Presidential Debate: Where are the women?


 On Oct. 3, President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney squared off in the first presidential debate, in which independent parties were prohibited from participating. The debate was focused on domestic policy, and the candidates primarily sparred on taxes, Social Security, and the federal deficit. Despite the White House’s assurances that they are on the women’s side of the War on Women, Obama’s only mention of women was an anecdote about his grandmother. Nobody mentioned that October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Many have blamed moderator Jim Leher for not asking any questions on women’s issues, but Leher does not write the questions. In fact, a private nonprofit corporation named the Commission on Presidential Debates crafts the event. The CPD claims to be non-partisan; however, its co-chairs are Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1983-1989, and Mike McCurry, press secretary of the Clinton administration. The rest of the board reads as a who’s who of Democratic and Republican party stalwarts, and wealthy philanthropists. No other parties are represented. The content and style of the debates is primarily decided by the campaigns themselves. The Commission brings the production to fruition and makes sure that the moderators are to the candidates’ liking.

The CPD has had the same Executive Director since its inception, Janet H. Brown. In 1988 Brown held a press conference about the League of Women Voters (LWV) announcement that they will no longer host presidential debates. In response to a question asking whether the next debate would happen, Brown said, “We will wait to see what is the consensus of the two campaigns.”

While Brown’s statements dodged the issue of accountability to the American people, the LWV’s statement from October 1988 was quite clear:

“The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates … because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

The independent media show “Democracy Now!” sponsored a debate that allowed Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson to respond to the same questions asked of Obama and Romney.  Neither candidate brought up women’s issues, such as contraception or equal wages. As for health care, candidate Anderson said that he supported a “single-payer Medicare-for-all system,” and candidate Stein said that she supported Medicare for all.

A closer look at both the Green and Justice Parties’ platforms on women reveal a disconcerting lack of information. Rocky Anderson wrote that he supports abstinence for teens; the statement appeared in an article about parental notification, under a section entitled Family Planning, which is the party’s one and only allusion to women’s issues. The Green Party does have a section on Women’s Rights, which has two points: supporting UN protocol to prevent human trafficking, and a call for the U.S. to ratify the UN Women’s Bill of Rights. This bill was signed by the U.S. in 1980, and calls for the signatory parties “to adopt appropriate legislative and other measures, including sanctions where appropriate, prohibiting all discrimination against women” [Article 2(b)]. The Green Party does not propose any actions that would enact this Bill of Rights.

For two years, the media has been covering the War on Women. This war, waged against contraception, abortion, and employment rights, has been framed as being perpetrated primarily by Republicans and other right-wing groups such as the Tea Party. The Democrats have managed to escape blame for allowing anti-women laws to be passed, emphasizing their support for such legislation as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and the Affordable Care Act (more popularly known as “Obamacare”).

However, these legislative initiatives do very little to protect the rights of women in practice. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act provides women with more time to file a complaint of pay discrimination based on gender, but doesn’t make any provisions for fair pay. Biden’s VAWA is up for reauthorization this year, but the Democrats have not fought to maintain it, and as we go to press it has not been reauthorized.

Finally, Obamacare, which mandates that all Americans purchase private health insurance, has many loopholes that allow employers to decline giving women coverage for contraception and birth control. It must also be remembered that the anti-women Stupak Amendment to the health-care bill, which de-funded insurance coverage for abortions, was proposed by a Democrat.

While paying occasional lip service to women in order to garner votes, the Democrats do not stand for women’s rights in practice. Casting a ballot for Obama in November will do nothing to ensure that women’s rights won’t continue to be rolled back at an alarming rate. Ultimately, in order to win equality, women must break politically with both capitalist parties, Democrats and Republicans, and build a mass movement in the streets.


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