Like almost all of the State of the Union speeches before it, Tuesday’s was visually dominated by men: The television screen filled most of the time with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in dark suits and medium-blue ties; next to Biden, Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner, in a dark suit and pale green tie. Occasionally, the camera would move to the audience, more mixed but still suffused with dark suits.
Only during Nancy Pelosi’s brief tenure as House speaker, when she was one of the big three dominating the screen, has it been any different.
In a break with tradition, the stab at gender equality on Tuesday came, quite deliberately, in the form of the Republican response by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. The first Republican woman to do the honors since 1995, McMorris Rodgers offered a personalized essay about Republican goals that glided over the policy positions that have made it so difficult for her party to attract the votes of American women.
She referred to herself as “a girl who worked at the McDonald’s drive-through to help pay for college.”
“If you had told me as a little girl that one day I would put my hand on the Bible and be sworn in as the 200th woman to serve in the House of Representatives, I never would’ve thought it possible,” she said.
McMorris Rodgers spoke movingly about her children, including a 6-year-old son, her firstborn, with Down syndrome. But apart from forwarding a complaint by a woman who felt poorly served by Obama’s healthcare program, she offered nothing concrete in the policy arena to persuade women voters to take a second look at a party most of them have spurned.
That is because on a host of issues, from contraception to extended unemployment benefits, Republicans are engaged in a battle over policies affecting women, in many cases coming down on the opposite side of female voters. The difficulty the party has had, policy-wise and rhetorically, was demonstrated again last week by former — and potentially future — Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who at a Republican National Committee meeting in Washington teed off at Democrats and Obamacare's contraception coverage with a swipe so broad that it hit some women too.
“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 us take that discussion all across America,” he said, leading some in his party to wince and remind prominent party members that words matter.
Discussions of female libido by an older, male Republican politician were just what McMorris Rodgers’ presence on Tuesday was supposed to counteract. The question is: Can any female Republican improve the party’s standing without advocating changes in the policies that have alienated female voters, particularly young ones? Republicans seeking a change in the party’s approach have noted that unmarried women -- who are the future, demographically — went for President Obama by a better than 2-1 ratio in the 2012 election. Among all women, Obama received 55% of the vote to Republican Mitt Romney’s 44%.
Obama’s pitch to women came in the context of employment policies that have hurt or greatly complicated the lives of female workers; Republicans have blunted efforts to change those policies and blame Obama for an economy that has negatively affected women.
“Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns,” the president said. “That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does too. It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode. This year, let’s all come together – Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street – to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds.”
The camera panned to the women in the audience, applauding wildly. In the main television frame, Biden also rose and applauded. Boehner did not stand.
In an interview before Tuesday night’s speeches, the last woman to deliver a GOP response lamented her party’s inability to come to terms, as she put it, with the fact that it was distancing itself from the women it says it wants to attract.
“Sometimes Republicans think that just putting a woman upfront means somehow that women are going to feel good about the party,” said former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. “It is not about the messenger. It's about the message. And until we figure that one out, while it's nice that we have a woman as a spokesperson, if the message itself doesn't get changed a bit, it's not going to work.”
She cited the measure Tuesday in which House Republicans voted to further tighten access to abortion, complaints by Republicans about contraception coverage under Obamacare, and Huckabee’s comments.
“That kind of thing just reaffirms a sort of condescending attitude toward women,” she said.