When President Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney faced off at Hofstra University on Tuesday, October 16, in a town hall debate moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley, the questions were put to the candidates by a pre-selected group of undecided voters. (A full transcript is available at CNN.com.)
The only one that touched on a women's issues-specific topic was posed by a twentysomething millennial voter named Katherine Fenton who asked, "In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?"
In his response, Obama touched upon his personal understanding of gender inequity, his focus on fair pay for women, and his support for educational grants that ensure that college is affordable to all.
He opened with a short narrative about being raised by a single mother who put herself through school while raising two children. He also described his grandmother's career path, noting that although she lacked a college education she'd started as a secretary at a bank and worked her way up to be a vice president. Yet despite the fact that she was "smart as a whip" she hit the glass ceiling: "She trained people who would end up becoming her bosses during the course of her career."
Obama emphasized that the first bill he signed as President was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and outlined how Ledbetter had lost her case before the Supreme Court because she'd brought her suit too late. "So we fixed that," he explained "...because women are increasingly the breadwinners. This is not just a women's issue, it's a family issue...a middle class issue."
He directed his final point to Fenton by stating, "We've got to make sure that young people like yourself are able to afford a college education." Under his administration, Pell Grants were expanded to millions across the country. He explained that this was done by taking $60 billion away from the banks and lenders that served as middlemen for student loans and giving the money directly to students: "That's going to make sure that young women are going to be able to compete in the marketplace."
In closing, he cited the need to enforce existing legislation and added, "We've also got to make sure that in every walk of life we do not tolerate discrimination. That's been one of the hallmarks of my administration."
When Crowley posed the question to Romney, he shared the story of how as governor of Massachusetts the applicants for jobs in his administration all seemed to be men. When he asked his staff why this was so, the told him, "Well, these are the people that have the qualifications." He described his staff's "concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds" that would qualify them to serve as members of his Cabinet. He told of how he went to women's groups to locate eligible candidates "and they brought us whole binders full of women."
Romney pointed out that as governor of Massachusetts he had more women in senior leadership than any other state in America because "If you're going to have more women in the workplace you need to be more flexible." He noted that his chief of staff had two school-aged children and expressed her desire "to get home at 5 o'clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids" so he created a flexible schedule for her.
He added that in the last four years, women have lost 580,000 jobs and that 3.5 more women were living in poverty. A strong economy would spur employers to find good employees and adapt to a flexible work schedule "that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford." He emphasized, "I know what it takes to make an economy work...an economy with 7.8% unemployment is not a strong economy." He pledged to help women in America get good work by growing a stronger economy.
In his rebuttal, Obama observed that when asked about his position on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Romney's campaign said, "Ill get back to you." He added, "That's not the kind of advocacy that women need in any economy." He brought up health care and stated, "a major difference is that Governor Romney feels comfortable having politicians decide the health care choices that women are making."
In his healthcare bill, Obama stressed that he wanted contraception covered for all insured women and that it wasn't a health issue but an economic issue for women since it was money out of their pockets.. Romney on the other hand indicated that "employers should be able to make that decision" regarding contraception coverage. "That's not the kind of advocacy women need."
He mentioned Romney's intent to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood which provides a range of health care for women: "That's a pocket book issue for women and families all across the country." He mentioned childcare credits that his administration is providing. "These are not just women's issues, these are family issues. These are economic issues." What makes the economy grow, he stated, is when women get the same deal as men.
Romney took additional time from the next question posed to him to clarify his views on contraception, saying, "I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care of not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives."
While both presidential candidates attempted to address the question fully, Obama was the only candidate who could point to legislation he'd supported that attempted to rectify the gender pay gap Katherine Fenton alluded to. In comparison, Romney focused his support of working women by citing the search to populate his Cabinet with more women, prompting backlash against his "binders full of women." The hashtag #bindersfullofwomen and meme of the same name was the end result, and both became a trending topic in the hours following the debate.
In addition, the comment by Romney that he was able to create a schedule for his chief of staff to be able to cook dinner for her kids did not endear him to the elusive "women's vote." Neither did his comment that the culture of violence could be changed by having two-parent households instead of homes headed by single mothers -- a response he provided to a question about gun control and assault weapons bans.
With gaffes in Romney's responses to issues of importance to women, it was no wonder that the majority of post-debate polls indicated that the win went to President Obama -- with as much as a two-digit lead according to several media outlets.