When Katherine Fenton, a young woman, stood to ask former Gov. Mitt Romney and President Obama what they planned to do about the fact that women were still earning only 72% of what their male counterparts earn on average, you could see the candidates’ gears turning. This was a question they’d been waiting for.
The president talked about making a systemic change — in his case, signing pay equity legislation — while Romney spoke about personal experiences he had as an understanding employer when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Obama recounted his personal story: raised by a single mother who put herself through school while raising two children, a grandmother who worked for a bank that allowed her to train men who became her bosses. “She didn’t complain,” said Obama. “That’s not what you did in her generation.”
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“That’s why the first bill I signed was the Lilly Ledbetter bill,” Obama said, citing the law that allows women to sue employers who pay them less for doing the same work as their male counterparts, regardless of when they discover the disparity. (The Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter had not filed suit in a timely manner, even though she had not discovered that her male colleagues out-earned her until years after the fact.)
“Women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family,” said Obama. “This is not a women’s issue. This is a family issue. This is a middle-class issue. That’s why we gotta fight for it.”
Romney countered that, as governor of Massachusetts, he had a stellar record when it came to hiring women, accomplished by “a concerted effort” when he discovered that all the people applying for jobs in his administration were men.
“I went to a number of women's groups and said, can you help us find folks?” Romney said. “And [they] brought us whole binders full of -- of women.”
As an example of his women-friendly policies, Romney cited the treatment of one of his main employees. “My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school,” he said. “She said, ‘I can't be here until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 so I can be there for -- making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school.’ So we said, ‘Fine, let's have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.’”
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As he often does, Romney brought the question around to a strong economy. In such an environment, he said, employers are “going to be anxious to hire women.”
Obama came back at Romney by knocking him for his opposition to insurers being required to provide contraception coverage, as well as his intention to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood.
“Gov. Romney feels comfortable having politicians in Washington decide the healthcare choices that women are making. I think that's a mistake.... There are millions of women all across the country who rely on Planned Parenthood for not just contraceptive care. They rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That's a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country.
“That’s not the kind of advocacy that women need,” the president said. “I’ve got two daughters, and I want to make sure they have the same opportunities that anybody’s sons have, and that’s part of what I am fighting for as president of the United States.”
Left unsaid, but missed by no one: The Romneys are the parents of five sons.
Even though Crowley had already moved onto the next questioner, Romney wanted to get back to Obama’s accusation on contraception.
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“I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not, and I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not,” said Romney. “Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives. And -- and the -- and the president's statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong.”
“Governor,” replied the president, “that's not true.”
Romney was walking a fine line. He has supported the notion that religious employers should not be compelled to provide insurance that includes contraceptive care for women if the employers object to contraception on religious grounds.
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