By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Conservative talk radio titan Rush Limbaugh labeled Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “whore” after she talked about birth control before congressional Democrats.
Political commentator and television host Bill Maher called former GOP candidate Michele Bachmann a “bimbo” and used the “C-word” to describe 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
The rhetoric harkens back a generation, maybe even two ago now, before the gender-equalization gains achieved by the women’s rights movement.
Already heated in this presidential election year, political rhetoric, many believe, has turned downright nasty in recent weeks — particularly against women.
Political action, too, Democrats and others have asserted, has led to a “war on women.”
They point to Virginia’s recent near passage of a law that would have required women seeking an abortion to undergo an invasive ultrasound. The legislation ultimately was changed to require any kind of ultrasound, after the bill drew widespread, vehement criticism from around the country.
“Here it is 2012,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. “I do think there has been movement; there has been change. It is a more hospitable environment (for women) than it was 30, 40 years ago. But to think that there’s not still challenges women candidates face (that male candidates don’t) would be naive.”
Given that American women vote at a higher rate than men, and have for decades, verbally assaulting or alienating women could prove politically costly.
The voter turnout rate among eligible women has topped the turnout rate among eligible men in every presidential race since 1980 — and the gap is growing, according to CAWP.
Nearly 10 million more women than men voted in the 2008 presidential race, 70.4 million to 60.7 million, according to CAWP data.
Women have tended to prefer the Democratic presidential candidate, at least since 1980.
Walsh said Republican and Democratic strategists are courting women voters, though she said the GOP isn’t doing itself any favors by debating insurance coverage for birth control at a time when the majority of Americans support the use of birth control.
Helen Schott shakes her head over recent Republican action regarding birth control and abortions.
“I think in a close election year it was crazy to go after women like that,” the retired Madison attorney said Thursday in Middleton, before a campaign stop with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann.
Schott said she worries some women will perceive GOP actions as a gender attack.
“Whether (women will) remember that in November, I don’t know,” she said.
Schott, who said she is an independent but supports Romney, said she believes having women like Ann Romney out on the campaign trail blunts potential criticism about whether the GOP is attacking women.
“We want to see someone that we can identify with, at least a little bit with,” she said.
Ann Romney, appearing at a Middleton diner Thursday morning, spoke about her husband’s commitment to cutting back on an oversized government and increasing employment.
But she also talked about her concerns that future generations are being harmed by political decisions being made now — and how the desire to address that problem helped her overcome misgivings about going through another presidential race with her husband, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 2008.
Ann Romney knows attacks on reputation and character have been equal opportunity offenders this election season.
“It’s a hard thing for families to go through,” she said. “It’s hard for a wife to see misrepresentations, to see attacks … to someone that you love and someone that you know is a really good person.”
It was a presentation that resonated with Madison businesswoman Virginia Pickerell.
“I was impressed when someone can speak from the heart and they can speak eloquently. She didn’t have to tear anybody down,” Pickerell said. “She’s bright. I was very impressed, and I came because I wanted to see what she was all about.”
Pickerell and other Wisconsinites will have a chance to register their opinions about the GOP presidential candidates, officially, on April 3, the date of Wisconsin’s presidential primary.
Mitt Romney’s decisive, 12-point victory in Illinois on Tuesday has helped him further solidify his front-runner status, ahead of opponents Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania U.S. senator; Newt Gingrich, a former congressman from Georgia who was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; and Ron Paul, U.S. representative from Texas.
But neither Santorum nor Gingrich has indicated any intention of leaving the race, which means Wisconsin’s primary could hold more weight than many would have thought just a few months ago.
“How about that?” said Ted Kanavas, co-chairman of Romney’s Wisconsin campaign.
Kanavas rejected any GOP “war on women” notion as an idea that either “fits a narrative for certain candidates during certain times times” or a partisan attack.
“But if you take a look at the track record of Republicans over time, it doesn’t play out, in terms of the votes, in terms of the policy,” he said.