Presidential candidate Mitt Romney
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney

Credit: Gage Skidmore on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–When Mitt Romney said during the second presidential debate that he’d received “binders full of women,” I smiled and thought “good for him, he’s mentioning the MassGAP project.”

As a nonpartisan advocate for women, I eagerly volunteered to serve on the task force that in 2003 put the binders together in an effort to help more women be appointed to positions of authority in government. And it worked.

Romney, then the newly elected governor of Massachusetts, gave 42 percent of new leadership jobs to women.

I expected his comment about the “binders,” made as it was in the bright lights of a nationally televised debate during a cliffhanger election, to call attention to MassGAP and inspire similar projects in other states.

Reading news accounts the day after the debate though, you’d think Romney had said he’d tied baby kittens to trees. Women’s groups all but accused Romney of wanting to lock women up in cages.

This on the heels of complete silence when President Barack Obama did an interview with a guy called “Pimp with a Limp” and joked at a press event about the Secret Service getting caught using (and cheating) prostitutes in Cartegena, Colombia.

The same groups who were devastated by Romney’s use of the word “binders” didn’t have a problem with Obama’s joking attitude toward the sexual exploitation of women.

Critics also accused Romney of taking credit for creating MassGAP by saying he’d “reached out” to women’s groups. In fact, Romney’s comment was an understatement.

He more than “reached out.” Romney was very proactive in working closely with MassGAP not only to collect binders, but also to strategize about ways of identifying even more female candidates.

His lieutenant governor at the time, Kerry Healey, attended the meetings at which I was present, and didn’t just sit by and listen, or show up just to make an appearance. She led the meetings and gave us direction and she worked effectively across party lines, inspiring all of us to stay involved in the project no matter our political affiliations.

A Not-So-Secret Truth

All the weird carping about “binders” reveals a not-so-secret truth: lots of advocacy groups that purport to care about “women’s issues” care more about electing Democrats.

Recall the way the National Organization for Women continued to support Bill Clinton even after the Monica Lewinsky, Juanita Broderick and Paula Jones sexual harassment and abuse scandals.

And how else to explain the way advocates from established rape and domestic violence groups in Massachusetts aggressively endorsed Deval Patrick over Healey even though Patrick, his own wife a victim of domestic violence before he met her, had no record of ever doing anything on behalf of abused women and Healey had a long list of accomplishments and initiatives that improved laws and policies to better protect women and children from violence.

Democrats sometimes get it right on women’s issues, but not always. Same goes for Republicans. I’m not interested in promoting one party over the other. I want all politicians not only to say that violence against women is an important bipartisan issue, but also to put their money where their mouths are and use their power to support effective law enforcement and prosecution policies to stop the violence.

I voted for Obama in 2008, in part because Vice President Joe Biden provided critical leadership in support of the Violence Against Women Act in 1993. But despite the VAWA, a study released last summer by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network showed that the percentage of rapists that spent even one day behind bars hadn’t changed in 20 years (2 percent in the early 1990s compared to 2.5 percent in 2012). This came as no surprise given the VAWA’s funding priorities and emphasis on things like “training and education” programs — at the expense of increased law enforcement and prosecution efforts to ensure women’s equal access to justice.

Lack of Understanding

Prosecution isn’t the only approach to violence prevention, but it’s an important part of the solution, and neither Democrats nor Republicans consistently understand this simple point – at least not with the same clarity that they understood the power of a tough law enforcement response when Bernie Madoff got caught stealing millions from investors.

Women are not monolithic lemmings, yet partisan strategists think they can dictate what women care about, and then force them to vote by framing the controversies as left-right debates.

While it’s true that some issues like abortion lend more clearly to left-right analysis, and that Republicans have not exactly supported contraceptive coverage under Obama’s health care reform, subsidized contraception is not the most urgent issue for women as a group. In fact, women who aren’t safe in their own homes aren’t thinking about the price of contraception at all – they’re thinking about being forced to choose between violence and homelessness.

Seventy-three percent of women aged 18 to 29 say rape and domestic violence are top priorities this election season, according to a YWCA study.

While neither presidential candidate addressed violence against women during the debates, it’s worth noting that Healey–a top advisor in Romney’s campaign–has a stellar record on the issues, both in this country and in places like Afghanistan. Healey would likely take on an influential role on women’s issues if Romney is elected.

As many established women’s rights organizations eagerly affiliate with one party or another, women as individuals should force themselves to be mindful of a simple truth: Rape and domestic abuse are cross-class, cross-culture issues that neither party cares about nearly enough not because they aren’t critically

Wendy Murphy is an adjunct law professor at New England Law/Boston where she has taught a seminar on sexual violence for more than a decade. A lawyer and impact litigator whose work led to the issuance of new Title IX guidance, Murphy is a former prosecutor who specializes in criminal justice policy, constitutional rights and the representation of victimized women and children. Her first hardcover book, “And Justice For Some,” comes out in paperback at the end of the year.

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