On Friday, the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, D.C., Patrice Lee Onwuka stood before a conference room of about 25 people and posed a question: How can conservatives convince more women that it’s wrong for the government to mandate paid family leave?
A man raised his hand and suggested an argument: “Do you want your kids to pay for that?” Onwuka nodded, and called on another male attendee. “Employers wouldn’t want to hire women if they have to do that,” he said. A young man in the front of the room offered another take: Paid maternity leave, he said, “presumes that a woman can’t afford to take off for herself.”
All good arguments, Onwuka said. “These mandates are costly, and they can be a backlash for women in the workforce and everything they’ve achieved,” she said. “We can expand opportunities for women in the workplace without government mandates.”
The argument for mandating paid family leave is that most women can’t afford to take extended unpaid time off from work; the policy would apply to fathers, too, so employers wouldn’t have an incentive to avoid hiring women. But those points never came up on Friday’s event on “How to Win Women,” which was hosted by the Independent Women’s Forum, where Onwuka works as a policy analyst. The point of this “activism boot camp” was to figure out how the Republican Party can stop hemorrhaging women.
Neither Onwuka nor co-moderator Ashley Carter, IWF’s director of coalitions,
mentioned this uncomfortable truth, either. Instead, they focused on convincing attendees of the importance of the female vote. Women, they noted, make up the majority of the U.S. population and of the popular vote. Since 1964, women have consistently outvoted men in state, local, and presidential elections, with the gap steadily rising, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics.
The Republican Party is winning white women overall, as Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012 won the majority of their vote. But polling trends give conservatives reason for concern. The UCLA Higher Education Research Institute recently found that 41 percent of college women identified as “liberal” or “far left,” an all-time high for the 51-year-old survey, and that those young women were far more politically engaged than ever before. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey in December found that women overwhelmingly want Democrats to control Congress. And though black women don’t identify with the Democratic Party as much as they used to, a recent poll showed just one percent side with the GOP.
How to reverse this trend? Onwuka and Carter suggested that the problem is merely rhetorical. “Sometimes we see our right-of-center leaders becoming a little tone deaf,” Onwuka said. She didn’t cite any examples of sexist comments, instead recalling Romney’s infamous assertion that 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. “You really want to care about what you’re saying,” Carter said. “Women, they will see right through you.” A slide in their PowerPoint presentation drove the point home: “COMPASSIONATE.”
There was no mention at the boot camp of the growing #MeToo movement, but an extended section about avoiding “victimhood.” Onwuka said parents need to teach their girls not to fear men, but to be “allies,” and not to accept liberal notions of rape culture on college campuses. “In a perfect world, you can wear what you want, drink what you want ... but we do not live in a perfect world,” she said. “Be smart about where you are.” Onwuka also suggested that conservative parents make sure their teenage children aren’t only reading left-leaning websites that cover the issue (she cited Bustle). “They’re hearing that men are predators and out there to get them,” she said. “We need to push back against that.”
The Republican Party could certainly appeal to more independent voters, but it would require more than just messaging tweaks. The party would have to show, in its policies, that it cares about closing the gender gap and achieving true equality for women. As Arizona State University professor Miki Kittilson noted in her history of research on female political behavior, “feminist values and social spending appear to be more important to women in the American electorate.” So if conservatives like Onwuka really want to win over more women, they just might have to support paid family leave and starting saying #MeToo.
This article has been updated to clarify that the Independent Women’s Forum opposes government-mandated paid family leave. The group supports a government guarantee of voluntary paid family leave.