2014 Midterms: Women Voters Care About More than Reproductive Rights

Editor’s Note: As part of the 2014 Midterm Elections Series, experts across Brookings will weigh in on issues that are central to this year’s campaigns, how the candidates are engaging those topics, and what will shape policy for the next two years. In this post, Isabel Sawhill looks at what matters to female voters. 

Women are at least half the electorate, and that fact is producing some furious attempts to get them to the polls and to secure their votes in November. The gender gap is alive although shrinking with women favoring Democrats by 7 percentage points in a recent WSJ/NBC poll. All of this gap is due to the views of unmarried as opposed to married women.

In an effort to capitalize on the gap, Democrats are talking about a “war on women” and Republicans are fighting back – either with proposals of their own or with efforts to soften some of their earlier positions. Often, elected officials frame women’s issues simply as access to reproductive health care, but in reality, women’s issues go far beyond abortion and birth control, and even those issues have social and economic effects, often overlooked by campaigns. As I argue in my new book, Generation Unbound, access to the most effective forms of contraception are key to reducing poverty and inequality and improving social mobility in the U.S.

A prime example of a Republican candidate fighting back against the Democrat’s cries of a ‘War on Women’ has taken place in Colorado.  Democratic Senator Mark Udall is in a close fight with Republican Cory Gardner and has devoted half his TV ads to criticizing Gardner’s position on abortion and contraception. Gardner, who earlier supported a personhood amendment to the state constitution – an amendment that would ban abortion even in cases of rape or incest and would potentially outlaw certain forms of contraception — now says he didn’t understand the amendment’s implications. Like many other Republicans, he is also in favor of making birth control available over the counter. His critics note that he still favors an equally extreme federal amendment; and that over the counter birth control can be expensive since it is not covered by most health insurance plans and isn’t feasible in cases where a woman prefers a more effective method, such as an IUD, that requires a trip to a clinic. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists went so far as to say “Over-the-counter access should not be used as a political tool by candidates or elected officials.” A very similar debate to the one in Colorado can be heard from candidates in other states such as Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Ed Gillespie and Barbara Comstock in Virginia, and Mike McFadden of Minnesota. In the meantime, these candidates by failing to support Obamacare are denying women the kind of cost-free birth control the law provides.

It’s unlikely that personhood amendments can be enacted or would be supported by the courts. Still, access to IUDs has great potential to reduce unintended childbearing which frequently leads to interrupted educations and poorer job and marriage prospects among those who become mothers too soon, along with diminished life chances for their children. If one is genuinely pro-life, there is no better way to reduce abortions than to support the use of effective forms of birth control.

All of this makes the Republican stance on personhood amendments puzzling. With over 90 percent of the public in favor of birth control, why risk losing so many votes? Republicans may have envisioned personhood amendments as a way to embed their pro-life values into federal or state constitutions but forgot that most people don’t support abortion bans with no exceptions and that the kinds of birth control that such amendments prohibit have almost universal public support.

But so-called women’s issues aren’t limited to abortion and contraception and Republican candidates appear to be banking on Democrats only campaigning for women’s votes by talking about reproductive rights. Indeed, women as a group care even more about economic issues, especially paid leave, equal pay for equal work, and the minimum wage. This raises the question: when is an issue the focus of a campaign because it has the potential to affect the well-being of a large number of people and when is it being somewhat cynically exploited for its political appeal to a particular voting bloc but without much substantive merit?

In a nicely-researched paper by Aparna Mathur and Abby McCloskey at AEI, the authors attempt to lay out the simple facts and evidence on some of these so-called women’s issues. As they note, the Paycheck Fairness Act – a staple of Democratic rhetoric on the campaign trail – is unlikely to have much impact on the well-being of many people. To begin with, only a very small portion of the gender wage gap appears to be the result of discrimination. And to the extent, that pay discrimination is an issue, it is already illegal under the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Paycheck Fairness Act deals with a few loopholes in these laws dear to the hearts of many lawyers and activists but unlikely to affect many women.

Contrast this issue of “equal pay for equal work” with the issue of the minimum wage.According to the CBO, a federal minimum wage of $10.10 would improve the incomes of over 16 million low-wage workers, 56 percent of whom are women while disemploying a paltry half million.

Paid leave falls somewhere in the middle. It has considerable substantive merit, but can also be viewed as a potent vote getter. Its justification is that it would permit women to better balance work and family responsibilities, reduce turnover, and enable more mothers to bond with a new baby. Its potential downside is that it may encourage women to leave the labor force, curtailing their later earning potential and may inadvertently reinforce the idea that women workers are more costly than their male counterparts. Since The FAMILY act proposes to only provide 12 weeks of partially paid family leave, far less than in other advanced nations, these fears are likely misplaced.

Maybe one day we will all forget about Paycheck Fairness and Personhood amendments and act like political grownups. Quite apart from women’s role in the 2014 election, if Hillary Clinton runs in 2016, she promises to put women’s issues front and center on the agenda. How front and center may well depend on the way in which women vote in the upcoming midterms.