From a political perspective, it's been an eventful Women's History Month as debate over women's health has continued to bubble up in state houses and Congress, as well as on the presidential campaign trail.
Last week alone, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a bill requiring women to undergo an abdominal ultrasound before abortions, and Texas enacted a law that bans Planned Parenthood clinics from participating in a Medicaid family planning program (leading the federal government to end the program in the state, and leaving approximately 130,000 low-income women without health care access).
After the Obama administration's February decision requiring insurance companies to offer contraception to employees of religious-affiliated institutions (but not forcing employers who object for religious reasons to be involved), an infamous House hearing presented arguments against the birth control mandate without letting any women testify. House Republicans went on to introduce the Blunt Amendment, which would allow all employers to deny coverage of any medical treatment or services to which they object for any moral reason. The amendment was killed in the Senate this month.
Collectively, these measures have drawn harsh criticism from Democrats, many of whom characterize this political moment as a "Republican war on women." In a statement released this month, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel wrote, "This Republican majority is intent on denying women access to contraception … If Republicans succeed with their radical agenda, they will have undone the historical achievements that this Women's History Month honors and cherishes."
Responding to "War on Women" Charges
But a surrogate for a new constituency group under the Newt Gingrich campaign, specifically designed to woo women, says that the "Republican war on women" narrative (and the questions it's raised about whether Republicans can win over women voters in November) is a distorted product of hype and hyperbole.
"At least from the perspective of Speaker Gingrich, the issue is about government control, not about a woman's right to choose what's best for her health care," Kiron Skinner, a social sciences professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a national co-chair for the Women With Newt Coalition, told The Root. She says that, in Gingrich's view, the contraception debate is really about broader issues of what employers should be required to do and what the government should pay for.
"I think you'll see that he's a much more thoughtful advocate for women, one that says, 'You have responsibility and choice in your life, that the government should not be involved with by mandating that you have a particular type of health care regimen,' " Skinner said. "You've noticed he's not out there giving the mistake one-liners that we've seen from Sen. Santorum, which have inflamed the debate on women's health issues. He's more concerned about states' rights and how much the government should be involved, be it the state or the federal government, in what all of us do with our lives."
Making the Case for Newt
Among the few African-American women in the field of foreign policy, Skinner is also the director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for International Relations and Politics. From 2001 to 2007 she served on the U.S. Defense Department's policy board as an adviser on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She signed onto the Gingrich campaign last November as a national security adviser.
In her latest role under the Women With Newt Coalition, formed in late February, Skinner hopes to dispel negative notions about where Republicans in general, and Gingrich in particular, stand with a variety of demographic groups.
"For women voters, for African-American voters, for anyone who sees the Republican Party as one that doesn't have a broad-enough tent, my message is that it does, especially in the case of Speaker Gingrich," she said. "It's not always that one might agree with a particular position he takes on a given public policy issue. But what you can count on with him is that he has studied the issue, he has thought about it, he's prepared to debate and he's prepared to refine and hone his perspective. That kind of thoughtful leadership, I think, is what women need."
Another message that Skinner is promoting on the campaign trail is that contraception and health care access aren't the only issues affecting women's lives. She cites Gingrich's energy proposal, which he claims will bring the price of gasoline down to $2.50 by tapping into domestic fossil fuels, and his understanding of entitlement reform, based on his role in 1990s welfare reform, as examples of issues that affect women, too.
"What I'm trying to do is say, 'Some of the issues that you don't think are particularly relevant to you, given the way the national dialogue has gone, are in fact women's issues,' " said Skinner. "They are black issues. They are Hispanic issues. These are things that affect everyone."
The Path to Victory?
With 24 state primaries and caucuses down, however, Gingrich has only two wins, South Carolina and Georgia, under his belt. Many analysts say it's not mathematically feasible for him to reach the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination.
"Super Tuesday dramatically reduced the likelihood that any of Gov. Romney's opponents can obtain the Republican nomination," said Rich Beeson, political director of the Romney campaign, last week when Romney took six more states. "As Gov. Romney's opponents attempt to ignore the basic principles of math, the only person's odds of winning they are increasing are President Obama's."
Yet Skinner argues that Gingrich's political obituary should not be written yet, and that the campaign has a strategy for victory. She points out that many of this year's primaries allocate delegates proportionally instead of using the previous winner-takes-all system, allowing Gingrich to steadily rack up delegates (he's now at 112) even if he doesn't win a particular state.
"It's by no means over for Speaker Gingrich, and most bets are on this being a fight to the convention," she said, suggesting that by staying in the race and continuing to divert Romney's path, Gingrich could get the nomination at a brokered National Republican Convention in August.
A Message for Black Voters
Strategy aside, Skinner, who served with Gingrich on the defense policy board under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, says that Gingrich is the best candidate in what she describes as a watershed moment for the nation.
"I really believe that this is the most critical time in U.S. history since the Civil War," she said, explaining that "first principles" are at stake. "What country will we be? How much will we adhere to the Constitution? What is the meaning of life? What's the definition of marriage? All of these things are at stake, in the same way that the direction of the country was at stake during the Civil War. Then it was: Would it be two countries or one union? It's that serious now."
Along with other black surrogates for the Gingrich campaign, including Herman Cain, former Rep. J.C. Watts and Vivian Berryhill, president of National Coalition of Pastors' Spouses, Skinner urges more African Americans to take a look at Gingrich for president.
"It is my sense that the American republic is stronger when we have a competitive political system with true competition between the parties," said Skinner. She argues that by continually delivering their votes to Democrats, African Americans are having their votes taken for granted instead of serving notice to leaders in both parties. "In terms of really making the republic stronger, African-American voters need to become more diverse in their choices. And Speaker Gingrich is a great place to start."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.