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What is 'The Republican War on Women' and When Did It Start?

A Look at the History of the Term, Elements of and Meaning Behind the Phrase


Updated November 12, 2012
While the term emerged in the spring of 2012 to describe what appeared to be a growing effort on the part of Republican legislators and candidates to curtail women's rights -- particularly reproductive rights -- its origins go back much further.

"The Republican War on Women" first surfaced in 1996 as the title of a memoir by Tanya Melich, a Republican loyalist who detailed what she perceived as the transformation of her party from one supporting women to one targeting women. Writing for New York magazine, Frank Rich notes that Melich's use of this term sixteen years earlier "gives the lie to the notion that a Republican war on women is some Democratic trope, trumped up in recent weeks for political use in 2012. Her history also reminds us that the hostility toward modern women resurfacing in the GOP today was baked into the party before the religious right gained its power and before recriminalizing abortion became a volatile cause.

Elements of the Republican war on women include key pieces of controversial legislation such as the fetal personhood amendment, defunding of Planned Parenthood, and the Blunt Amendment. Politicus USA keeps a running list of local, state and federal legislation intended to roll back existing rights of women, while a chart compiled by the Guttmacher Institute depicting enacted abortion restrictions shows a disturbing spike upward. As they noted in a narrative accompanying the chart:

"In the first six months of 2011, states enacted 162 new provisions related to reproductive health and rights. Fully 49% of these new laws seek to restrict access to abortion services, a sharp increase from 2010, when 26% of new laws restricted abortion. The 80 abortion restrictions enacted this year are more than double the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions enacted in 2005—and more than triple the 23 enacted in 2010. All of these new provisions were enacted in just 19 states."
Inherent in the Republican war on women is an implied intent to turn the clock back in an attempt to limit a woman's sphere of influence and her power. Many liken this to a return to those "traditional family values" of the 1950s.

In her opinion piece "Republican war on women is no joke," Lenore Patton of Hampton, New Hampshire, recalls how women were once treated:

"When my husband and I were married in 1961, contraception was still illegal in some states. Women were dying from back alley abortions. Rape victims were regularly blamed for causing the rape by 'dressing provocatively.' When I was pregnant with my first child, company policy forced me to quit my job in my fifth month, because it was deemed inappropriate for a pregnant woman to be in the work force once her pregnancy 'began to show.'

Women were regularly paid less than men for the same job because 'they didn't have to support a family'.... Equality for women has made a great deal of headway in the 50 or so years since my wedding....until the Republican far-right...began their war on women."

The phrase "Republican war on women" has become a rallying cry used by women's advocacy groups and non-profits to mobilize women and encourage them to get involved through activism or financial support. Likewise, it is frequently invoked by Democratic candidates eager to court the women's vote in the 2012 election.

Patton, Lenore. "Republican war on women is no joke." Seacoastonline.com. 27 October 2012.
Rich, Frank. "Stag Party." NewYork magazine at nymag.com. 25 March 2012.

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