In an election year focused on resuscitating the struggling economy, few could have predicted the central role feminism is playing in political debates. Beginning in early February with the controversy surrounding the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate, the Democratic Party has made overtures to women and aligned itself with traditionally feminist viewpoints.

However, the spillover from the contraceptive debate extends beyond mere political strategy. As Caroline Light, Director of Studies for Women and Gender Studies at Harvard, told the HPR, “recently many people who may not have initially identified as feminists have become politicized by the character of recent public arguments on women’s sexuality and health.”

But the media and public’s recent focus does not herald a new feminism. Ultimately, the individuals that Light argues have become politicized are simply frustrated by the birth control debate. While this will temporarily strengthen the Democratic base, any electoral advantage and long-term effects are limited.

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Affordable Care Act’s mandate that all insurance policies cover contraceptives, whether through public or private institutions, catalyzed this shift. When Congressional Republicans began voicing concerns in February about how this mandate would apply to religious institutions, they argued that the law violated the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

The argument was primarily a strategic one. Victoria Budson, Executive Director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, explained to the HPR that Republicans raised the topic, “to be a wedge issue in the upcoming elections and to mobilize a conservative base.”

But while there was support for the Republican stance, Democrats and other opposition groups characterized the move as an attack on women’s health. House hearings on the mandate and its possible violations solidified this view, as they featured no women on their expert panels.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) refused to hear from women who had used, provided, or needed contraception, even for medical reasons.  As Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics, told the HPR, “There was a sense that this was a moving backward. Access [to birth control] was something that a lot of people took for granted and suddenly this was in question.” The narrow debate that Republicans sought suddenly became much wider and more divisive.

Words Ignored

For Democrats, this uproar was a political blessing. Women comprise 54 percent of the electorate, and Republican alienation of this demographic could provide a significant electoral advantage.

Recent poll numbers indicate that there has already backlash against the GOP. According to Gallup, the biggest change in support came among women younger than age 50. In mid-February, when the debate was just beginning, just under half these voters supported President Obama versus likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney.  By April, support among this group for Romney had fallen to 30 percent while 60 percent backed Obama. The birth control debate likely contributed to this drastic change in support.

Furthermore, while it remains unclear how much Democratic candidates have fundraised from the debate, there is circumstantial evidence that many have been successful. Rush Limbaugh’s notorious comments about Sandra Fluke, a law school student asked to speak about contraceptive use in a congressional hearing, inspired Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to appeal to her supporters. In the fundraising appeal, McCaskill repeated Limbaugh’s rhetoric, a tactic that helped her campaign collect over $10,000 in one day. Other Democratic candidates have employed similar tactics with success in recent months.

Women Push Back

Beyond fundraising, to counter the perceived unfairness of anti-abortion and contraception laws, female legislators across the country have introduced bills to regulate men’s sexual health. A bill in Virginia would require rectal exams and cardiac stress tests for men seeking Viagra, and a bill in Oklahoma would declare “wast[ing] sperm” a crime against unborn children.

More notably, Congressional Democrats are pushing to renew the Violence Against Women Act. While prior renewals were relatively uncontroversial, the Democrats’ attempt to make reauthorization a major component of their legislative agenda this year is creating friction.

Erin Matson, Action Vice President of the National Organization for Women, worries about the increasing divisiveness of legislation concerning women. Matson tells the HPR that there has been, “a long-standing tradition of bipartisan support for the Women Against Violence Act against since 1994, [and] I think that there is no reason that we should allow this to become a political issue.” What may help Democrats in 2012 may result in political confrontation and few real gains for women.

However, much of the Democrats’ efforts focus on political gains rather than genuine concern for women’s issues. For an increasingly jaded electorate, it is unlikely that President Obama’s messages about the importance of women will sway many female voters outside the existing Democratic base.

History’s Lesson

The increased debate about women’s issues is not unusual. Twenty years ago a similar focus arose during Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. As Walsh explained, because the Senate Judiciary Committee which discussed sexual harassment was all male, it “catalyzed women from coast to coast to become politically active.”

One should note though that after the Thomas hearings, the upsurge in women running for Congress and becoming politically active was temporary. Indeed, since that time female membership in Congress has not exceeded 17 percent of either the House or Senate.

The new focus then is likely temporary, and while Democrats may find a short-lived advantage in November, it is unlikely that there will be any dramatic changes to the political landscape. Using 1992 as precedent, it seems that at best Democrats could attract additional support from groups directly affect by the birth control debate that traditionally have low turnout, like unmarried women.

Though Matson claims, “There is a high likelihood that we’re going to see a new push of women deciding to run for office,” hopes for lasting increases in female political involvement are fleeting. Significant shifts must come from within the electorate itself, not debates among the political elite. But, even though feminist sentiments will subside, many women will be stirred into action should Hilary Clinton find her way onto the ballot in 2016.

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