Women’s issues experts to Udall, Gardner: That’s all you got?

ASPEN – Two prominent women’s advocates expressed concern at a recent conference here that Colorado’s U.S. Senate race underlines a problem plaguing the politics of women’s rights. Although the race has rightly focused on women’s issues, they said, the campaigns have bottled the topic up in the small space of reproductive rights and left critical related issues unaddressed.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in a recent campaign ad paradoxically marvels that we’re still discussing abortion rights in 2014, while his race has focused on just that. His opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, speaks in another ad of making birth-control pills available over the counter (neglecting to mention that this would remove the pill from insurance coverage) as five women offer gentle nods of approval.

“Conservatives in all parts of the world … seem obsessed with controlling women and controlling women’s bodies, so this conversation about reproductive health here is paralleled in my country of origin in Iran,” said Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, a gender, peace and security adviser to the United Nations and co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN).

“It’s worrying on a number of levels,” Anderlini said of the intense focus on abortion and personhood in the Udall-Gardner race. “One is that it deflects from some other very, very serious things that are going on, whether it’s in this country or anywhere else.”

[pullquote]We’re arguing the same points, squeezed into a box. That doesn’t allow the discussions to go into other areas of life.[/pullquote]

Former Denver resident and U.S. Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt points to campaign laws and the huge influx of outside PAC money in a race that’s on track to be the most expensive in Colorado history.

“We do have a major problem in terms of the campaign environment, with all of the analysis of what is the one issue that may be the winning issue and how we can label the other person as single-dimensioned,” said Hunt, a leading feminist and philanthropic voice through her numerous women’s advocacy foundations. “It happens on both sides.”

Gardner refuses to explain why he has renounced his previous support for personhood proposals in Colorado while sponsoring similar legislation at the federal level, and Udall continues to defend his campaign’s narrow focus on protecting women’s reproductive rights.

Anderlini and Hunt spoke exclusively to The Colorado Independent at the One Earth Future Forum, an Aspen event hosted by the Broomfield-based foundation of the same name. OEF, founded by Colorado commercial-real-estate developer and Mountain High Yogurt founder Marcel Arsenault, leads initiatives to prevent and stop armed conflict.

Hunt and Anderlini maintained passionately during the two-day conference that more women in political and private-sector leadership positions will make the world more peaceful. Both lamented the swing-state reproductive-rights campaigning in Colorado.

“In terms of using the reproductive rights as an issue, it’s really proxy,” Hunt added. “It’s interesting that it is chosen because what it’s proxy for is how empathic and clear-thinking the candidate is in terms of the role of women in the society, broadly speaking.”

Despite campaign ads to the contrary, Anderlini said conservatives strategically want the debate to stay away from broader issues such violence against women and equal pay.

“The conservative forces have pulled in their own direction so far and for so long that they’ve now forced Democrat or liberal or progressive voices to enter their space, so that we’re now arguing this point as opposed to pulling it back,” Anderlini said. “You squeeze into my box here as opposed to being in the center and allowing the discussions to go in other areas of life.”

Through her Hunt Alternatives fund, Hunt is seeking greater political gender parity in Congress, where she points out that the Senate is only 20 percent female while the House is even worse at 18 percent.

“The idea is if you could get more women in (Congress from) both parties, they actually move it to the middle to cross the aisle on a number of issues and you have a chance of breaking gridlock,” she said. “It’s a stunning hypothesis in terms of what the effect would be. But the Democratic women don’t have anyone to talk to on the other side of the aisle. It’s a big problem.”

As troubling as the campaign focus on reproductive rights is, Anderlini said, Democrats have to continue to push back.

“Culturally, the country is maybe mixed in where it’s going, but in terms of the legal frameworks, complacency is not a strategy because the other side keeps hitting on this issue,” Anderlini said, adding that Democrats should be more aggressive on other women’s issues.

“For example, the question of equal pay is absolutely critical, to men as well,” she said. “Why isn’t that the discussion? Where is the strategy around challenging and putting the conservative forces on the defensive to make the case of why they think women should be paid less? Instead of letting them set the agenda and progressive voices having to enter their space, it should be the other way.”