine a fashion magazine to be): Women aren’t meant to be doing the hard work of thinking and running the world, but are meant to be at home brushing their hair, abstaining from being movers and shakers in the world, and letting men control their sexuality.
The funny thing is that if these men bothered to read the magazines they were photographed with—which they did not, and probably think is beneath them, as they think any
stereotypically woman-related thing is beneath them—they might have learned a thing or two and actually maybe got a bit closer to understanding the people they hold in so much contempt. While fashion magazines perpetuate some of the most sexist impulses in our society, particularly when it comes to holding women to impossible beauty standards, anyone who cracks one open and reads anything but the lipstick reviews would notice that these magazines quietly push the idea that women should be independent people who make their own money and have autonomy over their sexual decisions. The kind of readers that most of these magazines are trying to attract are young, single women who live independently and make their own money. They are unapologetically sexual and intend to date many men before settling down and getting married. These are the women whose freedom most upsets conservatives, who tend to treat independent, single women who have sex as the boogeyman, supposedly representing the downfall of a society that gives women the right to make their own choices.
These young, independent women are not frivolous bimbos who need to be brought under control through misogynist, sex-phobic legislation, as these conservative politicians are implying with their “cute” photograph. They are smart, engaged women who usually know a lot more than many politicians do about issues like reproductive rights. Sure, they like makeup and hairstyle tips, but they are also interested in things like stopping street harassment, forwarding the cause of international human rights, and honoring the legacy of Maya Angelou.
Above all, the picture shows exactly what these politicians don’t seem to understand about women: that they are complex people who have a variety of interests—you know, just like men—and they are not frivolous people because they sometimes like to relax by thinking about “frivolous” things. These men may think sneering at women’s magazines is a clever way to justify their belief that they can make women’s health decisions for them, but in reality all they demonstrated was how little they deserve to offer an opinion on women’s lives, much less have any say in how we run them.