Dana Milbank: Conservatives say marriage can shrink the gender gap
The conservative minds of the Heritage Foundation have found a way for Republicans to shrink the gender gap: They need to persuade more women to get their MRS degrees.
The advocacy group held a gathering of women of the right Monday afternoon to mark the final day of Women's History Month — and the consensus was that women ought to go back in history. If Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's mantra is "lean in," these women were proposing that women lean back: Get married, take care of kids and let men earn the wages.
"We're gathered to celebrate Women's History Month, but I don't celebrate Women's History Month," announced writer Mona Charen, one of the panelists. "It doesn't interest me whether a person who happens to share my chromosomes sits in the Oval Office. It doesn't interest me how many women members of the Senate there are."
What interests Charen and the other women on the stage is their belief, as Charen put it, that "feminism has done so much damage to happiness." And the solution to this damage, it turns out, is matrimony — the same thing that will solve problems such as income inequality and the Republican Party's standing among women.
"We should show concern for everybody by extending the marriage franchise to everybody," panelist Mollie Hemingway proposed. "Everybody go out, right now, go get married if you're not married," she said to laughter, "and we should be able to solve all these problems."
"If we truly want women to thrive," Charen concurred, "we have to revive the marriage norm."
This, they argued, also would have the felicitous effect of making women more Republican. Charen contended that "it is the decline of marriage that is the lodestar for why people's voting behavior is what it is," and Hemingway asserted that "we do not have a sex gap here in voting. We have a marriage gap."
As a matter of statistics, this is true: President Barack Obama's 11-point win among women in 2012 came entirely from his 36-point advantage among unmarried women. But Republicans will be waiting a long time if they think they can improve their fortunes by persuading more women to get hitched.
Essentially, they're saying that Republicans aren't the ones who need to change — women are.
There's a running debate on the trade-offs of feminism, but this sort of traditional assault on the movement is unlikely to boost the GOP's standing among women. If Republicans want to appeal to more unmarried women, they might reconsider the no-exception opposition to abortion and, increasingly, birth control that dominates the party. Otherwise, a throwback strategy of convincing unmarried women that they have been misled by feminism is tantamount to convincing Hispanics that they have been led astray by immigration advocates or telling young voters that they have been deceived by the gay rights movement.
Charen went on at length about feminism's "disdain for family life" and its "bogus and much-debunked statistics," including the claim that women earn 77 percent of what men do for the same work. Indeed, she said, "it's men and boys who are falling behind," with male wages and workforce participation declining "alarmingly."
Inverting Gloria Steinem, she argued that "women need feminism like a fish needs a bicycle."
"Women know that because of the nature of their bodies, because they carry and bear children and nurse and nurture children, that they need protection and support. ... Feminism disdains this natural urge," Charen said. Feminism also, Charen said, creates college campuses "where hooking up is considered normal, and date rape is difficult to prevent."
Karin Agness, founder of the conservative Network of Enlightened Women, took issue with Sandberg's "Lean In" and "Ban Bossy" efforts, which encourage women and girls to be assertive. "Rather than try to ban words like 'bossy,' let's try to promote real leadership skills, like developing a thick skin," she said.
The reality, the panelists at Heritage said, is that women are less happy than they were before the feminist movement, that women enjoy domestic work and that most moms would prefer not to work full time, if at all.
Maybe so. But it will take some convincing. The audience for these pronouncements Monday was small and mostly male, many of them apparently Heritage interns.
"Wow," said John Hilboldt, Heritage's lectures director, as he opened the session. "Where are all the ladies?"
It's a question Republicans may be asking for a long time.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post.