Karen Heller: An unconvincing pitch for female voters

Oh, my. Here we are in 2012 and talking about the role(s) of women, equal pay and opportunities, coverage for reproductive health, and #bindersfullofwomen, though, really, that meme is the least of our problems.

Let's start with some good news: The second debate was watched by 65.5 million viewers, half the number of Americans who voted in 2008, which demonstrates a pretty engaged electorate (or one that will watch if nothing else is on television).

The candidates discussed issues of importance to residents of cities and suburbs, not merely the problems of small-town folks in a John Mellencamp song. Instead, they tried to reach the larger electorate, though Mitt Romney, once again, wanted to talk small business.

About this small-business business, Romney loves talking about the subject, by which he means small-business owners. He views himself as one, saying Tuesday that "I came through small business." Bain was worth a few billion dollars when he left. Most Americans consider this not small.

The debate focused on women because, gee, it turns out that we vote. Much, too much, frankly, has been made of Romney's "binders full of women" comment, the meme of the moment and sure to be a hit at Halloween.

Turns out a binder of qualified female applicants was presented to Romney when he became governor of Massachusetts, and anyone can make an awkward statement during a debate. As governor, Romney appointed women to top jobs in his administration, two out of the 10 highest-paid officials when he started, rising to four by the time he left.

But Romney's problems with women, which are real and substantial, concern policy, and how all women would be affected if he is elected president.

He hasn’t supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women to file suit when they believe they have been the subject of wage discrimination. It is astonishing that we still require such legislation, that many women still make less than men performing the same work, and that any candidate would take issue with this basic civil right.

Yet, as the president noted, Romney has bobbed and weaved on his views, saying, "I'll get back to you." As President Obama reiterated in Ohio the next day: "And, by the way, men out there, you don't want your wives paid less than a man for the same job. So this isn't just a women's issue. This is a family issue. This is a middle-class issue."

There's another fundamental problem with Romney. He's been cosseted so long in the bubble of privilege and power, never having worked for someone else, that he's utterly unaware of what it's like to be a member of the middle class even as he strenuously courts those votes.

Romney wants to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest provider of reproductive health services, performing breast exams and cervical cancer screenings for patients of all incomes. Those services, the president noted in the debate, are "a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country. And it makes a difference in terms of how well and effectively women are able to work."

Romney's views are more muddy on reproductive health. "I'd just note that I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not," he said Tuesday. "And I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not."

Again, I'm not sure what world Romney lives in, though I'm not clear it's ours.

Washington doesn't tell women to use contraceptives. The government guarantees that they're legal and safe. Employers don't tell women - or men, for that matter - whether they can use them, either. The Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies, which currently cover Viagra and other impotence relievers (necessitating contraception for many women), to pay for birth control. And Romney, who was for Romneycare, is now against Obamacare and would repeal coverage.

While I don't mind a bit of political pandering if it makes candidates pay attention to women voters, I don't understand how health care, families, and education became specifically the issues of women. It's as if the country breaks down into locker rooms of policy.

The price of gas is a women's issue. So are jobs, the economy, the environment, and national security.

During the debate, Romney recalled the time when, as governor, he hired a female chief of staff. "I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes you need to be more flexible," Romney said, as though he'd just woken up from a 1950s slumber to a world where people work without a full staff or stay-at-home partner. She told him, "I need to be able to get home at 5 o'clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school."

In Romney's world, women require workplace flexibility for child-care needs. The best employers create work environments adaptable to the needs of all employees, not along traditional gender roles.

But Romney is right: Jobs are the best way to guarantee that women do better, but they should be jobs that pay them equally, guarantee opportunity and flexibility, and provide decent health insurance. Romney's bind with women extends far beyond binders.


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, follow on Twitter at @kheller.