It’s difficult to find a politician, politico or pundit who denies Republicans have a “women” problem. At best, it seems Republicans fail to engage with women voters effectively, and at worst conservatives seem determined to alienate large swaths of the female electorate with outrageous or ill-considered comments.
The conventional wisdom on the Left is that conservative ideas and policies are out of touch with modern gender roles, while the Right blames the media and popular culture for distorting their political motivations and policy positions. But both explanations miss a deeper dilemma: the ideological side that generally accepts fundamental gender differences as real and important – the Right – largely ignores those differences when it comes to political communication. And the side that usually rejects biological sex differences – the Left – focuses almost exclusively on those differences when it comes to politics.
Unraveling this paradox is the key to solving the conservative “women” problem. Only when Republican operatives, conservative donors, and ideological activists work through their confusions regarding sex differences and politics – and get beyond their discomfort with gender politics – can they begin to reach women voters.
As the head of a conservative women’s organization, I’m frequently met with the question: “If you believe women are like all Americans, why do we need a women’s organization?” For most conservatives, the idea of targeting a specific group – and suggesting that they are somehow different from other Americans – makes them genuinely and rightly uncomfortable.
But in our brave new world of gender equality, in which women and men are often encouraged to act the same, most conservatives still accept that men and women often view problems and prioritize them differently. As political scientist Steve Rhoads explains so well, sex differences are “hardwired” into our biology, and social rules and customs that the left might want to discard often serve a purpose. But in the political arena this understanding of gender differences seems to vanish, leaving Republicans regularly stumped when they face a question about the wage gap, work-life balance, or health care mandates.
By contrast, the Left excels at undermining gender roles in everyday life, insisting that gender equality means we cannot accept differences between the sexes. They want parity in the STEM fields, loathe that girls dress up like princesses, and reject the notion that choices might have an impact on our earning potential. But when it comes to political communication, Democrats and Progressive interest groups work to amplify gender distinctions, advance gender-specific policies like Title IX, equal pay legislation, and free birth control, and conduct research and craft messages that are more effective at appealing to women’s distinct priorities and sensibilities.
It’s not difficult to untangle the seeming contradictions on the Progressive side. The Left generally rejects sex differences as fundamental, or biological, and instead conceives of them as socially constructed. Under this paradigm it’s easy to believe that so-called inequalities between men and women can be “reconstructed” or “equalized” with proper legislation, regulation, and government oversight.
So, during the fight over ObamaCare, women’s groups on the left helped negotiate specific advantages for women, such as mandating coverage of annual exams and providing free contraception. While conservatives understand that women’s biology means they have unique healthcare needs, they also recognize that mandating insurance companies to cover the gamut of women’s health simply means companies will shift those costs to other Americans – namely, young, healthy men – and damage the efficiency of the health care system.
Conservatives know that the Left’s policy prescriptions are identity politics at their worst: it’s the game of rewarding and punishing specific groups of Americans. And conservatives rightly loathe this kind of activity. But when it comes to talking about policy preferences, too often they confuse pandering with communication.
Biology has a pronounced impact on men and women; on our behavior, our divergent roles in society, and our interests. In general, men and women have distinct ways of considering the world. Experimental psychologist Steven Pinker perhaps put it best when he wrote in The Blank Slate, “equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principles that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.”
In politics, as in all other parts of life, men and women are not the same. At IWF, like other liberty-minded organizations, we promote policies that we believe are right in principle and in practice for all Americans; but at the same time we recognize that not all Americans care about the same issues equally, and not all messages resonate equally with everyone.
Conservatives will never succeed at attracting more women to the ideas of limited government and free markets if we don’t begin to get comfortable with gender politics and accept the political and messaging implications of our very real sex differences.
Sabrina Schaeffer is the executive director of the Independent Women's Forum and co-author of 'Liberty is No War on Women.'