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Modern Sexism and the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election: Reassessing the Casualties of the “War on Women”

  • Elizabeth N. Simas (a1) and Marcia Bumgardner (a1)

The 2012 contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney included fierce dialogue about women and issues typically connected to them. The inflammatory comments that conservative radio-show host Rush Limbaugh made about female law student Sandra Fluke and the Affordable Health Care Act's (ACA) requirements that all workplaces cover contraceptives were central topics in the news. The controversy literally followed Romney in the form of “Pillamina,” a human-sized costume designed to look like a pack of birth control pills that shadowed the candidate's summer swing state tour. While “Pillamina” was the work of Planned Parenthood's Action Fund, the Obama campaign also took aim at Romney on this issue, running a television commercial featuring “Dawn and Alex,” two women talking about how out of touch Romney is with women's health issues. The Romney campaign's attempts to counter these attacks and shift the focus of conversation were largely thwarted, as questionable comments from Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock brought the issue of abortion to the forefront. Both of these statements added fuel to the narrative that Republicans are out of touch with women's needs. And Romney himself contributed to the problem, as his notorious “binders full of women” debate response broadened the scope of the issue from reproductive rights to more general issues about gender equality. Altogether, these Republican comments and positions opened the door for Democrats on the campaign trail to attack the party, and a popular conclusion is that this “War on Women” narrative hurt the Republican Party and played an integral part in Obama's victory.

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