When It Comes to the War on Women: Past is Prologue

Written by

Maya Rockeymoore
Maya Rockeymoore Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is president and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a social change strategy firm in Washington, D.C., and the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a social change nonprofit dedicated to making policy work for people and their environments. She is also the co-chair of the Commission to Modernize Social Security. A regular guest on radio and television shows, Dr. Rockeymoore has appeared on NPR, CNN, Black Entertainment Television, ABC World News Tonight, Fox News, Al Jazeera and C-SPAN.

Mad Men is about to make Emmy history with the highest number of nominations for a drama series. The show depicts an era of American history when the priorities, preferences, and opinions of men prevailed in the public and private spheres of American life, often to the detriment of women. While the show is set in the 1960s, we could imagine what its story line would look like if written for today’s era.

One show could focus on male-led corporations in male-dominated financial industries creating a hugely devastating housing and economic crises that would take the U.S. economy over a cliff. It would portray how these men would use their power to force Congress to fund an industry bailout at the expense of programs that help women and children.

Another storyline might involve an up-and-coming Midwestern Congressman who devises a plan to cut federal programs important to women and children in favor of diverting those resources to finance lower tax benefits for wealthy male donors and male-led corporations.

Impressed with his charismatic persona and policy brilliance, a majority of the Congressman’s colleagues in the House of Representatives would vote for his budget plan, an uncritical media would hale it as a serious solution for the nation’s fiscal problems, and it would become the gold standard by which Presidential contenders from his political party are measured.

Another exciting thriller would feature a retired Congressman who uses his perch as an appointed chair of a mostly male deficit reduction commission to justify cuts to Social Security, another program on which women and children heavily rely. When pressed about the consequences of his approach, the retired Congressman would liken Social Security to a “milk cow with 310 million tits.” His blatantly sexist comment would then be indulgently dismissed in the media as the amusing meanderings of an elder statesman dedicated to saving his beloved country from financial ruin.

Another thrilling story line could focus on the chair of a powerful Congressional committee who convenes a hearing on women’s reproductive rights with a panel of experts comprised entirely of men. In an overtly sexist move that would make Don Draper proud, this chairman would refuse to seat a single female witness who wanted to share her informed perspective on the subject.

And, in case women hadn’t received the message about their second-class citizenship, a final story would highlight a male-dominated Senate that rejects a paycheck fairness bill that would give victims of sex discrimination in pay the same legal remedies as victims of racial discrimination in pay.

Sadly, these scenarios—involving Wall Street titans, Representative Paul Ryan, former Senator Alan Simpson, House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, and the U.S. Senate—are real, not hypothetical plot lines or relics of the past, and demonstrate that the “mad men” era of male domination continues unabated today.

Yet in an election year where women voters may decide the next President of the United States, it is important for women to understand that the so-called war on women includes U.S. economic and fiscal policy.

Women’s traditional economic concerns have focused on gender discrimination in the labor market in the form of unequal pay, occupational segregation, and the glass ceiling. Yet it has largely gone unremarked upon that the Kabuki Theater that has characterized Washington deficit reduction negotiations from the Simpson-Bowles plan and the debt ceiling debate to the super committee and beyond has been a male-dominated process that reflects male priorities.

Do the men who have been dancing around a grand bargain on addressing America’s debt realize that their preferred solutions stick it to women and children in a major way?

Our so-called leaders will say that they are advancing a gender-neutral agenda in which everyone shares in the sacrifice. Yet one has to wonder about the validity of this argument when the primary programs on the chopping block are the very ones upon which women and children comprise a disproportionate share of recipients. And that they continue to put forward these “solutions” even as they jockey to protect the defense budget and extend more tax privileges to the wealthy boggles the mind.

Indeed, we do need to address the nation’s fiscal dilemma but not on the backs of women and children. There are legitimate alternatives that do a much better job of balancing the needs of Americans from all walks of life. The deficit reduction plan put forth by Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and the Social Security solvency plan issued by the Commission to Modernize Social Security (of which I co-chair) are just two of several well-conceived plans that shore up our economy and strengthen important social insurance programs.

To get to these fairer solutions, the men in charge and the media that serve them must realize that they have either been deliberately unfair or the unwitting victims of structural gender bias.  And the women must be willing to call out gender bias, present and support alternative solutions, and consistently vote their interests in the fall elections and beyond. In short, we need to move from an era of mad men to one of madder women.

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